Fabian Tan transforms the Ittka House into a brighter and cooler abode

The all-white color scheme plays a part in illuminating the interiors, but it was the Malaysian architect's masterful control of lighting that served as the key factor.

  • February 18, 2019

  • Written by Miguel R. Llona

  • Photographed by Eiffel Chong

It had been a gloomy day during BluPrint’s visit to Fabian Tan‘s Ittka House, with dark clouds hinting at the possibility of rain. Which was why it was mystifying to see the house’s interiors significantly brighter than the scene outside, despite the lights being turned off. The interiors were bathed with a soft glow that made our eyes adjust for a second, as if we were seeing light for the first time.

“Measuring light is not an easy thing to do,” Tan says. “I had to make sure the openings were big enough to let ample light in, without it being too glaring.” True enough, these openings aren’t readily seen, but strategically placed to welcome in the right balance of light and wind.

Ittka House
A 30-year old terrace house used to occupy the lot, which Tan elected to demolish as the existing columns would have made a spacious layout difficult to pull off. The Ittka House is squeezed in between two houses, eliminating any space for gardens that would have helped with ventilation. Tan made do with a small garden on the second floor balcony, which doubles as a natural screen for the interiors.

Contradicting requirements from the clients, a young couple, forced Tan to think up creative ways to brighten up the house. They wanted a well-lit and well-ventilated house that’s also enclosed from the street for privacy. They required four bedrooms and bathrooms, which would be difficult to squeeze into the 176.5-square meter lot the house occupies. “For a terrace house, their requirements were unusually high, which is quite hard to achieve in a small space,” says Tan. “That forced me to challenge the concept of a traditional terrace house.”

Tan took inspiration from the spatial planning of Japanese micro houses, with their flexible, partition-less layouts that helped maximize cramped spaces. To achieve this, he decided to reverse the usual program of a terraced house to open up as much space as possible. The private areas, consisting of the four bedrooms and bathrooms, would occupy the ground floor, while the living, dining and kitchen areas would be moved to the second floor in an open-plan, “roof deck” layout. With these partition-less public areas on the second floor, the house doesn’t feel cramped despite the compact spacing, and the breadth of space up top creates room for hot air to rise into.

Ittka House
Beside the living area is a large window that opens to a small garden on the balcony. Because the house isn’t warm during the day, the owners prefer to open the window during nighttime when the breeze is cooler and the house isn’t as hot during the day. “People living in the city like opening their windows during the day, which I think is wrong,” says Tan. “The city is a heat sink because there’s a lot of concrete, so the temperature outside is higher. It’s better for residents to close their windows during the day, then open them at night.”

Ittka House
The “roof deck” layout for the second floor allows the house to breathe. Wind can enter through the sliding doors outside the kitchen area or the window in the living area, creating a cross-ventilation effect the clients enjoy while lounging on the second floor. The hot air is then squeezed out through the louvers on the corridor skylight.

To work around the client’s request for privacy, Tan resorted to using skylights to let natural light in. This is a problematic solution as skylights are considered impractical in tropical countries, which the Ittka’s House’s restrictions will only compound. “The owners wanted the house to be bright, but not too bright,” says Tan. “That was a very broad requirement. I had to do a lot of experimentation on-site to determine how big and wide the skylights should be, so the light coming in won’t be too glaring.”

The house faces southwest, so the facade had to be closed off. All spaces were arranged and stacked at the southeast side of the house, opening up a hallway on the northwest side that stretches from the main door to the house’s back end. Tan turned this hallway into a light corridor. His initial plan was to open up its ceiling with glass, but realized it would have introduced too much light and heat into the interiors. He adjusted by creating a six-inch wide niche on the ceiling edge that not only functions as a skylight, but also as an outlet for warm air. The top of this niche is faced with glass, while inclined louvers on its side allow hot air to escape. During the day, this elongated skylight gives off a glow reminiscent of fluorescent lighting.

Ittka House
View from the study. Any spot on the upper floor provides sight lines to the rest of the areas, save for the bedrooms.

Another skylight, measuring 1×1 meters, was created at the center of the ceiling, serving as the main light source in the daytime. Light streaming in from this area illuminates a tree in the middle of the ground floor, which acts as the focal point between the bedrooms and the staircase. Even with all the windows and doors closed off, the brightness of the Ittka House’s interiors remain constant during the day due to these two skylights.

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Tan’s simple yet efficient solutions for natural lighting and ventilation have led to a house that meets the clients’ every requirement. A cool and calming effect is immediately felt upon going through the main door, as the narrow hallway opens up vertically for a double-height space. The hallway then transitions into the central open space with the indoor tree, flanked by the bedrooms and staircase leading to the public areas. Air enters through openings on both sides of the second floor–the window in the living room overlooking the street and kitchen sliding doors on the other end–making the public spaces a refreshing getaway for the clients.

Ittka House
Tan had to do a lot of experimentation during construction. “I had to adjust the boards and formworks on site, so I could determine how big and wide the skylights had to be to properly control the light coming in,” he says. Apart from providing additional natural light into the interiors, the idea is for stagnant air on the upper floors to escape through this small opening and be released through clerestory windows on top of the light well.

From top to bottom, the Ittka House is an ode to simplicity, something the clients admire. “We wanted a house that’s easy to maintain, something clean and simple. No fuss,” says the husband. It’s easy to understand their admiration, as Tan turned the lack of ornamentation into visual poetry. The interior surfaces reflect the day’s mood, morphing into different shades of white as time passes. “A lot of people have this misconception that all-white houses are boring, which isn’t necessarily true,” says Tan. “Even with basic material finishes, you can create a calm space defined purely by volume, depth and light, which was my intent.”

Most architects would choose the easy way out and encase the house with glazing to meet the client’s requirements, content to let low-e glass mitigate heat. Tan’s minimalist approach to the minimalist Ittka House shines a light on how to brighten up a house, all without leaving it at the mercy of the sun. B ender

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