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The guardian of wooden houses


SIEM REAP

A Siem Reap architect is waging a battle for wood as concrete takes over as building material of choice.

Photo by:

Peter Olszewski

This traditional wooden house was built new by Siem Reap designer

SIEM Reap designer and architectural researcher Hok Sokol has had a passion for old wooden Cambodian homes for almost nine years. He has studied them, documented them, filed them as case studies ... and seen many of them destroyed in favour of bland concrete buildings.

This motivated him to create a development company of his own - one that not only preserved old buildings, but also constructed new old buildings.

His firm, HHH Co, builds traditional Khmer wooden houses using the same designs and materials used in Cambodia for centuries.

As widespread urban development continues to change Siem Reap at a furious pace, Hok Sokol hopes his initiative will ensure that the emerging city maintains its personality of authentic Khmer culture.

Hok Sokal told Prime Location that wooden houses are "more impressive, more remarkable than concrete structures. They are an important part of Siem Reap's character that we cannot afford to lose".

Siem Reap is home to two of his new wooden houses, built in 2004 and 2008 near the Rolous temples on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

 He also moved a 90-year-old wooden house from Kampong Cham province to a new location 300 metres south of Wat Damnak, with modifications to the bathroom and kitchen.

To build a new old wooden house, Hok Sokol explains he needs to synergise three elusive elements. "We need to find the right carpenter, the right wood and the right client," he said.

Hok Sokol's background in academia ensures that his houses are extremely authentic - from the layout of the rooms to the type of lumber used. "We use the same wood that was used in construction of the traditional houses," he said. "When I start a new project, I spend a great deal of effort locating the right wood.  I use up to six types of wood in a house, including sokrom, kokoh, koki, sroloas and beng."

The meticulous sourcing of traditional timber isn't merely pedantic - it gives the houses a strength and durability that Hok Sokol says could rival their concrete competitors.

"It is remarkable that houses built in this style are still in good condition up to 100 years after their construction," he said.

Not for everyone

Even with a stock of the correct materials, Hok Sokol is still faced with finding the right client. "We need people who really love and understand wooden architecture," he said. "Most of my clients are well-educated, with a high degree of knowledge about Khmer art and culture. Some are Cambodians who have been educated outside the country, some are foreigners who have studied Khmer culture."

Photo by:

Peter Olszewski

Architecture historian Hok Sokol

One trait that is necessarily shared by Hok Sokol's clients is patience - the construction of a single wooden house takes an entire year.

However, construction is an area where modernity is definitely an ally. "With modern technology, carpentry and equipment we can build wooden

houses in half the time it took our ancestors," he said.

HHH Co's team consists of two architects, an engineer, a plumber, an electrician, five carpenters and 10 workmen. Other work, like tiling and concreting, is subcontracted, and the construction methods used vary from house to house.

"Depending on the project, we use a combination of traditional and modern methods. One hundred years ago, our ancestors could not build houses in certain areas - but with electricity and modern equipment we are not as restricted."

Hok Sokol says Siem Reap has great potential for traditional wooden-house development. In particular, he indicates the banks of the Siem Reap River as an example of where wooden restoration and construction work could be achieved with great effect.

However, he is unsure of whether his efforts are enough to ensure the continuity of the wooden house style. "It is hard for wooden houses to compete with concrete houses when there is less and less wood available, and more and more concrete. People are attracted to wooden houses, but sometimes will use the concrete style for convenience.

We need people who really love and understand wooden architecture.

"There are 100 concrete houses for every wooden house, and concrete houses are simpler to build. But the design and quality of wooden houses are better."

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