ARKITREK – creating socially sustainable buildings in environmentally sensitive areas

Originally published at


Founded by Ian Hall, Arkitrek works to the create socially and environmentally sustainable buildings in Malaysia. I have been following them for several years now, just looking for a reason to contact them other than to just say “Hi! I like what you do. Keep up the good work,” and now I have one, so here we go.

Core77: Can you give us a short outline to what Arkitrek is about?

Ian Hall: We are architects and we’re motivated use design to solve environmental problems. Problems, like resource consumption, pollution and energy use. To solve these problems usually involves working with people, so we are highly socially minded in the way that we work, but I’m a nature lover foremost and love of wild places and nature is what inspires me


What lead you to start Arkitrek?

Haha. Long story…

One thing led to another. I always knew that I did not want to follow a ‘conventional’ architecture career. After completing my Part III and getting solid commercial experience, I decided to look for alternatives and I joined an expedition with Raleigh International to Borneo. They asked me to lead a team of young volunteers to do a feasibility study for a jungle research station in Borneo. That was a dream job. I swapped designing shiny urban hotels and started work on primitive huts in the jungle. I joke that ‘the people I worked with were primitive too': gap year students mostly. The Raleigh ethos is empowering young people by giving them responsibility for delivering project work in challenging places. After some initial resistance, I embraced this philosophy.

After my Raleigh expedition in 2004, I volunteered to work for The Sabah Foundation, Raleigh’s local partner in Sabah, Borneo. The Sabah Foundation manages three rainforest conservation areas and I went on to volunteer for them as an architect, designing jungle camps, staff quarters and research facilities on and off for two years.

I funded this with contract work in London. Six months in London would fund four months in Sabah. During this time, I met the people who would become my first paying clients in Sabah. That’s how Arkitrek started.

The name, Arkitrek, was coined by my mate Andy Lo. Andy is a Londoner whose parents are from Sabah. We worked together in London and he came out to visit his family in Sabah and then joined me for a month long design and trekking stint in Sabah’s Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

I worked in the most awesome and wild and beautiful places.


What was the main foundation when you started Arkitrek?

During that time with Sabah Foundation I was very concerned with two questions:
1. Should we build anything here? [in this wild and beautiful place]
2. If we do build, what kind of building is appropriate?

A little later, when I was no longer supported by high paying London contract work a third question came into play…
3. How can I keep saying yes to designing small buildings in beautiful places for worthy clients, who can’t pay professional fees?

I think that my ‘ground pillars’ are those three questions.

And what were your answers to these questions?

Hahaha… I’m still figuring it out, but I can try to tell you roughly where I am at with the answers.

1. Should we build anything here? We ask ourselves this question with every project. In particular we ask “Is this a ‘worthy’ client/project?” or “What problem is the client themselves trying to solve?”

For example, if the client says, “I want to develop a small and spectacular part of a national park so that it is accessible to local people, so that those local people can see what treasures we have and that in the future those local people might fight to protect those treasures,” then I would say “Yes, that is a problem worth solving and a building is appropriate.”

2. If we do build, what kind of building is appropriate? This is probably the question that will take the longest to figure out…. I know that it has a lot to do with materials. Knowing how all of your building materials are produced and where they come from and who benefits down the supply chain. That’s why I love using locally produced woven bamboo for cladding panels. Using local timber is more complicated [to figure out whether you’re doing good or harm] and using steel and concrete is another even tougher question…

This question is also about energy and waste. I’ve got much more into shit than most architects should, I believe. Maybe because I like toilet humor—just ask any of my long-suffering colleagues and interns!

It’s also about design, particularly passive design and its about procurement—who builds the building and what is the architects’ relationship with them? This question is about looking good. As a student I rebelled against the ‘magazine’ aesthetic: how the prime objective of any architect seemed to be to design something that would appear in a glossy architecture magazine. Now I can see that the so-called ‘money shot’ photo of a building can help to advertise the dreams of the client and attract people to join them to help with whatever problem they are trying to solve. How the building itself is the tangible tip of an iceberg of people and skills and endeavors.

3. How can I keep saying yes to designing small buildings in beautiful places for worthy clients, who can’t pay professional fees? The answer to this question comes from my Raleigh experience. Empower young people by giving them the responsibility to deliver those projects.

The first two questions truly address whether it’s even justifiable to build in some of the spaces that you are working in. What steps you take to ensure that the project you are working on has a minimal impact on the area, while honoring its surroundings?

To ‘honor the space,’ the positioning of the building on the site is the key. You have to ask if it is appropriate on this site to have an ‘object building’, or if you should make the site the object?’

In other words, does the building dominate the site or is it an unobtrusive and pretty wallflower? The next step would be to work out what connection, physical and visual does the building need to the landscape? Finally, apply passive design principles.



Do you work with the local communities? If so, how?

I will answer two angles to this question: ‘how do we engage with local communities and how do we sustain community projects financially?’

Yes, we work with lots of local communities. It’s not easy. During my Raleigh time, in addition to the rainforest research station project, I also designed and built a community kindergarten [my first community design/build project].

We have five community projects on site at various stages now. Three are under a tourism operator, one under a corporate CSR programme and one purely under Arkitrek. None of them pay any professional fee and all of them involve students. The one under the CSR program is our recently completed Tagal Hut which was done by an Arkitrek design/build program engaging students from Malaysia, UK, Italy and India. In this case, we partnered with a very professional CSR manager for a large company. The building is only a key stage in a long programme of rural development, in this case community management of freshwater fish stocks for local consumption and sale plus domestic tourism (visitors paying to feed the fish). The key to working with communities is to either have a very credible community organisation, a good NGO/CSR partner or [be prepared for the long haul] to take on the NGO role ourself [more on the latter later].

We have also adapted and developed protocols for working with communities. I consider these as our terms of appointment, but these type of terms are not taught at architecture school. The terms are based on: clear expression of need, FPIC (free prior and informed consent) for how we will work.

When working with the community what sort of processes and methods do you use?

Again, we’re still learning but this is roughly where we are at: We have to ask, does the community really need a building or are they just looking for the next hand-out? In most cases, the community is receiving free design services and the building cost itself may be funded by outside sources. It’s easy for them to say, ‘Yes we want it’ simply because they’re not paying. It comes back to that question ‘What problem is the client [community] trying to solve?’ can a building help? With the Tagal Hut, the problem was how to take care of natural resources (fish, and by extension the river) and create lasting benefits for the community. In this case we had a credible CSR partner who was taking care of developing the human resources in the long term, so yes, a building was necessary, appropriate and potentially very beneficial.

Next we have to agree some terms. We may work for free but there may be things that we want to get out of it. Similarly the community may not pay cash but they may pay in-kind.
We run most community projects as an educational design/build program. Our students pay for Arkitrek to set up and facilitate the project and we want them to get a positive learning experience out of it. The community must help us deliver this in exchange for a design and a building.

The community may not pay cash [for design and construction] but they can provide [reciprocal] services free-of charge. If the building is to be community-owned and will help generate benefits for the community in the long term, then it is reasonable to ask them to contribute say, skilled labor and homestays and catering (for our students).

We agree to all of this in an MOU before starting. This is essential because the community [and us and our partners!] invariably try to change the terms as we go along.

The biggest challenge we have is dealing with payment for skilled labor. The Tagal Hut we agreed that nobody in the community was receiving cash for labor and we maintained a hard line on this. This project was one of our most successful in terms of community engagement and community pride and ownership of the finished building. On another project, we were inconsistent with who got paid and who did not and we failed to explain our inconsistencies. Consequently we got very little engagement.

What would you say are the most important key elements for a project to succeed?

– There has to be a clear need for a building and it has to be clear how the community will benefit from that building (and the design and construction process).
– There has to be clear and fair terms of engagement and these have to be strictly adhered to.
– The community must be continually informed (about design, materials, labour decisions etc) and give their consent.
– There must be transparency, particularly about money.


Arkitrek works a lot with natural materials, but what is your approach to sustainability when it comes to re-use of other materials than wood?

Honestly, we’ve not dealt with this question significantly but where we have I look at the re-use of materials from two points of view: re-using materials in their original shape/form and using new materials made from recycled raw material.

For an architect, I would argue that the most significant way of using materials in their original shape/form is to adapt an existing building, or where the whole building cannot be reused, at least reuse the foundation or significant elements. To do this successfully requires design, so that’s why architects can really make a difference. On the recently completed Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, we reused all existing foundations. The structural engineer did not want to because of risk of differential movement. We asked whether we could design for differential movement? They said yes and we did. We also reclaimed and reused much of the steelwork for bear cages. The contractor told us that it would be cheaper/easier to use virgin steel. We asked why, he said due to extra labor of working with reclaimed bits and pieces. We decided to design every bit that that could be done with reclaimed steel so that it could be costed. The extra cost was tiny, proportional to the contract, the client agreed and so we did it.

Individual architects, I believe, have less control over new materials from waste because this is dependent on suppliers being able to develop new, potentially market-disruptive products. For example, we could try to influence the adoption of ‘green concrete’ that uses binders derived from industrial waste, but this will be a long and difficult battle due to the lobbying power of the Malaysian cement industry. This type of battle needs to be fought from the top down. We are grassroots, working from the bottom up. What individual architects can do, though, with a supportive client, is look for opportunities to build a demonstration project so that the top-down fighters have some evidence that what they are fighting for is practical.



If you would mention one project that has influenced you a bit extra, which one would that be, and why?

Above, I mentioned that there is one community project where Arkitrek has taken on an NGO role. This is the Bio-cultural Heritage Centre in Ulu Papar. On one hand, this project has been a disaster, but on the other hand, it has been an education from which fantastic things are coming.

It was a disaster because I did not tightly control our student design/build team. Consequently they designed and started building a building that was much bigger than they could finish in the duration of their program. Arkitrek was left holding the baby, with no more income coming from the student parents!

The other disaster was the community engagement that I mentioned above. Due to our inconsistency in payments to the community, we did not get the support from the community that we needed to get the building finished in a timely manner.

Of course no one is going to abandon a baby so we continued to plough in resources to try to get the building finished (on design/builds we not only do the design but the construction management too). Six months after the student design/build team had gone home, the building was still nowhere near finished. It would be melodramatic to say that this project might bankrupt the company, but it felt like that a times.

The final disaster was that the NGO that introduced us to the community stopped their program of training community bio-cultural researchers. We knew this would happen but we did not plan for it. The NGO left some highly skilled and motivated community members but they did not leave a credible community organization or body with whom we could work.

The fantastic thing that happened was three intern architects: Filzah, Tom and Nadhira, who rose to the challenge. They managed to get the building practically complete but more significantly, they wrote and tested a workshop program, christened, that would both create sustainable income for the build and provide on-going skills training and income for a fledgling community committee. Filzah and Nadhira are now negotiating with corporate and government sponsors and recruiting participants for programmes.

In building the Bio-cultural Heritage Centre, Arkitrek has become the NGO. We have turned the design and construction process itself, into the means of funding the building. We have retrospectively justified the raison d’etre of the building and will work with this community for at least another year, if not longer. If you ask me now whether this building was necessary at the start, I would say no. But it is now.

If you got to ask someone who’s been working in the same area of architecture as yourself, what would that question be?

What prevented you from giving up?


And lastly, let us in on some Do’s and Don’ts for people who are interested in working with these sort of projects

Do let your passion motivate you
Do surround yourself with good people
Do have a supportive partner

Don’t compromise your values
Don’t sell yourself short