architecture or sculpture?




The main residence concept was  inspired by the panoramic views. The changes of level followed the natural terrain on the ridge. The owner  wanted an open plan naturally ventilating building with the lowest possible power demand. With only monkeys birds and butterflies for neighbours I did the maths and realised that fixed glass was the lowest cost wall long term. At 220m elevation the ambient temperature ranges between 20 & 32 deg C so wall insulation was not needed. Living in tropical Padang is different to Bali. I knew the house needed to work well in rain storms so I opted for a lot of glass louvres. Fully insect screened living spaces are essential in the jungle or the jungle will come to visit when the lights go on at night.  Most of all the owner wanted panoramic views from every part of the house.
Material choice was easy. The rocks are from the site and the surrounding hillsides. The friends and families of the tradesmen stacked them in carefully measured piles and a beat up old truck collected them every week. Padang has one of the oldest cement factories in the world and the product is export quality so concrete floors and a structural frame were something that the local masons were skilled at building. The timber for the roof and suspended floors was easy to find and the plywood ceilings came from a local factory. Glass, aluminium and steel all came from Jakarta or Medan but nothing in the structure need to be imported. The owner wanted marble floors from the outset and was lucky enough to find a supply of export quality very hard marble (almost a granite) in a pale  grey colour that worked very well with the local stone. Black marble for the bathroom came from Solok in the mountains and the same quarry offered us free off-white marble quarry scraps… these now cover all the terraces.
There were no trees in the footprint… some past owner had cleared the area for growing chilli. The ridge lies on solid rock (I surveyed the area with care) and is well drained and stable. Next came an A3 pencil sketch of the plan and elevations and I went to site to see how well it fit. After some quick measurements, the owner started splitting bamboo with a machete and staking out the perimeter of the building. We set up some bamboo frames to check floor levels for the cut and fill and played with the curve by eye until it felt right… 
I thought, ok thats good, now I can start the architectural drawings… then the owner said: “you’re far to busy to do the drawings so lets start digging the foundations now” …. as an architect, I was astounded of course! We always do drawings in great detail, get engineers to do more drawings, change the design several times and finally call contractors to quote on the documents.
The owner was having none of that. I told the tradesman who had built the garage retaining wall to start digging the footings that afternoon. They dug down to rock and I told them how to place the steel in the trenches. Within a week we had the stone walls started but still no idea how we would build the roof. Not even the beginning of an idea. Back at the hotel the owner started playing with cardboard inspired by the way a pack of cards splays to make a stepping curve. I found that we could generate triangular sections of roof that stepped down if I worked from the focal point of the curved walls and the idea of the radiating roof beams came naturally. I calculated that these roof segments could each be perfectly level and step down to the next by sitting on top of it.  3D MODELLING

I realised as we played with a cardboard model that we had generated a very simple but amazingly strong roof system unlike any we had ever seen. It combined the stressed skin and spokes of an umbrella with the strength of a curved Nautilus shell. To my surprise it was very fast and economical to build. Our next challenge was to decide on the size of each segment and hence the spacing and location of each column needed to support the roof beams. At this point the stonework was below first floor level so we had some days to decide where the steel starter bars for the columns should be. The unique structure of the stone walls made our “design-as-it-builds” approach possible.
Knowing the area was prone to earthquakes, I had conceptualised the structure as a series of reinforced concrete ring beams about one meter apart in the vertical plane. This was in part inspired by traditional Nias oval houses we had seen in books and in part by the radical floor plan. Oval or round buildings resist earthquakes by moving in the horizontal plane “as one” rather than concentrating seismic forces that destroy rectangular structures. The idea was to avoid any hard corners in the multi story section of the building where there was far more glass than stone wall. The only right angle corner in the entire external wall is in the South East corner. At that point the building sits in a excavated terrace well below natural ground and directly on bedrock. The stacked ring beam concept freed us to place walls and columns where we wanted as we built the stonework. The rings were also placed at every floor level and tied into the floor slab with a lot of reinforcing bar. 

  • The other way this building handles quakes came about by chance. The owner needed to store a lot of rainwater because there is no mains supply anywhere near us. There is no ground water either because we are located on a saddle at the top of a mountain. I designed large tanks under the floor to store water. Later I found out by direct observation that the big water tank under the house (and the one under the studio) act as shock absorbers in a quake. They are very effective dampers. A graphic example of this is the hand blown glass vase that you may have noticed in photos of the lounge. It is heavy and has a spherical base and a very long neck. It is generally filled with water and  a bunch of leafy whatever from the garden. It is not what you would call stable having only a small flat base. 
  • In the big quake the vase rocked but did not fall down. A lot of more stable looking items like clay planter pots fell and broke. I am convinced that the water sloshing in the bowl stabilised the vase…… and that the water in the subfloor tanks saved the buildings from cracking.


ROOF Next came the steel pipe “hub” for the spiral roof and a local welder make ring brackets that were a good fit but free to slide and turn. After building scaffold to support the hub and the workers joined the roof beams to each bracket. Using lots of bamboo supports they then moved the beams radially until they created the column and wall configuration I wanted. The beams were then jacked up one by one so that bottom of each beam was level with the top of the beam below. As each beam was located, we added more bracing and props to keep in place then dropped lead lines to determine the placement of the starter bars in the ring beams… then the walls were built and columns poured up to meet the beams… the opposite way to conventional construction but very fast and accurate. I doubt we could have done it any other way!


DESIGN AS YOU BUILD Many architect friends have visited Air Manis Hill Residence and all of them find it hard to believe that this structure was built without a single measured drawing…. the process was more like sculpture than architecture and a very liberating experience for all involved. I would never have tried had the owner not started digging the foundations the day after the pencil sketch. It was the most exciting build of my life and totally hands-on…. as they say on Myth Busters…. don’t try this at home!


All Safe In Padang After Large Quakes Off Aceh

Thanks to all the past guests and friends who contacted us after the news of this afternoon’s quakes went global.

Villa Air Manis staff reported strong shaking but no damage in Padang.

Villa Air Manis is located at 200m above sea level and our manager Jup, reports to city officials after every severe quake. We have a clear view of the coast and so can monitor any changes in ocean currents or sea level change.

No tsunami was experienced in Padang but some tidal surges were felt in the off-shore islands.

We continue to monitor and will update with any important news.

Solar Flare Near Miss….. in a Positive Light

“The sun erupted with one of the largest solar flares of this solar cycle on March 6, 2012 at 7PM EST. This flare was categorized as an X5.4, making it the second largest flare — after an X6.9 on August 9, 2011 — since the sun???s activity segued into a period of relatively low activity called solar minimum in early 2007. The current increase in the number of X-class flares is part of the sun???s normal 11-year solar cycle, during which activity on the sun ramps up to solar maximum, which is expected to peak in late 2013”
Geomagnetic storms due to coronal mass ejections (CMEs) earlier in the week have increased in strength, and are now rated a G3 on a scale from G1 to G5.
This space weather is due to the March 7 activity from the sun that caused rapid changes to the shape of Earth’s magnetosphere ??? the bubble of protective magnetic fields surrounding the planet — resulting in a geomagnetic storm. As of March 8, the storm was fairly mild since the magnetic fields from the CMEs were partially aligned with Earth’s own and thus slid around the magnetosphere. However, the geomagnetic storm has increased because the magnetic fields of the CMEs have now changed direction such that they can more easily deposit magnetic energy and radiation into Earth’s environment…. NASA update on the 10th of March 2012
What is a solar flare? What is a coronal mass ejection?
For answers to these and other space weather questions, please visit the Spaceweather Frequently Asked Questionspage.
The images were shot with my old iPhone on a remote beach in Bali… the late afternoon light was strange and the colors in the beach sand were unlike anything I have seen before.
Somehow these images composed of millions of grains of sand and small stones told a story about our universe and I started taking photos… more at

Flight path VAM

VAM has a new very private rear terrace adjacent the rear bedroom. But there is always the chance that someone will pass by at 500m.
Don’t know his name but he was a delight to watch!



VAM Reviews on FlipKey

What Past Guests Are Saying

Have you stayed here? Write a review
Johannesburg S. Africa

Brilliant beyond words!

Left on 08/25/2011 for a stay in August 2007

Highly recommended. Excellent hospitality, food and service. Incredible views and certainly the best kept secret in Padang! Can’t wait to return!

More Details ???

Chris R
San Francisco

Absolutely spectacular!

Left on 08/19/2011 for a stay in August 2011

This place is simply magical. A gorgeous, glass-walled, nautilus-shaped, six-level architectural masterpiece, perched in a stunning mountaintop location with the most beautiful view you can imagine. Far below are the sleepy green outskirts of Padang city; many bays, islands, and beaches; steep hills jutting up everywhere; and the broad sweep of the Indian Ocean. At dusk, the soft chanting wafts up from the mosque way down in the valley. At night, the sparkling lights of a thousand fishing boats fade dimmer and dimmer into the distance, until they disappear over the curve of the earth. Truly magical. Add all that to the amenities, hospitality, privacy, and comfort, and this extraordinary villa offers a priceless and unique experience.

More Details ???

Gloria and Ray
South Fremantle Western Austrlaia

first visit to sumatrata

Left on 08/16/2011 for a stay in October 2010

We were amazed at the beautiful location and accommodation. The food was great, authentic and our hosts were extremely helpful. We had a wonderful stay over 10 days. As we do not speak Indonesian it was great that our hosts were fluent, otherwise we might have had difficulty finding our way to the Villa and negotiating ourselves around. At the same time we managed some lovely walks down to the beach side. The location of Villa air Mannis is truly stunning, the pool was great too. We also felt very private and comfortable in our accommodation.

More Details ???

Eversholt, Bedfordshire. UK

The best building I have ever seen in a stunning location,

Left on 08/12/2011 for a stay in October 2008

From the moment will met at the airport we were introduced to a genuine West Sumatran experience.The graciousness of the people and the attentive air Manis staff made us feel included, safe and open to fully experience this amazing location. The main House and the Villa are designed and built by the owners and fit perfectly into this stunning hillside location. The view, the simple and superb decor, the swimming pool in the garden and the nearby access to beaches, villages,and town make this setting perfect. We also went out to the Mentawai islands for the surfing and the relaxation. The people here were also wonderful in their welcome and yet this small Island is about enjoying the simple beauty of it’s location rather than any contrived Western five-star luxury. It is a great location for independent travellers and people who want to see the real world rather than some packaged offering. Without doubt this is the best independent travel experience I’ve ever had. Catherine

More Details ???


breathtaking view, clean air, constant cool breeze

Left on 08/12/2011 for a stay in October 2010

Amazing location, breathtaking views from all parts of the property, great house, 5 star hotel type pool and amenities, easy access from town, clean water beach. Plenty of activities, bike ride through friendly kampongs, huge range of vegetation from Nutmeg trees, cocoa, all growing by the side of the road.Padang is quite historic, also wins “Cleanest Town in Indonesia” year
on year. Very pleasant place to chill out, but gets too hot in Padang town. Villa air Manis is a winner.Wish I had the money to buy it..!

More Details ???

Villa Kokokan – Bali

Thinking of visiting Bali? We have a brand new villa available for short or medium term rental (days or weeks)

Villa Kokokan is in the Umalas area, one of the more established but quiet parts of the west coast fashion and restaurant scene. From Umalas you can ride a bike 5 minutes to the beach, or drive up to Echo Beach in 15 minutes. The night life, “Food Street” in Seminyak and Legian are all close and it is just a short drive to the beginning of Jalan Sunset airport bypass.


Villa Kokokan has no close neighbors (apart from a couple of geese) and the area is surprisingly peaceful considering how close to everything it is.

The villa is fully equipped for a fun relaxing holiday. Two air conditioned bedrooms with indoor/outdoor en-suite bathrooms, a huge living/dinning area, a nice pool and Balai all secure in a walled courtyard garden. There is a moveable DVD flat screen home theatre system that connects to your iPod/iPhone and full Wi-Fi.

There are two mountain bikes free for use and a fully equipped holiday kitchen… not that you will want to cook very often. We have a list of the best home delivery food, wood fired bakery, mini-marts with all you need and the phone number of an excellent car rental service who can meet you at the airport. Check

ps “Kokokan” is Balinese for white heron and the location is on the daily flight path for these beautiful birds.

Guests at Villa Air Manis

Ibu Siti and her team from Mekarsari Group were visiting Padang to donate aid for the Mentawai tsunami relief program. 



Since then we have hosted a NZ media team, the World Bank team from Jakarta and Dr Derek Allen and his team from Troppodoc.

This has been a busy week on the hill. Our aid boats are loaded and on the way to Mentawai. They will meet Dr Allen’s team in Sikakap where he is working with the local health department and MMTA head Roberthyl Saogo to coordinate medical support for some of the hardest hit communities. Please visit to support our work.