Sweet returns of sustainable efforts

Over half of the external facade is made up of recycled clay bricks while the other half comprise plastered and glass walls.

FINALLY after 20 long years, a journey that is fraught with challenges and sacrifices, Kedah-based Encomas Group has settled into its very own sustainable office building.

This proud achievement is made all the more meaningful when Encomas House won the Malaysia Property Award 2022 in the Purpose-Built Category.

Group managing director Datuk Rick Cheng Wooi Seong said his team is over the moon as Encomas is the only company in Kedah to have won the prestigious FIABCI twice.

The first accolade was for Caffe Diem which won the Heritage (Restoration/Conservation) Category in 2018. The cafe, housed in a 127-year-old building, is the first homegrown third-wave specialty cafe in Alor Setar.

Located along Jalan Pumpong, Encomas House is architecturally outstanding with its timeless design. It is a masterpiece that reflects the identity of the Group, a green, innovative and back-to- nature developer.

“We were highly motivated to build Encomas House as our dream is to have our own office building before we turn 20. Our first office was in a rundown rented wooden shop house before moving to the living room of the owner’s house.

“We even had to operate from containers while waiting for our old office to be completed. Ironically, the site for Encomas House was offered to us 15 years ago but we could not afford to buy the land then and have to pay six times more now,” elaborated Cheng.

He said financing of the construction was the biggest obstacle and it took them seven years to complete Encomas House because they had to generate enough profit in stages without affecting the company’s cash flow.

“We did take out bank loans but most of the financing was from our own fund/profit. We are very conservative in terms of cash flow and this was how we survived the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We had to bite the bullet to undertake such a grand project but this will be our very own office building after two decades.

“Now we need not have to worry about getting kicked out from rented premises or rental hike.

“Encomas House is not just an asset but also an intangible asset in terms of branding and marketing,” he explained, adding that the most important aim was to provide a comfortable and safe place for his team to work in.

There is a spacious pantry for the staff, a green place for them to relax and even a childcare facility.

“Our office is very small, under 10,000sq ft in terms of size. Nothing to shout about but how many companies can claim that their office has its own riverbank and private jetty as well as almost century-old trees in the courtyard!”

Jetty Encomas house is a floating pontoon similar to those on chao Phraya river in Bangkok.Jetty Encomas house is a floating pontoon similar to those on chao Phraya river in Bangkok.

Architecturally outstanding

Encomas House was initially envisioned as a ‘temporary’ sales gallery.

“So we are neither in the office nor residential category, and since we are neither here nor there, the building is classified as purpose- built!,” laughed Cheng.

Constructed using as much natural materials possible, the one-and-a-half-storey structure had retained the best of the past (the trees, river reserve and canal) while encouraging creativity and innovation for a sustainable future.

“We provided protection for the environment and facilitated regeneration for the community. Over half the external facade is made up of recycled clay bricks and the other half cement plastered and glass walls.

“We got the bricks that were rejected or overheated from a local brick factory here. The bricks were first to fulfil the green requirement and also we wanted the ‘aged’ look for our building.”

The front facade is simple in design, yet makes a bold architectural statement while the slightly reflective clay brick wall with its random protruding bricks beckons artistically.

Cheng said the building can easily be adapted for future use and expansion as the piling is designed for three storeys. The flexible spaces within can be converted into multiple functions depending on requirements.

“In fact, it can even be transformed into a house! It is human- centric since we designed it with our needs and comfort in mind.”

Frankly speaking, he said it was expensive and difficult to construct a 35ft-tall column-free (on the outside) brick wall, which is the signature mark of Encomas House.

“My team was initially reluctant to undertake the task until I showed them a photo of St Mark’s Campanile in Venice. This 320ft-tall brick tower was built during the 12th century so why can’t we construct a 35ft-tall brick wall in the 21st century?.

“We built the internal structure with reinforced concrete and laid the bricks the traditional way, giving us a solid wall with the 2ft thickness acting as a sound barrier and heat insulation.”

He said Encomas House is both socially and environmentally sustainable. However sourcing for sustainable construction materials with certifications was very challenging in Kedah.

“We went through great lengths to collaborate and help local businesses meet the green requirements, clinching Encomas House the status of the first GreenRE Platinum-certified building in Alor Setar.”

The building also has a low CUI index where instead of using plaster to cover the bricks and generate unnecessary waste, the design showcases the raw architecture of the structure.

Architect Muhamad Azimin Shafie designed the office as a U-shaped structure to maximise natural lighting circulation and the view of the landscaped courtyard and river.

Adopting the minimalist look, the interior is dotted with local art pieces and antique furniture in support of local arts and culture.

A ceiling-high cabinet, dubbed the Hall of Fame, filled with Encomas’s accolades accumulated over the years covers one side of the reception.

Being a GreenRE Platinum building and with a limited budget, the building was not designed to be luxurious but comfortable.

Encomas House’s location beside Sungai Anak Bukit added to the challenges of the development. Strict erosion and sedimentation control strategies have to be implemented to minimise and prevent pollution to the river.

Water from the river is harvested for landscape irrigation, especially for the four decades-old trees – Pokok Hujan, Pokok Pucuk Putat, Pokok Asam and Pokok Chempedak – that were preserved during construction.

The Sales Gallery in Encomas house.The Sales Gallery in Encomas house.

River beautification

Sungai Anak Bukit was the main transportation route in the early 18th century. Cheng said Encomas took it upon itself to beautify and maintain the riverbank behind Encomas House and he believed that the river beautification contributed towards their FIABCI recognition.

“We believe we can do a better job caring for our own riverbank and the surrounding environment. But we did give an undertaking to the authority that once the beautification of Sungai Anak Bukit reaches our doorstep, we will hand over the care of our river reserve land back to them.”

Their jetty with a floating pontoon is also the only jetty approved by the authority for private use on the condition that in time of emergencies like flood and official visits, the state government is allowed to use the jetty for the mentioned purposes.

Heritage buildings revitalisation

Like people, a building too has stories to tell. It is simply exciting to have its former inhabitants, the colourful stories and rich history woven into a building.

As we all know, heritage buildings are an integral part of a city’s charm and character. And with more and more people embracing the preservation ethos, adaptive reuse of old buildings has emerged as a major force in today’s real estate market.

And Cheng is one of them. He has a strong passion for heritage buildings, which he said could be attributed to the fact that he was from a third-generation construction family, plus his background as a civil engineer.

“Conservation of heritage buildings not only represents the single most visible aspect of our past history and culture, it also provides a sense of identity and continuity in a fast changing world for future generations.”

His first preservation effort undertaken for Caffe Diem not only earned him the Malaysia Property Award but also the FIABCI World Prix d’Excellence Award.

It took 18 painstaking months to restore the beauty and nostalgia of a 127-year-old derelict building and transform it into the hip and trendy Caffe Diem@Pekan Cina.

Cheng said the restoration of Caffe Diem brought about a domino effect for the entire town and was the catalyst that set off the transformation of the otherwise sleepy Pekan Cina, the earliest town in Alor Setar, into a vibrant tourist enclave.

“I am proud to have given a new lease of life to an otherwise crumbling building that had been left empty for decades. The building started off as a prison in 1896 and then an opium den, budget rooms and retail shops before it was abandoned.

“Heritage buildings are timeless and so when we created our own purpose-built office, we wanted a place that is timeless as well.

“Give it another 100 years, Encomas House will still look beautiful, down to earth and close to nature... truly an architectural gem that will make us proud!,” he exclaimed.

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