Public Housing can be Appealing in Design

By Leow Kwong Choon

July 2024 FEATURE
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An example of public housing in Malaysia.

A FREQUENT QUESTION posed by the public and by construction industry stakeholders is, “Why is the architectural aesthetic design in so many public housing schemes so unimaginative and ugly?”

Public housing in Malaysia, like in many other countries, often appears aesthetically boring for reasons mainly related to economic, social and policy factors. If you have ever looked at any of these building blocks and wondered the same, understanding those factors can help us explore the possibility of architects pushing for more innovative designs for future public housing projects.

An interestingly designed public housing in Singapore.

The Uninspiring Aesthetic: An Explainer

The frequently touted responses for poor design are:

1. Cost constraints: The obvious and most prevalent challenge is budget limitations. Budgets for such projects are often very much strained when compared to other types of housing projects since the focus is primarily on providing the maximum number of units possible within the allocated budget. This leaves little room for aesthetic considerations. A change here will require architects to find innovative ways to envision designs within financial boundaries.

2. Economies of scale: Public housing projects usually involve fairly large numbers of dwellings; and to reduce costs, public housing often relies on standardised designs and construction methods. This leads to repetitive and uninspiring architectural forms.

3. Policy and regulatory factors: Most local authorities prioritise functionality and efficiency over aesthetics. The main goal is to provide safe, affordable and secure housing.

4. Regulatory standards: Strict building codes and regulations can limit design flexibility. Compliance with these standards can lead to uniformity in design.

5. Time constraints: The need to quickly accommodate growing urban populations can pressure developers to use time-efficient, standard designs that can be rapidly deployed. This could lead to a “cookie-cutter” type of monotonous building design.

6. Administrative efficiency: The approval and construction process often favours simpler, conventional designs over more innovative and complex ones, and is geared towards saving time and costs.

7. Social and cultural factors: There might be a perception that public housing does not require the same level of architectural finesse as private developments do, leading to less emphasis on creativity in the design. Necessary elements like sun shading, drying areas, and spaces for services are not incorporated, resulting in the owners or tenants adding these items at a later stage, which can make the building and its environment appear visually messy and uncoordinated.

8. Community integration: Simple designs are often chosen for easy blending into the existing urban fabric. There is a tendency for the housing blocks to look the same to avoid possible social or cultural disruption. This approach can make the development look monotonous.

An example of an imaginative public design in the region with similar environmental conditions.

The Pathway Forward

Now that we have breezed through some reasons why public housing tends to be especially uninspiring, allow me to inject inspiration to show that there is room for creativity and innovation when it comes to designing for those who earn less than the average Malaysian. After all, that goal is essential to architectural design thinking. Creativity provides new ideas and innovation allows those ideas to become reality.

The creative use and detailing of materials in the design can help enhance the aesthetics of buildings. The sustainable use of materials is highly encouraged and regarded, especially if these are locally sourced. Adopting recycled or sustainable materials is one way to introduce unique textures and forms while maintaining cost-effectiveness. To start, architects need to work with industry experts and suppliers of new materials to master and understand their application in construction. This process can help produce new and innovative design aesthetics for the buildings.

Currently, most design and construction of public housing utilise traditional reinforced concrete structures with masonry, external enclosures and internal partitions. However, modular or prefabricated construction methods can offer flexibility in design and lower costs, allowing for more creativity. Modular construction is not a new concept and was largely used during the post-war period in Europe both for being cost-efficient and for shortening construction time.

To break the monotony mentioned earlier, design diversity is needed. Introducing variations in building façades, colours and layouts can bring variations without significantly increasing costs. Experimenting with façade treatments such as shading devices, balconies and mixed materials can add depth and interest to the buildings. Playing with light and shadow can also give depth and visual interest to the elevational design of the buildings.

The outside should also reflect whoever lives within its walls. It can be wise to engage future residents in the design process. Public housing should be community-oriented with adequate communal spaces. Before the pencil hits the bumwad, input from its future occupants may help the architect design housing that better reflects their needs and aspirations, adding a personal touch to the aesthetics.

Vila Loca by GDP Architects won 1st prize in a recent architectural competition.

Designing with sensitivity to the local culture and to community needs can produce more meaningful and engaging public spaces too. Socially, inputs from residents will bring a sense of ownership to the spaces and building elements, and it is more likely that these spaces would then be better looked after by the community.

Integrating services and amenities like a playground, a multipurpose hall, exercise areas, shops and other community-related activity spots to the design of a development can create a vibrant, multi-use environment that enhances the living experience. If done well, the whole development could look visually coherent.

Shared green and communal spaces also encourage community interaction and add aesthetic value. Weaving greenery into the building design can enhance visual appeal and improve environmental sustainability. However, careful consideration must be paid to the maintenance of these items in the long run.

One path to aid maintenance is smart design. With digital solutions readily available today, one could move away from the old construct and make full use of smart technology. Using the latest technologies may also provide avenues to construct energy-efficient systems and to make adaptive re-use of spaces, which can enhance both functionality and aesthetics.

However, architecturally appealing public housing will not happen naturally. Governments and local authorities should encourage innovative designs by offering incentives or recognition for architectural excellence in public housing. Open competitions are also a method that can elicit creative and innovative designs in public housing.

A recent architectural competition organised by Gamuda Land highlighted the ability and availability of Malaysian design talents in designing interesting public housing. The first prize was awarded to GDP Architects, whose design, named Vila Loca, featured a 50-storey public housing complete with apartment units and co-living pods with communal living space.

By understanding the reasons for poor designs in public housing and investigating the possible ways forward, architects and planners can move towards more creative and aesthetically pleasing public housing designs that not only meet the practical needs of the residents, but also enrich the living environment and community experiences.

Leow Kwong Choon

or KC Leow is a member of ARB and RIBA since 1988, and registered with the Malaysian Architect Institution (LAM) and the Malaysian Architectural Association (PAM) in 1997 before becoming the PAM Northern Chapter Chairman 2021-2023. He founded KCLA DESIGN in 2008 with projects in healthcare, education, hotels and high-end residences under his belt.