Malaysian Atiqah Nadiah Zailani graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, then returned to Malaysia and built a self-sustaining tiny house in the jungle just outside of Kuala Lumpur.
Just as expats pick up local habits in their adopted home, when Malaysians go to Europe, Australia, or the US to work or study, they invariably pick up some of the influences of Western culture. For one local woman, the years she spent studying in California saw her bringing back some of the American love for camping, exploration, self-sufficiency, and the booming “tiny house” movement, and with a lot of determination and the help of some really good friends, turned it into a place called home!
In 2009, Atiqah Nadiah Zailani graduated from Stanford University, one of the world’s most respected and exclusive schools, earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Several years later, she found herself back home in Malaysia and decided she wanted to put some of those American inspirations to good use and build her own self-sustaining home in the jungle.
As she soon discovered, that’s something that’s a lot harder to do in Malaysia than in the United States.
“In America, tools are easily accessible. You go to Home Depot and it’ll be there,” Atiqah explained. “But in Malaysia, the market doesn’t quite cater to self-sustaining homes, so I had to work a bit harder to find the right products.”
In addition to the challenge of sourcing the right materials and tools, Atiqah was also up against a few other obstacles, too, including a time constraint and a lack of experience in construction.
Because she works as a government advisor, Atiqah routinely flies in and out of Malaysia on assignment. Because of this, she had to plan the home’s construction between jobs, giving her a window of just three weeks!
She quickly learned that the different culture and mindset here would complicate matters.
“It’s not a very popular concept,” Atiqah told the media outlet Insider, speaking about her desire to build an eco-friendly tiny home in her home country. “[But] I was interested to see if it was possible to have a self-sustaining home in the Malaysian context,” she added.
Here’s her story.
A FRIEND HELPS YOU MOVE HOUSE. A REAL FRIEND HELPS YOU BUILD IT.
In July 2016, Atiqah purchased 43,000 sq ft of forested land, about one acre, in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. She set a budget of RM300,000 for her loft-style home, which she planned to be about the size of a studio apartment at 530 sq ft, plus a balcony affording sweeping views of the surrounding jungle. And in September 2017, she rounded up a dozen or so of her friends and began building the home.
In the US, there is a well-established and comprehensive “support system” for projects like this, but in Malaysia, Atiqah really had to go hunting. Fortunately, she came across Epic Home, a local organization that educates and trains people on how to build homes.
Construction began with piling to strengthen the jungle soil that forms the foundation of the home. Then it was time to build.
The house was built on top of a hill, which made it not only difficult to transport materials to the job site, but also to build a three-story scaffolding. In fact, Atiqah said that it took two dozen volunteers just to put up the scaffolding.
“I watched a million YouTube videos of other people’s tiny houses and the truth is the house is dictated by the land you put it in,” Atiqah said. “We built it on a slanted hill, which needs more structure and a solid foundation to sit safely.”
The materials to construct the frame and reinforce the overall structure did not come cheap, Atiqah explained, with the steel beams and timber elements totalling just over RM32,000.
The professional fees, which included the design, construction, and management of the project, added another RM18,800.
The beams were put up in less than a day, and the wall panels installed the day after that, but by then, Atiqah already had a newfound respect for the challenges and realities of construction.
“I guess you only know how hard construction work is when you actually have to do it,” Atiqah explained. “I have a whole new appreciation for construction workers — it takes so much energy, strength, and endurance.”
The sloping roof made working on the gable ends complicated, and for this, and for the roof itself, Atiqah turned to professionals.
“It was my first time putting things together that was larger than a small box,” she said. “I think everything was new and challenging for me.”
After Atiqah and her team installed window frames and a gutter, reinforced the walls, and cleaned up the project site, the bulk of the primary construction was complete.
A BIT OF SUN, A BIT OF RAIN: SUSTAINABILITY STARTS AT HOME
Next, Atiqah worked with Solar NRJ, an engineering company that deals with installing and servicing solar panels, to obtain the materials. Again, the difficulty in finding the proper components for her home proved to be the biggest challenge. She said that while sourcing and procuring parts to create a solar energy-run electrical system for her house was difficult, putting the system together was a breeze.
“It was just a matter of generating power when the sun is out, and storing it when it’s most needed for the night,” she said. “The challenge was in finding really good batteries. I resorted to using those clunky batteries similar to those you find in your car.”
The actual process of installing a water catchment system was fairly simple, Atiqah said, and comprised just five parts: the gutter, water tank, water pump, filtration, and the tap. Once again, though, the lack of a well-established consumer-driven infrastructure for things like this hampered her progress.
“Parts for rainwater harvesting aren’t really available in Malaysia,” she said. “I had to do a lot of research to find one. But they’re not very expensive to put up.”
THE GREAT OUTDOORS, THE GREAT INDOORS
Next up was the one part of the house on which Atiqah said she really didn’t want to compromise: a lot of big windows to give her home a beautiful, natural view of the jungle.
The extensive window installations cost a total of RM13,200. “That’s where I splurged,” Atiqah laughed. “I knew I wanted to get floor-to-ceiling glass windows because I value those things, but for someone else, they could do it really cheap if instead of glass it were concrete.”
Finally, Atiqah hired professionals to fix up the house’s plumbing, electrical wiring, and pest control — the latter considered something of a necessity in the jungle setting.
After the primary construction, the interior design, finishing, and furnishing has all been done a bit at a time. And on occasion, Atiqah has needed to turn to overseas markets to find what she wants. “I was looking for a composting toilet and because I wanted a fancy one, I needed to get it from abroad,” she said, citing one example.
As for the way the house is situated on her land, Atiqah said the hot Malaysian weather meant that she had to build the house facing the south, in order to avoid facing the sun. However, that necessity came with some unexpected perks, as she soon discovered: The large balcony quickly became a favoured living space.
“The view is amazing because it’s quite remote,” Atiqah said, adding, “We get one of the darkest skies in Malaysia here, so we have amazing starry night skies. And my friends and I sit out on the balcony and look at the stars.”
FROM MASSIVE TO MICRO
Atiqah said that while tiny homes and self-sustaining homes like hers are still not mainstream in Malaysia, some locals have reached out to her with questions in hopes of building their own tiny homes.
While scattered reports of tiny house owners in Malaysia have cropped up from time to time in recent years, Atiqah said they are “very few in number.”
The movement may be growing here, but it’s still in its earliest stages. “There’s some interest [in Malaysia], but it’s small,” she said. “There are people who are really interested, but not in the same way that it is in America,
In a country where significant numbers of enormous houses sit with rooms closed off and unused, a tiny house revolution — or at least homes a bit smaller than those of the past — might be just the ticket for Malaysia’s next generation!
Reporting from Insider and Yahoo! News contributed to this article. All photos courtesy of Atiqah Nadiah Zailani.
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