Tan Chiew Hoon on integrating nature and preserving heritage

Tan Chiew Hoon has worked on a broad range of projects, such as commercial and hotel projects, leisure, public buildings, residential and master planning developments, in Malaysia, Cambodia, Hong Kong, China and other countries. She has been a registered architect with the Board of Architects of Malaysia since 2018. With her vast experience, Tan is well versed in every aspect of design, and is involved extensively in every project, particularly contributing to the design ideas of building façades. At her current workplace, BYG, she has been in charged for the design development of various residential projects and saw through the completion of R21 Super Condominium and Setia Triangle Mixed Development. She has also taken on the role as the project architect for 1st Subterranean Penang International Convention and Exhibition Centre (SPICE) project and the Design Village Premier Outlet Mall in Batu Kawan, Penang.

Read: Choo Gim Wah on balancing aesthetics and sustainability in design and architecture

How do you integrate natural settings with your design?
Designing and building with nature means striking a balance between the built and natural environment. For example, Orchard Ville in Sungai Ara, Penang, stands in an area where urban settings meet the edge of the forest. The residential development gets the best of both views—a sloping hill with dense greenery on one side and bustling cityscape on the other. The area is a slope so the construction must consider the original environment. We had to ensure that 75 per cent of the greenery was saved, incorporated into the facility, for instance, as fruit orchards. To avoid cutting the slopes, the buildings were anchored in steels and connections between blocks were maintain through a series of skybridges.

We designed the development to be offering a nature-infused lifestyle, with nature-inspired recreational facilities that take advantage of the surroundings and the local setting. For example, within a proximity to the development, we built a single-storey, naturally ventilated park with sheltered veranda and connectors. The architecture is contemporary while referencing Georgetown’s historical character.

Read: Integrating nature with homes

How do you approach a heritage project such as the ones in Georgetown?
I believe that sustainable development incudes breathing new life into old buildings. In the case of Georgetown shophouses, in one of our projects, Micro Housing, to bring back the character of old shophouses, we reverted the walls to their original exposed-brick style. On the ground floors, we converted the area into office spaces. The connection had to be extended by removing the parting wall to make way for a big commercial space.

We tried to procure materials such as clay bricks locally. For more contemporary development such as the commercial centre at Orchard Ville, we procured materials from a steel fabrication factory nearby. We also introduced a special material with self-cleaning surface for the façade as it can reflect light at night and allow the rain to glide over it. All in all, in any heritage preservation or conservation, we must balance between the old and the new by layering a new narrative over the existing ones.

Micro Housing Project

Read: Melvyn J Kanny on working with slopes and rethinking high-density development

How much intervention works did you need to complete this kind of shophouses project?
We had to do a lot of research of what was original because, throughout the year, the building had undergone different additional works, such as the additional concrete cement that was not breathable. This kind of additional work damages the wall. In the case of shophouses in Penang, the plaster kept peeling. We decided to restore the terracotta material after studying the original material and layout. We spent a lot of time on-site removing what was no longer relevant. We even studied the colour schemes individually. Overall, it was a long process and requires a lot of patience.

Micro Housing Project: The workstation at level 1

Was there a challenge in the incorporation of mechanical and engineering (M&E) works into old shophouses?
We sort of argued with the client because they insisted to install an air-conditioning system but we suggested that the buildings should be kept naturally ventilated. We had to make a case for this and eventually compromised. Without an air-conditioner, the room would not be suitable for commercial purposes. It would be difficult to compete in the market because tenants might not want to rent non-air-conditioned spaces. The M&E engineers had to find the most suitable energy-saving systems to stay environmentally friendly. Locating air-conditioner compressors was also one of the concerns because we didn’t want to hang them just about anywhere and destroying the façade.

Preserving the original character

Has the pandemic changed some of the design concept or the way you work?
Our office consists of 40 people. There has been a lot of inconvenience, especially during the movement control order (MCO). There were a lot of chat groups, one for the projects, one with the consultants and so on. We took a lot of time to get used to working collaboratively online, but now it starts to feel like normal because everyone is getting used to virtual meetings. The bright side is that probably we don’t have to spend as much time commuting. In terms of planning, project-wise, especially condominium and residential ones, some clients have displayed more awareness. They were willing, for example, to review the layout in order to cater for a ‘post-pandemic’ feature, such as installing a sliding door for the main lobby in order to minimise the physical contact.

– Construction+ Online