City & Country: Building affordable homes fast and holistically

"AFFORDABLE HOUSING” has become a catchphrase of late, and one Malaysian company has come up with a prefabrication system that is mobile enough to be shipped anywhere in the world. Called the Acasys Eco Home System, it was developed by Steve Low, the managing director of S N Low & Associates Sdn Bhd, with the combined experience of members of the Acasys Group.

The Acasys (Architecture and Creative Arts System) Group consists of like-minded, synergistic companies that specialise in fields such as architecture, interior design and property development, and provide each other with complementary services. Their projects include the Maldives Island Resort, Maldives; HSBC headquarters, Kuala Lumpur; and Giant Hypermarket, Klang.

Low, who studied architecture in the UK in the early 1970s, started S N Low & Associates in 1988 in Subang Jaya, Selangor. Since then, he has opened offices in Perak, Penang and Johor. He also has branches in Vietnam, Brunei, China and the United Arab Emirates as well as partnerships and affiliates in the UK, Australia, the US and India.

His firm has worked on several major projects, including the Mahkota Medical Centre in Melaka. Current projects include the design and masterplan of the Johns Hopkins Hospital/Perdana University in Serdang, Selangor, and the award-winning Haven Lakeside Residences in Perak.

The key materials used in the Acasys Eco Home System are lightweight galvanised steel, which is sourced from India and China, and lightweight concrete panels. The machines that make the frames of the structures are small enough to be transported in a 40ft container. This mobility is the main difference between the Acasys Eco Home System and traditional Industrialised Building System (IBS).

“The Acasys Eco Home System can be deployed anywhere in the world, especially in developing countries where the need for affordable homes is acute,” Low says. “We are able to provide these countries with a holistic approach to meeting this need. In Malaysia, this extends to deploying our system at various sites, thus minimising logistic cost, especially in rural areas.”

Low with his son, Sebastian (left), have used the Acasys Eco Home System in Brunei, East Timor and the Philippines.

He reveals that the Acasys system, which costs between RM700,000 and RM800,000, may be used to build affordable PR1MA houses in Perak and Pahang.

“We are discussing with the authorities on the use of the Acasys system in two to three projects,” he says. “We should see the projects come to fruition next year.”

According to Low, the administration of the Acasys system depends on the needs of the client.

“We are open to many ways of doing business,” he says. “One of which is to come in purely as a technology provider to undertake the construction of the units as certain developers like the prefabrication system for its savings on time and cost. We can also form joint ventures with landowners, where we do the design-and-build portion with our system as we have our own architects, project managers and consultants.”

Low says the system has been used to build townhouses in Brunei, army barracks in East Timor and a show unit in the Philippines. It will also be deployed in Sudan, Myanmar and Iraq in the near future.

Besides affordability and speed in construction, the system also reduces costs and impact on the environment.

“One of the things that can happen in foreign locations is that, if you have machinery in the factory, the cost of transporting the items to the site can be expensive, or the roads are bad and so on,” Low explains. “So there are added costs, which is the case with the current construction system. If you set up a mobile factory on the site itself, then you remove all these additional costs.”

The Acasys system can used to construct buildings up to six storeys.

“This limitation [of 6-storey structures] is only applicable when our two systems — lightweight steel and lightweight concrete — are used together,” Low says. “They are not as strong as conventional construction materials as they are lightweight. However, we can use these systems separately. For example, we can use the concrete system for high-rise apartments of any height, in place of non-structural brick walls.”

The design has been tested to withstand earthquakes of up to 9 on the Richter scale as well as typhoons. The structure boasts low transfer of heat to the building’s interior, thus reducing the use of a cooling system. The materials used are fire resistant for up to two hours.

The Acasys Eco Homes System has a Home Series that features houses with built-ups of 550 to 1,280 sq ft, and low-rise apartment blocks with units measuring 650 to 1,135 sq ft. Prices range from RM100,000 to RM400,000.

One of the objectives of the company is to educate locals on this cost-effective method of construction. However, the challenge Low is facing is finding the right people to administer the system.

“One of the major challenges is the human resources section, getting the right people to train others to apply the system,” he explains. “We have to find people with the right qualifications to be part of the management so that they can train the local people in the countries where the Acasys system is deployed to use the system. Then, these local people can train others.”

The Acasys system may soon be used in First World countries.

“We are taking this system to Melbourne, Australia,” Low reveals. “We are going to use it in a small scheme — a retirement village. We are also studying the feasibility of constructing houses and shipping them to remote areas in Australia, like the mining areas where amenities are scarce.”

One exciting project Low is looking forward to is the building of small schools in East Timor.

“The East Timor authorities want us to build schools and place them in villages,” he says. “We are incorporating solar panels into the structures. A rainwater harvesting and waste treatment system may be added as well.

“Our main vision is to build structures that do not impact the environment, and incorporating green features into them doesn’t cost much but is beneficial in the longer run.”

In the future, this made-in-Malaysia system is likely to provide a sturdy roof over the heads of people in many parts of the world.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 23, 2013.

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