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Tetris Student Hostel

Tetris Apartments in Malaysia dispels the myth that budget constraints prevent student housing from achieving an A-plus in greenery, sustainability and community living. Iliyas Ong writes.

Tetris Student Hostel

Tetris Apartments is not your average faceless college hostel. Located near the Malaysian outpost of the University of Nottingham, in the state of Selangor, the student accommodation has the flair, efficient floorplanning, and regard for our tropical climate that makes it as vibrant and savvy as the youths who live there.


Spread out over three acres of land near a lake, the three-block complex brims with natural greenery, promotes community over solitary living, and uses architecture rather than electronics to alleviate the equatorial heat and humidity. Influence from the iconic video game comes through in the residence’s differently configured units and colourful, staggered facades that defy uniformity. It is, ultimately, a young folks’ home.


That isn’t to imply Tetris is ‘cheap’. Typically, financial constraints prevent student hostels from even attempting to reach the lofty goals certain commercial or public structures might achieve. But instead of working against that limitation, architects Lim Hwa Hong and Chong Voon Wee looked at their modest budget and the project’s requirements dialectically.


“The balance of the site between ‘dollars and sense’ was the number one challenge,” says Lim, who reveals that the pair went through more than 50 site planning layouts and over a dozen architectural schemes before settling on the final product. “I believe a little risk-taking and a fresh concept works for most clients. After all, we are selling ideas.”


Each block is four storeys tall and is split down the middle by an open linear courtyard. Interstitial corridors not only connect both ‘wings’ across the atrium; they were designed to be wide enough to serve as “communal nodes” where friends can gather and unwind after a tough day in class, according to the architects.


This unusual planning stems from the architects rejecting a “lazy stacking process” and the extrusion of building plans, the latter of which they believe to be the de facto method used in Malaysia’s vertical housing. “Perhaps the elevator has something to do with it,” muses Lim. “And this was precisely what we presented to the clients by comparing and contrasting vertical housing typology versus our building.”


Additionally, as curbing power consumption was also one of their primary concerns, Lim and Chong hid dual functions in a few elements. For example, lightweight roofs were laid over concrete slabs to shroud unsightly pipes and cables – but also to reduce heat gain, enhance waterproofing and minimise maintenance. And those linear courtyards? They capture the breeze and sunlight to provide cross-ventilation and passive lighting for the residents.


To understand the requirements of the hostel better, Lim and Chong conducted a survey with students from a local varsity before starting work on Tetris. While a majority of the respondents claim not to mind the open plan of the complex, air-conditioning remained essential to comfort. There were even a few students who told the architects they can’t sleep without it.


“[But] to allay excessive consumption,” defends Lim, “the rooms are individually fitted with a power meter; hence, the more you consume, the more you pay. We hope the message of sustainability gets across, although we cannot afford to dictate market demands.”


The interiors of the residences are as clean, modern and hip as its exterior. Bursts of colour, from the furniture, pop out against white walls, bringing the style of the facade indoors. And the suites come in a variety of configurations – including a two-bedroom duplex one – to mirror the varying shapes of Tetris blocks.


When laying out the master plan for the site, the architects ensured each unit had access to an unobstructed view of the trees and shrubs that fringe the apartments. “There is always an emphasis on light and airiness to the architecture,” says Lim. And therein lies the paradox: Tetris Apartments is as breezy, spacious and calm as its video game namesake isn’t.

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