Cover The elevated structures reference Malay kampung houses

Australia-based firm Marra +Yeh’s environmentally friendly Stiletto House in Ipoh is a wholly original design with historical and cultural references

In Ipoh, within a gated community inside a golf course development, lies a house which goes against expectations of an upmarket development. Nicknamed Stiletto House by its owners and designed by Australian firm Marra + Yeh, the house reinterprets the traditional Malay house and is built primarily of local materials with non-traditional construction methods.


An exploration of vernacular architecture, the project is a 250 sq m development on a 900 sq m plot of land comprising a larger main house and a smaller guest house. Surrounded by limestone hills, the main building is deliberately pushed to the edge of the slope, setting up a relationship of refuge within and prospect beyond. Creating buildings that are in tune with their environment are the speciality of these Sydney-based architects.

The practice was founded by Ipoh-born Ken Yeh and Carol Marra, an Argentinian from Buenos Aires, who started it in 2000 in Seattle, Washington, and relocated to Australia in 2005. They were finishing up a nearby project within the same development when the Stiletto House owners decided to enquire about their practice after having a look at that home.

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The couple were retirees and open to ideas so the architects proposed something more out of the ordinary. “We've always wanted to reevaluate the vernacular house in Malaysia, colloquially known as the Malay House but this umbrella term also includes all indigenous housing,” says Marra.

“It is a typology that fascinated us as it has evolved over long periods of relative calm stable civilisations and climate and therefore evolved into something very nuanced and sophisticated with its own rituals and traditions. We wanted to see if we could distil these lessons into something using modern techniques and materials.”

Understanding and appreciating the history of the place was used as a reference point; Kinta Valley's tin mining history has left behind a legacy of steelwork know-how not found anywhere else.

“The material choices have, of course, a functional aspect as well such as the ability to create large elegant spans in steel and various species of local timbers depending on the application, durability and aesthetic quality. Through a long-standing relationship with a local sawmill, we sourced seven species of local timbers which are used throughout the project,” explains Marra.


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Round openings reference Chinese moongates
Above Round openings reference Chinese moongates

Traditional local materials such as brick and concrete were used in unusual ways, using form to eliminate additional structure as in the serpentine street wall, or highlighting the plasticity of concrete in the round openings to the guest house which also allude to traditional Chinese moon gates. Construction methods and details bring together cultural, tectonic and technical aspects to create an architecture reflective of Malaysia’s social and historical diversity.

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Sustainable design is fully embedded into Marra + Yeh’s process. Over the course of their practice, Marra says that it has become easier to convince clients that being environmentally responsible is the natural direction to go, especially as society have become much more enlightened about living in this time of the Anthropocene.

The architects take a twofold approach to sustainability. One is making a high performance building, with quantifiable aspects like energy, water efficiency, and electricity production and therefore eliminating air conditioning from living spaces.

The other aspect entails making buildings that deliberately push people to a closer connection with nature, tuning the occupants to understand the whereabouts and impact of the sun, the breeze, the shade and creating rituals and patterns of habitation that follow this knowledge.

As the clients are retirees, the architects surmised that they would be spending a significant amount of time on the premises and as such wanted to make the building comfortable no matter what time of the day it was. To facilitate a closer connection with nature, the design orients the building along the east-west axis to minimise sun penetration. The building is pushed up on stilts to taking advantage of higher velocity winds while the shape of the roof creates a single water collection point and maximises exposure for the solar panels whilst also hiding them from view.



Large overhangs shade the long sides of the building as the sun moves from north to south during the year. The roof shape pushes the eye outwards towards the sky and the hills, and creates views from the first floor mezzanine. A large deck was created on the north side, bounded by a grove of trees and the building walls were angled outwards. This creates a low pressure zone which helps to draw ventilation through the building.

Stiletto House produces almost three times more energy than it uses and sells the excess back to the grid. The landscaping is watered by collected rainwater, and the principal living, dining and kitchen spaces are not air-conditioned. The majority of materials were locally sourced for low embodied energy, including clay bricks and aerated concrete blocks, several species of hardwoods, steel and marble.

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While there is much to applaud about the big ideas infused in Stiletto House, there are also plenty of clever and meticulous details inside the house. The architects added sliding and pivoting components such as vertical shading screens, large sliding doors and wind louvers within doors. These required special design and manufacturing skills and Marra admits they are particularly proud of these. All built-in cabinetry was also designed by Marra + Yeh, in particular the custom made expandable kitchen countertop as well as some of the light fittings.


While it may not be immediately apparent, the Malay word "desa" with its rural connotation, of buildings among lush tropical landscapes, of meandering through the countryside, was an inspiration. “The desa experience within the confines of this single plot of land, with the buildings pushed to the boundaries, each a private realm enclosing a communal garden creates a very unique setting. The connection between buildings is through the landscape, highlighting that paramount to human experience is the interplay between culture and nature, buildings and landscape, not only visually but also physically.”

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