Theorizing Vernacular Architecture in Malaysia

Co-written with Sean Brungardt
ARCH 600 – Theorizing Vernacular Architecture
Instruction from Dr. Kapila Silva

In Southeast Asia, culture and architecture have a unique connection to the every-day person. This connection stems from a storied history of vernacular architecture in the region. Vernacular architecture is not strictly confined to any one region of the world, but is becoming more and more prevalent in modern strategies of urban planning and building. The ideals we are just now beginning to strive for in our designs today have been implemented in the vernacular culture of Malaysia for hundreds of years. Those ideals include sustainability, cultural significance, and adaptability. The purpose of analyzing Malaysian vernacular housing is to understand how to use these principles as catalysts for improving our own mindsets and general frameworks with regard to architecture as a whole.

In this analysis, the term vernacular should be defined a bit more clearly. In terms of architecture, the vernacular defines the built environment as structures created by untrained individuals. This does not mean that the designs are aimless or uninformed. To the contrary, it means that the structure is suited for the particular needs of the individual who conceived of and built the structure. Vernacular Malaysian housing provides us with a highly localized example of this paradigm. While aspects of the architecture vary, the overall form and function of the Kampung home provides a fantastic initial foray into exploring these concepts.

Relating Climate to Culture

In the examination of various modes of sustainability throughout the world, Malaysia is of no exclusion in the relationship of its architecture to observable adaptability. Manifest in both environmental and cultural responses, this region of the world lends itself to a unique study of stylized traditional architecture as a result of those responses.

Region and Design Focus

With foremost concerns taking into consideration the development of traditional Malay building culture it is important to understand the interaction between climate and social convention. The manner in which a building can be influenced by each is especially important (Sahabuddin 2). Bordering both Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia is a subject of highly vegetated, mountainous terrain, heavy rain and is host to both larger cities and isolated farming communities. The average temperature range tends to fall between 24 and 33 degrees Celsius (75 to 91 degrees Fahrenheit) affected, in part, by monsoon season and skies that are largely overcast (Sahabuddin 12-13). While this climate has a profound effect on any number of structures, it is the Kampung homes that typify both traditional and responsive architecture in this region (Sahabuddin 14). These homes demonstrate a handling of architecture that uses function to both precede and inform design intentionally.

Sustainability in Construction and Material Use

In analyzing the designations for this active style of design, a breakdown of easily observed characteristics make identifying their purpose quite simple. The first nature of response is a tendency to raise these homes on stilts (Sims 19). This format of lightweight foundation construction serves a multitude of needs, servicing the prevention of floods, increased thermal airflow, structural stability in high winds and in providing a raised profile for which social conventions can be appropriated (i.e. ascending into one’s home) (Sims 20). Clearly, the multi-purposed nature of their construction methods is a theme pervasive throughout the entirety of Kampung home design. Additional practical purposes include protection from animals and added storage space (Sims 15). Further, extensive roof systems are constructed to allow for optimal protection during monsoon rains. They are useful in being pitched more steeply towards the ridge of the roof, where interstitial openings in the structure are used to create better ventilation in addition to allowing controlled sunlight to filter inward (Sahabuddin 18). This kind of measure is also displayed in the varying wall heights of the homes where both air and sunlight are either filtered or facilitated for the purpose of creating more comfortable living spaces. In this way, both aforementioned aspects of the home are also emphasized in conjunction with a central, open floor plan that is further meant to disperse air and light throughout the entire space (Sahabuddin 20). This effort is key in discerning both the placement and value of purposed adaptations within the home.

Aside from serving as mere distinctions for the design intentions of these homes, it is also important to note that when compared to their less traditional counterparts (city estates and governmental housing projects), the Kampung home is much more efficient, environmentally conscious and considerate of regional conditions (Bt. Ramli, et al. 4-5). For example, the large overhanging eaves of the traditional style are far more inclined for the service of protecting the home and its inhabitants, where an estate may instead choose less conventional methods to create a more contemporary aesthetic. The differences hardly stop there. Restricted airflow, increased internal glare and a lack of naturally radiated space are all culprits in the case against a move away from the traditional stylings (Sims 89-91). Materials then, too, are an incredible source of natural advantage in this climate and are a source of division between natural and modern tendencies in the region. Lightweight framing and construction elements are all local resources found in palm oil trees, coconut trees and other fibrous vegetation (Sahabuddin 8-9). Specifically, walls and roofs made of the local palm-branch are prevalent and are useful towards creating keeping moisture and pests out, while still allowing small amounts of sunlight and air to pass through (Sims 84). One could argue that the effort to preserve tradition through local resourcing and sheer efficiency of product is a fair juxtaposition to that of less successful housing projects in the region – a compelling aspect of understanding why the Kampung home is such a significant symbol of culture and adaptation.

architecture in malaysia

Cultural Implications

With cultural response as a foremost indicator as to the success of vernacular architecture, understanding that interaction is telling in itself. The positioning of the home tends to be relative to the vegetation surrounding it. Referencing the structural stilts, drainage from the kitchen is allowed to add nourishment to the ground and surrounding gardens. Additionally, material resources outside of the home become spaces for cultural activity (Sahabuddin 7). The organization of the facilities outside (wells, lavatories, resource compounds) add to the holistic nature of Malay building culture (Sahabuddin 15); not to mention, more specific functional dualities inside the home, such as using roof ventilation to dry dishes and other goods. Relatively speaking, each of these elements are highly capable in allowing us to comprehend how, at a very basic level, spaces can be as functional as possible while still containing specific design elements important to culture and social utility. Despite a move away from these homes as a form of recognizing financial success and the general desire for modernizing principles of living, the reasons for a need to hold on traditional designations of form are easily observable.

Architectural and Symbolic Meaning

Studying the vernacular architecture of Malaysia, understanding the symbolic meaning and cultural relationships which take place within certain spaces helps to understand more fully the use of the space itself. The uniqueness of the Kampung settlements lies within not only the functions of the houses on a sustainable level, but also the cultural ideas present within. Religious symbols, spatial organization and use, and the way in which the vernacular far outperforms governmental housing in both symbolic aesthetic and functional appeal all make the culturally developed architecture of Malaysia distinct.

Religious Symbolic Presence in Architecture

Islam is the dominant religion in Malaysia sitting at 61%, with Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and other tribal religions making up the remaining 39%. As such, a majority of the architecture reflects Islam’s religious tenants and themes. The households are oriented on an east-west cardinal direction, with the roadways running north-south between them (Firrdhaus 17). There is a central building within the community, which is inhabited by a patriarchal figure known as penghulu (village headman) (Firrdhaus 5).

The traditional settlement is intimate at a community level, foregoing traditional fences or other sorts of land demarcation (Sims 12). Instead, more emphasis is placed on the community, versus individual privacy. Spatial embellishments include elaborations of the space by use of traditional Malay wood-carving art that display customs, beliefs and tenants of Islam. These wood carvings or specially woven thatch walls, were not only to symbolically represent cultural and religious beliefs, but also to promote cross ventilation throughout the livable areas.

Other influences stem from aspects of localized religious groups who have introduced the following key notions into certain communities:

• human-based narratives
• the supernatural
• ritualistic ceremony
• natural medicine
• analysis of the physical world and the earth
• the world of substance vs. the world of materiality
• folklore and animal magnetism
• the human body
• interpretations of life and death

Most of the spaces within the Kampung type settlement, however, are reflective of their Islamic culture. On a macro scale the settlement is based upon whether you are an Islamic Malay or non-Islamic in an outlying religion. This separation determines where within the Kampung community the house will be placed; being that it may be closer to the center or on the outskirts of the village. Generally, many of the housing placements within these settlements are grouped together, while community-based buildings are grouped on their own. Most religious buildings can be found in those community groupings, but tend to be slightly isolated. Gendered spaces are common within all vernacular Islamic cultures, and thus are present within the Kampung household. Separation between men and women to some degree is present, but mostly in regard to the boundary of the core interior space versus the communal gathering space. Female space, then, is usually situated towards the back of the home, while men usually inhabit the front. Women typically stay inside the house or common areas, and men go out to farm or fish. Guests of any gender are required to familiarize themselves before being invited up into the house in order to maintain privacy (Sims 27). This aspect of Malay living is important to the unity of their families and the safety of the home.

Spatial Organization

The spatial organization of Malaysian vernacular settlements are not solely based on a two dimensional floor plan, but a three dimensional system of hierarchical levels and rooms. The typical Malay house has an average of three to four levels with varying purposes to each. The guiding philosophy is that the largest, and most top-level room is the most important space for the family (Sims 18). While every house is raised on a plinth above the ground, there is also typically an attic space below the most extreme pitch of the central roof. There are few interior walls, aside from what is needed for privacy in a master bedroom or what might remain of walls from previous addition (Sims 19). Even when there is an interior partition, the walls do not extend all the way to the roof so that air may still pass through the structure. Curtains are often used to temporarily act as wall partitions or doors, which provide optimal flexibility and air flow. Further, they contribute greatly to the overall feel of the traditional home, which emphasizes familial interaction.

Use of Spaces (Lim 76):

• Serambi/Ruang Lepar (verandah) – a place for transition between indoor and outdoor. Also used for working, resting, or welcoming guests who do not need to enter the core of the home.
• Pelantar Dapur (kitchen landing) – landing work as a place for washing.
• Rumah Ibu (main house) – central section or main house and is the place for resting space of the whole family. It also functions as a place to welcoming the guests.
• Rumah Tangga (extended verandah) – extended verandah is normally used by male household members for weaving trawl and fishing nets.
• Ruang Tengah (central section) – the central section or main house. Numerous family activities take place here.
• Ruang Tamu (living room) – the living room is a dedicated place for well-known guests and is sometimes used for different family events.
• Rumah Dapur (kitchen) – largely a female space.
• Anjung (Front room) – generally a work room used by male members of the home.

Adaptability and Open-endedness

Vernacular Malaysian housing is one which does not stagnate after initial construction, but rather expands from a core. This nucleus of the Malaysian house, is called the Rumah Ibu, or “main house.” This is often a very simple square module which becomes proceeded by a multitude of additions attached therein. The Rumah Ibu is, unlike the other spaces or additions, the most versatile space. It is a space which has mats, curtains as partitions, and furniture which can be arranged in a number of different settings. The Rumah Ibu is the most elevated point of the core home because it is the most important. Within this “main house”, family gatherings, sleeping, praying and other endemic functions all happen at various points throughout the day (Sims 20).


The first addition made to the Rumah Ibu is the Rumah Dapur, or kitchen. This is added at the back of the home, at a slightly lower level than the core (Yuan 76). It is one of the most private spaces and, again, is generally reserved for women. When affordable, the kitchen is detached from the core by way of a Selang or hallway, which can be walled in to create an additional room. The Anjung is the alternative in which the passage is left open to promote airflow and additional means of entry. The next most common addition is a Serambi, or veranda, which is an outdoor semi-public space used for relaxation, conversation or outdoor work (Sims 21).

Other additions can include other entries, secondary porches, additional bedrooms, prayer rooms, lofts, and smaller alterations. The modular nature of these additions take place in one of three ways. The first is when the addition has a pitch which is parallel to the existing house, simply extending the eaves out over the extended portion. The second is when the pitch of the addition is perpendicular to the pitch of the original structure, and the third is parallel to the current pitch of the roof, but creates an entirely new system which does not rely on the pre-existing ridgeline.
These additions, unlike our western building culture, are not bid on or appraised. They are done as a collective effort within the Kampung during the off seasons between fishing and farming. Overwhelming community involvement expedites the process of taking natural resources and turning them into structures. These additions are much more of an investment for the families that benefit from them. They allow the occupants to choose what additions they need, when and to what size. This approach is far more attractive for those who generally live in the rural Kampung communities (Sims 23). The intuitive nature of these houses comes from the cultural understanding of how to “complete the form” of the house the most advantageous way to the family who inhabits it.

The Problem of Subsidized Housing

While systemic socio-cultural divides remain pervasive in the country of Malaysia, the notion of readaptation in contemporary architecture has long been a subject amongst those scholars and researchers who believe the traditional styling of the Kampung home is ever-important in creating functional, efficient and culturally reflective architecture in the region (Bt. Ramli, et al. 1). The Malaysian vernacular model is one that speaks not only of the success in adapting to the environment alone, but also to the movements of a culture and how tradition can be allowed to move forward.

Public housing solutions, empirically, have not made it easy to perform the home additions which are so imperative to the status of a community member in Malay culture. The same level of pride, performance and personality tends also to be not present in these cases. Often, the form of the vernacular home is poorly imitated and turned merely into a facade or representation of the formal Malaysian style (Lim 86). These houses reject all of the Kampung’s benefits that come with the character or use of regional sensibilities. An unfortunate case in this regard has to do with many of the developments that become neglected, and are thusly transformed into slums that cannot support the adaptive lifestyle or leave little room for typical vigilance within a community. This translates to increased crime rates, poor living conditions and overall deterioration of what it means to create thriving, sustainable localities.

“The traditional housing process offers much scope, possibilities and lessons in relation to the massive housing problems faced especially by developing countries. The autonomous housing process of the traditional Malay house removes the middlemen (architects, developers, contractors and other professionals) in the housing process and places control in the hands of the user. This not only produces a better fit with the user’s needs, it also removes the role of the intermediaries, thus removing the extraction of profits by them in the process.”

– Lim Jee Yuan, Consumers Association of Penang, Malaysia

Despite this knowledge, the Kampung home continues to fade as a building culture. Subsidized homes that grow out and away from the city invade regions that formerly hosted more feasible, efficient and resource-driven living establishments (Teh, et al. n.pag). Not only has this altered the overall place of the Kampung home in the fabric of Malay lifestyle, but it has contributed greatly to a loss of culture and a movement away from important traditional settlements.

While an argument can be made for the necessity of such developments as cities like Kuala Lumpur move beyond the urban core, the end result has been ultimately detrimental. Foremost, the issue of estrangement becomes especially notable with respect to a poorly developed infrastructure and the inability to control implications of status. For example, as people have moved into development communities, the association of their living style to their economic dispositions has grown more apparent (Lim 88). Now, living in a vernacular community is seen as an impoverished lifestyle.

A major indicator for this status alteration comes with the introduction and adoption of many western ideologies in terms of commerce and technology. Kampung solutions are seen as a lower, more primitive form of housing by Malays with more “progressive thinking” (Lim 89), and perhaps this becomes comparable to the sprawl which is associated with American suburbs. These public housing projects are far from the city center and require connection to the highway. This increases demand both socially and economically to work in commercial districts, and has severely impacted the traditional Kampung community. Accordingly, the issues with governmental housing are numerous, because they are designed to be done quickly and cheaply. These settlements tend to ignore the vernacular culture, sustainability, meanings, accessibility and expandability of Malay homes. This has established a trajectory for future housing developments being inherently problematic.


The tenants of Kampung living that we have observed are made by analyzing the past and translating it into the present. Many of humankind’s first architectural constructs were naturally resourced, culturally significant and adaptable due to the materials on hand and the mentalities of traditional communities. Consequently, vernacular architecture has a direct lineage to some of the most original and readily sustainable models of building concept available today. This does not mean that vernacular is synonymous with poor, dirty, or the primeval; but rather, that it takes on the past’s understanding of the environment and embraces it in a subconscious dynamic. It is highly valuable, then, to understand more fully the reasons behind decisions that are made within traditional Kampung communities as one prime example of these relevant traditions. A study of this example allows us to embrace simple solutions within the contemporary built environment; and in turn, influence architects to return a more practical understanding of design. An interpretation that begins with the sustainability, cultural significance and adaptability present within the traditional Malay paradigm offers an opportunity to supplant both the mistakes of high style predilection and the ignorance for culture that we so often become accustomed to when abstract individual purpose or money becomes involved.


Bt. Ramli, Nur Hidayahtuljamilah, et al. “Re-adaptation Of Malay Vernacular Architecture Thermal Comfort Elements: Towards Sustainable Design In Malaysia.” Selangor D.E., Malaysia: Universiti Teknologi MARA, 2012. PDF File.

Ghaffarian Hoseini, Amir Hosein, and Nur D. Dahlan. “The Essence of Malay Vernacular Houses: Towards Understanding the Socio-cultural and Environmental Values.” Journal of the International Society for the Study of Vernacular Settlements, 2012. PDF File.

Lim, Jee Yuan. The Malay House: Rediscovering Malaysia’s Indigenous Shelter System. , Pulau Pinang, Malaysia: Institut Masyarakat, 1987. Print.

“Religion in Malaysia.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Apr. 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

Sahabuddin, Firrdhaus. “Malaysian Vernacular Architecture and Its Relationship to Climate.” Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh, 2012. PDF File.

Sim, Sarah. “Redefining the Vernacular in the Hybrid Architecture of Malaysia.” Victoria University of Wellington. 2010. PDF File.

Teh, Vivien, et al. Chapter 1: The Kampung Life. JOM Balik Kampung. 1 August 2013. Accessed March 31 2015.