The Kebun Kaki Bukit project, part I : a rusty shack in the meadow

In January we had the opportunity to volunteer on a very interesting project in Malaysia. We first contacted Arafat because he mentioned there was some building work to do on his organic farm, Kebun Kaki Bukit. The reviews left by formers helpers also described him as a doer, the kind of guy that learns by experimenting with bamboo, clay and other fun materials.

Apart from the everyday tasks, we were happy to offer our job skills, as a photographer and an architect.The timing was perfect : Arafat and his crew were starting the same week a new farm on a new piece of land. Even if  the property was already covered by beautiful grown fruit trees,  this time there was no building to host the helpers. Therefore the first task was to turn two rusted containers into bedrooms for all of us. Challenge accepted ! I hadn’t practiced in a while and Kevin was eager to document the process. We were also excited to meet a bunch of engaging people.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 9.46.49 AM

One of Arafat’s goals with this project, is to show that an alternate way of life is not only possible, but also economically viable. We hope this can help inspire people to build comfortable, economical houses by using smart design and incorporating the use of local resources.

It can sometimes seem a bit daunting to start this kind of project on your own. This i why i will try to break down the design process into a step by step story. Maybe it will help some of you guys making he best design for a home made of local resources.

In the course of the first few weeks we made plenty of enlightening mistakes, as a result of lack of time, experience and practice. They have all been priceless and refreshing lessons. Hopefully you can learn from them the same way we did. Also feel free to comment and give any constructive feedback about how we could have done things better.


Here we are in the outskirts of Kuala Selangor, a fast growing city on the East coast of Malaysia. The 9 acre land is owned by an Indian entrepreneur who is as passionate about fruit trees as he is about business. The result : a giant garden of Eden, overflowing with limes, coconuts, bananas, lemons, dragonfruits, durians, star fruit etc…surrounding a rough looking pipe and chemical factory. A few employees work here every day including Wahid, a Bengalese who guards the site and takes care of the crops. Among the others are a few skilled welders.

Between the warehouses and the crops is a buffer zone scattered with empty, rusty containers, rails, cranes, sand piles, gravel, mountains of wood and metal scraps. Having this wealth of spare materials at our disposal is an inspiration for upcycle creation. In a nutshell it is an ideal playground for do it yourself construction.

A pretty unusual landscape for an organic farm – photo credit Kevin Su Photography


Arafat leads us through the property to two rusted metal boxes standing in the high grass. This is where he envisions the heart of the farm. The plan is to re-use these structures to start a housing complex for the  farm helpers. The bigger one will accommodate the helpers, while the smaller one will be Arafat’s bedroom and office. It takes quite a stretch of the imagination to foresee a nice accommodation for a dozen volunteers, but what a fun project ahead !

The box that we will become the volunteers nest


And this will soon become Arafat’s headquarters.



It is the end of the morning, Perfect time to have a quick glance at the shadows on the ground. We are close to the equator so they are pretty short. A simple box will not project a lot of shade around. The vertical sunrays will make any flat-ish roof warm up very quickly.Obviously, the temperature regulation is going to be the #1 challenge.

Here is a little diagram that explains the shadow thing, and why it is important :

shema shadow

 .   .  . . .  .   .


Even before thinking of any design, with a bunch of volunteers eager to get some work done, there is a lot of work to do on the buildings.

First off, we need to get to the bare frame. It means unscrewing all the metal sheets (walls and roof), take the rotten wood floor out.

Demolition timelapse from Kevin Su Photography on Vimeo.

2 : he welders that work here kindly agree to take off the messy pieces of metal attached to the frame. (for instance this grid on the foreground)


Photo credit Dynke Kleefstra

Photo credit Dynke Kleefstra


3 : The frame is pretty rusted. On iron, corrosion that does not just stay on the surface : it actually attacks the material. If we do not stop the process now, it could become a structural issue in the future. We have to sand the entire thing and then paint it with anti rust. It is a lot of work, but with a bunch of dedicated people and lots of good will, it gets done in a few days.

Dynke, the dutch smily helper, relentlessly sanding the frame. Photo credit Kevin Su Photography




Painting the frame from Made in Partout on Vimeo.


  .   .  . . .  .   .


The cleaning of the frame taking a few days, It leaves some time to get the design going. Lisa and I take measurements of the bare frame. Then I turned this information into a simple 3D Model, a very useful tool to communicate with a non professional team of builders (Technical drawings are not the most self-explanatory). It would also help shape the design with Arafat and later estimate the cost of materials.

structure nue

For this model I used SketchUp, a free and very intuitive software you can easily download online. With the help of online tutorials you can get comfortable enough to make this kind of model in just a few hours.

I usually like to do this kind of prep work in the beginning, so I have a reliable support to work on.

Now what else do we need ?

  1. the program
  2. the site conditions.

 1 : The program.

What we call the program is a detailed list of needs from the user/builder/owner.

Basically, here it consists in asking Arafat what he wants.

For this project, here is a rough idea :

Bedrooms for 6 to 9 volunteers (this is what Arafat wants the bigger structure to be)
Bedroom/office for Arafat (located in the smaller container)
Living area
Dining area
Laundry area (According to Arafat, it is VERY important for the volunteers)

Keep in mind that all the common areas must accommodate at least the maximum amount of people using the building at a time.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT TIP : Now is a good time to get a clear view over the decision making process, especially if the designer, manager and investor are not the same person !

 2 : The conditions

What is the site like ? What are its geographical/climate conditions ? Take a piece of paper and draw a rough diagram of the elements that exist on your property (buildings, roads, rivers, trees…) .

Where is the North ? Indicate it with an arrow. Actually you may as well indicate East, West and South, it will help you later on.

Where is the main access ? Is it a big road, Can a truck get access to it ? How far into the site can the truck go to deliver materials ?

What is the course of the sun ? Easy. Turn your drawing so the north arrow looks up, then draw a huge smile across the entire drawing. End the smile with an arrow on the left (west) side. Tadaaaaa ! you know the sun position around your site during the course of a day. If you live in the southern hemisphere, draw a sad smile on top of your page, still going towards West side (the left side of the paper)

Where are the prevailing winds ? Do not get fooled by the wind you felt on your first visit to the site. Winds are not constant in strength or direction throughout the year. Beware of micro climates as well. If you have not lived on the site for a full year, do your research thoroughly and ask the neighbors if you can.

If the property is big, you can put these first informations on a drawing zoomed in so that it only shows the building’s area. Here is an example :

plan masse rapproche logo leg

Do you have access to networks : water/gas/electricity/sewage/phone or internet ? On the drawing showing the full property, take a bunch of color markers and represent each of them with a line of different color. If it does not connect to the spot where you want to put the building, start investigating the cost for the connection. For instance our internet cost turned out to be an unexpected $200, because the house is far from the road and they charge cable installation by the meter.

What are the property limits ? It is not essential in a big property like this one, but it is very important if the site is tiny and the construction close to its borders. Many countries regulate how close to the border and how high you can build.

. What are your resources ? Think free stuff, second hand stuff and local stuff to buy. Think human resources as well. On this project we had access to :

Human resources :
1 Very motivated project manager
1 Farm worker, Wahid, super smiley, efficient and helpful
About 10 volunteers (with a big turnover)  from all over the world. Most of them without a professional background in building (not all of them would be working on the building anyway, there is a lot of work to do in the farm)
2 or 3 welders who work for the owner and who can give us an occasional hand with the metal frame.

photo credit Kevin Su Photography


Tools :
Pretty much everything you can think of when it comes to metal. 1 screwdriver, 1 jigsaw, 1 circular saw, multiple hammers etc…

Material :
Two big metal frames to “dress up” into housing.
A lot of scrap wood
A lot of metal pieces, beams etc…
A bunch of coconut palm leaves
A big pile of dirty sand
All the old metal sheets that we took off the old structure. Not in the best shape, but pretty large. Dozens of them.
A Super awesome unlimited amount of clay, straight from the ground anywhere in the farm.
About 40 sheets of brand new metal roofing sheets that the owner bought for another project but were never used.
Half a dozen metal and wood frame windows.
A nice patch of bamboo on the property with enough shoots  for about 80 3m long pieces.

photo credit Kevin Su Photography


Local resources :
In the area there are multiple bamboo farms, with different sizes of species.
Our neighbor sells home made thatch roof elements
A construction material store with quality wood beams of all dimensions, and all needed extra tools.

. What is your budget ?

Obviously it depends a lot on your country and the level of complexity of the building. Do your research and maybe some design and planning to get a realistic idea. In hot or tropical areas it doesn’t always have to be completely windproof like in cold countries, and that makes it much, much easier and cheaper.
The hopeful budget (before any planning) was about 5000$ for the entire house. Let’s see later if it all fits in.

. What are you allowed to build ?

For this project, we are pretty much allowed to build whatever we want wherever we want.

For your own project, have a look at the state’s urban code, end then the city’s urban plan if it has one. It is not a bad idea either to have a chat with your neighbors and to avoid blocking their view for instance.

Now let’s have a look at the diagram : Feel free to add any other information, and keep these sketches as memos for later.

plan masse leg

Next post : let’s turn the frame into a house !

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