For several decades, the city of Kuala Lumpur has been hollowing out, with citizens commuting to work, but leaving the city to return to their homes in the suburbs. Think City introduces micro-apartment prototypes in conjunction with the ninth World Urban Forum (WUF9) to gauge public reception on communal living in the city
Story by Maya Tan
According to a baseline study conducted by Think City, close to 55,000 people work within downtown Kuala Lumpur’s historic core. However, only about 11,000 live there, a large percentage of which, are migrant workers. This affects the balance of activities, communities and commerce within the core of the city.
“Our area of focus in Kuala Lumpur is in the one-kilometre radius surrounding Masjid Jamek. Through working closely with the city council (DBKL), we’ve discovered a number of issues affecting the vibrancy of downtown Kuala Lumpur,” said Joanne Mun, the Urban Design and Planning Lead at Think City.
“However the issue remains that it becomes deserted after business hours and there is an imbalance in the types of communities that populate downtown Kuala Lumpur after dark.
“At the same time, we’ve come to notice that there are a number of unoccupied commercial buildings in the area. So, taking these factors into consideration, and with further research, DBKL and Think City, along with our project advisor Ng Seksan, have come up with a concept that could potentially address the issue of bringing people back to live in downtown KL,” she added.
Joanne Mun, Urban Design and Planning Lead at Think City. Photo: Think City
Housing Affordability versus Affordable Housing
Joanne explained that for many years, Malaysians have opted for more affordable homes and the relative comfort of the suburbs surrounding the city centre, with a small percentage of society comprising high-income earners and expats populating the high-end residential properties in the commercial centre of the city.
“We need to find a solution to potentially create a different kind of life for those who commute to the city every day. It makes sense for them to live closer to their workplace, reduce their commuting time and perhaps even walk, take public transport or cycle to work,” Joanne said.
However, there is a distinct lack of housing solutions for middle class white collar workers in downtown KL. With the rise of a male-dominant migrant community and homeless citizens, there are perceived safety issues deterring Malaysians from socialising much less living in the downtown area. In light of managing safety issues, Think City has embarked on a programme with DBKL’s local Agenda 21.
“Think City has a Safe City programme which we conduct with some partners, to regulate safe conditions in downtown KL. Based on one of the surveys we carried out, we realise that public perceptions of safety in the city are quite far removed from reality; the city really is safer than we all imagine it to be,” said Joanne.
At the same time, Joanne stressed that it was important to position the housing solution in an appealing way.
“We need to make the idea of ‘housing affordability’ in the city centre sound appealing, which should be different from ‘affordable housing’, a concept that people normally associate with low-cost government subsidised flats,” she said.
“We looked at solutions from other cities around the world, from micro-housing solutions in New York City to affordable housing in Singapore, and also came across the concept of lykke, which means happiness or good fortune in Danish. Lykke refers to a sense of neighbourliness in a community environment, where everyone looks after each other—a concept that has been adopted in many Scandinavian and European countries.
“This led our discussions for the project towards the concept of ‘Communal Living’, and it is this concept which drove the housing prototypes that we showcased at the WUF Village in Medan Pasar, in conjunction with WUF9.”
Communal Living Meets Micro-Housing
With the possibility of repurposing unoccupied commercial buildings in the city centre, some built in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Think City developed the concept further to include the element of Communal Living within small spaces.
“In order to maximise the spaces originally built for offices, our project advisor Ng Seksan suggested that we approach the idea of communal living with small spaces,” Joanne explained.
“From our research, we realised people in other parts of the world were working on similar solutions with spaces below 350 square feet. For our prototypes, we looked at 250-350 square feet, and to maximise space, we deployed furnishing solutions such as multi-function modular units which could be manipulated for different uses, and stowed away when not in use.”
“Research also tells us that there are dangers to mental health when it comes to living in small spaces, so we ensured that there were adequate spaces for people to interact in—shared areas such as a TV room or library, dining areas and maybe a rooftop garden.
The team also created a set of criteria for the project to ensure that it met appropriate living standards. While DBKL has a minimum requirement for the floor area of residential units, this may be an opportunity for the authorities to consider a new policy in addressing housing affordability in Kuala Lumpur.
While the main objective was to bring residents back, the communal living concept would target young Malaysian executives who had yet to buy homes or start their own families, and who would benefit from the shorter commute time, yet still be able to enjoy a small living space.
“Young executives are already fans of co-working spaces, so we feel that the idea of communal living will likely appeal to them as well, especially if the spirit of lykke, or looking closer to home – the kampung spirit, of working together and helping each other were to be activated,” Joanne added.
“We also feel strongly that the concept should not involve the development of a new building, so if this project were to become a reality, we would be looking to repurpose mid to high-rise commercial buildings.”
Not for Sale
Another key criterion – the communal living units would not be for sale, but available only for rent.
“We spoke to a property developer recently and discovered that despite being the target audience, young executives and first-time home owners are unable to afford small apartments and studio units in the city. Instead the units are being bought by real estate investors for rental income, and as a result, many of the units are left uninhabited.
“This goes against our objective to populate the city, and so to avoid this, we will look at rental arrangements only, operated by a trusted facility manager,” Joanne said.
In the event that the concept is greenlighted by DBKL, Think City would continue to consult and monitor the project with the owners and operators of the building.
The micro-house installation by Tetawowe Atelier being constructed in Medan Pasar in conjunction with World Urban Forum 9. Photo: Maya Tan
Benefits and Long Term Effects
With more residents living in the city, the amount of vehicular traffic can be reduced and more roads, perhaps even parking lots, could be returned to the public.
“The city council along with their partners have been working to create more walkability and making the city cycle-friendly. More areas can be landscaped and converted into parks or recreational spaces, and the city will see more life,” said Joanne.
“In terms of life after dark, a city’s economy corresponds directly to how many hours the city stays awake. It is for this reason that the city of Amsterdam has a Night Mayor.
“If a city stays open for 12 hours, there would be 12 hours of life and contribution to the economy, but if the city stays open for 24 hours, all that could well be doubled. This is why we are researching how we can convert downtown KL, so that people can come back to get their needs for recreation, exercise, food or entertainment met.”
“DBKL has already begun some activities in front of Dataran Merdeka where the roads are closed on weekends. However, shops aren’t open during that time, so we are looking to organise a series of activities, working with local businesses to ensure they stay open a little bit longer. We’ve organised night runs, for example, so that people can get to know KL better and we can simultaneously create opportunities for vendors,” Joanne added.
To create greater retail diversity, Think City has also offered matching grants to support and enable entrepreneurs wishing to set up businesses downtown. As part of the ongoing Think City Grants Programme, which offers several categories of grants, many start-ups have flourished, including galleries OUR ArtProjects and the Malaysian Design Archive, as well as vinyl record peddler and music archive Tandang Store—all of which are housed in the repurposed Zhongshan Building (also the product of a Think City grant).
“Both the public and private sectors need to work on these things concurrently, not one at a time. All these elements have to come together, and so the communal living project is aligned with this mission.”
The proprietors of OUR Art Projects gallery housed in the refurbished Zhongshan Building, a Think City grant product to create retail diversity and vibrancy in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Maya Tan
Think City invited nine architects with compatible portfolios to submit concept designs. After a four-week design period, six of the firms submitted their designs. An expert panel comprising Think City, DBKL and other subject matter experts came together to comprehensively assess the designs and settle on two winning concepts.
The first design, an ‘urban micro-shared village’ by Tetawowe Atelier and AMC Architects, comprised two micro house units, with a footprint size equivalent to two standard car parks, and with flexible semi-public outdoor spaces for a shared communal experience.
The micro-house installation designed and constructed by Tetawowe Atelier. Photo: Maya Tan
Photo: Maya Tan
The second design was by Studio Bikin, developed under the auspices of DBKL, and featured a pavilion with focus on the easy optional addition of fixed elements—prefabricated bathrooms, service stacks and vertical circulation, creating a significant framework for future adaptive reuse projects.
The selected architects had a matter of weeks to build the prototypes, which were then displayed at the WUF Village in Medan Pasar from the 6th to the 28th of February. Think Squad, ThinkCity’s volunteer youth group, ran surveys and collated data to support the project.
Photo: Maya Tan
Exterior of the pavilion designed by Studio Bikin. Photo: Maya Tan
The prototypes played a key role in gauging the public’s reaction to the concept of communal living in the inner city. From conversations held with visitors to the two prototypes, the reviews were mixed.
Hui Wai Chung, Programme Executive at Think City, said that some members of the public were concerned that the prototypes would lead to further developments being built in the city.
“After speaking to us, many visitors realised that we were advocating for the repurposing of unoccupied buildings in the city and for people to populate downtown KL again, and they found that concept to be positive,” he said.
“The concept also appealed more to the younger set, as the older folks found the constricted space and need to climb up into the micro-homes less practical for them,” he added.
“Reviews were mixed but most visitors felt positive when they realised that the concept involved using unoccupied buildings and not new developments.”
Hui Wai Chung, Programme Executive at Think City. Photo: Think City
Fathimah Noor, a twenty-something visitor and a prime target for the communal living concept said that the concept was an appealing option for young executives.
“The concept is interesting and new to me. I like that the idea is create further sustainability for the city,” she said.
Fathimah Noor, Fellow, Ministry of the Federal Territories. Photo: Maya Tan
“The idea will appeal to many young folks especially because it will be made affordable for them.”
Fathimah, who is a fellow at the Ministry of Federal Territories, said that her only reservation was how it would affect the heritage in the inner city. However, when she found out that the idea involved the repurposing of old buildings, she felt more positive about the concept. However, she also felt that the young working set would only consider it a temporary option.“The concept is targeted at single or double occupancy, which works for the shorter term. Malaysians are very family-oriented, so after a few years, young couples will want to have children and therefore require more space, and perhaps even a different environment. The city centre is very hectic and busy and may not be so suitable for families,” she explained.
“Planners and developers will also have to look into creating spaces to make living here a lot more comfortable with parks and recreation spots. You cannot just create these homes in unoccupied buildings in the middle of the city, because what you will find is that you only invite young individuals into the city, and not a balanced residential population,” she added.
The two micro-house installations flank an urban wetland, used for rain containment and thermal regulation, as well as to provide relief for urban dwellers. Photo: Maya Tan
“Planners and developers will also have to look into creating spaces to make living here a lot more comfortable with parks and recreation spots.” A ‘parklet’ created by Think City as a further experiment on encouraging community socialising in the city. Photo: Maya Tan
At the end of February 2018, the urban micro-shared village structure designed by Tetawowe Atelier was relocated to the YWCA of Kuala Lumpur. The structure will serve the YWCA’s Vocational Training Opportunity Centre which currently also has a hostel attached for students and young women.
The micro-house installation has been relocated to serve Kuala Lumpur’s YWCA and vocational training centre. Photo: Think City
“The YWCA have been looking into the whole idea of communal living for some of their other blocks and to refurbish their current units to a more modular system,” Hui explained.
The micro-home will not be a standalone structure. Think city also relocated the parklet installed at Jalan Panggong previously, to complement the microhouse as a landscaped feature.
“In addition to these components, we are also in the midst of building a shed for the VTOC students to hold workshops or activities,” Hui added.