Cover This eco-retreat blends seamlessly into the landscape

This serene eco-retreat in the hills of Serendah celebrates its pristine green environment and the bounty of the land

The sleepy town of Serendah in Hulu Selangor, a 45-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur, is popular with nature lovers. It was the site of a piece of land bought by the parents of Choon Sin Ho, one of the founding architects of A3 Projects.

The land was purchased in 1995 and since then had been planted with a profusion of trees and plants. Since returning from working overseas a few years ago, Ho took on designing a new house for her parents, who had always wanted a retreat adjoining the orchard they had nurtured.

 

Appropriately nicknamed Serendah Hill Retreat, Ho adopted the Japanese principles of shakkei (borrowed landscape) when approaching this project. "The house was conceived from the beginning as an extension of the landscape, part of which has been meticulously curated and nurtured by hand from seeds for more than a decade, even before the house was designed. This was the pre-existing soft architecture that the house needed to respect," explains Ho. 

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Apart from respecting the surrounding space, Ho's parents (clients) had some requirements. For starters, there would be no air conditioning, it has to have low maintenance cost, and would suit elderly living. And, of course, for the existing landscape and trees to take precedent over the building design.

"The concept approach focuses on the interpretation of simplicity, modesty and impermanence, a Buddhism teaching my parents strongly embraced," says Ho.

 

Ho took the following approach in building the two-storey bungalow to provide for this. The first-floor arrangement consists of a car porch, open-plan living/kitchen/dining with a generous external verandah and one en-suite master bedroom with an exterior staircase that leads to the rooftop.

The spatial arrangement responds to sun orientation, maximises views of the outside nature, and has a balanced composition of walls and openings for cross ventilation. Deep open verandahs coupled with matured trees on the west side provide perfect natural shading to the house, while a clerestory skylight allows diffused daylight into the main living spaces.

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With the clients' love of the outdoor and garden in mind, the elevated external verandah became the bridging space between the indoor and outdoor spaces of the house. Seating on this sheltered elevated ground, they can enjoy the near and distanced views of their carefully curated gardens any time of the day and night.

Sleeping, living, dining and direct access were all kept on one storey and elevated ground so they need not worry about security even with doors wide open all day for better air circulation.

 

 

The clients had requested to have familiar material palettes that resembled houses they had lived in over the years. Hence, Ho used a combination of traditional broken marble, Terrazzo flooring and facing brickwork.

To keep within the limited budget, basic 300x300 terrazzo tiles, leftover Ipoh broken marbles and burnt clay bricks were used. For privacy screening and sun shading needs, vent blocks were installed along the west face of the verandah.

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As the clients always wanted to have a passive house with low energy consumption, a myriad of features were also included. For instance, solar hot water panel, LED lighting and sandwiched RC roof slab with rigid insulation board, not to mention rainwater harvesting and utilising mountain water sourced from a nearby waterfall. 

In support of local businesses, Ho explains that they targeted the works to be low emission by reducing carbon footprint through utilising local trades, supply chains and materials of low embedded energy such as the use of recycled marbles and refurbished old furniture from old homes. Concrete, joinery works, brick, and metalwork were all sourced locally. All furniture and decorations were adopted from the clients' old houses, with some lighting items handmade by the architect.

 

The finished home is truly a labour of love as the architect also took on the roles of project manager, contractor, cost consultant and so on. But the lovely results, which also tick off all the requirements of the brief, make it worth it.

Ho concludes: "Being able to have an inside-out experience within the house is one of the best things we achieved. The house frames the beautiful landscape as well as captures views of tree tops, palm shades and ever-changing views of seasonal blossoms that echo the ideas of shakkei. The mono-pitched roof also creates a ceremonial high volume for better air circulation. It serves as a feature to complement the modernist design, and with its clerestory skylight, it provides uninterrupted views of the sky."

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