Honeycomb and Terrace Housing

Conventional row housing and the linear approach to planning.

Dwellings can be arranged on individual plots of land as detached units or linked to each other. Whether detached or linked, they line up along streets to form row housing. In a row house, owners of individual plots of landed property maintain sole occupancy rights. Rectilinear grids have been used as the fundamental tool for subdividing land, where linear roads provide access to individually owned plots of land. Roads and gridlines may be distorted by design or necessity but they retain their linear nature.

Terrace housing

Terrace housing has long been considered the densest form of landed property development possible. Indeed, of all the types of housing in Malaysia, it is the terrace house that predominates. The typical lot varies from 16’ x 50’ to 24’ x 100’, but the most common lots now are 20’ x 65’ and 22’ x 70’. The ubiquitous terrace house plan has been designed and re-designed many times but always within the same restrictive framework without much scope for innovation.

The ubiquitous terrace house

The housing layout has also become stereotyped. In the typical estate, the terrace houses are lined up along grid-lines with 40’ service roads in front and much narrower back lanes and side lanes. Communal areas for schools, civic and religious buildings, as well as open areas for children’s playgrounds and parks, are also provided. Despite the infrastructure provided, it can be said that the design of many housing estates does not really meet the practical needs of the average resident. Apart from the aesthetic boredom of rows and rows of houses, among the drawbacks of the terrace house layout is the lack of public security and any genuine sense of community . With the rising price of land in urban areas, many people are resigned to apartments. The terrace house, for all its drawbacks, has been elevated to the status of a dream-home.

Honeycomb Housing

In “Honeycomb Housing”, instead of rows of terrace houses, we are proposing that every house is in a cul-de-sac with a garden in the middle, where giant shady trees will be planted. The courtyard in the middle of the houses is not just a street for transit: it is a place safe enough from speeding cars and criminals, for even pre-schoolers to play on.

Of course houses in cul-de-sacs are very much sought after in countries like the US and Australia. The ‘horse-shoe layout’ of high-cost detached houses in Subang Jaya has been heralded as an innovative design that has sadly not been repeated elsewhere.

Source - Sime Uep Bhd advertisement

What we propose here is suitable not only for high-cost houses but can even be applied to medium cost and low-medium cost housing - even to low-cost housing. In the “Honeycomb cul-de-sac” we add a central green area as open space instead of just tarmac. This cul-de-sac, were it to be built with detached houses, and located in the Klang Valley would probably cost RM 1 million or more. They would typically have a built-up area of 4000sf, on land of about 6000sf. However, instead of detached single family homes around the cul-de-sac, we can divide the buildings into two houses such that each home faces a different cul-de-sac. In this case, each unit would only have 2000sf built-up area, on 3000sf of land. We can also partition the buildings into three, four or six so that a pair of houses faces each cul-de-sac. As we partition each building into more units, we are reducing the size of built-up area and land area for each unit. And we are increasing the number density of the development. Indeed in the sextuplex version, each house could be has a built-up area of less than 700sf and land area, 1000sf. This is already equivalent to the size of the low-cost terrace house of lot size 18’x 55’. However, take note that as we reduce the size and affordability of the housing units, we are in no way reducing the quality of the external environment found in the cul-de-sac!

Each building block can be partitioned into two, three, four or six units.

Cul-de-sac with a garden in the middle

Detached houses in this cul-de-sac, if built in the Klang valley would cost more than RM 1 million each.

Our aim is to recreate the best elements of kampong and small-town life: where children can play outside our homes with friends without fear from crime and traffic, in a community where people know and talk to each other. We are trying to create a more suitable environment for the “kampong boy of the future” – something better than our existing terrace houses. And honeycomb housing can deliver all the benefits of the cul-de-sac housing environment.

A discussion of the benefits to residents and homeowners can be found in “Honeycomb Housing and Tessellation Planning”; Planning Malaysia, Journal of the Malaysian Institute of Planners (2005) III, 71-98, Kuala Lumpur. But will the cost of land and infrastructure be higher than that of densely packed terrace housing?

Something better than our existing terrace houses

Mosaic Layouts

There are an infinite number of shapes that can tessellate, but only three regular polygons (where the sides are all of the same length) can tessellate. These can be said to be the simplest form of tessellations. The hexagon is one of them. It can be derived from the triangle, which is the other regular polygon that can tessellate. When either the triangle or the hexagon is tessellated, a triangular grid is created.

The square is the third regular polygon that can tessellate. Tessellating this grid creates an iron-grid. Using rectangles rather than squares result in the rectilinear grid. The conventional terrace or row house layout can be seen to be tessellations of basic rectangular tile shapes, but architects or town-planners rarely think of it as such. The focus is on the roads which contain the axes of the grid, along which the houses are arranged: the roads are laid out, and then the land between the roads is subdivided.

Using Tessellation planning, we first design the basic neighbourhood tile. This is a cluster of houses within a rectangle or square. Then we tessellate it. The tiles do not necessarily join at the roads; they can join up at the walls that separate houses.

Tessellation planning on a hexagonal grid, we call Honeycomb; tessellation planning on a rectangular grid, we call Mosaic.

The Mosaic layout is a less radical form of tessellation planning. The hexagonal Honeycomb with the triangular shapes with 60º and 120º angles can be difficult for designers to handle. Developers fear that consumers will not like them. Approving authorities, looking at a layout that they have not seen before, worry about making sure the details work. Certainly, among the Chinese in Malaysia, there is apprehension that it is not feng-shui compliant. Although we don’t personally subscribe to this opinion, it is not for us to question such an ancient belief system.

Perhaps for some of the detractors against Honeycomb housing, the Mosaic layout looks reassuring similar to conventional plans. At the same time, there will always be locations and sites that are rectangular, and which can fit rectangular forms better than hexagonal or triangular ones.

Tessellation Mosaic planning can also result in new building types. Two of these are as follows:

Another interesting Mosaic arrangement is a cul-de-sac layout that contains a suite of house types - detached house, duplex and quadruplex - that form a neighbourhood of real and faux bungalows!

More about Mosaic faux bungalows in a page about Mosaic Layout In Perak.

Point-block Low-Rise Low-Cost Apartments

Most walk-up apartments in Malaysia can be described as slab blocks. In a paper written in 2000 I argued that the point block low rise apartment is not only more aesthetically pleasing and socially functional, it is also an economically viable alternative.

In the previous six years, my firm, Arkitek M Ghazali, had attempted to design low cost and low-medium cost housing that met the strict cost limits required by developers, the rules set by government authorities, and the same time achieve the aesthetic and social aims of my practice.

My firm approached this problem by designing and refining generic designs capable of being applied across the various sites, requirements and parameters of different projects. I particular, we promoted the point-block low-rise apartment as a generic design which is superior to the ubiquitous slab block low rise apartment.

The Economic Advantages of Point Block Low Rise Apartment Compared to the Slab Block Low Rise Apartment

The slab block low-rise (walk-up) apartment is the standard solution in big towns and cities in Malaysia. The typical design comprises four or five storeys of apartments strung out in two lines opposite each other with access corridors and voids in the middle, and staircases at both ends of the corridor.

There are of course many variations to this basic concept. We just have to adapt specific dimensions and layout to customize the design. The slab block, in my opinion is not very pleasing aesthetically, and in social terms, now too positive either. Its main advantage is that it is cheap. Certainly it is cheap compared to terrace houses or bungalows because it use less land, Typically 50 to 60 units / acre compared to 20 units / acre for terrace house and even less tor bungalows. The construction cost for unit is also low compared to the bungalow or terrace house because there are lots of shared walls, shared structure, floors and roofing.

Against to the point-block, the slab block certainly looks cheaper. And therefore it is cheaper goes the implicit commonsense logic. The purpose of this paper is to challenge that common sense conclusion.

The point block walk-up apartment comprises a single staircase in the core and four or more units around that central staircase. Every unit is a corner unit. The point blocks that we’ve designed certainly do not look cheap but there are specific and verifiable reasons why point blocks are cost-effective:

Density (units/acre)

Land is an important cost factor in housing. Commonly it is 10% - 20% of the total development cost of a mixed housing project. The accepted density for low-cost low rise apartments (in most States in Malaysia )is 60 units/acre. lt is not easy to achieve this density in an aesthetically pleasing and socially acceptable manner. You can maximise units for any given plot of land by using bigger blocks. Right? Well, not always true.

It you have two similar round vessels of say 1 cubic meter capacity each and fill one vessel with large stones and the other vessel with small pebbles which vessel would contain more material? The vessel with the small pebbles will have more material. There would be less spaces between the pebbles compared with the bigger stones. In a similar manner, small blocks can fill up a site better than standard slab blocks. This tends to be true for big sites, especially sites with irregular shape. In the case of small sites, blocks designed to the shape of the land do better.

Space efficiency (net sellable area / gross area):

Small point blocks are more efficient compared to slab blocks. In particular the corridor is eliminated and the staircase and landing area is minimal. It is usual for point blocks to have 60% or less of corridor and staircase space per unit. It is not in typical for slab block with double loading corridors' to have 76sf (7sm) external circulation space per unit. Slab block with single loading corridors can have external circulation space 96sf (9sm) or more per unit. Architects sometimes think that the more units share staircases, the more cost effective the design, but the corridors that lead to the staircases also add cost.

Internal layout efficiency

This is about maximising space usage in units. In the point block generic design, every unit is a corner unit. There is a cost penalty tor this - there is less shared walls between units and there is less shared beams and columns. However there is a benefit - less shared walls means more external walls, and with more external walls for light and ventilation it is easier to design efficient and functional rooms. In our point block designs we try to maximise usable space and minimise circulation space. In intermediate units of slab blocks, external wall is at a premium. Voids have to be cut out in the interior of the block to provide windows to receive what little light and ventilation these air wells can provide. Or else, the exterior elevations require deep indents to bring in light and ventilation to the middle areas.

The depth of the units, often long in relation to the width, results in long circulation spaces required to access the outer rooms. This layout also involves other substantial compromises in functional design. Firstly, entrances are invariably at the dining area near the kitchen. This is not functional but seems to be the accepted standard even for medium to high cost apartments. Secondly, there will be some bedrooms, the kitchen, drying yard and some toilets which will have to make do with light and ventilation from air wells. Thirdly, entering the apartment from where the kitchen and drying yard is situated creates the impression of entering a home from its backyard. Fourthly, bedrooms are difficult to cluster together in a private zone separate from the semiprivate living and dining areas.

We have found that with point -blocks that have square plan-forms and ample external walls, the abovementioned compromises can be overcome circulation space can be minimised. In fact corridors can be eliminated.

Block footprint

One of the reasons why the point block is able match the density of the slab block is its efficient footprint, There are no internal voids, and the generally we aim for shapes that fit well in a circle. But a small footprint has its own rewards. This has to do with earthworks and the building foundation. Blocks with small footprints require small earth platforms. Blocks with big footprints require larger earth, platforms. A series of small earth platforms generally involve less volume then a series of larger platforms cut out from the same original slope profile.

From the same illustration it is also intuitively clear that easier to arrange point blocks to sit on cut ground than it is to arrange slab blocks to meet this same requirement. Having original ground to sit on rather than fill ground can save a lot in foundation costs. Of course slab blocks can be arranged along contours to minimise earthworks, though this limits the flexibility of the layout and is not effective where the land slope in two directions. Another possibility is to stagger the slab block down the slope, this requires retaining walls or stilts which again adds cost, and reduces standardisation.

Therefore it can be said that generally point blocks with smaller footprints than slab blocks provide greater flexibility in external layout design, requiring less earthworks and lower foundation costs.


The majority of low cost flats in Malaysia can be described as slab block low-rise apartments. The ubiquity of this generic design, despite its functional and social inadequacies can be attributed to the misconception that, given the cost constraints there are no alternatives. But Low-rise point blocks in my opinion through more aesthetically pleasing, functional and socially acceptable can be more cost effective when compared to the slab block.