Towards revamping the Architectural Curriculum for Ecological Sustainable Development (ESD) in Institutes of Higher Learning in Malaysia

By Dr. Abdul Malik Abdul Rahman
November 2005

The Author is the Deputy Director of the Center for Education, Training and Research in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CETREE), as well as Practicing Architect and Lecturer at the School of Housing, Building & Planning of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. His special interests is in indoor thermal comfort for Malaysian homes without the use of mechanical aids. Identifying which mode is most effective in a climate where fifty percent of the wind condition is calm. → See also:

The Eighth Malaysia Plan is about to end and forthcoming is the Ninth Malaysia Plan. Continuing from the 8th MP, Renewable Energy (RE) and Energy Efficiency (EE) are gradually coming to the forefront of energy consumption issues in Malaysia with RE being defined as the “fifth fuel”. The other four are electricity, oil, gas and coal. Reducing energy use without affecting production numbers would greatly help Malaysia cut overhead costs, enabling it to compete better internationally. To that end it is thought architects and mechanical engineers should influence the building industry with energy efficient building designs and systems. That our fossil energy resources are finite and are rapidly diminishing is a challenge that architects must face. We can no longer afford the luxury of designing and constructing buildings without fully considering the amount and type of energy they will consume. Today owners, designers and builders not only face the challenge but also have the opportunity to help the nation solve its grave energy problems. It is hoped that in future approaches in designing a building, architects and mechanical engineers can influence their clients, first to consider every means available for passive solar design elements, then to incorporate energy efficient electrical installations and later enhanced by photovoltaic systems. With this approach considerable savings can be achieved. But the most important initiative that we hoped for a long-term effect would be in preparing our architectural students to think solar and hoped that the next generation of building design would be influenced by the efforts of the solar architects.

Keywords: misconceptions in passive design elements, solar architects, university curriculum, renewable energy design elements, urban agriculture

1. Introduction

Low Energy Architecture seems to be the future direction for Architectural Education for the Institutions of Higher Learning all over the world. It is a natural development since the inception of the Rio Declaration and also the recent revival of the Kyoto Protocol after seven years in limbo. Agenda 21 in the Kyoto Protocol provided the impetus and placed importance to every effort, great or small, that assist in reducing global warming. Every member country is to have a dedicated national program to achieve a common end. With energy efficient projects being implemented and are still ongoing, many in South-East Asian countries are of the small scaled pilot projects and fragmented in implementation. Real success is still a long way. While these efforts are encouraged we have to prepare the mindset of the public to think green.

At every layer of the population there must be efforts designed to cater to their respective level of perception. The Center for Education, Training and Research in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CETREE) was formed in the year 2000 and ever since it has implemented programs to influence the mindset of the category of people concerned. Four years since its inception is considered as in its infancy to change the mindset of the 25 million population of Malaysia. CETREE has implemented model programs¹ for others to follow such as the education and training of secondary school teachers who in turn will educate and create awareness to their respective schools all over Malaysia. Several guide books have been published to assist the teachers. Competitions for the public in general have been pervasive via the media. Working together with other stakeholders such as the Malaysian Energy Centre, the labeling of energy appliances is in process beginning with refrigerators. Several seminars, conferences at national level were held for journalists from all major newspapers, government building professionals and private sector architects. A mobile exhibition van converted to running using vegetable oil have actively been here and there all over Malaysia to exhibit RE and EE kits to rural schools. A website is readily available and accessible for those interested in knowing more by interacting with the virtual programs.

Future initiatives² for the Ninth Malaysian Plan is in process to be implemented are already well documented. One of them and most recent was the brainstorming by several selected participants from relevant organizations to help prepare a standard syllabus for primary school students. There are many branches of knowledge that can be accommodated to educate university students on RE and EE. Education has no immediate success indicators as educating, training and creating awareness are ongoing processes. It is hoped that by the law of probability some may be effectively influenced and continue to proceed in their future undertakings with passion in whatever degree manageable by them. That is CETREE’s success indicator and reward. CETREE is very fortunate to have its center for its six-pronged operation at USAINS Holding Sdn Bhd. in the Main Campus of Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.

2. Tropical Architecture Redefined

The Malay Traditional Village House is a good reference when it comes to passive design elements but unfortunately many of those elements are not suitable in modern times and not for the urban scene due to building regulation restrictions. The introduction of the Colonial House is the start of an urban design and a sign of changing design priorities. Brickwork was introduced with thick dimensions and with the advent of electricity, electric fans were gradually introduced replacing the ‘pungkah’ fans. The Modern Malaysian House is generally the epitome of the declining inhabitable indoor and outdoor environment. Due to economic reasons, the high cost of building materials room dimensions were much smaller than those of the Colonial House, ceilings much lower and aiming for the minimum and energy consumption increase because of modern electrical appliances for kitchen use and air conditioning. Therefore tropical design should reflect not only in its material comfort use but also to reflect the criteria of conducive indoor climate with little energy consumption. Thus the direction for Tropical Architecture is moving towards the RE & EE House. See Figure 1³.

Figure 1: The different ages of Malaysian domestic buildings

Traditional Malay House
(a) The Malay Traditional Village House
Colonial House
(b) The Colonial House

Modern Malaysian House
(c) The Modern Malaysian House
RE & EE House
(d) The RE & EE House

3. Ecological Sustainable Development in Architectural Education

As stated in the abstract of this paper “…But the most important initiative that we hoped for a long-term effect would be in preparing architectural students to think solar and hoped that the next generation of building design would be influenced by the efforts of the solar architects….”. education is the key to changing the mindset of the building professionals, not only architects but the mechanical engineers as well. They are the machine of growth to create an eco-friendly environment. Other professions are no less important but collectively the goal can be achieved quicker. The quicker it is the quicker the environmental destruction can be reduced. In earlier years, students of architecture are taught the below stipulated criteria when designing buildings:

  1. The shapes of buildings are reflections of the society’s aspirations.
  2. The internal environment must be conducive to the occupants habitat
  3. The building must be structurally sound otherwise it’s a failure.
  4. And lastly it should be affordable to balance the efficient use of resources such as water, fuel, space and occupants’ time.

Presently almost all Schools of Architecture approach all these abovementioned basic tenets in building designs. It is hoped that the future direction of architecture in Malaysia should emphasize more of the item ii. This should be in the forefront of any design philosophy. Extending from the USM model mentioned above, it is because of the existence of CETREE that gives the impetus to educate our students into thinking in terms of RE & EE in their design. Diagram 1 below shows the USM-CETREE strategy to inculcate issues of RE & EE in the university curriculum and specifically the Architecture discipline.

Basically the teaching of Ecological Sustainable Development in the Architectural Curriculum is to make the students of Architecture, the Professionals and the general public aware of the dangers in employing the technological advancement that is detrimental to the environment.

Diagram 1: The USM-CETREE Strategy

CETREE Strategy

The above diagram shows the USM-CETREE strategy in introducing ecological sustainable development for the architectural profession. The explanatory text is as follows. The figures in the diagram correspond to the sequence text below:

CETREE has six pronged approaches to educate the public through the school curriculum, the mobile exhibition unit, the university, the professional, the information & publicity and the website.

  1. The University category the subject Energy & Environment has already been introduced for all university students who intended to take it as an elective course. It is a two unit course which generally covers all there is to know about energy and environment.

  2. As for the Professional sector a course called the Integrated Energy Building Design has been introduced for the fourth year architectural students. A three unit course4 (40% examination and 60% coursework) touches on energy topics that can influence the shape of buildings. This subject is introduced in the first semester of the fourth year. In the second semester it is expected that the students are familiar with the needs for energy-form relationship and to test their comprehension, it is then introduced in their studio design thesis in the second semester. They are expected to incorporate design elements that can reduce energy consumption into the building designs. A report is also needed to be submitted to explain their concept. In the fifth and final year students are given the opportunity to test further their comprehension but this time it is a one year studio design thesis and of various building types, unlike in the fourth year where all students will present only one building type. So students are exposed about energy-form relationship for four semesters before they graduate. First semester in the fourth year is their first exposure in lecture form and assignments, second semester apply in their building design determine by the course master, first semester of the fifth year they apply the RE & EE design ideas in their individual building proposal and for the final semester they are tested on their technical and construction details on the RE & EE elements.

  3. Upon graduation they would work in any of the architects’ offices and at the same time study for their professional qualification.

  4. Upon successful qualification as a Professional Architect as set by The Board of Architects, they then belong to individual Chapters under the Malaysian Institute of Architects to receive and share professional information as time goes by.

    5 & 6. Upon graduation the students will have found employment in Architects’ offices or working for developers and government agencies. Working life do not give the kind of intense exposure on RE & EE in buildings as when in the university, unless of course one has the passion to pursue further by more reading, attending seminars, conferences, exhibitions and surfing the internet. The Board of Architects Malaysia working together with the Malaysian Institute of Architects insist its members be exposed to new technologies and be knowledgeable with current issues. To do this the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) was made compulsory for Registered Professional Architects by employing the point system. A total of ten points a year is required to be collected before one’ s registration can be renewed for the next year. Taking this opportunity of the CPD point system, CETREE offered its services by giving talks on all one need to know about energy efficient building design in its topic entitled “Towards an Energy Efficient Building Design : Cooling the Building Fabric and Generating Air Movement”. So far only the Sabah and Sarawak Chapters have benefited from CETREE contribution. Six modules were presented namely5

    • Module 1: Human Comfort
    • Module 2: Passive Building Design Elements
    • Module 3: Active systems
    • Module 4: Research, Design failures and what the paper says
    • Module 5: The Way Forward
    • Module 6: Government Policies & Incentives

    7a & 7b. To upgrade new findings and new knowledge the lecturers are encouraged to do a lot of R & Ds and also be active in publications, attend seminars, present papers in conferences and also supervise post-graduate students on topics related to ESD.

    8,9 & 10. The results from the efforts by the lecturers are then fed back to the subjects for the fourth year students ie the Integrated Energy Building Design and also for the Professional Module. In this way knowledge is constantly updated for the benefit of all.

4. Research & Development

There are several research grants that can be applied by any interested researchers. In sequence of allocation beginning from RM1000.00 to millions they are the Incentive Grant, the Fundamental Research Grant (FRGS), Intensified Research Priority Areas - Experimental Applied (IRPA-EA), IRPA Prioritized and Strategic, Scientific Achievement Grant Scheme (SAGA), External Grants (National/International) and Contract Research and Consultancy. These are easily available if the research proposal is very well written. Researches are part and parcel of any education entity. Without it no new knowledge can be made available and information would be recycled.

Through researches many old beliefs, gut feelings, guess work, myths, assumptions have been proven to be misconceptions. Some very common misconceptions are the green house effect, the stack effect, design with openings for ventilation, hard landscape versus soft landscaping, energy efficient fan and many more.

Some of the more conspicuous mistakes observed in present day buildings have exposed the lack of understanding in the concepts of stack effect, the green house effect, hard landscaping, orientation and building materials. All these misunderstanding resulted from the lack of knowledge pertaining to the wind characteristics of the Malaysian wind. From the analysis of a twenty year meteorological data from several stations in Malaysia it was realized that Temerloh in the state of Pahang experienced at least an average of 50% of wind calm conditions per year. Wind calm condition is defined as any air speed below 0.3 meter per second or better understanding it is when the smoke from a lighted candle rise vertically in almost a straight path. Mersing, in the state of Johore experienced the most wind by virtue of it being a coastal town. In Malaysia there are only two types of location observed to experience perpetual wind. They are those experienced by the slopes of a valley and the land and sea breeze. But even then some form of induced air need to be introduced if we were to design with energy savings in mind.

Generally Malaysian buildings spend at least 60% to 70% of energy consumption just for cooling the interior and this expense is wasted into thin air6,7,8. Air-conditioning is the main culprit as it is an energy guzzler. Between an air-conditioning and fan, the later uses a lot less electrical power. Ignorant of this fact, architects create problems by designing glass atriums and then pump in cool air by air-conditioning. Fixed glass windows are orientated towards the east-west direction in tall buildings, again using air-conditioning to cool the volume. The irony here is that a problem is deliberately introduced and solved with paid energy, where from the very beginning energy consumption can be significantly reduced by proper orientation.

Sometimes it is not the Architect’s inclination, but for survival they have to adhere to the developer’s wishes and preference to provide as many housing units as possible and maximize sales for an impressive bottom line. With production numbers as the main priority by the developers other considerations especially those related to energy issues becomes secondary. Consideration such as the sun’s path was deliberately obliterated because there is the option of installing air-condition.

These are a few misconceptions by the players in the building industry. There are many more that should be made aware of by further research and education. At the moment Architects needed indicators to help them to be well versed with designing for energy efficiency. Results and information from the Institute of Higher Learning Research and Development are not accessibility-friendly to the building industry. There is no standardize procedure, information is ad hoc, agreements are made between two parties (the fund provider and the research institution) and thus information becomes ‘classified’. Books are available but limited in local content and not comprehensive enough.

5. Ecotecture and Urban Agropolis

About RM24.7 billion9 was spent on importing food to feed Malaysia’s entire population. Land in Malaysia is alienated into three categories namely, land for agriculture, land for building and land for industry. Normally agricultural land is in the rural areas and given the term as center for food production. Land allocations for building and industry are in urban areas and logically they are centers of food consumption. It is proposed not to have any land alienation but population live in one big city known as the urban agropolis. Since the influx of rural-urban migration is difficult to overcome, planning laws might as well absorb the agriculture aspect as part and parcel of an urban design. Based on reliable data cities will be overpopulated all over the world due to economic progress and the rural scene would shrink in not so many years ahead. If this is going to happen then it would be better to welcome this trend because by doing so several benefits can be gained for the population and also for the economy. One immediate effect it would reduce the import bill for food if all unused pieces of land in the urban areas are cultivated for agriculture, not only on the ground but also at balconies and on flat roof tops. This has a dual effect. By reducing heat gain to the building fabric, it also prevents from high energy consumption to cool the indoor climate, an effect cause by warming the interior due to heat islands. For example it was found that a typical hotel would consume 70% of its electricity bill to cool the interior by air-conditioning and also for cold rooms to preserve food. There would be a good balance of hard and soft landscaping. And as for soft landscaping instead of beautifying the city with flower plants, it would help the economy too by planting vegetables that can be consumed by the population. This approach requires a properly designed vegetable garden in cities (Figure 2). Research has shown that a nine degree Celsius reduction can be obtained by vegetation cover alone over the hard dense building materials.

Roof Top Garden

Roof Top Garden
(a) Courtesy of Property Times, NST 10
Urban Agropolis
(b) Courtesy of Ken Yeang

6. Conclusions

Planning laws may have to change to allow for the existence of an urban agropolis. Education curriculum would also have to be reinvented for a paradigm shift towards the desired future. What was discussed early in the text presented the model which was recently implemented in The Architectural Program of The School of Housing, Building and Planning, Universiti Sains Malaysia. It is hoped that other universities would follow suit and put similar efforts into ecological sustainable development into their architectural curriculum. USM cannot do it alone as we would be graduating at least thirty students every year. The energy issue is a global issue and proactive concerted effort by other Institute of Higher Learning would create a better impact nationally and indirectly meet the call of the Kyoto Protocol.


  1. Abdul Malik Abdul Rahman & Rodzi Ismail, 15-18 December 2003, Educating the Malaysian Public on Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency – The National RE & EE Program, Proceedings of the Comprehensive Seminar on Construction and creation of Sustainable Society based on the Zero-Discharge Concept, Kyoto University under the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science – Vice Chancellor Committee (JSPS-VCC Program).
  2. M.Z.Kandar, A.M.A Rahman, Awareness, Education and Training Towards Sustainable Energy and Development in Malaysia, International Conference on Sustainable Buildings – South east Asia (SBO4 Series), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 11-13 April 2005.
  3. Abdul Malek Abdul Rahman, 1994, Design for Natural Ventilation in Low-Cost Housing in Tropical Countries, University of Wales College of Cardiff, 196 pages.
  4. Abdul Malik Abdul Rahman & Mohd Zin Kandar, RAT430 – Integrated Energy Building Design, 40% exam and 60% coursework; 3 credit unit, 7 weeks of lectures and 7 weeks of coursework; level 400 for Architectural students.
  5. Ar. Dr. Abdul Malik Abdul Rahman & Dr. Mohd. Zin Kandar, Integrated Energy Building Design Seminar Modules A,B,C,D & E for Building Professional awareness, CETREE, National Level.
  6. Dr. Abdul Malek Abdul Rahman, Energy Efficient Building of the Future, 26 May 2001, Saturday Forum, News Straits Times.
  7. Dr. Abdul Malik Abdul Rahman, Passive solar to save energy as a building concept, August 19 2002, Focus, Campus news USM.
  8. Dr, Abdul Malik Abdul Rahman, Aim for energy efficient designs for buildings, September 5 2002, Letters, News Straits Times.
  9. Salleh Buang, Farm in the city, Property Times, New Straits Times, July 23rd 2005.
  10. ibid.


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