Monday, March 05, 2007

Understanding the Common Building Defects in Malaysia's Historic Buildings


Kamarul Syahril Kamal³ , Lilawati Ab Wahab³ , Assoc. Prof. Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad² and Saipol Bari Abd Karim¹,

University Science Malaysia and University Malaya, Malaysia,, and

ABSTRACT: Malaysia has a rich legacy of historic buildings with outstanding craftsmanship and architecture quality. They form an impressive historic features and heritage of the past work of man. It is important to conserve and preserve historic buildings because they provide a sense of identity and continuity in a fast changing world for future generations. However some of these buildings are at risk from defects and are not being well cared for due to lack of technical knowledge and high cost of repair and maintenance. A general knowledge associated with understanding the common building defects that normally occur in Malaysia historic buildings is important as to protect and enhancing historic buildings from being lost forever. It is because defects are concerned by society at large due to their possible dangers such as structural collapse and loss of use. The use of modern building construction techniques and developments in material technology may be viewed as improvements to a building. However, this approach will dispute where such action may affect the appearance of historic buildings. A general guide about building defects, repair and maintenance is important especially when dealing with historic buildings because prevention is better than cure. Basically something has to be done to reduce the frequency of defects by choosing appropriate approaches, methods or techniques in repair and maintenance because it is an expensive item to historic buildings. The correct diagnosis of building defects associated with the correct remedial action is the only economic basis for successful repair and maintenance programme. It is expected that this paper could contribute some benefits to architects, engineers, builders, surveyors, contractors, and conservators and by all those who concerned with the care and conservation of historic buildings.
Keywords: Historic Buildings, Building Defects, Building Conservation, Repair and Maintenance.

Since the building boom of the 1970s, many of Malaysia’s historic buildings have been demolished. Recent large scale urban development continues to threaten pre-war buildings, while other historic buildings are simply deteriorating due to age, neglect and high cost of maintenance. Fee (1998) expressed that to lose these buildings, however is effectively to obliterate historical memories, and there is now increasing pressure from various segments of the community to conserve the nation’s historical heritage. As we all known that conservation is the action taken to prevent decay, embracing all acts that prolong the life of cultural and natural heritage. Building conservation according to (Fielden, 1996; Insall, 1972) relates specifically to the process of repair, maintenance and restoration of historic buildings which aim to prolong a building’s life and function. In Malaysia, the practice of building conservation is considered new. Laws for historic building conservation are established throughout legislation whereby a national inventory of historic buildings includes lists and schedules of old buildings for protection. Under the Antiquities Act 1976 a historic building or monument aged at least 100 years old can be listed or gazetted by the Government through the Museum Department to give protection and encouragement for preservation and conservation (Kamal, 2002). Most of the historic buildings in Malaysia use building materials which are easily available locally such as timber, stone, brick and plaster. Example of historic buildings in Malaysia according to Ahmad (1997) are mosque, churches, palaces, clock towers, prisons, government offices, institutional and commercials, residential, schools, railway stations, hotels, forts and monuments.

Some historic buildings in Malaysia are at risk from defects because these buildings are not being well cared for, due to lack of knowledge and high cost of repair and maintenance. Basically, it is very important to recognize and diagnose the defects at each building element in historic buildings because there are so many defects that occur at various locations with different types of causes and symptoms. In majority of historic buildings in Malaysia, the existing structures are normally made from stone, brickwork, plaster and timber. There are 15 types of common building defects that normally occur and their causes according to (Ahmad, 1994:2; Kamal, 2001) are as follows (refer Table 1);

Table 1: Some examples of common building defects and their causes.
1. Cracked Brickwork at Ipoh Old Post Office may be caused by subsoil movement; foundation movement and failure; expansion of brickwork; and spread of roof structure.
2. Crumbling of Brickwork Mortar Joints at Malacca Shop houses may be caused by incorrect mortar fixture; chemical action or combination of both; and presence of salt crystallization.
3. Full Thickness of Plaster Loose at Ipoh F.M.S. Bar and Restaurant may be caused by plaster has failed to adhere to a brickwork; movement of walls; and vibration or ageing.
4. Blistering of Paintwork to Rendering at Ipoh Darul Ridzuan Museum may be caused by chemical attack on the paint film; excessive rain; dampness; wind and sun received can easily turn the surfaces of the paint to be chalky or blistered.
5. Discoloured and Blistering Finishes at Ipoh Dato’ Panglima Kinta Mosque may be caused by the presence of moisture where the colour may changes caused by chemical reaction; and mould growths.
6. Deteriorating Roof Tiles (Algae, Lichen and Mosses) at UPSI Tanjung Malim may be caused by harmful growths thrive in damp conditions with chemicals found in roof coverings.
7. Slipping and Broken Roof Tiles at Ipoh Railway Station may be caused by the fixing or mortar no longer holds; or walk upon.
8. Timber Decay at Taiping Railway Station may be caused by wood destroying fungus either dry rot or wet rot.
9. Timber deterioration at Ipoh Education Department may be caused by insect or termite attacks.
10. Peeling and Flaking Paintwork at Georgetown High Court may be caused by lack of maintenance; and lack of adhesion due to moisture content; and poor preparation of previous surface.
11. Dampness Penetration at Larut, Matang and Selama District and Land Office may be caused by lack of damp proof course; by passing of the damp proof course; and failure of damp proof course.
12. Patchy Damp at Perak Museum, Taiping may be caused by leaking pipes embedded in the walls or floors.
13. Patchy White Deposits at Batu Gajah Government Court Complex may be caused by chemicals in the bricks are dissolve by water and come to the surface they form as crystals when the surface dries.
14. Mould Growth at Taiping Railway Station Ticket Office may be caused by damp surfaces.
15. Harmful Growths at Ipoh Bulan Bintang Building may be caused by cracks in the walls or roofs creating a suitable ground for any seed to grow.
Source: Researchers pilot survey (2007).

In order to proof that building defects do occur at Malaysia historical buildings, a pilot survey has been conducted to over 200 historical buildings in Malaysia. Four major town has been selected as the case study which are Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Georgetown and Banda Hilir, Malacca and the categories of building surveyed are as follow:

Meanwhile, the findings of the pilot survey are as follow:

Referring to the above data, it clearly shown that the most common building defects normally occur at historical buildings are at external wall (15%) (eg. rising damp, cracking of brick, crumbling of mortar, flaking of paintwork and salt attack), followed by roof (13%) (eg. sagging of timber frame, broken tiles, missing tiles, deterioration of surface and harmful growths), door (13%) (eg. decay of timber frame, insect attack, distortion of shape, delamination of panel and flaking of paintwork), internal wall (12%) (eg. rising damp, cracking of brick, loose of plaster, discolour of paintwork and cracking of tiles), floor (12%) (eg. damp of surface, cracking of screeds, loose of tiles, defective of floorboards and decay of timber frame), and window (12%) (eg. decay of timber frame, insect attack, flaking of paintwork, rusting of steel and cracked of glass). Meanwhile the least elements where building defects normally occur at historical buildings were at ceiling (8%) (eg. watermark, loose of plaster, and lichen of surface), building services (7%) (eg. leaking of pipes and malfunctioning equipment), staircase (6%) (eg. decay of timber frame and flaking of paintwork) and other element (2%) (eg. defective structure and drains).

According to the National Building Agency (1985), defects occur either because of poor design, or low quality workmanship, or because the building was not constructed according to the design, or because it has been subject to factors not allowed for in the design. These primary causes may operate singly or in combination and result in defects indicated by changes in composition of materials; in the construction itself; in the size, shape or weight of materials; or simply in appearances. In the care and conservation of historic buildings in Malaysia, Ahmad (2004) expressed that understanding the nature of the building materials and accurate diagnosis of defects is most important. This is because historic buildings are like older people, vulnerable to all sorts of diseases. Therefore, in order to chase this problem, conservators, architects, engineers, builders, building surveyors, contractors and those involve in building conservation should first become familiar with the building materials in common use before going deeper into the proper techniques to repair and maintenance in historic buildings, structures and monuments. It is important to be able not only to diagnose simple defects and instruct repairs, but also to recognise and describe those problems which need expert help and act accordingly (Oram, 1994). Referring to Ahmad (1994:1) there are five main factors that govern building defects or problem to historic buildings which are;
a. Climatic Conditions
Like many other tropical countries, Malaysia has heavily rainfall and warm sunshine al, year round. This implies that buildings in the country tend to weather rapidly, particularly in respect to external building materials which are exposed to external causes such as rain, wind, solar radiation and atmospheric pollution.
b. Location of Building
Historic buildings that are located near the sea or rivers tend to have common building defects. This is because the water coming from the ground causes dampness penetration and structural instability. In addition, solutable salt which comes from the sea and together with the presence of a polluted atmosphere can cause damage to the exterior surface of the buildings.
c. Building Type and Change of Use
Most historic buildings that maintain their original functions or uses appear to have fewer problems compared to buildings that change their use and function. This is because historic buildings were built to only hold certain loads and sometimes may not withstand additional loads on the existing structure.
d. Maintenance Approach to the Building
Building maintenance organized through a rigorous of cyclical maintenance plays a major role in preventing building defects. Historic buildings that neglect building maintenance may fall into several defects which may lead to structural failures. To secure the general structural stability, it is important to regularly inspect not only the main structural elements like roof structure, beams and columns but also other common building parts.
e. Building Age
Basically all elements of historical buildings tend to deteriorate at a lesser or greater rate depending upon their location and function. Aging building materials, particularly timber should be checked frequently. The proper treatment of building repair and maintenance should be given full considerations.

Repair is the very heart of the approach to building conservation, a subject which, like architectural history, has grown in Malaysia into a fully developed discipline. According to (Marks, 1996; Cook & Hinks, 1992), one of the principal mean to guarantee conservation is to undertake regular repair and maintenance. Such treatment is necessary in reference to all properties. In order to survive, building must be useful and must be wanted. To be wanted, and to survive, building should be not only structurally and constructional sound, but also practical and efficient to use and pleasurable to look at and to be in. Any building which is in poor repair or impractical to use, unpleasant to be in, is likely to be more or less at risk. The loss of any building is inherently wasteful; it may entail cultural loss and historical loss. Building conservation is not only, therefore, about repair and maintenance, and, in practice, repair works are quite likely to be coupled with alterations, the objective of which may include improved usability in an existing use, conversion to another use, or improved internal or external appearance (Richardson, 1995). Repairs to the fabric of a building to remedy defects or significant decay should, as far as possible, be carried out as nearly as possible at the time and to the extent that they are necessary. Repair is an ongoing process and no repair is ultimate or final. The summary listed here is attempted to express the needs of repair of a historic building (Weaver, 1993);
1. The need for understanding, experience and judgment, based on clear principles.
2. The need for work to be prepared directed and carried out by people of appropriate experience and skills.
3. The need for work to be preceded by research and investigation and to be properly monitored and recorded.
4. The need to balance conflicting objectives.
5. The need for conservative approach, based on minimum intervention and reversibility, which respects the whole history and authenticity of a building.
6. The need for a systematic approach to preventive conservation.
7. The need for repairs to be carefully considered, wherever possible planned, and regarded as part of an ongoing process.
8. The need for a holistic approach to buildings, their materials and systems of construction.
9. The need for any restoration to be cautions and honest.
10. The need to regard buildings and materials as finite resources.
11. The need for existing and new work to make an honest and well integrated whole.
12. The need for a building, its contents and setting, to be considered together.

Understanding the common building defects is simply a logical way of proceeding from the evidence to the cause of a defect, after which remedies can be prescribed. The more that can be found about why defects have occurred, the more can be fed back through the repair works by the professionals responsible for the conservation works. Good repair practice is central to good conservation in Malaysia. Repair would be the only action required to enable historic buildings to survive. The present reality, however is that other sorts of intervention may be necessary to accommodate change. Alteration of one sort or another, in addition to straightforward repair, must sometimes be inflicted on buildings if they are to continue to be useful and wanted. Conservation, therefore, may entail more than repair. Destruction is invariably wasteful and may be positively damaging, while the creation and conservation of good buildings is always worthwhile where repair and maintenance may seem a modest unglamorous activity that can be continuity of past, present and future, working closely with historic buildings, scan be sheer pleasure, and making them good in the Malaysian way, indeed be glorious.

Ahmad, A. G. (1994:1). Building Maintenance [Online]. [Accessed 9th September 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Ahmad, A. G. (1994:2). Why Building Decay [Online]. [Accessed 9th September 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Ahmad, A. G. (1997). British Colonial Architecture in Malaysia 1800-1930. Kuala Lumpur: Museums Association of Malaysia.

Ahmad, A. G. (2004). Understanding Common Building Defects: The Dilapidation Survey Report [Online]. [Accessed 9th September 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Cook, G. & Hinks, J. (1992). Appraising Building Defects. London: Longman Scientific and Technical.

Fee, C. V. (1988). The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Architecture. Singapore Archipelago Press.

Fielden, B. M. (1996). Conservation of Historic Buildings. Oxford: Butterworth Architecture.

Insall, D. W. (1972). The Care of Old Buildings Today. London: The Architectural Press.

Kamal, K.S. (2001). Defects in Historic Buildings [Online]. [Accessed 6th September 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Kamal, K.S. (2002). Building Research Methodology in the Conservation of the Architectural Heritage [Online]. [Accessed 6th September 2007]. Available from World Wide Web:

Marks, S. (1996). Concerning Building. Oxford: Reed Educational & Professional Publishing Ltd.

Oram, P. (1994). The Repair and Maintenance of Historic Buildings: A Brief Guide for Owners, Architects and Agents. Ireland: The Northern Ireland Historic Building Council.

Richardson, B. A. (1995). Remedial Treatment of Buildings. London: Construction Press Ltd.

The National Building Agency (NBA). (1985). Building Defects: Diagnosis and Remedy. London: Construction Press.

Weaver, M. E. (1993). Conserving Buildings: Guide to Techniques and Materials. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.


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