Cover The unassuming entrance of Sayang House

London-based architect Carlos Gris' minimalist Sayang House for his aunt was inspired by her years of living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and a labour of love

A Malaysia-inspired minimalist home may be the last thing you might expect in the fenland marshlands of East Anglia but Carlos Gris, founder of London-based firm Carlos Gris Studio, has designed a home called Sayang (love in Malay) House for his aunt who celebrated time in Kuala Lumpur for almost two decades.

"The project was for my aunt, Greta Funnell, who is my mum’s sister. She recently lost her husband, Ray, and therefore decided to move back to the UK after having lived in Kuala Lumpur for 18 years. She wanted to bring memories of her time in Malaysia, a house that was out of the ordinary that expressed those memories, but also reflected her clean and fuss-free lifestyle," explains Gris.

Located near a city called Ely about an hour north of London, the site was underwater many years ago and the ground moves a lot. This meant that to build safely, eight-metre-deep piles had to be created to support the foundations. "It is in an agricultural piece of land and planning permission was obtained due to the client having a craven on site for 10 years. The planners were very involved in the project because it is such a sensitive area, and they had quite a large impact on the final design," says Gris.

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With the site secured, Gris looked to see how he could incorporate some Malaysian flavour into the design but was mindful about not making it too literal. He remembers seeing a photo shared by his aunt that she had taken during her time in KL. "It showed a large glass curtain wall that brought the garden into the living space. The concept became quite hybrid as it blended the flavours of Malaysia with the flavours of the local area in the fenlands. It was deliberately single storey to hide the building within the site," he muses.

"Because the surroundings are so beautiful, the hope was to create an invisible house–where the walls offer unobstructed views to the exterior. I also enjoy using strong geometry so although it was partly disguised, I also wanted it to make a strong statement. The statement is this strong and seamless parapet that acts as a shelter that runs around the full perimeter of the building." 

While the minimalist building is austere in its geometry and features plenty of large windows, Gris was keen to imbue it with some tactility. To this end, the exterior is clad with timber which was finished in Japanese technique.

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Above Carlos Gris

“We jumped through many samples to find the perfect finish. We settled on a burnt Douglas Fir wood finished with a technique named Shou Sugi Ban which is an Asian technique of scorching the wood,” states Gris.

“We also browned the wood after scorching to blend it into the Fenland palette of colours. The wood was further cut to the proportions of a railway sleeper to create a connection with the railways that run nearby.”

Although the results look effortless, Gris admits that getting the wooden cladding to  line up with the window breaks on the glazing panels was challenging: “The property looks so simple, but it was actually highly complex to make it look that clean.”

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The sustainability and longevity of the property were incredibly important to Gris which in turn informed the choice of materials. The walls and ceiling were made using Structural Insulation Panels which are very good at retaining the heat and very quick to install. The amount of concrete used in the foundation was minimised by using a ring beam instead of a raft.

The glazing was also made to be very efficient at retaining heat and an air-source heat pump was installed. With all these green features, it’s not surprising when Gris states that the building itself is not far from becoming a Passiv Haus. 

Interior furnishings were sourced by Funnell herself and consist of pieces with simple lines which put the focus firmly on the surrounding views. Gris is equally enthusiastic about this panoramic aspect of the house. “The entrance lobby into the living space has to be the nicest moment in the house. The entrance door is blocked so you don’t know what to expect when you enter. As it opens, you realise the door is positioned directly opposite an old weeping willow and then you enter the living space which has a huge 10-metre floor to ceiling glazing curtain,” muses Gris.

"It’s like a cinema screen for the external plants to give you a performance. This joy continues into every space–opposite every doorway in the house is a large framed piece of glazing that offers a view to the beautiful landscaping outside.”

The serenity of the finished product belies the challenges Gris faced during the building process. As the whole build was a family affair: “My dad was project managing, my mum was helping the client that happened to be my aunt and boundaries get confused within family projects, so there were stressful moments - but they were all managed and everyone was happy with the end result.”

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