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Oz Embassy a lesson in top design

The new Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh combines materials from Australia and Cambodia. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Government’s new home minimises carbon footprint and maximises access for the disabled

Developers should look to Australia's new embassy in Phnom Penh as a lesson in architecture and design, according to a real estate specialist advising the Australian Embassy on the sale of its previous home.

Vanessa Gevers, a commercial-property expert who has been in Cambodia for around six months, said Monday that it was "very rare" to find a property of such a high standard in terms of construction quality, fit-out of interiors and spatial organisation.

"The materials are also of a quality you don't tend to find in other developments in the city," she said. "It's an example of the type of construction that should be more common."

The building combines granite from Kratie with stone from Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces, and plantation wood from Australia.
Deputy Head of Mission Fiona Cochaud said the materials and the design reflect the contributions that the two countries have made to their mutual relationship.

The building was also designed to minimise its energy footprint, with insulation, double glazing and energy-efficient air-conditioning.
Rainwater can be harvested from the roof for reuse in fire systems, and on-site water treatment allowed recycled water to be used for toilet-flushing.

It is also fully accessible to mobility-impaired people, allowing the embassy to meet on-site with people who could not easily access the meeting rooms on the third floor of the previous building. "This is a real first for Cambodia," Couchaud said.

Cochaud was speaking Tuesday at the first media viewing of the Australian Embassy's new chancery, into which it moved on June 1.
Cochaud said the move was needed as growing trade relationship between the two countries was in turn expanding staffing levels.

Two-way merchandise trade between the two countries was worth A$58 million (US$48.47 million) in 2008, up from a little over A$20 million in 2003, embassy figures show. "We had a huge need for more space, which was one of our main motivations for building our new embassy," Cochaud said.

Because the embassy had grown so large, the new building was designed around a central atrium with a wooden staircase to encourage people from different sections of the ministry to "bump into each other" to facilitate communication, she said.

Construction began on the 2,730-square-metre embassy in October 2007 and was completed in May this year. It was designed by Australian architecture firm BVN Architects, who faced a unique design brief.

Cultural challenge
After purchasing the land, which lies in the shadow of the new National Assembly building in the capital's Tonle Bassac area, the embassy discovered there was a Bodhi tree on the site. Out of respect for cultural values, the architects were briefed to design the building around the sacred tree rather than cutting it down.

Singaporean company Confluence managed the project, and Leighton Contractors (Asia) took care of the rest. Although Leighton is an Australian firm, Couchard said, the work was carried out by a predominately local workforce.

At the peak of activity, 430 workers were on-site, clocking up 1.4 million man-hours with not a single accident. "It's a very good record and compares favourably to any other construction project in Phnom Penh," Cochaud said.

The embassy's prominent position reflected the Australian government's strong commitment to Cambodia and the region, Cochaud said. "We have been here for a long time, and we will be here for a long time."

However, the architects were careful to remain in the shadow of the National Assembly building next door, which Cochaud described as a beautiful example of Cambodian architecture. "We've tried not to compete with the National Assembly."

But she also said the building was intended to impress people. "We want people that come here to think that this is the embassy of a country that is very proud to be here," she said.

The former embassy is now on the market, though Cochaud would not give an asking price. Gevers, who is advising on the sale, said the target price and timing of the sale had not been finalised. It would be ideal for foreign governments or Cambodian government ministries, she said.



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