Small is Beautiful
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 10/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
As the saying goes, there are no small projects. Unless, of course, you are Kevin Mark Low, and you have named your architecture firm . . . Small Projects. Then a 7,500-square-foot villa might be considered small—or at least Small. In fact, the house is a mere speck on the landscape of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, compared to such gargantuan projects as the Petronas Towers by Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects.
Plans for this five-bedroom family house got their start when the owners presented the Massachusetts Institute of Technology–trained Low with a virgin plot on the 10th hole of a gated golf course. Views were, of course, optimal, but building conditions were not. Because of a steep slope in back, land available for an approach was what the architect describes as "meager."
So he started designing right at the property line. At the end of a cul-de-sac, visitors encounter an 8-foot-high gate of expanded galvanized-steel mesh painted matte black. "The views through are lacy," he says.
The front door, which appears to be a slab of steel nearly 10 feet square, is actually welded sheet-metal panels. Low calls it the Middle Earth door. Left open during daylight hours, it swings closed at nightfall to seal off the passage between two worlds.
Beyond the door, the house is laid out in four blocks that remain distinct from one another while blurring boundaries between indoors and out. The residents frequently leave their air-conditioned confines to circulate among the 1,700 square feet of sheltered outdoor space. There's also an informal orchard featuring 39 trees from eight species, all planted in a courtyard paved with loose construction gravel.
An audiovisual suite and a sleek Italian kitchen chewed through a large percentage of the total budget. To make up for those expenditures, Low says he "thought it would be fun to design with mundane materials juxtaposed in such a way that they looked expensive and hip rather than cheap."
His romance with raw concrete harks back to the brutalism of Malaysian buildings constructed as recently as the 1970's. Besides the house's structural concrete, he used lots of precast-concrete ventilation blocks. This staple of low-cost construction is usually employed in Asia in single rows beneath ceilings, like clerestories. This time, the blocks are stacked up as 20-foot-high screens positioned to cast welcome shade on the windows' sheets of laminated security glass. "It doesn't feel cheap at all," Low says. "Just raw."
Exterior walls are unpainted waterproof stucco over clay block, some shielded from the harsh tropical sun by a creeping cloak of ficus vine with its small, dense leaves. Capping the four pavilions are concrete slabs—Low believes that nothing cools better overhead. Several feet above the slabs, he provided even stronger sun protection in the form of canopies inspired by his favorite Land Rover: Its semidetached "safari" roof keeps passengers cool, just as his canopies permit air circulation over the slabs.
Supported by steel frames, the canopies' dirt-cheap roofing material—compressed cardboard impregnated with bitumen—provides both shade and waterproofing. Their undercarriage, up-lit by common fluorescents, is partially clad in shiplapped hardwood strips. Here, as elsewhere, Low used rot-resistant local tree species and skipped finishes that would need regular renewal. "I designed the house to age rather than to be maintained," he says. That's sound ecology, and it also dovetails neatly with his what-you-see-is-what-you-get architectural philosophy.
Likewise, he embraces the fine cracks that have begun to craze the glossy, easy-to-clean concrete floors inside. He furnished some of the rooms with "recycled" vintage accents. When it comes to saving the planet, that's just another way to think small.