Building Houses in the Air

Malay house under coconut treesI’ve been reading a lot about the traditional Malay house. Contrary to its simple and humble appearance, there is actually a lot of thought that goes into the design. Thoughts that factor in climate, available resources, and lifestyle. This house is evidence of human ingenuity before we started relying on air-conditioners and big diesel-guzzling lorries.

Books have been written about the simple Malay house and there is too much to be said. In this post I will focus only on how the house has been adapted to the humid tropical climate.

For those who have not had the opportunity to enjoy/suffer the weather in humid tropical SE Asia (around Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia), rainfall is usually abundant throughout the year without a distinct dry and wet season like the subtropics. Sun is mostly overhead and humidity is constantly high. Temperatures vary little between 24-32 degree celsius throughout the year and do not fluctuate much between day and night.

Due to the consistent warmth, the design of the house only strives to reduce temperature. It does not have to deal with the complications of cooling down when it is too hot and warming up when it is too cold. That is an issue for the temperate regions, where houses have to be as a Chinese saying goes “warm during winter, cool during summer”.

Some of you might have experienced that “sticky” feeling on your skin. That is your body trying to lose heat through evaporation of your sweat. However this works only when the air around you is moving and bringing the humidity from your evaporated sweat away. Ventilation is therefore key in maintaining a comfortable environment in the humid tropics. When you are indoor it has to be cross ventilation, meaning the ventilation is from outside the house. It does not work that well if you are in an enclosed room with the fan ventilating without the humidity being removed.


Orientation: The Malay house is usually of a long narrow shape. For religious reasons, the longitudinal axis usually runs East-West to face Mecca. This also minimizes the areas exposed to solar radiation and therefore heat gain. The long sides of the house also helps to catch prevailing winds during the Northeast and Southwest monsoon seasons. This results in ample cross ventilation.

Stilts: Stilts are quintessential to the Malay house. They elevate the house to catch wind of higher velocity. Wind at a higher altitude flows faster because there is no ground vegetation to slow it down. The stilts also protect against flood which is common in the wet tropics. The inhabitants are also protected from dangerous animals.

Attap on the left and Singgora tiles on the right.

Attap on the left and Singgora tiles on the right.

Roof Material: The roof is key to keeping heat away from the house. Traditional Malay houses use materials with low thermal capacity like attap, which is dried palm leaves freely available in the wild. Singgora tiles, made from clay by foot, are designed to be very thin so that they do not store heat. Wood shingles can also be suitable but much more expensive. Materials with high thermal capacity like concrete and thick clay tiles are not suitable because they store heat and releases that into the house.

Pitched and ventilated roof.

Pitched and ventilated roof.

Pitched Roof: The roof is high and steep, typically exceeding 45 degrees. This allows hot air in the house to rise into the roof space and cool air to sink (convection). The roof is well ventilated and the hot air will be brought out of the house. The steepness of the roof also helps to shed rainwater, extending the lifespan of the attap roof.

Overhanging Roof: Along the sides, the roofs extend far outwards to form long eaves. The eaves shade the walls or opened windows against the diagonal morning or afternoon sun. They also protect against the rain. Verandahs are also frequently used for the same purposes.

Full-length window in a Malay house.

Full-length window in a Malay house.

Windows and Walls: Windows are plenty and full length at body level so that they can be opened for maximum ventilation, especially along the human body. Louvre windows serve a dual purpose of keeping solar glare out while still allowing ventilation. Glass is seldom used because it does the very opposite, bringing in solar radiation and stopping wind.

Surrounding Vegetation: An idyllic photo or drawing of a Malay kampung would likely have coconut trees. Other than the myriad cooking uses, they are planted around the house for shade and unlike big foliage-dense trees they do not act as wind breaks. Big trees can be shady and cooling underneath but their thick trunks pose a danger for the inhabitants.


If you are interested to learn more, I recommend the book Traditional Malay House by Lim Jee Yuan.

Next time, I will write more of the other non-climate related points about the Malay house.

3 thoughts on “Building Houses in the Air

  1. Pingback: Practical Permaculture Course in Malaysia | INTO THE ULU

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