Knockdown Houses: South Sumatra

The quality and renown of “knockdown houses” built in the village of Tanjung Batu Seberang in Tanjung Batu subdistrict, Ogan Ilir regency, South Sumatra, has long been widely known. Their fame is not restricted to the province, and has spread to other parts of Sumatra as well as Java. It has even spread to Spain, where they have been praised for their high-quality design and robust timber construction.

The potential for overseas export looks promising, but the industry is being held back through lack of capital. The Jakarta Post correspondent Khairul Saleh reports from Palembang, South Sumatra:

Tanjung Batu Seberang village is 70 kilometers, or 1.5 hours by road, from Palembang via standard or express buses.

According to official records, about 4,000 families live in the village. Most are closely connected to the principal industry of constructing what are known as “knockdown houses“, and many of the villagers are skilled carpenters.

The wooden houses — called simply rumah bongkar pasang — can be disassembled for relocation, and then reassembled once they are moved to the designated site.

The houses are exactly as described by name. They are constructed in the village then taken apart (bongkar) with care. All sections of the house, such as the doors, windows, floors and walls, are marked with a code to ensure easy reassembly (pasang) at their new location.

The houses are well known for the quality of their construction and stability, and have been sold across South Sumatra, as well as to other Sumatran cities such as Bengkulu, Jambi, Lampung and Medan.

The houses have also been sold to customers on Java, including those in Jakarta, Bandung, Bogor, Semarang, Yogyakarta and Surabaya.

Tanjung Batu Seberang’s knockdown houses are also in demand overseas among customers in Malaysia and Singapore. Their reputation has even reached European shores, particularly Spain, and have been featured on BBC radio programs in London.

At a time when most houses are made of concrete and bricks, these houses built by wooden craftsmen and carpenters face significant competition, and must continually adapt to keep pace with market demands.

In particular, they must be able to meet consumers’ needs and interests through innovative design.

For example, carpenters must use their skills and imagination to change fittings and modify a design according to the customer’s wishes.

Other businesses exist in Indonesia that make similar products, located in East Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi and Bali.

According to 60-year-old carpenter Mang Din Syarifuddin, Tanjung Batu Seberang-made knockdown houses equal to those made in Bali in quality, strength and durability.

These houses have also proved that they can survive earthquakes, like the one that hit Liwa, South Lampung, in 1994.
Speaking to the Post at his village home, Mang Din said workmen were erecting a knockdown house when the earthquake struck. Many homes surrounding the knockdown house collapsed or were badly damaged, but the knockdown house stood fast.

The method of construction utilized in building these timber houses — they are assembled in stages — is an ancient skill that have been widely used in traditional structures found in Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan.

The houses are elevated on stilts — a design that evolved to protect residents from the wild animals that frequently entered villages in the past. This design also protects residents of coastal areas from high tides and flooding during the monsoon season.

The houses come in three standard sizes: 5 meters by 7 meters, 7 m by 10 m, and 7 m by 12 m. The smallest is the most popular; very few orders come in for the largest houses.

Mang Din said customers can add their own specifications, which frequently involve ornamental fittings. Buyers are also particular about the style of the entrance steps.

“They usually want a special ornament or decoration to improve the appearance of this house and make it more attractive, depending on their taste,” said the youthful-looking Mang Din, a father of seven children and grandfather of nine.

Constructing a knockdown house requires three or four carpenters, who take about two months to build a small house and three months for the larger structures.

The houses cost Rp 1.2 million (US$130) per square meter, excluding roof tiles, stilts and ceilings.

The price does include loading and transportation costs, but this applies only to Bandung and its surrounds. Separate charges apply if the house is shipped elsewhere.

Most of the walls and floors are built of Meranti or Durian timber from the Beringin area of Muara Enim. Its frame is made from seru (Schima wallichii) timber from Palembang and the villages that surround Tanjung Batu Seberang.

Mang Din said it was becoming difficult to source quality timber, particular dry wood that will not shrink.

“Quality timber is now rare and that makes the price of the house expensive. It’s difficult, but we don’t have any choice,” he said.

For example, one cubic meter of seru timber in four-meter lengths costs Rp 1.8 million ($200), while the same volume in shorter lengths costs Rp 1.2 million ($130). Durian timber is priced similarly. Meranti is the most expensive, and can cost up to Rp 2 million ($220) a cubic meter.

The carpenters generally reassemble the house after delivery to the specified location.

But a buyer from Spain who had already ordered a house didn’t want the added expense of transporting four Indonesian carpenters to reassemble the house. So he videotaped the construction process to use as an assembly guide.

According to Mang Din, it’s in the home owner’s best interest to use the very same carpenters who built the house for reassembly.

He said some customers in Malaysia were only prepared to pay expenses and airfares for two carpenters, although four are needed to rebuild the house properly.

“That causes an extra burden for the two carpenters and adds to the costs, which of course we can’t afford,” he said, adding that he hoped the Ogan Ilir government would provide a soft loan to alleviate the problem.

“It would be a great pity to lose the potential in this business just because we can’t cover costs,” Mang Din said.

To broaden the market, people like Mang Din now also build a hexagonal gazebo that is raising a lot of interest.

Its construction time is much faster than building a house. A 2.5 m by 2.5 m gazebo costs Rp 5 million ($550) and two weeks’ building time. A 3 m by 3 m gazebo is priced at Rp 7.5 million ($830), and a 6 m by 8 m gazebo sells for Rp 40 million ($4,400) and takes a month to build.

Mang Din is optimistic that the knockdown house market is still promising.

He said the houses appealed to buyers because they represented a “back to nature” style, and their ability to withstand flooding, earthquakes and other natural disasters also made the knockdown houses good alternatives to conventional homes.