How a dilapidated Penang shophouse became a dream second home

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Psychotherapist Liz McIlhagger created her ideal eco-sanctuary in the most surprising of places

glass brick hallway from second to third floor, guest room door to the left, stairway up to the right

Not many investors searching for a home on the northern shore of Penang Island would recognise the potential in a neglected mid-1980s shop house wedged in a row of equally uninspiring commercial and industrial three-storey buildings.

But in 2009, when an online search led psychotherapist Liz McIlhagger to photographs of the property that would become her second home, she and her husband Des Ng, a Malaysian architect specialising in eco-sustainable design, saw a diamond in the rough.

The photographs showed a dark, dingy building that had housed a carpentry workshop on the ground floor, and a travel agency on the first and second storeys, broken into office partitions. Undeterred and buoyed by a Google Maps search that showed the property to be close to a beach. Des and Liz purchased it in 2010, and after nine months of design work and renovations, moved into Oiduts House a year later.

When the couple decided to look for a property in Malaysia, Penang was at the top of their list. “We were looking for somewhere with sun, sand, sea, food and culture, and Penang ticked all the boxes,” says Des.

Turned off by Kuala Lumpur’s “mega-structure” raised rail lines and elevated freeways, they were drawn to Penang’s human-scale public transport – a bus system threads throughout the island, which is also serviced by taxis and car share services Grab and Uber.

sitting area off the kitchen

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In recent years, Penang property has become a magnet for foreign investors.

Most plump for sea-view condos, heritage shop houses in George Town, or sprawling villas in gated communities. They saw disadvantages in all, however. With condos, says Liz, “there’s a problem of maintenance when there are too few owner-occupiers,” a factor over which the buyer has no control. Des grew up in a Chinese shop house in Malacca, and he dislikes that kind of dwelling’s proximity to the street. Because they wanted a home that would hew to their eco-sustainable ethos, an aesthetics-driven villa was also out of the question.

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After the purchase the couple flew to Penang to assess the state of the property and to take measurements. They found a view of the Andaman Sea from the second floor of the house, which is a five-minute walk to a small beach, and a green hill directly behind. “It’s a natural habitat for tree monkeys, iguanas, birds and butterflies, all of which we can see from our kitchen and dining spaces – a great bonus!” says Des.

The couple started drawing up plans by introducing a large air well into the centre of the Penang property for maximum ventilation and light and air. A rain-sensor horizontal shutter allows the air well to be open to the sky most of the time. Taking a cue from the layout in Victorian houses, in which lesser rooms are relegated to the ground floor, guests are received in a drawing room on the first floor.

Des and Liz placed the living room, dining room and kitchen on the the top floor to take advantage of the views and cross-breezes. Floor-to-ceiling louvered windows bring in much more air than conventional windows, and have enabled the couple to reduce their electricity costs by 50 to 60 percent.

master bedroom
The property’s refreshed but sedate façade gives no hint that a sleek, comfortable home lies within.

Entering through a plain door, one’s eye is drawn upward, to where light floods in through the air well. A new open-thread timber staircase leads first to the mezzanine level, added to take advantage of the double-height ground floor and reclaim living space lost to the lair well. Braced by and exposed steel support beam, it houses a glassed-in office and a small library.

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Old floor screed was hacked away during the renovation to reveal Vintage terrazzo tiles on the first floor. On this level three bedrooms – two of which Des and Liz rent out on Airbnb march down a long narrow corridor illuminated by the air well and two glass-brick walls. Two bedrooms boast a wall of louvers opening onto the air well, while the rear master suite looks onto the hill behind the house.

dining room off kitchen
The second-floor living area flows seamlessly from the living area and open terrace at the front of the house to the open-plan kitchen and dining areas at the back. It is a cool, serene oasis on even the hottest of days and where, Des and Liz, spend most of their time. “Our vision was to have a light and airy home designed for living in and to be enjoyed! We believe we achieved that,” says Liz.

Judging from Oiduts House, the advantages to thinking outside of the box when it comes to considering properties as a potential home can be great. Good design is key, says Des, for “from that everything else will flow naturally.” And once the renovation is complete, “you’ll get a great satisfaction from doing something special and unique.”

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