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Borneo, Sabah: Sinurambi


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Headline: Sinurambi - A house in Nature

Date Posted: 6/1/2005

Architecture Malaysia

June 2005

Richard N Sokial

Approximately 25 minutes away drive from Kota Kinabalu, perched high upon a steep hillside in Penampang and commanding stunning views across the South China Sea is a house unlike any other. Completed in October 2004, this home, called Sinurambi and is gaining repute as one of the most architecturally beautiful designs in Sabah.

Inspired by nature, Sinurambi, which means ‘jungle hut’ in the native Kadazandusun language, is a combination of ‘Western Lifestyle-meets-Kadazan Architecture’. Its spectacular vantage point commands panoramic views of the Kuala Penyu peninsula to the South, the Kota Kinabalu cityscape to the West and to the North, the unspoiled lush green rain forest of the Crocker Range Reserve. At dawn the majestic peak of Mount Kinabalu can be seen leering menacingly from behind a shroud of mist, whilst in the evening, sunsets at Sinurambi, mirrored by the reflective glass panels of the house, are nothing short of spectacular.

The house is arranged in an L-shape form to suit the site and its terrain. Its has five bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, an entertainment room and a small office on the top floor. The outdoor timber deck is made entirely of salangan batu, a local hardwood species, and is accessible from all the down stairs rooms. From afar, one might be forgiven for thinking that Sinurambi is an enormous mansion, given its lofty site and spatial arrangement. In fact, it is not. Despite its imposing exterior, the spaces and circulation in the house itself is surprisingly intimate and welcoming. What makes the house stand out is the composition and manner in which the rooms are arranged to make the best of the surrounding views.

The most structurally impressive part of the house is the living room. Inspired by the shape of the Wakid, a traditional Kadazandusun basket, the living room is a double volume space formed using steel I-beams and supporting timber trusses. The result is a house that can hardly be called ordinary.

The shape of a fern leaf, a species that grows abundantly on the site, inspired the design of the eaves. It symbolizes the relationship between the roof and the sky. The ‘piece-de-resistance’ of the house however, is the use of an architectural element that I like to call‘The Sinurambi Spiral’. Inspired by the form of the budding fern, the architect used its form to create visual elements that ultimately became the characteristic of the house. The spiral motif makes its presence felt throughout the dwelling, especially on the wood carving of the main entrance door, the spiral staircase leading to the upper floors, the wrought iron gateway and also the metal grills around about the house.

Another nice observation about Sinurambi is the way nature simply embraces the building. One can walk around the home and spot honey bees collecting nectar from the flowering plants that have crept up between the nooks and crevices designed by the architect to allow nature to become a design element. Fah Shing also designed little pockets of space around the house to accommodate living plants. The circular timber pergola that denotes the house’s main entrance provides copious shade for small plants, where as the infinity edge pool adds extra dimension to the house through its visual links to the South China Sea.

Many residential houses in Sabah have beautiful gardens. However, what distinguishes the landscaping of Sinurambi is the fact that the concept was incorporated as part of the design of the house from the very beginning of its conception. The architect’s approach to the design of Sinurambi was ‘a house that grows with nature’. Regular tending is needed however to ensure nature does not take over the building completely – remember what happened to Ancor Wat.

The construction of Sinurambi was not without its share of challenges. According to the architect, the initial contractor, unaccustomed to the unconventional design, constantly complained and wanted the design of the house changed in favour of a simple and more conventional structure. Also, in order to capture the magnificent surrounding view from inside the house, it meant that certain areas would have to be clad in glass – not exactly the most suitable material for a tropical climate. The architect however was determined to maintain Sinurambi’s shape and design. Hence, despite some minor changes, the end result is still a provocative and inspiring example of Sabahan architecture.

In hindsight, the use of glass panels did not cause the problem of excessive heat gain as our “little jungle hut” is cross-ventilated and is constantly enveloped by mist and cool mountain breezes that pass straight through the house.

Sinurambi reminds us of what architecture is all about. ‘Artistic and Creative’ albeit, with the sense of purpose. It breaks many paradigms and local perceptions of architecture in Sabah and is an example of how a local traditional inspiration can be combined with a modern contemporary approach with stunning results.

The architect also attributes part of his success to the client’s open minded approach and willingness to try new ideas rather than opt for a typical traditional residential style.

The are only a handful of architects in Sabah today who are brave enough to attempt a design that will stand out and be notice for the right reasons. Many current residential projects in Sabah, even exclusive and extremely expensive ones, are either too conventional or overly grandiose, in addition to being out of proportion and lacking the sensitivity that is shown in the design and execution of Sinurambi.

Instead of adjusting an architectural design to suit the terrain, numerous hill slopes in Sabah have been desecrated for the sake convenience without consideration of the damage to the natural environment. Sadly many local architects unwittingly contribute to this problem.

It is a syndrome of the social decline of our profession when the acquisition of a project becomes more important than the sense of responsibility to design a building that is harmonious and complimentary to its surroundings.

Hopefully, Sinurambi, ‘the house in nature’, will not only inspire a new breed of architect but also attract potential new clients who are more open to progressive ideas and concepts that will improve the environment in which we all live.

We need more local architects who will continually strive to put inspiration and creativity to the forefront of their designs, thus elevating the standard of residential architecture in Sabah.

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Photo Credit: Mills collection