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This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 22, 2018 - October 28, 2018

Nestled in the heart of Sentul is A3 Projects + Kenny Chong Architect’s headquarters, which is lush with greenery, a feature of its design aesthetic. Photographs of its projects in the architecture firm highlight its distinctive yet sustainable designs, which appear to have a modern European sensibility with textured façades and a lot of glass walls.

A3 Projects’ principal partner Kenny Chong and head of design Ho Choon Sin are the main influencers of the firm’s distinctive style. “Prior to forming A3 Projects, Ho and I spent about 15 years in the UK,” Chong tells City & Country in a recent interview.

“We try to apply the knowledge and experience we gained in the UK to our projects here in Malaysia, to fit in with the local context,” adds Ho.

The couple both graduated from the University of Bath and subsequently from University of Kingston (for their post-graduate studies) before working in London for about 10 years. Chong was attached to Spanish firm IDOM UK and ARUP Associates in London while Ho joined PRP Architects, Dryer Associates UK and then Countryside Properties Development in London.

Local context
“There is definitely a difference in terms of the processes and resources that are available in the architecture [and construction] industries in the UK and Malaysia. It has been a learning curve for the both of us,” says Chong. “Another thing is the size of developments. In the UK, the spaces are smaller than those of projects here in Malaysia,” he says.

“In the UK, there is a level of transparency and the guidelines are pretty structured, whereas in Malaysia, things are more organic. It allows more room for creativity here,” says Ho.

“Setting up a firm in the UK is not so straightforward. Opportunity-wise, it is difficult because the industry is mature and there are big players there. In terms of local authority requirements and by-laws, the roles are well-defined in the UK. In Malaysia, there is much more opportunity — this is how we started designing small bungalows and our other projects,” says Chong.

Formally known as Arch Cubic Sdn Bhd, A3 Projects’ key disciplines are architecture, interior design and master planning. The firm was set up in Ipoh in 2013, and its ongoing and completed projects include Serendah Hill Retreat in Serendah, Selangor, The Haven Resort Hotel & Residence development in Tambun, Perak, and KILO Hotel and Serviced Residential Suites in Bandar Sunway, Petaling Jaya. The firm has received a number of accolades from Architecture Asia and Architecture Malaysia, the BCI Asia Design Award. Its work has been featured in publications such as Archdaily and ID Design.

“In terms of A3 Project’s DNA, we typically introduce a lot of greenery in our designs. Another signature is our vertical staircases. We also tend to add a punch of colour as well,” says Ho. “We are quite thoughtful and honest in our designs and how all the spaces are used. It is about balancing the cost, the aesthetics and future maintenance.”

One of the firm’s noteworthy projects is  The Meru House in Meru Valley Resort, Ipoh. Completed in 2015, the 4,500 sq ft private home cost under RM3 million to build, including the interior design. It has 4 + 1 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms. Ipoh-born Chong and Ho were determined to make The Meru House a standout project in the area.

The Meru House
Sitting on a 0.43-acre triangular site and facing the Titiwangsa Mountains, The Meru House’s design concept is a “suspended barn house”. According to the architects, when the house is lit up at night, it appears as a sculptural form that is floating in the sky. With a terracotta-coloured metal roof, it has a mix of passive design and energy-efficient features.

Surrounded by outdoor gardens, the light-filled house features glass walls and open courtyards. The living area is a stand-alone pavilion with an adjoining bamboo garden and central courtyard. The dining area has open skylights that can be controlled by automatic blackout blinds.

One of the striking features of The Meru House is its sculptural, walnut-veneered spiral staircase. “That is an element of surprise for this house. It is a visual delight,” says Ho.

Chong shares the inspiration behind the house. “We started designing The Meru House in 2009, when we were still in London. We were inspired by the barns that dot the countryside in the UK. So, we had the romantic idea of building a floating barn at the golf course of Meru Valley Resort in Ipoh,” says Chong.

“Although it has a suspended barn design, we made sure that The Meru House is suitable for the tropical climate. We were also particular in our choice of materials to create more texture,” says Chong.

The Meru House boasts a few sustainable features that suit the tropical climate. One is a wind catcher to create passive ventilation through a stack effect. “The windcatcher is sort of like an Arab chimney, which is used in the Middle East. One of the first questions people ask us is, ‘Does it work?’,” quips Chong. “It does work, but there is definitely room for improvement.”

Other sustainable features include a rainwater harvesting system and deep, recessed verandahs to shelter the house from the sun and rain. Unusually for construction here, the external walls are double brick cavity walls that decrease heat gain.

All of the bedrooms, bathrooms and living spaces have bespoke joinery and metal work, with a play of American walnut and rose-gold-coloured metal.

The feedback for this project has been encouraging, according to Chong. “In fact, once we completed The Meru House in 2016, we were approached by a developer who asked us to design homes with a similar concept.”

The road ahead for A3 Projects
Apart from The Meru House, Chong and Ho lists the Kewpump headquarters in Baju Gajah, Perak, as another memorable project. “It is our first commercial project in Malaysia. That was when we first started to learn the tricks of the trade here,” says Ho.

“It was an opportunity for us to explore ideas. We designed flexible work spaces in this building, to which we introduced a lot of daylight. The building also has a lot of passive, sustainable features such as internal courtyards and sunscreen louvres,” says Ho.

“We are pleased with the response to the building. Some people even say it is feels like a Google office,” smiles Chong.

“We often drive between Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Penang to observe residential and commercial projects. We always try to gain more knowledge about local design to balance it with our own architectural language and to fit within the local architectural framework,” says Chong.

Going forward, the duo will continue to focus on ongoing projects.

“Current projects include the Oldtown Museum, visitor’s centre and café in Ipoh, the gallery to mark the centenary of Chong Hwa Independent High School, a private home in Damansara Heights, KL, and a residential development in Sepang, Selangor,” says Chong.

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