‘Everyone can now build a house’ seems to be the outcome of EPIC’s endeavour to gift the Orang Asli community with their own homes.
The deafening sound of the impact drill brought back memories of my neighbour’s renovation work which managed to wake me up every morning for two months. As a result, I had an aversion to the sound but today, I am the cause of that sound – and happily so. After all, I am helping to build a staircase for an indigenous house. Despite it being just a showhouse, the sense of accomplishment was worth all the backbreaking hard work, the tedium, and the hot sun.
Along with several others, among whom are CEOs, professionals, students, retired and other ‘respectable’ people, we are unwittingly blazing a trail to transform the image of the construction industry.
From a low-end job where Malaysians fastidiously thumb their nose at thus causing the migration of millions of foreign workers into the country, to a respectable blue collar job where craftsmen can be created and trained, this is the volunteer opportunity that has benefits lasting a lifetime.
“Yes, indeed, construction is sexy,” chuckles JohnSon Oei, CEO and Founder of EPIC Collective, a community-based volunteer organisation that strives at its core to build houses for the homeless and marginalised.
“It has been many years in the making,” Oei describes the long gestation period of his baby. Back in 2011, he and another co-founder wanted to do their part in building houses for the Orang Asli community (the indigenous people of Malaysia).
They started off by trial and error and by viralling their need for volunteers and funds. The response was totally unexpected as many middleclass urbanites comprising students, lecturers, professionals and business people took up the challenge. Not only did they familiarise themselves with gusto over the building tools like impact drills, electric saws and nails and even building scaffoldings, they also clicked very well as a team.
With three days as average building time to complete a house, there was ample time to know one another and the Orang Asli community making this a very enriching and rewarding experience for all.
“Through the building of relationships, the house itself we provide can be used as a bridge to connect the Orang Asli community with urbanites. We wanted to empower ordinary folks who really care, to use their hands and skills to deliver safe and good quality homes,” says Oei
From that experience, they realised people didn’t mind getting their hands dirty trying to help out; more importantly, a sense of community was forged among themselves.
But the EPIC people also realised something else – that they need proper training to get things done right and to ensure safety for everyone involved. That was how the Basic Builder Workshop was conceived. It’s a compulsory workshop for all those who want to help build a house.
“We realised how dangerous it was to do this without proper training. The initial module for the workshop was conceived by us together with some ‘uncles’ who are experienced handymen/craftsmen. Later, we partnered with power tool companies like Stanley and Black+Decker whose technicians trained and certified us so we can go on to train and certify others.”
The workshop is divided into 5 basic areas of competency, each called ‘station’ which a participant needs to be guided through.
To keep costs down and speed up the building process, Oei and his team have put together a multidisciplinary team of professionals comprising architects and engineers to come up with standardised designs. They improve on it until a point where it is ready to be replicated. Masterbuilders then ensure the quality is maintained. If there are defects, the masterbuidler may refer them to the architect or engineer who will then advise on rectification works.
“It’s a bit like the IKEA or Do-It-Yourself (DIY) system where the design has been endorsed. As long as the building meets the specifications and everything is in its proper place, then the quality is assured (after final checks by the masterbuilder),” explains Chief Epic Officer Oei.
The ranking system for the builders is pretty simple. You start off as a rookie, then progress into a mentorship programme. After passing a test, you become a masterbuilder. Currently, there are about 16-20 masterbuilders. They and the specialists are paid.
Some Orang Aslis today managed to qualify from this programme and later became full-time construction workers. Since 2012, EPIC has built a total of 140 homes. By Oei’s estimate, they build an average of 5 houses a year, with each house taking about 3 days to complete, aided by about 30 volunteers.
An interesting spinoff of this venture which has tremendous commercial value is providing end-toend solutions for landowners who want to build houses on their land. “We get more and more of such requests from landowners who asked us to help them build houses on land that they own in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
“A number of professionals have uprooted their family and moved into kampong areas like Janda Baik where they can build their own custom-made bungalow-type house,” Oei reveals.
EPIC’s solution is unique because it allows the owners or investors to participate in the building process right from the start. And if they want to build it themselves, EPIC provides architects to certify for them.
“Otherwise, we could supply everything for them including design, labour and materials.” Oei says. Each house costs about RM50,000, a figure that has been unchanged since EPIC’s launch in 2011.
Elaborating, Oei shares that there is a Tiny Home movement sweeping across Malaysia now: “These people buy land and then build their tiny homes. Some of them come to us for help.” Some use their tiny homes as primary homes, whilst others use it as their weekend home.
“The average built-up size is about 500 sq ft but we have done houses that are a few thousand square feet and taller than 2 storeys,” notes Oei.
The price of EPIC’s end-to-end solutions varies but averages about RM150,000 for each project. The commercial venture is just part of EPIC’s evolution as it branches into many other areas including income-generating ventures and those with social impact such as placemaking and masterplanning. They are constantly on the lookout for opportunities and talents.
Says Oei: “We are constantly exploring and pushing the envelope, learning and trying to make building homes even more affordable. Generating our own income is part and parcel of that.”
As expected, there are challenges along the way – examples include lowering the cost of supplies which is very difficult due to their lack of bulk orders. But with their collaboration with PAM (Malaysian Institute of Architects), government agencies, local authorities and NGOs, as well as standardising further the process, EPIC hopes they could further lower prices in the future.
Oei feels the market is saturated today with too much emphasis on the hardware. “We need to integrate the hardware with the software – in other words, we don’t just build the houses but we want to impact the communities as well.”
“We want people to interact more in the community so that we can channel that energy back to conventional developments. In society today, the richer you are, the more isolated you become – this is a different kind of poverty that we are trying to solve.”
Among the spinoffs that’s making a splash is a next generation farm that can be integrated into a mall or a neighbourhood and at the same time, make an impact on the community.
With modern farming techniques that not only do away with pesticides, the farm could generate 4 to 5 times more produce than conventional farms.
Prior to that, EPIC has also built toy libraries, water harvesting systems and even ventured as far as Cambodia to build classrooms. “Our main aim was to empower the local community and upgrade their skills.”
Back to the Orang Asli story; Oei shares how the indigenous people are so touched by volunteers building houses for them that they now embrace constructing homes as a noble endeavour. “Construction work is no longer considered a menial task that only the poor do. It becomes a noble thing to get your hands dirty with hard work.”
“In a way, we have brought back dignity to construction work. But there is room to improve the quality of the houses and the level of craftsmanship,” Oei reflects.
Reflecting back on my experience with the Basic Builder Workshop, I note that the outcome was a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie among the participants and trainers. Admittedly the work of building the staircase was tedious and backbreaking but ultimately it was a rewarding and fun experience with all team members striving their best to achieve a good result.
Knowing how to use the power tools was also a great enabler – the skills can be used in DIY home repairs too.
We may not be heroes (or heroines) in our daily life but once we put on our construction garb and helmet, we become part-time Superbuilders for a worthy cause.