Design Works: A mix of practical and grand designs

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 22, 2019 - July 28, 2019.

Located in the residential area of Bangsar, the Planter Box House is one of the firm’s noteworthy projects

One of the striking features of the house is the staircase

The planter boxes have over 40 types of edible plants

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On a late Thursday afternoon in an office in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Formzero principal Cherng Yih Lee sits down with City & Country, telling us about his experience of working in different cities.

“I was in Shanghai and London between 2003 and 2009. And then I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2009 and have been working here ever since. In Shanghai, there was a great emphasis on building low-energy buildings, whereas in the UK, it was about putting ‘joy’ into the designs and ensuring that the occupiers were able to enjoy the design and spaces,” Lee says as he settles into his seat.

“The designs abroad tend to be more conceptual [with the buildings not necessarily being constructed],” he opines.

“When I moved to KL, I joined GDP Architects and spent about three years there before forming my own firm. In KL, it is more about the practicality of the designs. The projects have to be delivered and have to have commercial value.

“My experience abroad and in KL has taught me to strike a balance between practicality and grand designs.”

Prior to founding Formzero, the KL-born architect had worked in several international companies, including Brearley Architects & Urbanists in Shanghai, Alsop and Studio Egret West in London, and the aforesaid GDP Architects in Kuala Lumpur.

Currently, Lee is also a design director at MOA Architects in Kuala Lumpur and taught at the graduate school of architecture at Taylor’s University Malaysia from 2014 to 2018. He is a licensed architect under the Board of Architects Malaysia and Green Building Index.

Founded in 2012, Formzero has five built projects under its belt, two of which have been featured in architecture publications and have won several awards. The firm also serves as a think tank, running parallel to MOA Architects.

“The whole idea behind forming Formzero is to design one-of-a-kind buildings. The firm adopts the ideology of mixing natural landscape and architecture within the urban context. The designs are meant to challenge the conventional architectural typology,” says Lee, who graduated from RMIT University in Melbourne in 2002.

“Formzero is a one person company as I mainly handle the design and execution of the projects. The company works closely with MOA Architects.

“Typically, the design process would take a few weeks or less, depending on the complexity of the project. I would normally present a few drafts to the clients and let them decide which one suits them best,” he adds. One of Formzero’s noteworthy projects is the Planter Box House, which was completed in 2017.


Planter Box House

As its name suggests, the house looks like a structure with cascading concrete planter boxes, which provide shade and act as a buffer zone for the façade. In the planter boxes are more than 40 types of edible plants.

The spaces in the house have been designed to allow plenty of natural light for the indoor areas and for the plants. The home is also bounded by glass walls and windows.

Located in the residential area of Bangsar, the 2½-storey house has a land area of 185 sq m and a built-up of 340 sq m with a tropical, contemporary design. Upon closer inspection, the planter boxes appear to have a distinctive bamboo texture.

“For this project, I was inspired by vernacular tropical houses. The split bamboo produced by the Temuan people from Negeri Sembilan was used as a pattern for the concrete work of the planter boxes. It gives the house an overall and distinctive bamboo texture.

“It also acts as a sustainable and low-maintenance finish for the house as it will age well against the rain and urban pollution,” remarks Lee.

“The Planter Box House was designed for a retired couple who are passionate about growing food. For this project, we embraced the couple’s attitude towards urban farming.”

When one enters the house, one is greeted by the central stairwell that is made from steel and is cantilevered. The interior has a clean and tropical feel, with a lot of artworks. “The owners are art collectors,” says Lee. At the back of the building are a double-volume kitchen and a dining area with full-height glass windows and a green wall, he adds.

The house’s other sustainable design aspects include a bubble deck, a ground cooling system and deep open balconies — with trees and greenery — on each floor. “The bubble deck allows the house to be column-free and have minimal partitions, which allow for cross-ventilation and flexible and easily-modified layouts,” Lee points out. “The balconies are also good spots for the owners to enjoy the views of the city,” he says.

“The owners are happy with the outcome. We overcame a number of challenges to complete the project, including a limited budget and a limited space to implement the design. We also needed to find the right contractor to execute the ideas for the house. But after a long process, we managed to overcome the challenges,” discloses Lee.

“For the long term, we believe the owners will be able to continue growing their plants and to lead a sustainable lifestyle. They are planning to expand their farming and irrigation works within the house.”

Formzero’s other notable projects include the window house and OSK Property’s sales gallery in Iringan Bayu, Seremban. “My plan is for the firm to continue taking on projects that are challenging and that push the design limits,” Lee remarks.