Shelter@Rainforest is an architectural and cultural intervention in a remote and scarred landscape on the island of Borneo, in Malaysia. Informed through an understanding of local traditions, Indigenous knowledge, and the commercial concerns of the client company, the project utilises design and technology to create sustainable architecture and resilience.

, , , | 100,000ha
Sabah, East Malaysia | Borneo
Private Client | Commenced 2012

“The final result of this project, based on smart design, engineering and collaboration, is a low-cost and self-sufficient building that does much more than simply meet the functional requirements of its users. It sits with elegance and raw beauty in its surrounds and the wider community. This project is an excellent example of design and construction in remote locations with limited resources.”

– Australian Institute of Architects award citation, 2014


This project combines architectural skills – spatial thinking, observations of habitation patterns, and construction technologies – with Indigenous knowledge – local and vernacular history, culture and building heritage – to create sustainable architecture for a remote community.

Located in Sabah, Malaysia, the remote site is five hours’ drive from the capital, Kota Kinabalu. The climate is highland tropical, characterized by hot humid days, humid but cool nights, torrential rains and high winds. This is rugged and difficult-to-access terrain.

Our client – a private forestry company – controls 100,000 hectares of non-virgin forest, for a period of 99-years, under a system of sustainable reforestation.

Working alongside our client and their workers, we designed a building system – using local and appropriate technologies – to provide self-sufficient housing and community facilities for the enterprise and its people.

We incorporated building science to ensure thermal comfort, and Indigenous knowledge – of place, its customs and local craft traditions – to inform the design and construction process.

These local influences are evident in both the materiality and the planning and accommodation of social and family structures.

By delivering a construction system – rather than a pristine object – the project provides a strategy for upskilling and capacity building for the people who live in the community.


The system’s base module comprises two timber sections – 100mmx50mm and 50mmx50mm – and a plywood sheet.

Four typologies cater for different family sizes and uses – single and twin houses, a long house (accommodating four families or dormitory-style for singles) and a community house (office spaces and events hall).

Upskilling the workers to utilise this modular kit-of-parts led to accelerated building processes and simplified logistics, using readily available standardized timbers from a forest sawmill. The modular design allows for incremental and expandable buildings, and minimises material waste.

The system does not require the ongoing involvement of professionals, giving the community leadership and ownership around its own future development. Since 2012, they have built 40 buildings.

We extended the social benefits of this project beyond the initial brief by working with Indigenous people to enhance the timber extraction process, by identifying and protecting ‘mother’ trees.

These mature trees produce seeds every few years which are collected and propagated into tube stock, underpinning the sustainable re-forestation system. Now, 30-40 seedlings are planted for every harvested tree.

This created new employment opportunities for women and young people, 40% of whom come from local villages. And the scalability enables our client to incrementally grow the business, resulting in ongoing construction of buildings and long-term local employment.


This project transformed a logging camp into a diverse, healthy, sustainable and safe community; one that now provides worker housing, offices and communal spaces, and accommodation for visiting researchers, auditors, consultants, company executives and extended family.

The building typologies are influenced by local social traditions. Communal and protected outdoor spaces enable families to live harmoniously in this remote location, thereby improving staff recruitment and retention.

As an exemplar of sustainable architecture for a remote area, the low-cost system utilises local materials and labour, so the village can be built out as the forestry business grows. It is also easily adaptable for a changing future, responding to climate change and evolving social structures.