Drawn to conservation

I'M not a conservation architect," says architect and urban and regional planner Michael Ong, who is also a director in BYG Architecture Sdn Bhd. "But being in Penang and with George Town a Unesco heritage site, it was only a matter of time before one got involved in conservation or restoration work."

Ong's involvement with heritage buildings has seen him undertake four projects so far, the latest being Spices Residence on Lumut Lane off Lebuh Acheh or Acheen Street in George Town.

This restored residence is made up of four shophouses built in different eras. Two units were built between 1790 and 1850 when Acheen Street was first developed. The other two were built between 1890 and 1910 and have Straits eclectic designs with European ornamentation and characteristics.

Ong says while the owners of Spices Residence are not living in it at the moment, the first two units are their living quarters while the other two have seven rooms for guests. "In that sense, Spices is modelled after a home rather than a boutique hotel." The rooms have built-ups of 280 to 450 sq ft.

Lumut Lane used to be a transit point for pilgrims to Mecca, Ong explains. As a result, it was called "Second Jeddah" and was occupied by Muslim traders, pilgrim brokers involved in the Haj pilgrimage, and writers from the turn of the 18th century.

"I like it when people come to Spices and immediately see that it does not have a Peranakan or Straits Chinese design because of the historical context of the place, which has Indian, Islamic and Arabic motifs," says Ong.

In accordance with conservation guidelines, recycled timber was used on the upper level and clay tiles on the ground level. Old roof tiles and bricks were used, as were lime plaster and breathable paint. A fibre glass tray was used as a waterproof base for the bathrooms.

A unique aspect of Spices Residence is the huge Bodhi tree that is growing on a party wall. Instead of chopping it down, the architect strengthened the wall with steel beams. The tree has now become the centrepiece of the residence.

Growing interest

Ong ventured into conservation projects at a friend's request. "I used to look at conservation projects from afar until my friend asked me to help him restore his home."

That project was the restoration of a dilapidated Chinese Straits eclectic shophouse, later called Brittany House, on Muntri Street, which is within the heritage zone in George Town.

The client, a well-travelled French individual, wanted to transform the shophouse into a contemporary Straits-born Chinese home using traditional methods and materials. This adaptive reuse project saw the façade maintained while the interior was designed to the client's taste. Restoration started in 2006 and was completed in 2007.

"We used lime plaster to help with the natural cooling of the house," Ong says. "Because lime plaster is porous, it allows rising damp to go up the wall and evaporate, thus providing a natural cooling effect.

"At that time in 2006, nobody was talking about Green Building Index, but we were already doing rainwater harvesting for flushing toilets and irrigating the garden."

There are two original courtyards within the shophouse, and the forecourt was converted into an atrium with a glass roof and high-fixed louvres. This allows in plenty of natural light and helps with ventilation. The other courtyard was converted into a private garden.

After that, Ong was involved in the restoration of St Joseph Novitiate — a 3-storey building with an attached 2-storey chapel. It was formerly tenanted by the Uplands International School.

With Gurney Drive on the north and Kelawei Road on the south, St Joseph Novitiate is located in the middle of a 10-acre mixed-use development called Gurney Paragon by developer Hunza Properties Bhd that will feature serviced apartments, an office tower and a mall.

BYG was engaged as the architect and since the novitiate was classified as Conservation Category 2 under the Penang State Structure Plan, it allowed adaptive reuse restoration. The plan was to restore the old building and incorporate it into the mall area.

The challenge for Ong was to build a basement-level car park for the serviced apartments. To save the structure from damage, the underpinning method was used.

"We had to build a concrete slab underneath the heritage building, held up by support beams we dug underneath it," Ong explains. The underpinning procedure cost RM10 million.

The restoration of the novitiate, which started in 2008 and was completed in 2010, required looking at old photos and drawings. Today, the novitiate is seeing new life in its hallowed halls with F&B outlets, while the chapel is used for fashion shows and private functions.

Conservation projects are not easy and require the aid of conservators and experienced contractors. However, Ong finds these projects important as they help people appreciate the past.

"We are all connected to our past," he says. "The evolution and development of a human being involves the past, present and future. So it is good to look at the past and plan for the future. In a way, respecting the past should not be disregarded."

Ong's experience in his first two projects soon led him to his third. The 23 Love Lane project saw him restoring four distinct buildings into a boutique hotel. The endeavour garnered the 2013 Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) Gold award in the conservation category last May.

"Within a compound of about 10,000 sq ft were four components — an old bungalow, a Straits eclectic house, a garage and a shophouse," Ong says. "This was an exciting project because we had to think of how to integrate these four different buildings, all built in different eras. This was very different from the first two I did, as it involved a lot of conservation work, so we got a conservator to help."

The project required the use of cocooning. "This process sucks out moisture from the building. The area used to be a swamp land and so lots of minerals had seeped into the walls due to rising dampness. Once the moisture was removed, we did a damp-proof injection into the walls."

There was extensive use of recycled timber as well as reuse of existing bricks and lime plaster. Chinese craftsmen were brought in to decorate a Chinese gateway with porcelain shard works. The boutique hotel has 10 rooms.

While Ong does not see himself as a conservation architect but one with a fondness for the work, his reverence for the past is a good reminder that some things are best not forgotten.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of July 15-21, 2013.

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