Building Houses to Build Communities

Text and photo by Carolyn Hong

John-Son Oei pulls out a manual from the bookshelf. Words were scarce on the pages.

Instead, they were filled with line drawings that showed how planks are to be assembled to make a wall, or how windows are made. Yes, it’s a house-making manual, and it’s created by Epic Homes, an organisation dedicated to building homes for the 12,000 indigenous Orang Asli families in Peninsular Malaysia.

Oei, 28, is the founder of Epic Homes. But Epic doesn’t want to be just a builder of houses. It also wants to be a builder of communities, and a builder of systems to make house-building accessible to all.

To do this, it recruits volunteers to build houses alongside the Orang Asli community, with the hope of fostering lasting relationships between the different communities. And in return for a new house, the recipient will join Epic in building at least another three houses for their community.

“In this way, the Orang Asli community won’t just get new houses, they will also become connected to a larger community which can be a source of support to them,” he said.

A government survey showed that eight out of 10 of these indigenous families are in dire need of better housing, and better support.But what makes Epic really stand out is its effort to create a house-building system that can be scaled rapidly.

Someday, it hopes people may even be able to order houses online from Epic which will deliver the components to them with a manual. In this way, its admittedly ambitious goal of building a house for 12,000 families can be achieved.

“We want to put a system into place that will allow this venture to be sustainable,” Oei said.

It all began with a toilet five years ago, in 2010. Oei was then a college student with like-minded friends who wanted more from life than the rat race. None of them were wealthy.

Oei, whose father passed away when he was 13, had worked his way through college, doing everything from making coffee to modelling. Then, one day, a friend invited them to Kampung Jawa Kerling, an Orang Asli village in Selangor.

An idea struck Oei when he saw the deplorable toilets. He thought they could rebuild the toilets as well as paint the rundown houses. Without any money or expertise, they turned to social media.

To their surprise, within a week and a half, they had 64 volunteers and RM10,000. They called the venture Project Epic or Extraordinary People Impacting Communities. “My life changed from that point.

I saw that people were hungry to contribute, to dirty their hands to make an impact. They just didn’t have the platform to do so,” he said.

“It gave me the courage to continue.” All fired up, they then visited Kampung Hulu Tamu in Batang Kali, Selangor with the idea of replicating the project.

But they found the houses so dilapidated that a fresh coat of paint wasn’t going to cut it. The idea was born: Build a house for each family that needed it.

Oei first thought they would raise funds and hire contractors. But he soon saw great scope here for volunteerism and community building. “It would be great to build a house together and build relationships at the same time,” he said. “And it would be so cool to be able to say that we actually built a house!” But the process had to be simple enough for untrained volunteers to carry out, and had to be completed within three days.

No architect thought it could be done. A developer friend came to the rescue, and undertook the pilot project. Four workers built the first house in three days in 2012. It proved that it could be done. The model was refined, and the next project was built by 30 volunteers.

Epic Homes was well on its way. As with the toilet project, there were no shortage of volunteers and funds. In fact, there are so many eager volunteers that available slots often get filled within 30 minutes.

“Money hasn’t been a problem either,” Oei said. Corporations and donors fund the houses. The team runs side ventures to fund operational costs and salaries of its eight staff. This includes organising house-building weekends for corporations like Pemandu (the government agency in charge of reforms), AirAsia and Media Prima, as a team-building exercise.

Oei is also exploring a voluntourism sideline to raise funds for Epic while generating income for the Orang Asli through eco-tourism in their villages. Epic has a pretty efficient system going now. It has an online portal to sign up volunteers and donors. Volunteers are trained in its workshop, and building teams are well structured with clear hierarchies.

Modular houses have been designed to speed up the building process as well as to allow customisation, to some extent, for each family based on their needs.

“We treat them as our clients, with dignity, not as victims. We don’t want to foist upon them a design that we have chosen as this would make their house a daily reminder of their poverty and lack of choice,” he said. In its first year, Epic built only one house but last year, it built 16. So far, in all, it has built 30 houses.

To think, it all began with a toilet.

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