Wood and Stilts: The Traditional Malay House

13 June 2018

We look at the architectural elements and changes of three different rumah Melayu houses in Kampung Baru.

Though difficult to find amidst Kuala Lumpur’s modern architecture and towering skyscrapers, the humble rumah Melayu still exists in scattered pockets around the city. As KL’s inhabitants increasingly choose to live in double-storey terraced houses, the traditional Malay house, constructed of timber and natural materials, is becoming something of a rare breed.

A typical Malay house consists of three basic parts: stilts, walls, and roof. This structure is sometimes seen as the stages of life (birth, life and death), or elements of a human body (legs, body, and head).

This home was first built in 1913, but rebuilt in 1949 after World War II. It was at one time owned by a Malay teacher attached to the Police Training Depot. It has a “Limas Potong Perak” plan.

Developed before the advent of electricity, the architecture of the rumah Melayu was designed to respond naturally to the surrounding environment. Key architectural choices in the design of the homes help increase ventilation and reduce heat.

Houses are raised on timber stilts, which allow them to catch winds of higher velocity, as well protect against floods and wild animals. These days, timber stilts are often replaced with more durable stone columns. This house, originally built in 1921, now sits upon modernised stone pillars with an added balustrade staircase.

Originally built in 1921, the first owner of this house was an English teacher at Batu Road English School and affectionately referred to as “Master Mat”. 

The windows and shutters often stretch the whole length of the house, can be fully opened, and are protected from sunshine and rain by the pitched roof with wide overhangs. They are often decorated with carved panels or slats that break up the sunlight yet ventilate the home. This house, for example, has Malaysian-style wood panel carvings.

"Everything is designed to allow for ventilation,” says architect and heritage activist Najib “Nadge” Ariffin, who is also a tour guide for the Jalan-Jalan Kampung Baru walking tour by Kuala Lumpur City Hall. He points out that this house also contains a bumbung angkat – a small roof placed on top of the roof, which allows for hot air to rise and dissipate.

Traditionally, roofs were thatched and made of nipah palm leaves, which has insulating properties, and retains little heat. However, because nipah roofs are lightweight and easily damaged, this material has since been replaced. Using more durable materials like zinc, however, means that more heat is retained in the house. In this Colonial-Malay hybrid house, often referred to as “Rumah Limas," the roofing material is asbestos.

Rumah Melayu is often divided into two parts: the rumah ibu, which contains bedrooms and living rooms, and the rumah dapur, which contains the kitchen. The rumah ibu often has two entrances: one for women, and one for men. This encouraged socialising, as the separate entrances gave each group a space to interact with one another.

Nadge says the entrance staircases also encourage health. “You end up being quite healthy because you exercised without thinking daily. The olden style of houses, the architecture, actually encouraged you to be healthy and social.”

As inhabitants traditionally cooked with firewood, the kitchen was considered a fire hazard and separated from the rest of the house. Hence, it was made of simpler materials, such as bamboo, so that it could be easily torn down if a fire started.

Originally built without nails, the traditional Malay house was meant to be easily dismantled. The pieces were pre-cut and pre-arranged to interlock with each other. This meant that the house could be extended if families got larger, or could move their whole home to a different location with the help of the kampung. Now, however, nails are used to simplify the building process.

The traditional Malay house retains the heritage of a design that worked in harmony with the local environment, culture and climate. However, as the city modernises, these houses have become a rarity.

"Kampung Baru is changing rapidly – very, very rapidly,” says Nadge, as he tells us about another rumah Melayu that was sold and demolished this past year.

Kampung Baru is planned to be outfitted with 1,900 hotel rooms, 30mil square feet of office space, and 17,500 residential units. The expected gross value of the redevelopment is RM61 billion.

Please note that the Jalan-Jalan Kampung Baru walking tour in front of Kelab Sultan Sulaiman has halted operations for the time being. Visit www.visitkl.gov.my or call 03 2698 0332 for more information.

By Lily Jamaluddin
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi


Chinese Calligraphy in Malaysia

MON, 02 JUL 2018

Nai Chuang Hak has devoted over 50 years in pursuing his passion for calligraphy, a technically demanding practice of handwriting tha...


Exploring Pengkalan Hulu

WED, 20 JUN 2018

Far in the north corner of Perak lies Pengkalan Hulu, a place where older Chinese, Malay and Indian folk may still turn around and sp...


Wats in Tumpat

MON, 26 FEB 2018

We take a look at the Buddhist temples that dot the town of Tumpat, Kelantan on the Thailand-Malaysia border. Situated on the nor...