Is underground housing a feasible option?

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By Viktor Chong

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As technology in construction improves, the boundaries of usable land have stretched to include not only width and height but also depth. Nations across the world such as Japan, Finland and China are already leading the move towards subterranean construction, no doubt pressured by land scarcity in the city region. Neighbouring Singapore has its famous underground shopping mall Ion Orchard while Canada still holds the status of having the largest underground city in Montreal.

And there are entrepreneurs and businesses that transformed underground caverns into hotels like in the Grand Canyon, USA or in many European nations like Switzerland, Sweden, France and Italy. All in all, subterranean projects are usually confined to pedestrian walkways, parking spots, subway lines, roads and commercial lots. Underground residential projects are few and far between, such as Coober Pedy, Australia, where half the town's population reside underground in hills, caves, and old mine shafts to escape the desert heat.

One could only imagine why such residential projects have yet to take off despite the looming issue of adequate housing, in Malaysia or anywhere else across the world. There are reasons why such novel developments are unfeasible with our current technology, and they are best explained by the experts.

 

Khalid said people may not feel safe as they descend further into the ground.

Khalid said people may not feel safe as they descend further into the ground.

According to Kuala Lumpur district valuer Khalid Abdul Mutalib, one major obstacle towards the creation of underground development is the lack of windows. A common feature in every surface home, windows are taken for granted, but their absence in an underground home will be felt most profoundly. Psychologically, he believes house buyers would not prefer such homes as the absence of a view and the added depth deep underground creates the impression of confinement. The sound of animals, trees, and wind movement also contribute to the mental wellbeing of residents, which explains why landscaping is important in every development.

“I can understand the scarcity of land resources in the city centre, but I still opine that people prefer skyscrapers rather than underground living,” said Rosli.

“I can understand the scarcity of land resources in the city centre, but I still opine that people prefer skyscrapers rather than underground living,” said Rosli.

University Malaya Associate Professor Rosli Said is in agreement, saying that fresh air is a basic requirement for a good living condition. He said such a concept should be reserved for commercial lots since the tenants will only spend a limited amount of time underground.

“I think only investors will purchase and rent to the market because the tenants keep moving from one place to another. It is not suitable for first-time homebuyers, especially the medium income group,” he added. Gather Building Management Sdn Bhd property manager Ken Teo Khiok Nyuk said maintenance is also a problem as elaborate machinery and equipment is required to facilitate ventilation. Unlike in surface developments, the system must function, hence the need for long term upkeep. Underground installation costs are not cheap either.

“I personally feel that the development of satellite cities with infrastructure will be more cost-effective when compared to underground development,” said Teo.

“I personally feel that the development of satellite cities with infrastructure will be more cost-effective when compared to underground development,” said Teo.

Fire safety is another concern as the lack of opening underground confines hazardous smoke within the living space. Unless thought is put into making additional escape routes, residents will have fewer exit options. Also, flooding may be life-threatening to subterranean residents unlike in surface homes where they can escape to the upper levels.

Teo further pointed out issues such as refuse and sewage management, cold water supply and loading difficulty. Besides maintenance, underground homes are largely uneconomical to construct as more effort is required to move earth from within the ground. In essence, building deeper incurs more cost than building higher. Profit margins for affordable housing projects at the surface are already slim at best, and this added cost should make developers less eager to participate in any underground affordable housing. 

Further on, the overhang situation involves an excess of high-rise units, giving little reason for house buyers to choose underground homes even if they were available. Unless technology improves, the lower market price, higher maintenance cost and safety hazards work in tandem to make such residential projects unfeasible.


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