The Paramit Factory by Design Unit Sdn. Bhd., Malaysia, challenges the industrial typology that is too often mired in questions of functionality and cost. John Bulcock, the principal architect, is best known for tropical houses, noteworthy for unfinished concrete walls and playful inventiveness with climate. Daylight, greenery and vistas were key considerations from the start. The louvered canopy roof connects indoor with outdoor, delineating semi-covered landscaped spaces that are lush and green, hence the moniker “Factory in the Forest.”
The factory’s design is focused on the occupants, some 800 workers who on opening day must have thought they stumbled into a resort. Integrating principles of passive design with complex climate-control systems is never easy, especially in a facility this large. Bulcock was aided by IEN Consultants Sdn. Bhd., a Kuala Lumpur-based environmental design team. Together they have created a remarkable blend of space, light, views, and plants, backed by strong numbers on consumption and comfort.
Paramit’s “Factory in the Forest”
This 162,000-square-foot “Factory in the Forest” is located in Penang Science Park, Bukit Minyak, on mainland Penang. Completed and launched in January 2017, it was built for Paramit Corporation (or Paramit Malaysia Sdn. Bhd. as its subsidiary), a Silicon Valley-based electronics company specializing in medical and satellite equipment. This new facility enables Paramit to expand its current workforce in Penang from 500 to 800 people.
An architectural competition for the design was won by Design Unit Sdn. Bhd. with IEN Consultants Sdn. Bhd. engaged as environmental and sustainability specialists. The project is devoid of the monotonous and soulless industrial architecture characteristic of conventional factory design. Instead, the designers revolutionized factory typology by creating architecture that is both astonishing and stimulating for Paramit and its workforce. The result resembles a resort or a research center more than a factory, in sheer contrast with the rest of the factories in Penang Science Park. Hence, it’s not surprising that anyone who arrives at the front gate for the first time believes that they are at the wrong place.
Site zoning and spatial components
The 5-acre rectangular-shaped site was designed to minimize the effect of solar radiation. The site is simply divided into four parallel zones (from west to east): ‘forest’ car park; office; courtyard; and manufacturing zones.
The ‘forest’ car park zone is at the western boundary facing the existing access road, where a guardhouse, parking spaces and a drop-off area are located. The main entrance is where both staff and visitors’ cars enter and exit. The secondary entrance is for staff arriving by shuttle bus and motorbikes as well as all stockroom deliveries. From this entrance, there is a covered walkway for staff that leads to the locker room. By having two separate entrances, potential congestion of cars, motorbikes, delivery trucks, and pedestrians at the start or end of work is alleviated. In essence, the car park is conceived as a ‘forest’ where cars are parked rather than a car park with planted trees.
Next to this zone is an office area that contains a central three story irregular-shaped glass tower with a triple-volume office reception lobby. The glass tower becomes the primary connector, vertically and horizontally, to the single- and double-volume office spaces on the first floor, the cantilevered boardroom at the second floor and the roof gardens at both levels.
The courtyard zone is another ‘forest’ area that becomes the transition space between the office and the manufacturing zones. The primary architectural element created here is the link-bridge that connects all levels of the glass tower and the manufacturing zone.Under this bridge is a walkway that links the ground floor reception lobby to the manufacturing block. This provides a dry, direct, and wheelchair-friendly route for managers and staff at the manufacturing zone to meet visitors at the reception lobby without going up to the office floor to cross the courtyard. For visitors, the walkway allows them to enjoy the surprise of space and the quiet sanctuary of the courtyard before entering the manufacturing zone.
Part of the walkway is cleverly integrated with a breakout area for staff. On the north side of the courtyard is a staff locker room, praying rooms and the main access corridor for factory workers to get to the manufacturing zone. To the south is an indoor cafeteria and a courtyard-dining terrace for outdoor dining and meetings. All in all, the link-bridge simply enhances the courtyard, and their co-existence encourages the factory workers to be in contact with nature in their everyday working life.
The manufacturing zone – the biggest component of the project – covers about two-thirds of the site area. Designed as a one story factory building and two story stockroom, its primary spaces include production, packaging, warehouse and loading areas. Just like the office staff, manufacturing workers in this zone also have contact with nature through natural light overhead and views to both the green courtyard and landscape at the factory sidewalls.
Nature works everywhere
Undoubtedly, forests are critical for both the macro- and microclimate. Forests not only produce oxygen, clean the air and reduce global warming, but they also reduce flooding and water pollution. In line with this, the design concept of a “Factory in the Forest” was conceived.
The design aims to connect the factory with a man-made forest; hence, blurring the boundary between building and nature. This was achieved by conceiving the entire site as a ‘forest’ that penetrates, encloses and ‘steps over’ the buildings. The ‘forest’ begins at the frontal car park area, then ‘steps up’ to all office levels (as large and continuous green roof gardens), down into the courtyard, and ends all around the manufacturing block at the back. By doing this, nature can be visually and physically experienced by anyone (management staff, manufacturing workers and visitors), anywhere (lobby, offices, meeting rooms, boardroom, cafeteria, locker rooms, production areas, etc.). All office levels give direct access to green roof gardens, thereby achieving an ecological working environment and promoting outdoor living in this tropical climate.
Additionally, a high-level sunshade canopy supported by a ‘forest’ of slender pillars further accentuates the verticality of the surrounding trees. Overall, it gives an impression of a forested factory under a shade. The large canopy not only unites but also shelters the parking area, courtyard, office roof gardens, and other external spaces below. The large inner courtyard under the canopy has enough height and airflow to allow plants to grow freely.
From an environmental viewpoint, trees and vegetation provide shade to the walls and windows, which in turn help reduce the building’s cooling load in a passive manner. Psychologically, people choose a natural setting to relieve their overactive minds or to retreat to when stressed. Studies have shown that time in nature or even viewing scenes of nature are associated with a positive mood, psychological well being, meaningfulness and vitality. Currently, however, the planted trees and vegetation on the ground and roofs are still immature. Once they are fully grown in a few years’ time, the concept of a factory in the forest will be better portrayed, and more importantly, their environmental and psychological benefits will be better served.
Celebrate the rain by integrating water elements
Apart from greenery and natural light, the factory also celebrates nature by integrating the element of water for environmental and psychological benefits. Almost the entire floor area of the ‘forest’ parking zone is covered with pervious surfaces (pervious concrete, porous pavement and open-grid pavers) to allow rainwater to percolate through. This strategy reduces the pollution of surface water.
Furthermore, rainwater free-falling from the office green roofs is channelled to water retention ponds that become a landscape feature of the building entrance lobby. Rainwater from the factory roof is designed to cascade down via a series of spouts to a pebble drain catchment area at the ground level in the courtyard. The result is a dramatic scenery of waterfalls along the glass wall that separates the factory space and the green courtyard. Underground pipes then direct the rainwater from the courtyard to the same rainwater harvest tank under the car park area. The experience of seeing, touching and hearing the free-falling rainwater everywhere on-site not only stimulates one’s senses and encourages self-reflection, it also heightens one’s awareness of the tropical climate.
Let the breeze and sunshine in
Almost all internal spaces in the courtyard zone (i.e., the link-bridge, cafeteria, locker room, corridor to the manufacturing building) are naturally ventilated with the installation of adjustable glass louvres on walls facing the courtyard. Although the office and manufacturing zones are actively cooled, energy consumption is much reduced as the air-handling unit (AHU) system is supplemented by the radiant chilled slab system. To reduce the reliance on artificial lighting, daylight is optimally captured into the interior space while minimizing glare and solar heat gain. Double glazed low-E glass is used for all perimeter office windows.
Where perimeter enclosed offices are provided, the design of office fronts incorporates as much glass (frameless tempered glass) as possible to provide borrowed light to the interior. Apart from perimeter glazing, the centrally positioned open-plan office spaces also receive natural light from a series of skylights. Receiving daylight from the office roof gardens, these skylights are designed with solid concrete tops and vertical glazing on all four sides. The concrete top, which also doubles up as bench seating, and the surrounding vegetation shade the glazing; hence, giving diffused rather than direct sunlight to the interior space below.
Additional shading to the office building (also ‘forest’ car park and courtyard) is provided by the grand sunshade canopy that covers about one-third of the site area. The slats of the canopy, which are made of aluminum, are angled to partially block the direct east sun and fully block the direct west sun. The canopy is a low-tech and effective method to filter sunlight, thereby keeping the interior and exterior spaces comfortable.
The factory building in the manufacturing zone captures daylight in two ways: via rhythmic undulations of saw-tooth roofs and façade glazing. The sawtooth roofs are designed with vertical roof clear glazing facing north that allows only diffused daylight to enter. A series of vertical white-painted plasterboard reflector panels are positioned underneath but parallel to the vertical glazing to block direct low sun at certain times of day and year, and to reflect diffused daylight into the factory space to achieve an even daylight distribution. The second strategy is through the north-west and south-east façades. Although full-height single glazing is constructed along the façades, it is shielded from the low east and west sun by exterior vertical fair-faced concrete fins installed at regular intervals to minimize heat gain. The overall result is a pleasant natural light without glare all year round.
Lessons left to learn
Paramit’s remarkable “Factory in the Forest” has set a good example of an industrial architecture in the tropics, worthy of following. The most important lesson is that for buildings to be environmentally friendly, they must respond to their site as well as to local climate, culture, architecture and technology. On top of that, the spatial and psychological benefits of natural landscape in architecture should not be undermined because the experience of seeing, touching, smelling and hearing the natural elements of green, water, breeze and light in architecture is something that everyone would enjoy and appreciate.
Unsurprisingly, a quick dialogue with the staff revealed that they are happier in this new facility compared to the old one on the Penang Island. Indeed, happiness at work could contribute to improvements in workers’ well-being and their level of productivity.
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This project was originally featured in FuturArc, March-April 2017, Vol 53. The article was written by FuturArc correspondent Dr. Zalina Shari and has been edited down for length. Introduction is by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Dr. Nirmal Kishnani.