Cover Common courtyards were created as spaces for the whole family to interact

DNA’s yin and yang interpretation of the modern tropical house makes a convincing argument for multi-generational homes

The multi-generational home has ebbed in popularity in recent years. But a multi-generational compound where family members have separate houses while sharing gazetted common areas seems like an ideal compromise of being together yet apart. This was the scenario for siblings Jonathan and Teresa Ling who had both been pursuing degrees overseas. Their father bought a 1.5 acre land adjacent to his house and offered them the land to build their own houses on when they returned to Miri to work for the family shipbuilding business.

The brother-and-sister then started looking for a suitable architect in the region and came across the work of award-winning Kuching-based firm DNA whose modern style suited both their tastes.

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As designers, William Khoo, founder and design director of DNA, and his team were intrigued by how they could potentially design the three houses around this central courtyard to facilitate interaction and explore how architecture could enhance family ties through shared spaces.

“The site is made interesting due to its specific location in relation to the dad’s house. Due to its large size, we could strategically position the two houses to integrate with the parents’ residence. This created a garden homestead of three houses surrounded and flanked with pocket courtyard gardens and open terraces that provided the soft links to the houses,” explains Khoo.

In many ways, the principles of tropical design and green sustainability drove the conception of the houses. Both were designed in unison as a complementary pair like the Chinese concept of yin and yang—with Teresa’s house being the feminine version and Jonathan’s the masculine—within the modern tropical house genre. To this end, the houses prioritise open spaces and have seven courtyards in total, all of which allow the outdoors to integrate into the interior while providing visual focus. The houses' layouts were also designed to promote good cross ventilation.

Although the architects made it a point to ensure that the houses could be fully air-conditioned if needed. “Miri was badly hit by the haze in 2019, so we realised that even tropical houses needed to have the option to be completely closed up and air conditioned when necessary,” says Khoo.

Lighting was also an essential component and the houses use a lot of secondary aluminium screens as a means to filter and articulate sunlight into the interior and to reduce heat build-up. “The interior is very well lit and good, direct and ambient, lighting is crucial to the interior concept with the interplay of shadows and light throughout the day,” states Khoo.

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A substantial amount of time was spent trying to devise a consistent architectural language that could be applicable for both houses yet make them distinctly different in character and outlook. “We needed to bring harmony to the whole composition on top of creating interest and tension, so that the houses appear to be of the same modern genre yet could stand alone in character and form,” enthuses Khoo

To express this, material choices were important and while both houses use a wide selection of stone and marble finishes, the textures and tones differ. “Teresa’s house uses a slightly darker palette while Jonathan’s is distinctly more light coloured. She also likes more texture in her materials, so we included a lot of wood grain for her interior, textured concrete surfaces and rugged Fairface stone in the exterior cladding. Jonathan prefers sleeker finishers so we went with smoother and sharply composed tectonics like white marble, golden onyx stone and a lot of polished stainless steel surfaces,” Khoo elaborates.

However, both houses are finished with very high spec glass. Mainly laminated glass in big format panes for an uninterrupted sightline and where appropriate, safety glass which provides adequate security. “Jonathan’s classic spiral stairs is an example with its grand curved glass railing while Teresa’s incorporates very big format sliding glass panels with wooden screens. Such was the diversity of materials explored for both houses. Always contrasting yet being similarly modern in character.” 

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One of the materials which both houses utilised with great expertise was steel. This drew on the siblings’ family shipbuilding business and became a showcase of what could be achieved by experts in the business.

“The houses incorporates plenty of steel detailing and components like screens and steel furniture. Jonathan’s living room for instance, is literally entirely steel frame constructed. Teresa’s inner garden stairs that elegantly floats above the inner courtyard comprises of metal mesh perforated screens. The custom made steel shelves were all bespoke and made by the client themselves,” recalls Khoo.

Indeed Jonathan says he relished being able to be involved so actively in the process of building the house: “Although it could get tiring, it was enjoyable being so involved in designing, building, project management and engineering. Since the nature of my job is building boats, I was happy to use my expertise whenever it could be applied to building my house.”

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Befitting the tropical concept, abundant landscaping and serene bodies of water feature extensively in both houses. Teresa’s landscaping is more lush with hanging pots and huge ferns with wild green undergrowth. Jonathan, on the other hand, opted for a more manicured approach, with silhouetted lawns and rhythmically planted trees which give the impression of being more orderly in character. Greenery is also present inside as Teresa requested for an internal garden to be the focal point of her house.

“Having nature in the living space is important to me, so I immediately agreed when William proposed building a floating staircase over the internal garden with a glass house designed to allow natural sunlight in The “green stairwell” is now a unique feature of the house,” says Teresa. Furniture and lighting were sourced from throughout Sarawak, West Malaysia, Singapore and China.

The siblings were closely involved in the interior design. Teresa, in particular, was able to take the B&B Italia pieces she had been collecting in anticipation of this house, out of storage. Kitchens were supplied by Bofi and final fittings like lighting were sourced on a trip to China. 

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Five years have passed since that afternoon the siblings walked into Khoo’s office The houses have been occupied by the siblings and their respective families since Malaysia went into its first lock down last year and they are effusive about their satisfaction about being able to spend that difficult time in such beauty and comfort.

Khoo is equally complimentary of his clients’ efforts throughout the journey. “For this project , we were proud to be able to undertake all 3 aspects of the design i.e. the architectural, interior and even landscaping design work. Coordination with all the different sub-contractors was the main challenge even though I flew into Miri every fortnight. Credit must be given to Teresa and Jonathan for solving much of the coordination headaches and filling in the gap when we were absent. Both of them were very hands on and literally coordinating many parts of the construction themselves. We enjoyed the process with them and could not ask for a better client.” 

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