Rehda Youth hopes tour will inspire conservation ideas

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 9, 2017 - October 15, 2017.

More than 30 people comprising mainly developers participated in the tour

Majestic Theater is the last standalone old theatre in Penang and it is now used for events such as weddings and performances

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A two-day Penang study tour, organised by the youth chapter of the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association (Rehda Youth) in August, covered a combination of sustainable and heritage buildings, unlike last year, when the focus was solely on heritage buildings.

The participants visited eight places, among them, The Light Waterfront Penang, a mixed-use waterfront development by IJM Corp Bhd; St Jo, a colonial building that is part of Gurney Paragon mall and restored by Hunza Properties Bhd; Hin Bus Depot, now an event, exhibition and performing space; and The Habitat Penang Hill. The others were Majestic Theater, restored by 1919 Global Sdn Bhd; The Edison Hotel, owned and preserved by ET Group managing director Eugene Tan; Aspen House, a Class Two heritage building restored by Aspen Group; and Macalister Mansion, owned and restored by Datuk Sean H’ng and Datin Karen H’ng, in collaboration with Singapore-based firm Ministry of Design.

Organising chairman Dr Lee Ville says elements of sustainability were evident in the buildings and developments the participants visited.

“If you look at the green or heritage buildings, all were designed to be very energy efficient in terms of [air] circulation, ventilation, lighting and others. There are the window openings and the high ceilings. At the top of all the heritage houses, there are these huge ventilation blocks.

“Going back to our sharing earlier, it was technology that killed design creativity over the years. Everything was more efficiently designed before but because of the ease of technology, we no longer need bigger windows for a place to be cooler — we just use air conditioning and lighting. So, we take for granted all the natural resources that are in abundance for us,” he says.

Rehda Youth chairperson Carrie Fong cites efforts to conserve marine life in IJM’s waterfront project. “For The Light, I think the participants gained quite a good insight into the piling technology and how they did it. Also, the conservation of marine life ... I think no other development in Malaysia has that and it is really good for the participants to hear how IJM brought the ocean in, benefitting not just the front line but also the residents behind, and how the company is working closely with the Nature Society for the well-being of the marine life,” she says.

More than 30 people participated in the tour this year, comprising mainly developers from Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Seremban.

Restoration efforts and sustainable elements

Each building and development has its own unique story and restoration process. In the case of The Edison Hotel, despite being a heritage building that had to comply with strict conservation guidelines, refurbishment was completed in eight to nine months, which is considered fast.

Macalister Mansion was restored and converted into a boutique hotel.

The Hin Bus Depot has become a space that nurtures the local art scene with artworks, photographs and performances showcased there.

The Majestic Theater — the last standalone old theatre in Penang — was restored to its former glory and is now used for events such as weddings and performances.

The Habitat Penang Hill aims to help conserve the rainforest and the animals that live there, incorporating green elements such as earth-rammed walls, and solar and water harvesting technologies.

An engineering method called underpinning was used in the case of St Jo — the first time it has been used on a heritage building, according to Hunza. Some RM10 million was allocated to restore the building to its original glory and construct two levels of basement parking.

“The challenge in this project was that St Jo had to remain viewable from the street and to be preserved while adjacent buildings were under construction. The conventional way would have been to build a diaphragm wall but there would have been problems such as high cost. So, the alternative was to underpin the building,” explains Wong Sik Kwang, senior associate of Arup Jururunding Sdn Bhd, the consulting engineering firm for the St Jo project.

Another notable heritage building the participants visited was Aspen House, which serves as Aspen Group’s corporate headquarters. Awarded the Green Mark Gold award by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority, it is the first and, for now, the only heritage building in Malaysia with such a certification.

Arkitek LLA Sdn Bhd associate architect Foo E Leen comments that “what was needed back then and is needed now is completely different”.

“So, the biggest struggle we have is to look at new and contemporary needs and new infrastructure and merge them with the heritage building.

“Moving forward, the most sustainable way is how we recycle and reuse old buildings for new users but still maintain their  significance.”

Sowing the seeds of inspiration

Fong hopes the tour will inspire participants to come up with ideas for conservation. “I hope this inspires them to retain the character of their towns and preserve our culture and heritage. Perhaps they will be able to find ways of bringing it in and integrating it into their future developments.”

Lee says one needs to see how a place is being transformed to inspire ideas and a vision to take back to one’s hometown. “We can see that a lot of the initiatives were privately led. Obviously their inspiration comes from somewhere else, and likewise, we also have the same vision to inspire.”

One of the great things about this tour, Fong says, is that the owners of some of the buildings were there to share their story, vision and experiences.

“The owners have gone through a lot to be where they are now and from the tour, we get to learn what their pitfalls and experiences were, and take them back. Then, you can do things faster,” Lee adds.

This is the third tour Rehda Youth has organised to Penang and Lee and Fong hope it will become an annual affair and a platform for people to learn and be inspired.