Cover The inside of the shophouse is a paragon of modern living space - Photography by Lin Ho

Take a peek into Unit One Design's award-winning shophouse in George Town, Penang, one of the projects featured in Terrace Transformations in the Tropics, published by Atelier International this year

No. 3 Love Lane appears on a map of Penang dated 1893-1897. Love Lane was also known as Lorong Cinta, and Eurasian Portuguese were some of the original inhabitants. When Jamie Case, the Canadian general manager of The Datai Hotel in Langkawi (1993-2007), and his Singaporean wife Lisa saw the property in 2004, it had a shophouse function with the ground floor operating as a goldsmiths emporium.

See also: Home Tour: History Meets Modernity In This Heritage Home In Penang

Looking for a quiet residence away from the stressful life of a resident hotel manager they decided to make an offer for the house and establish it as their family home. On their trips to Lisa’s family in Singapore they sought the advice of Kerry Hill, the renowned Australian architect who designed The Datai Hotel and decided on his recommendation to appoint John Ding, a partner in Unit One Design, to undertake the conservation and adaptive reuse of No. 3 Love Lane, back to its original use as a residence. 

The project began in 2004 and was completed in 2006. The purchase of the house proved to be good forward-planning, for upon his departure from The Datai, Jamie Case became vice president of GHM Hotels (2009-2011) and later the COO of the famous E&O Hotel (2012-2013), just a short walk from the house.

John Ding and his business partner Ken Wong both received their architectural education at Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff, where Professor Ivor Richards mentored them in their final year. On returning to Malaysia, Wong and Ding worked with GDP Architects and T. R. Hamzah & Yeang respectively before setting up Unit One Design in 1996, where they have established a reputation for high quality design.

See also: Meet The Malaysian Architects Rebooting Heritage Buildings

Tatler Asia
The impeccably restored frontage bears all the hallmarks of shophouses from that era
Above The impeccably restored frontage bears all the hallmarks of shophouses from that era

The initial concept design was by John Ding and the detailed drawings were carried out under his direction by Adela Askandar, a graduate of Cambridge University School of Architecture who joined Unit One in 2002 after working for two years in London. The original house was laid out in a typical 19th century configuration. Entered from the five-foot way into a living area that would later serve as a trading area, it was divided from the remainder of the ground floor by a timber screen.

Roughly in the centre of the plan was a rectangular open-to-sky air well. The main staircase was very narrow and located at the rear of the house with a kitchen beyond and a door to the street on the east facing façade. A single toilet and bathroom were located beyond the kitchen. It was not the most hygienic arrangement but typical of the typology for it involved the daily removal of night soil. There was also a connecting door to No. 5 Love Lane, suggesting both were formerly under the same ownership.

See also: Home Tour: A Terrace House In Kuala Lumpur With A T-Shaped Facade

On the first floor level, a long internal corridor along the party wall led past our bedrooms to the master bedroom at the front of the house overlooking the street. Escape in event of fire was evidently not high on the design priorities in the 19th century. The loft space was used for storage and accessed by a ladder. The lightwell/airwell was the source of daylight and ventilation though it also allowed rain to enter the house. Both cooking and ablution were at the rear. (Not so different from my grandmother’s house, also built around the end of the 19th century, in Sheffield, UK, where there was no bathroom and the toilet was at the end of the open yard.)

See also: Home Tour: A Private Residence In Desa ParkCity Delivers The Big Wows And The Small Details

The main change by Unit One was to create an entrance ‘lobby’ with a timber screen made from recycled timber and the ground floor plan was opened up to create a continuous reception, living, dining and kitchen space. The lightwell was subsequently sealed at roof level and light enters via a two-storey high window in the east façade designed with glass louvres to permit hot air to escape at the top.

Below the lightwell a shallow fish pond was inserted and a timber ‘bridge’ spans from the living to the dining area. The master bedroom was shifted to the rear of the house with an ensuite bathroom and wardrobe. A second bedroom obtains daylight from the lightwell and a window on the east façade. At the front of the house is a third bedroom overlooking the street. At the rear of the house is a narrow courtyard with staghorn ferns on the rear party wall. Ceiling fans stir the air but the owner has, “no liking for bugs of any description,” and air conditioning is evidently preferred. 

See also: Hotels In Penang: Author Bettina Chua Abdullah Shares 6 Recommendations

Although the work in 2004-2006 was carried out prior to the designation of the core of George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, the front façade has not been altered. The one major change is on the east facing façade, which is at the very border of the George Town heritage core area. Here, the tall window with glass louvres was inserted, facing Argus Lane, to bring daylight and natural ventilation into the very heart of the house. Internally, alterations were carried out to the plan of the house and structure that would not be allowed under the strict rules on heritage conservation imposed by the George Town heritage authority who have regulated work since 2008.

See also: Living Room Ideas: Maximise Space With These 5 Stylish Open-Plan Designs

The insertion of the large vertical window was, nevertheless a masterly move for sunlight floods the house in the morning. A mobile artwork by the Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno transfixes the eye upon entering the living area. The effect of sunlight on the mobile is to create a phenomenon which the owner describes as ‘dancing light’ as its colours reflect on the fish pond at the base of the lightwell and the adjoining walls. The 2006 reconstruction eliminated the narrow dog-leg staircase at the rear of the house, replacing it with a steel and timber open riser staircase centrally located. A spiral staircase then permits access to a roof garden. At the rear of the house a steep ‘ship’s staircase’ gives access to a gym located at mezzanine level above the master bedroom suite.

The design received a PAM (Malaysian Institute of Architects) Award in the Heritage and Adaptive Reuse category circa 2008. The contract drawings for the house were exemplary with an incredible amount of attention given to details. Jamie and Lisa Case raised their son in the house before selling it in 2019, when the house was acquired by its current owners. 

Tatler Asia
Ordered timber screens form the identity of the space
Above Ordered timber screens form the identity of the space

The original contract drawings were handed to the new owner. They have not changed he interior for it offers a perfect setting for their stunning collection of modern art. In addition to the mobile by Saraceno, who creates airborne biospheres - speculative models of alternative ways of living such as cities in the sky - another modern artwork by the Indian artist Jitish Kallat is entitled Of heaven and earth: Conditions Apply ll, and references the 22,889 moons the artist’s father witnessed in his 63 year life. There are other artworks - photographic images by Wolfgang Tillmans and works by Hong Kong artist Lee Kit.

The owners plan to insert a glass elevator at the rear of the house connecting the kitchen area to the master bedroom suite. Their reason is not simply for future-proofing but for a practical reason. “We travel a lot and lugging a 30kg suitcase up and down the staircase is impractical. A glass elevator would solve he problem nicely and not be intrusive.”

See also: Meet Leila Khan Of The AFK Collection, One Of The World's Largest Private Contemporary Malaysian Art Collections


“The intention,” says one of the owners, “is to live in the house. It is not something ‘precious’ even though it is a special house.” He is interested in the concept of ‘in-between’. In this context he appreciates, “the idea of renewal without losing the old.” I remark that, “Living in the tropics is about living in-between. It is a mental space, but the kaki lima is a physical expression of an in-between space.” The overall impression of No. 3 Love Lane is of a carefully choreographed series of spatial experiences and I am reminded of my comments on another house by Unit One Design where I noted, “Exiting the house one is left with a memory of a truly impressive space created by designers with a grasp of the power of modern architecture to connect with and build upon a historical typology.”

See also: Home Tour: History Meets Modernity In This Heritage Home In Penang

Tatler Asia
© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.