Monday, March 05, 2007

Design of Climatic Environment: Traditional Malay House and Modern House in Malaysia


Organised by: Institute Technology Bandung, Indonesia

Kamarul Syahril Kamal1, Mohd Azian Zaidi2, Lilawati Ab Wahab3 and Husrul Nizam Husin4
1234University Technology MARA, Malaysia

Conference Theme: Sustainable Environment and Architecture.
Keywords: Tropical Climate ,Traditional Malay House, Building Design, Modern House.


A building in Malaysia has been designed with particular regard to local tropical climatic conditions are vastly different from that of countries in Europe and North America where the majority of today’s architectural innovations and movements originate. With greater global awareness of the environment and a renewed perspective on contemporary Malaysian architecture, architects are once again looking for tropical solutions in building design. The designing of traditional Malay house with a deep understanding and respect for nature will give a great consequence for human comfort respectively, but this design-with-nature approach is no longer found in the modern houses in Malaysia. This paper intends merely to focus on various ways in which the traditional Malay house can be easily adapted and improved to meet the requirements of modern living because the traditional Malay house is best reflected by the climatic design of the house itself. The traditional Malay house is an important source for the creation of a Malaysian identity in architecture because it reflects and expresses the way of life of its users and was evolved by the Malays over generations adapting to their needs, culture and environment.


The traditional Malay house is a timber house raised on stilts. It is basically a post and lintel structure with wooden or bamboo walls. Set in a middle of a large compound, the traditional Malay house not only reflects the creative and aesthetic skills of the Malays, but also meets their socioeconomic, cultural and environmental needs. The basic design of the traditional Malay house and its construction methods give it great flexibility so that extensions to the house can be carried whenever necessary. (Nasir, 1985). A distinctive feature of the vernacular Malay house is its height and/or steeply sloping roof with gables at both ends. The roof is covered with a lightweight and excellent thermal insulator made from the fronds of the local palm trees, which holds little heat during the day and cools down at night. The gables are fitted with screens, which provide protection from driving rain while allowing ventilation. Windows are plentiful, lining the walls and providing good ventilation and views for the house. This quality of openness is also reflected by the large open interior spaces with minimal partitions. Another distinctive feature is the practice of raising the house on posts above the ground. Since many early settlements were built along rivers and the coastline, the raised floor construction was an ideal solution for coping with ground dampness in the hot and humid tropical climate and also with the heavy rains that frequently resulted in flash floods. In settlements that were built within the thick rainforest, the raised floor system also allowed the house to be ventilated through cracks in the raised floor. Traditional Malay houses have at least two entrance by steps, the main entrance at the front for visitors and males and the one at the back mostly for women and children. One of the most congenial of the traditional Malay house is its openness. The house is divided into areas, rather than rooms, for various social and household activities. A noticeable feature in the traditional house is the absence of portions or solid ceiling-height walls separating the three main areas - the veranda, main house and kitchen - which are formed by slight floor level changes and the positioning of doorways to separate the different areas. From a distance, the traditional Malay house seems to merge naturally with the environment.


The climate of Malaysia referring to Yuan (1987:68) can be classified as warm-humid equatorial, characterized by high temperatures and humidity. Air temperature averages within 22 and 32 degree Celsius with small annual and diurnal ranges. It is continually near but seldom exceeds normal skin temperature. Humidity is high through the year, averaging about 75% or more. With heavy clouds covering the high water vapour content in the air, direct solar radiation is filtered. The high humidity also accelerates rotting, rusting and the growth of algae and mould. The winds are generally of low-variable speed. Strong winds can occur with the rains. Rainfall is also high throughout the year averaging 250 to 300 cm annually. Rains become more intense with the monsoons. Vegetation growth is sometimes difficult to control under the good conditions of air, moderate heat and high rainfall. Air flowing across any surface is subject to frictional effects. Wind spreads are higher with increasing heights and are lower near the ground where there are many obstructions. ( Table A shown the wind speed and variable wind direction in strategic location in Malaysia). The relatively high percentages of reflected solar radiation from the sea, sky and beach make glare controls in houses necessary. Occasional strong winds which occur during monsoon seasons may pose serious hazards to houses and the settlers.
Table A:Wind speed in strategic locations in Malaysia
Location Period Wind Speed<0.3m/s>Mersing 1968 - 1987 2.4
Kota Kinabalu 1968 - 1987 11.0
Tanah Rata 1984 - 1988 12.5
Ipoh 1968 - 1988 13.7
Kluang 1974 - 1987 14.5
Kuala Trengganu 1986 - 1988 15.0
Sandakan 1968 - 1987 15.0
Penang 1968 - 1988 18.9
Kuantan 1968 - 1987 21.6
Malacca 1968 - 1987 21.8
Alor Star 1968 - 1988 22.8
Miri 1968 - 1987 24.8
Butterworth 1985 - 1988 26.3
Kota Bharu 1968 - 1987 28.5
Bintulu 1968 - 1987 30.9
Kuala Kerai 1985 - 1988 32.4
Sitiawan 1968 - 1987 35.0
Kuching 1968 - 1987 35.1
Petaling Jaya 1974 - 1988 38.0
Johor Baru 1975 - 1988 39.7
Muadzam Shah 1984 - 1987 43.0
Batu Embun 1983 - 1987 46.5
Kuala Lumpur 1968 - 1988 46.7
Temerloh 1979 - 1987 50.4

2.1. Thermal comfort requirements

The main causes of climatic stress in Malaysia according to Yuan (1987:70) are “…..high temperatures, solar radiation, humidity and glare”. Therefore, to achieve climatic comfort in the modern Malaysian houses, these factors must be controlled besides the control of rain, floods and occasional strong winds. For thermal comfort, heat gain by the body from the environment through solar radiation or warm air must be minimized to constant body temperature of around 37 degree Celsius. Heat loss through conduction, radiation and convection is negligible in the climate because the air temperatures are continually near the body temperature. Direct and indirect solar radiation, hot air, together with conduction and radiation from the building fabric are also the main sources of heat gain to the body. Thus, to achieve some degree of thermal comfort, the saturated air envelope around the body must be removed. In most modern buildings where high thermal capacity material such as bricks and concrete are used, the heat absorbed within the building fabric which is radiated to the interiors of the buildings causes great discomfort. From the above discussion, it is clear that to achieve thermal comfort in the warm humid climate, solar heat gain by the building and human body must be minimized while heat dissipation from the body must be maximized by ventilation and evaporative cooling. The deep understanding of such thermal comfort requirements and the nature of the Malaysian climate is reflected in the climate adaptation of the traditional Malay house discussed in the following sections.


From the previous explanation of the climatic characteristics of Malaysia, it is obvious that to attain optional climatic control, a modern house design in Malaysia referring to (Nasir, 1985) should provide the following points;
i. Allow adequate ventilation for cooling and reducing humidity.
ii. Use building materials with low thermal capacity so that little heat is transmitted into the house.
iii. Control direct solar radiation.
iv. Control glare from the open sky and surrounding.
v. Protection against rain.
vi. Ensure adequate natural vegetation in the surroundings to provide a cooler environment.

If modern house was designed and built by taking above points much into account. As a result, it is a very appropriate modern house form suited specially to the vagaries of the tropical climate of Malaysia. Indeed it is much more suited to the local climate rather than the modern western-style brick house we are living in today. There are numerous features in the traditional Malay house that are geared towards providing effective ventilation. The quantity of openness reflects the importance given to ventilation in the design of the traditional Malay house. The elongated structure with minimal partitions in the interior will allow easy passage of air and cross ventilation. Its large roof and low windows tends to be under lighted. This gives a physiological effect of coolness as strong light is often mentally associated with heat. Indirect sources of light are the best forms of natural lighting for the climates as they minimize heat gain and glare. Direct sunlight should not be used for day lighting as it is accompanied by thermal radiation. It can be concluded that the traditional Malay house uses mainly ventilation and solar radiation control devices to provide climatic comfort for the house. These are the most effective means for climatic comfort in a house in the warm and humid Malaysian climate and environment.

3.1. Comparison of climatic design with modern houses

To fully demonstrate the effectiveness and value of the climate design of the traditional Malay house, it would be best to compare its climatic design with that of the modern houses. The modern housing estate of a typical brick and tile is chosen for this comparison. This house form imposed with little adaptations to the Malaysian conditions has led to very uncomfortable living conditions in many Malaysian homes nowadays. Such uncomfortable conditions are mainly caused by various factors. Such factors which affect climatic design adversely will be clearly reflected when we compare the climatic design of the modern housing estate and the traditional Malay house. The design, layout, the use of materials, ventilation, solar radiation, lighting and glare of both house types are discussed in detail as follow (base on Yuan, L.J.1987)

Building Materials
-Traditional Malay House uselightweight construction of wood and other natural materials. The lightweight construction of low thermal capacity holds little heat and cools adequately at night. The attap roof is an excellent thermal insulator. Galzed areas are seldom found in the traditional Malay house.
-Modern housing estate house use bricks, tiles, concrete and other materials of high thermal capacity. These materials store up heat and reradiate it into the house, causing considerable discomfort. Glazed areas are usually abundant in these houses.

-Traditional Malay houses are randomly arranged. This ensures that wind velocity in the houses in the latter path of the wind will not be substantially reduced.
-Rigid pattern in the arrangement of housing estates houses create barriers that block the passage of wind to the house in the latter path of the wind.

Ventilation of Roof Spaces
-Roof spaces in the traditional Malay house are properly ventilated by the provision of ventilation joints and panels in the roof construction.
-Roof spaces in the housing estate house are insulated by trapped air instead of being ventilated. Such construction requires a high ceiling to be effective.

-The use of coconut trees and other tall trees in the kampong not only provides good shade but also does not block the passage of winds at the house level.
-Often, because of the limited size of the compound of the housing estate house and the need to provide privacy, only hedges and small trees are planted. Thus the passage of winds at the house level is often reduced considerably.

Cross Ventilation
-The elongated open plans of the traditional Malay house allow easy passage of air and good cross ventilation. There are minimal interior partitions in the Malay house which restrict air movement in the house.
-Plans of housing estate houses are of more complicated shapes, and the partitioning of the house into different rooms and areas restrict air movement and cross ventilation in the house.

Wind Velocity Gradient
-The velocity of wind increases with altitude. The traditional Malay house on silts capture winds of higher velocity at a higher level. This is especially vital in areas where there are plant cover on the ground which restricts air movement.
-The housing estate house at ground level receives wind of lower velocity. Hedges and solid fences built around the house to provide privacy of ten block winds and create steeper wind velocity gradient.

Ventilation at Body Level
-The body level is the most vital area for ventilation for comfort. The traditional Malay house allows ventilation at the body level by having many full-length fully openable windows and doors at body level.
-Ventilation in the housing estate is often only directed at the upper part of the body because windows and other openings are located at higher levels to provide privacy.

-Traditional Malay house are often oriented to face Mecca (i.e., in an east-west direction) for religious reasons. The east-west orientation minimizes areas exposed to solar radiation.
-For profit motives, housing estate houses often disregard orientation of the houses often becomes a jigsaw puzzle of fitting the most units into the site within permissible densities.

Overhangs and Exposed Vertical Areas
-Large overhangs and the low exposed vertical areas (windows and walls) in the traditional Malay house provide good shading, and allow the windows to be left open most of the time for ventilation.
-The higher and larger exposed vertical areas of the windows in the modern house are often penetrated by direct sunlight and cause considerable discomfort. The walls which act as direct sun shading devices get heated up and in the evenings reradiate heat into the interior areas.

-Glare in the traditional Malay house is controlled by large roof overhangs and low windows which exclude the open skies from the visual field. Glare is also lessened by the less reflective natural ground covers and wooden walls of neighbouring houses.
-Glares is usually more evident in the housing estate house due to the open skies which are not excluded from the visual field because of the use of bigger and higher unshaded windows. Glare from paved concrete areas and brightly lit exterior walls of other houses also causes considerable discomfort.

Lighting Level
-The traditional Malay house tends to be underlighted. The gives the psychological effect of coolness. The underlighting, however, can be remedied by artificial lighting.
-Lighting levels in the housing estate house are generally higher than the lighting levels in the traditional Malay house because of the use of lighter coloured paints and the location of windows at higher levels.


From the comparison and examples as discussed earlier, it can be seen that modern housing estate houses in Malaysia are not only badly designed climatically, but they usually go against the basic requirements for thermal comfort. The characteristics as discuss earlier found in many modern houses making them very uncomfortable to live in. Besides the use of unsuitable building materials in the environment, social and economic pressure has also contributed to the adverse urban climate. With high density living, more areas are paved and less left for trees and greenery. Higher building costs and profit motivation have also cut the necessary large roof eaves short, made open shady verandahs disappear and lowered ceiling heights. The need for greater security and privacy in the urban areas has led to house designs which are more closed, thus reducing ventilations. Modern bulky furniture and finishes also make the house warmer as they store up heat and make the house stuffy and crowded. The way modern housing estates are developed makes the housing estate barren of vegetation. Residents have to suffer the intense heat absorbed and stored in the barren environment. The use of the traditional Malay house form as a source for Malaysian identity in the modern contexts is both difficult and tricky and the present approaches used have largely failed for many reasons. Due to lack of understanding of the traditional Malay house, the approaches toward the use of the traditional Malay house form for the creation of Malaysian identity have been superficial and uncreative. Most of these approaches have taken the traditional Malay house into completely new socio-economic and cultural contexts. Many of them are set in the urban setting and applied to modern institutional, commercial and public buildings instead of the housing unit. As a solution, clearly lessons can be drawn from the climatic design of the traditional Malay house for housing in the modern context. Wooden houses and lightweight construction can be promoted in the suburban areas in the housing estates where densities are not so high to suit the environment.


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2. Fee, C.V. (1998) The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Architecture Archipelago Press: Singapore.
3. Yuan, L.J. (1979) Relief of Climatic Stress in Housing in Malaysia Architect Journal Vol. 4:79 December 1979.
4. Yuan, L.J. (1984) Under One Roof: The Traditional Malay House IDRC Reports Vol. 12 No. 4 January 1984.
5. Yuan, L.J. (1987) The Malay House: Rediscovering Malaysia’s Indigenous Shelter System Institute Masyarakat: Penang.
6. Malaysia Government (1986) Fifth Malaysian Plan 1986-1990 National Printing Department: Kuala Lumpur.
7. Vlatseas, S. (1990) A History of Malaysian Architecture Longman Singapore Publishers: Singapore.
8. Sani, S. (1981) The Built Environment, Microclimate and Human Comfort: The Malaysian Experience CAP Seminar on Appropriate Technology, Culture and Lifestyle in Development November 1981.
9. Mubin, S. (1969) Traditional Malay House forms in Terengganu and Kelantan JMBRAS Part 2 p.p. 1-9 December 1969.
10. Katherine, S. (1965) My Kampong House The Straits Times Annual 1965 p.p. 74-77.
11. Hai, T.S. and Sendut, H. (1979) Public and Private Housing in Malaysia Heinemann: Kuala Lumpur.
12. Hamid, W.A. (1964) Religion and Culture of the Modern Malay Pall Mall Press: London.
13. Mahmud, Z. (1970) The Period and Nature of Traditional Settlement in the Malay Peninsular JMBRAS Vol. 43 Part 2 p.p. 81-113 December 1970.

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