YouthSpark Star

John-Son Oei

This Malaysian entrepreneur
created a company that builds
homes for villagers who are poor.

Extraordinary Youth Building EPIC Homes

What if building a home was as easy as connecting a series of cubes, a fast and relatively inexpensive process that didn't require any specialized skills or training? In 2010, this "crazy idea" came to Malaysian entrepreneur John-Son Oei, who at age 22 decided to act upon his dream to help the underprivileged indigenous people of his country.

John-Son is founder and CEO of EPIC Collaborative, a nonprofit that enables people to make positive, lasting change in their communities. ("EPIC," in fact, stands for Extraordinary People Impacting Community.) He and EPIC's small but growing team of volunteers have turned John-Son's homebuilding idea into a reality via EPIC Homes, an initiative that constructs modular, prefabricated homes for Malaysia's Orang Asli indigenous population, 82 percent of whom (roughly 12,300 families) currently live in shacks that are dilapidated and unsafe.

"EPIC Homes is all about getting ordinary people in a big group to put up a single house. And they are unskilled. And most of the time they're strangers. But somehow it works," said John-Son in a recent TED Talk.

One of John-Son's life goals is to revolutionize the way that people tackle social issues, and the EPIC program is designed to cultivate a healthy family environment by providing safe and secure homes. It's not a charity effort, however.

John-Son, founder and CEO of EPIC Collaborative.

John-Son, founder and CEO of EPIC Collaborative.

Each homeowner is required to join EPIC Homes' Pay-It-Forward Program, a sweat-equity effort in which the participant agrees not only to build his/her own home (with help from others, of course), but also to build three more residences for future homeowners.

John-Son's quest to help others began modestly. He and a few friends created a Facebook event called the “Toilet Building Project,” asking for volunteers to help build a toilet and paint some houses for the Orang Asli, a group that comprises .5 percent of the population and has a poverty rate of about 77 percent, according to the Statistics Department of Malaysia. To his surprise, 64 people signed up for the initial event.

When they went to the village to paint houses, they came across a dilapidated house where a man had been living with his family for more than two years. The house was only about 500 square feet and had more than a dozen people living in it, John-Son said.

This is the house that sparked John-Son Oei’s idea for EPIC Homes. A man had been living in the home for more than two years.

This is the house that sparked John-Son Oei’s idea for EPIC Homes. A man had been living in the home for more than two years.

“We were troubled by why he would stay in such a house, why he would accept it,” he said. “It was so rundown we didn’t think it was possible to paint or repair it.”

John-Son decided at that moment that the man needed a new house. And the idea for EPIC homes was born.

Along the way, John-Son has encountered plenty of naysayers who have questioned the pragmatic benefits of his altruistic pursuit.

"People always say to be realistic. Whatever you're passionate about, it's not good enough," said John-Son. "I'm still finding out how I'm supposed to earn money from what I'm doing. But I survive, and I'm happy."

John-Son is a member of YouthSpark Live, a Microsoft program that encourages young people to work collaboratively and use technology to improve their communities. He met fellow Malaysians and app developers Ker Jia Chiun and Krane Chan Wai Lun at a YouthSpark event. They joined the EPIC Homes team and together developed an online platform to collect, organize, and manage information on EPIC's volunteers, donations, indigenous homeowners, and other resources.

A new home for an Orang Asli family begins
to take shape

A new home for an Orang Asli family begins to take shape.

The EPIC Housing System features a unique modular design that enables a group of unskilled volunteers—typically 30 to 35 people—to construct a small home in as little as three days. Each module, or cube, measures 100 square feet (10 ft. x 10 ft.), and the cubes lock together. The number of modules used depends on the size of the family that will reside in the house. Flexibility is important, enabling builders to arrange the cubes based on the family's preferences.

Each home costs about 50,000 Malaysian ringgit (a little more than US$15,000) for materials and logistics. Anyone 18 or older can volunteer to participate in a build and "spend three days building a home with your bare hands," according to the EPIC Homes website. The module homes are durable, yet nearly seven times lighter than houses made of bricks and cement.

The volunteers, many of whom are urban professionals with little (if any) construction experience, get a special thrill from building a home, particularly after the roof is raised.

Success! The EPIC team celebrates a completed home.

Success! The EPIC team celebrates a completed home.

“It’s an amazing time. Whenever the roofing is up, suddenly everybody wants to work on the house," said John-Son. "Before that, you'll see people sitting under the canopy, eating their ice cream, because it's really hot. You're right there under the sun, exposed."

John-Son and his team are careful to respect the Orang Asli culture and its way of life. They place great importance on the process of identifying program participants, and require a liaison and approval from the village chief to get a proper introduction to the community.

EPIC Homes' ambitious five-year plan is to ensure that every Orang Asli has a safe and modern home, and to build stronger, lasting relationships between rural and urban people of Malaysia.

John-Son calls altruistic efforts such as his "mass numbers of people engaging in tiny purposeful actions," a statement that expresses his faith in humanity's future.

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