Paper by Wan Burhanuddin

published in Design Policy: Design and Society, 1984, edited by Langdon and Cross (eds.), pp 28-33.


The Malay House: Learning from its elements, rules and changes.

What is a Malay house? This paper attempts to define it. The paper also explains the prefabricated nature of the Malay house and consequently advances a hypothesis of the ‘rules’ for its façade treatment.

From the understanding of the construction and design rules, the transformation of Malay houses through the ages can be traced. However, lack of interest in these traditional design and construction principles has inhibited the formal development of the Malay house and will further lead to its demise. Learning from tradition in Malaysia is hindered by law, policy, education curriculum, research and practice which not only discourage but also present obstacles to the development of traditional buildings.

The paper concludes by posing questions on the future role of designers, policy makers and those concerned in seeking solutions based on the continuity of a living tradition in the built environment.



The importance of discovering indigenous design and methods of construction cannot be over emphasised. The growing interest in vernacular architecture since the exhibition Architecture Without Architects held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1964/65 can be seen from the voluminous amount of work in this area today. Unlike the more profound studies done on indigenous architecture in some countries, very little work in this area has been done in Malaysia. Most of these works and studies are merely descriptive and almost all romanticise the beauty of a dying tradition.

Attempts to ‘create a national identity’ in Malaysia have led to the borrowed use of indigenous architecture not only in residential buildings but also in the design of commercial and recreational buildings. These buildings, therefore, are only representations of the so-called ‘identity’ and thus do not carry a deeper meaning of the vernacular tradition.

This paper tries to share an understanding of buildings constructed by the indigenous people of West Malaysia. Although there may be many of these indigenous forms due to the multi-ethnic composition of the people, the most dominant one has been chosen for this paper.


The Malay house

What is meant by a Malay house? The word ‘Malay’ itself does not have any one meaning.1 In Malaysia, Malay, as defined in the constitution, is ‘a person who professes the Muslim religion, speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs ‘.~ To describe a house as Malay because it is designed, built, owned or inhabited by Malays, is inaccurate because one may find non-Malays designing, building, owning and even inhabiting Malay houses. The word ‘Malay’ may also mean ‘member of a light brown people of mixed Caucasian and Mongolian stock predominating in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago’.3 If Malay houses are those found in the Peninsula and Archipelago, this is not an accurate definition either because the differences between Minangkabau, Batak and kamthieng houses, for instance, are substantial.4 Even within the Malay Peninsula, there are distinct differences between houses in, for example, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca. Thus it would be a futile effort for one to attempt to give the Malay house any single definition.

Instead, it would be helpful to give a visual idea of the variety of the indigenous houses for one’s own in­terpretation.

For the purposes of this paper, to avoid the problems which may be created by covering too broad an area of house-types, houses in the districts of Pontian, Batu Pahat and Muar, in the state of Johore, are selected. This is due to the visual similarities that may enable one to characterise these houses (Figures 1,2, and 3).

Figure 2. A house in Pontian.

Figure 2. A house in Batu Pahat.

Figure 3. A house in Muar.

Even though this study is limited to an area which is approximately 8000 square kilometres, it should be recognised that similar houses may be found outside these districts.


Elements in the Malay house

Other than its mystical aspects, which may consist of the rites and rituals of its construction, the Malay house is made up of three major elements — the physical, the spatial and the functional.5 As has been analysed in The Malay House: Rationale and Change, the functional element consists of a list of activities that may take place within the Malay house ranging from ‘circulation’ to ‘work’. These and other activities are closely related to one another because of the culture and tradition of the Malays. The relationship of these activities is translated into rules from which the hierarchy of spatial importance in the Malay house is derived.

The spatial element consists of a series of spatial components or spaces from which a Malay house is made, the minimum two spaces being the ibu rumah (main space in a house) and dapur (kitchen) which together form what is called the Basic Malay House.6 All other spaces may be added to the Basic House (Figure 4) based on implicit rules practised by master carpenters and builders.

Figure 4 Spatial Components

The anaIysis of the physical element is similar to that of the spatial element, but instead of analysing spaces, solid physical components are broken down into their smallest units.

In the design of the Malay house, these units are also arranged according to rules which are understood by only master carpenters.

Despite the need to understand the major elements of the Malay house, this paper chooses to explain in detail only one part of these elements-  the physical element. However it is hoped that the explanation will reflect the totality of the Malay house.


Components of the physical element

The physical element of the Malay house comprises the following components (Figure 5):


Figure 5 The physical elements of the Malay house

a Plinth. 

b Frame. 

c Roof. 

d Floor. 

e Wall. 

f Vertical circulation. 

g Additional elements. 

The above breakdown also reflects the traditional sequence of construction. Components are prefabricated without formal ‘plans. When these components are prepared, able-bodied male members of the community participate in the assembly of these components under the supervision of the master carpenter.

The interrelationship of these components (Figure 6) is primarily due to the constructional requirements. For example, the plinth is never connected to the roof directly. This is because the roof requires a set of frames consisting of purlins, rafters, wall-plates and columns to support it. Therefore the only way that the roof may be connected to the plinth is by having a supporting frame. Similarly, this frame must exist between the roof and the wall.

Figure 6 Component Relationship

These rules become the basis for the design of the Malay house. Nevertheless, they are still general rules. The detail design of the Malay house can be better understood by breaking down the components into still smaller parts or what is termed here as ‘subcomponents’.

These are parts which, when combined, provide the variations to the components. The example selected for this paper is the wall. The wall can be divided into three zones —top, middle and bottom. The top zone consists of the gable board while the bottom zone consists of the kolong cover (wall surrounding space underneath the house). The middle zone consists of four subcomponents (Figure 7):

1     Opening
2     Fanlight
3     Walling Sheet
4     Shutters


Figure 7 Components and type.

There is one opening type. This can be left open or be blocked by a walling sheet. When an opening is left open, it becomes a door and when it is blocked it becomes a window.

Fanlights come in various shapes and sizes but can be classified under one type, usually placed above openings, allowing the passage of light and air. Even though fanlights are usually rectangular, semicircular ones can also be found.

There are four types of walling sheet: ‘long open’, ‘long closed’, ‘short open’ and ‘short closed’. ‘Long walling sheets’ refers to full-height sheets. These sheets extend from the floor to the underside of the wall plate. ‘Short walling sheets’ are those which reach waist height or about the usual height of balustrades or handrails. ‘Closed walling sheets’ are those which, by the nature of their construction, do not allow air to pass through and conversely, ‘open walling sheets’ are those which allow the passage of air.

There are two types of shutters - long and short. Long shutters are those which extend from the floor to the top of the openings and short shutters are those which open above the short walling sheets.

Although the design of walls may vary from one house to another, the basic design structure, comprising these zones and the subcomponents, is the same. What leads to this consistency is the set of implicit rules that mastercarpenters understand. It is the intention of this paper to attempt to make these rules explicit.


Rules in the middle zone of a wall

Knowing all the subcomponents that make up the middle zone of the wall, the task now is to place these subcomponents so as to create part of the façade of the Malay house. Assuming that the middle zone is rectangular the placement of the subcomponents can be based on the following rules (Figure 8):


Figure 8 The placing of subcomponents in the middle zone of the wall.

1 Openings must be placed symmetrically on the central vertical axis of the façade.

2 There can be more than one opening but each one must be separated from the next by a long walling sheet.

3 Openings must not be made at both ends of the façade when long walling sheets are used.

4 Openings can however be made for the whole length of the façade. No long walling sheet must be used.

5 A fanlight must be located above an opening.

6 Walling sheets may be fixed around but not above an opening.

7. Unless openings are made along the whole length of the façade, a pair of shutters must be provided for every opening.

8 Long shutters must be used if an opening is not blocked by a walling sheet.

9 Long shutters must be used if an opening is blocked by a short open walling sheet.

10 Short shutters may be used if an opening is blocked by a short closed walling sheet.


The summary of these rules is shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9 Rules for middle zone of wall

In order to see the applicability of these rules, houses in Johore may be studied. This will also show the validity of such rules. Houses which deviate from them can be called ‘modified’ Malay houses as opposed to ‘traditional’ houses, on which the rules are based.


How middle zone rules work

Figure 10 Application of the rules.

Figure 10 shows the analysis of the house in Johore shown earlier in Figure 1. It shows how some of the above rules are applied. In some other cases, however, when subcomponents are not selected for use in the middle zone of the wall, the rules which pertain to that subcomponent do not apply. For example, if an opening which is blocked by a short walling sheet is not selected for incorporation in the middle zone of the wall, then Rule 10 does not apply. Figure 11 shows another example of the rules applied in the design of the middle zone of the facade of a house in Johore.


Figure 11. More application of rules.

Changes in the Malay house

Figure 12 Modified Malay house.


Malay houses have undergone a process of transformation since very early times. A great number of changes date back to the fifteenth century and some derive from an even earlier period.7 Today one can still observe this phenomenon. Currently, the Malay house is adopting industrialised building components. As an alternative to traditional openings, the factory-produced adjustable louvred windows (Figure 12) have become accepted by the indigenous builders. This has resulted in slight changes in the subcomponents of the middle zone. Short shutters, for instance, are no longer used and the rules which pertain to them no longer apply. However, all other rules remain applicable (Figure 13).



Figure 13 Application of rules to modified house



From what has been shown, one may find that the wall of the Malay house in Johore is made up of small units which are arranged according to a set of rules. Despite the transformations that the Malay house may undergo, for example, as a result of technological changes, one can still recognise the character of the wall from the rules.

It must be realised that this paper has touched only on a very small part of the traditional Malay house. However, this is an important starting point in an attempt to understand the extensive aspects of it. Other areas of study include the relationship of the components in the physical, spatial, functional and mystical elements and the relationship between these elements. Where on one scale, the relationship of one traditional house to another in the layout of a rural or urban settlement must be analysed, on a larger scale, the relationship between settlements must also be studied before the Malay house can be fully understood.

If this selected example is a microcosm of the totality, then it can be said that the Malay house has its own vocabulary and grammar which has determined the consistency of its design over time. Therefore, any attempt to understand, design, build or reconstruct a Malay house, must be preceded by a full knowledge of the underlying principles.



1    Syed Husin AIi, Orang Melayu: Masalah dan Masa Depannya, PenerbitanAdabi, 1979, p 1-9.

2    Sheridan, L.A. and Grove, The Constitution of Malaysia, Oceana Publications, 1967, p 218.

3    The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, 1974, p 515.

4    Authors on these houses such as Morley and Emrick have made distinctions between them and have placed the Batak and Minangkabau houses in their own separate categories. See series called ‘Traditional housing in Indonesia’ in Masalah Bangunan.

5    Wan B.b.Wan Abidin, The Malay House: Rationale and Change, MArch. Thesis, MIT, Cambridge, 1981.

6    lbid, p 62.

The terminology ‘Basic Malay House’ is taken from an article by Hilton, ‘The Basic Malay House’, in Journal of the Malayan Branch of the RoyalAsiatic Society, vol 29, pt 3, p 134—158. lbu rumah or ‘Main House’ as it is termed here, is an open multi-purpose space generally used for circulation, entertaining guests, eating, sleeping and work.

7          Wan B.b.Wan Abidin, op cit, p 22-25.


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updated 06 Apr 2003

©Wan Burhanuddin. School of Housing, Building and Planning, Universiti Sains Malaysia. 1997-2003.