After over 40 years in the business, Hijjas says the project represents two firsts for him — restoring a heritage building and running a hotel.
His only previous experience before the charming hotel in the heritage enclave, he admits, is the restoration of a century-old timber house from Parit, Perak, a project he and Angela took on during the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis.
“This project is a personal challenge and a learning curve. I wanted to do something for Penang in terms of heritage conservation. This project is also a tangible long-term investment for the future,” Hijjas says.
City & Country caught up with him and Angela to find out more about their labour of love.
Angela says she had been keeping an eye out for a place in Penang for artists to use, and also as an investment, but there were few such properties on the market. It was also very difficult to buy because most ownership was split between many family members, some of whom most likely couldn’t be traced.
“In George Town, there are also many buildings either owned by cooperatives, wakaf and societies that will not sell even though they have long lost the resources to maintain the structures. So even though the city looked ripe for renovation, it was difficult to get into the market,” says Anjela.
Then Hijjas spotted tender notices for 15 terraced shoplots on offer in George Town.
“He got excited, but this was not a single house for artists. This was going to be a project with a capital P!” laughs Angela.
Hijjas tendered for the properties located along Lebuh Clarke, Hutton Lane and Transfer Road for less than RM5 mil sometime in 2008, before the Unesco World Heritage status was announced.
“We inspected the site, and frankly I was appalled. All the interiors had been completely trashed by squatters, and were filled with garbage. The buildings themselves were not terribly impressive. All were in the same simple post-war Art Deco style with cement bricks and asbestos corrugated roofing,” says Anjela.
Staircases had collapsed, the cement floor tiles were crumbling, shoddy renovations of the buildings into budget accommodation and storage space meant lots of derelict dropped ceilings and partitions.
“But when our contractor pulled down a false ceiling, we got excited. The high volume, the exposed timber beams and floor boards at last offered a view of what it might be again,” says Anjela.
They decided a hotel was the way to go, especially since the common rear lane behind the 15 lots offered an open space that could be utilised as a garden.
Two blocks comprising 10 units were shophouses facing Transfer Road and Hutton Lane. These needed serious work, so the focus was first on the five terraced shophouses in Lebuh Clarke that could be restored as they were.
“Hijjas is not one to compromise his architectural and building standards. We rebuilt the staircases at a more acceptable angle as previously they were dangerously steep for anything other than a mountain goat. We demolished the toilets and the kitchens, but retained the chimneys,” says Angela.
One of Hijjas’ most innovative ideas was to move the back wall, thus widening the rear laneway into a space that ultimately will be a garden. This has reorientated the focus of the buildings towards the laneway rather than the street outside. “This is especially significant because the streetscape is not what you would want for an upper-end hotel. The terraces opposite in Hutton Lane are derelict and boarded up, the traffic on Transfer Road is terrible and on Lebuh Clarke, we have homeless people sleeping at night on the five-foot way opposite. To look inwards to a garden is preferable,” says Angela.
Hijjas designed and supervised the renovation while Angela focused on the interior décor.
The restoration cost an additional 40% in order to make the hotel compliant with the Green Building Index (GBI), with solar panels being used for LED lights, rainwater harvesting and the use of recycled materials in the construction and furnishing of the hotel.
The renovation on the five houses on Lebuh Clarke has been completed with a new roof (the jack roof is an innovation and was necessary to accommodate tanks, pumps and air-conditioning) finished with “Indian” roof tiles, the traditional material used in Penang.
To retain the identity of the buildings, Hijjas and Angela shopped all over for materials. The tiles come from Vietnam and Indonesia, old recycled furniture from China and brass switches from Australia.
Encaustic floor tiles, the coloured and patterned cement tiles typical of George Town, were sourced from Vietnam, while second-hand timber was found in Perak.
New windows, shutters and doors, new plumbing and wiring, a coat of paint and a tiny garden at the back made all the difference.
“Our own home has a mix of Asian antiques, mid-20th century classic furniture, and contemporary Malaysian, Australian and Southeast Asian art. It was not too hard to follow along those lines for the hotel. The only thing that I perhaps underestimated was the scale of furnishing 50 rooms instead of a house or two!” Angela exclaims.
She gamely bought the first furniture on e-Bay, a container of reconstructed Chinese antiques from Shanghai, to create a distinct old world Asian ambience.
“I have always had a preference for renovating, rather than building new, mainly for environmental reasons. Using second-hand materials, or things that are made in the region using labour-intensive rather than material-intensive techniques, is a way to reduce environmental impact.
“Our daughter Serena was involved in coming up with the GBI. But the most important aspect to me is something the GBI does not consider — urban renewal.
“Too many attempts have been made to restore buildings, only to find that the rent then is too high to attract tenants, or the buildings are just not functional for contemporary usage. With an appropriate use, it is far better to renovate in a depressed central area than to open up new land for more urban sprawl,” she stresses.
She adds that the GBI encouraged them to consider high-tech sustainable solutions: tanks for collecting rainwater runoff to be recycled for flushing toilets, LED lights to reduce energy demand, inverter air conditioners supported by ceiling fans in all spaces and the choice to open the windows if you wish.
“We are considering photovoltaics to generate energy from solar panels, but it may be too new an innovation and too expensive at this point in time. I am keen to start a tree plantation off-site that will compensate for the carbon footprint. There are many options for energy and resource savings, and we are considering them all.”
Angela says a common problem in adapting older buildings to new uses is in getting enough power. Though every attempt was made to reduce energy demands, a lot of power is still needed to run the air-conditioning and other amenities.
“Tenaga Nasional Bhd could only supply the necessary power if we provided the space for a substation. That was a reasonable enough request, except that they required the equivalent of one terraced house! Eventually, a compromise using a more compact (and more expensive) substation was reached, but we lost significant space that we really needed, and had to pay more.”
This problem is common in George Town where many renovations have been completed but the owners are stuck without enough power because there is no space for a substation.
“The final cost — the initial purchase and renovation — is estimated to be in the region of RM15 million to RM20 million, and we hope to open by the end of 2010,” says Angela. Room rates will start from RM350 to RM800 for the villas.
“Maybe running a hotel will be lots of fun! I’m sure it will be, as well as lots of hard work, but it will also be satisfying to see the transformation of what was derelict into a lively hub that is a visual joy that we too can enjoy,” Angela concludes.
“I am hoping that with our success in turning these buildings around, I can entice other architects to come to Penang and revive other heritage buildings too,” Hijjas adds.
This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 801, Apr 12 - 18, 2010
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