Malaysian family home in Ipoh features grand spiral staircase and inner courtyard


The expansive central hall of Helical Pearl house contains an elaborate three-storey sculptural staircase designed to manage the indoor atmosphere and serve as the central support for vertical circulation between various floors. Photos: David Yeow

In terms of the exterior, both houses share similar aesthetics characterised by a layered, structured look.

But inside, each house makes its own statement with unique design elements ranging from a sculptured staircase to vaulted ceilings and green inner courtyards.

Sitting on sloping terrain, the Helical Pearl and Light Box houses enjoy a forest backdrop while overlooking a valley basin within the Meru Valley township in Ipoh, Perak.

Completed in 2022, the houses – home to two siblings and their parents – were designed by A3 Projects, a practice founded in 2011 by architects Kenny Chong and Ho Choon Sin.

Helical Pearl received a commendation at the Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM) 2023 Awards under the Single Residential category, while Light Box was one of the shortlisted projects in the same category.

Each at three storeys high, Light Box is 7,070sq ft (657sq m) in size and incorporates a mezzanine floor, while Helical Pearl spans 8,166sq ft (759sq m) and comes with a roof garden. Both houses have a lower ground level, with ramp access leading to their respective lift lobby and workshop with large store rooms.The sculptural helical staircase suspended within the triple-height void space in the Helical Pearl House in Ipoh, Perak. The sculptural helical staircase suspended within the triple-height void space in the Helical Pearl House in Ipoh, Perak.

“The houses are connected through a ‘link bridge’ sitting on the upper ground level. Although they are three-storeyed structures, the houses appear to be two storeys from the outside, keeping it at a humanised scale.

“The buildings are designed to integrate with the existing rugged terrain, offering a generous entrance drop-off at the front and a large back garden overlooking the forest reserve,” said Chong, principal architect of A3 Projects.

“Our key design concept for both houses is the utilisation of volumes and voids as spatial dividers and transitions, balancing connectivity and separation within the household in a delicate manner. This approach allows for a seamless flow between different areas of the house while maintaining a sense of spatial cohesion.

“By interplaying with volumes and voids, we create dynamic spaces that adapt to the evolving needs of the family, facilitating both communal spaces and personal retreats,” he said, adding that the design also embraces the importance of natural light and ventilation.

Chong added that although the houses feature distinct layout differences, a similar design language has been kept throughout the external outlook to portray a unified family home.The courtyard and greenery seen at Light Box house. Both the houses meet the needs of multigenerational living within a tropical living environment. Photo: Jean ChaiThe courtyard and greenery seen at Light Box house. Both the houses meet the needs of multigenerational living within a tropical living environment. Photo: Jean Chai

Light Box house

“The Light Box house is crafted around the essence of family unity and individual privacy, with the brief for distinct spaces for church activities, guest accommodations for pastors, and the intimacy of family living.

“At the centre of the house are the main living and kitchen areas serving as the focal point, subtly separated from the church gathering spaces at the front through a leafy courtyard. A family breakout area is situated on the mezzanine level, immediately above the high-ceiling dining hall, providing an intimate retreat in a more relaxed setting while maintaining a sense of spatial cohesion.

“Above it is a large glass box with vaulted ceiling, acting as ‘daylight diffusers’. Natural daylight is filtered through these ceiling vaults into the interiors, providing a softened luminosity to the spaces,” explained Chong.

Helical Pearl house

Using a similar design approach, the Helical Pearl is an “elevated cube structure that envelops an internal void with a circular skylight directly above, creating an interesting interplay of space and light”.

As people enter the reception hall at the upper ground floor, they are greeted with a reflective pond-cum-courtyard, with a sculptural helical staircase suspended within the triple-height void space, with living, dining, kitchen and other shared areas encapsulating it.A dining space next to the grand staircase at Helical Pearl House.A dining space next to the grand staircase at Helical Pearl House.

“(The idea for the staircase) started from the idea of recreating this sense of grandeur and serenity within spaces, striking a contrasting experience from outside to the inside. It is inspired by the transition from solidity to voids, similar to the experience being inside the Pantheon (Rome) and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

“Yet, we recognised that something monumental was missing – a piece of sculpture, an artistic expression that would complement and enhance the entire experience. Thus the addition of a sizeable sculpture was conceived, positioned in the centre of the open volume to serve as a focal point within the space.

“Natural light that filters through the circular skylight above acts like a pearl’s luminescence, casting shadows and lights, further accentuating the staircase’s monumental presence. This presence not only adds visual interest but also naturally engages in a ‘dialogue’ with its surroundings,” explained Chong.

Exemplifying the concept of multigenerational living, the common and private areas are separated between the ground and first floors. On the first floor, the spaces are divided into two distinctive sections – the parents’ section to the left is a self-sufficient suite complete with bedroom, private courtyard, lounge, pantry, etc.The inner courtyard at Light Box house provides a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor spaces.The inner courtyard at Light Box house provides a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor spaces.

Across the void space lies the owners’ suite, which includes the couple’s and daughter’s bedroom with a hobby/music room connected via an internal courtyard. The two sections are connected via bridges spanning the central void.

“We prioritise fundamental principles such as humidity control and heat reduction, ensuring that our designs provide optimal comfort without over-reliance on energy-intensive solutions. Basic principles and elements such as the building orientation, natural ventilation, rainwater harvesting, photovoltaic system, solar hotwater system and facade treatment (appropriate shading and openings) were implemented throughout.

“Controlled openings such as location and sizes of windows, doors and perforated screens are carefully designed to facilitate cross ventilation and regulate airflow. By incorporating adjustable features, they modulate ventilation according to time, sun movement, user preferences and environmental conditions.”

Limited large openings and double cavity walls minimise heat gain and exposure to direct sunlight. In contrast, larger openings like full-height sliding glass doors are placed in particular on the north-facing side of the building overlooking the forest reserve.

In addition to offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, they also leverage pressure differences to induce cooler air flow and enhance cross ventilation.The exterior of Light Box house, a three-storey structure that incorporates a mezzanine floor.The exterior of Light Box house, a three-storey structure that incorporates a mezzanine floor.

Inner courtyards: Aesthetics and passive design

“Recognising the invaluable role of landscaping in enhancing the tropical built environment, we prioritise the integration of green spaces, courtyards and vegetation. Trees and foliage not only provide natural shade and cooling but also contribute to the overall beauty and sustainability of our designs.

“The courtyards and landscape elements play an important role in providing a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor spaces.

“Besides, it also offers natural light to the internal spaces, creating a sense of openness and spaciousness within houses. It also helps to create negative pressure zones, facilitating the continuation of air flow and prompting a healthy indoor environment,” said Chong.

He further emphasised that the houses meet the needs of multigenerational living within a tropical living environment.

“The layout of both houses is designed for multigenerational living, stemming from an idea to promote harmony and togetherness but also celebrate the independence of each generation.At the centre of Light Box house are the main living and kitchen areas, which serve as a focal point in the home.At the centre of Light Box house are the main living and kitchen areas, which serve as a focal point in the home.

“It stands as a testament to the power of thoughtful design in fostering familial bonds within the context of far eastern culture and the principle of filial piety.

“There are many great examples of good tropical home design. In my opinion, exemplifying good tropical architecture comes from a lot of understanding and research, and learning from the past – traditional architecture in the tropics, such as the elevated kampung houses and courtyard shophouses.

“Leveraging these ideas, our design reflects a fusion of tradition and innovation, meeting the evolving needs of the occupants while remaining true to the essence of tropical living,” he said.


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