WALK in here. This is your kitchen, this is your bedroom, where you can walk around,” says Pauline Weddel, from Habitat for Humanity Cambodia, opening the roof up off a one-bedroom model stilt house and peering in.
Perhaps it’s the classic stilt frame, or the familiar silhouette, but it’s not a big leap to imagine the miniature cardboard village, now assembled on a table in Habitat for Humanity Cambodia’s offices, standing in full-scale.
Far from the cookie-cutter dwellings typical of bulk housing projects for the very poor, the 10 model houses are the result of a world-wide design competition launched between the housing NGO, Building Trust International and Karuna Cambodia.
The brief was to create a sustainably built house that could be constructed for $2,000 and able to withstand the vagaries and monsoonal flooding of the Southeast Asian climate. The winning designs could set a new standard for social housing in Cambodia, the organisers hope.
In Phnom Penh, where more than 100,000 resettled people, evicted from their homes for land and infrastructure developments live in uncertainty and squalor, the challenge of building homes for the poorest of the poor is a task in the economies of scale. But, with enough minds put to it, could it also be a unique design opportunity?
With 40 architectural plans whittled down from 600 entries, the final three house designs – from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – were then given final approval by the ultimate judges: the homeowners themselves.
“We’ve never been able to have homeowners come in and choose the winning design. With Habitat for Humanity, the turnaround is so fast. They can build a home in a week,” says David Cole, founder of Building Trust International.
In contrast, Cole says, in the UK, an affordable housing project for the homeless that was ostensibly finished months ago (for 10 times the price of a Cambodian Habitat house) has yet to be built.
In six weeks, one of these model cardboard house constructions will be built and occupied by a Cambodian family.
The final three designs were shown to three different homeless families, each of whom had their own requirements: a widow wanted sleeping space big enough for her six children, another family space to run a shop below, and another room to keep chickens.
“This competition [proves] there is no silver bullet. There is no one design . . . everybody has different needs and requirements,” Weddel says.
In the near future, Habitat for Humanity Cambodia, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary in the country, will offer housing beneficiaries a catalogue of the top 10 designs to choose from. Previously, the choice of houses was limited to two: a ground-level brick house and a traditional stilt house.
Designing an original home that could be constructed sustainably within the miniscule $2,000 budget was “challenging”, Cambodian Society of Architects judge Tang Sochet Vitou agrees, but he adds that understanding Cambodian living habits is also a crucial element to creating new housing.
“One is the way the architects understood Cambodian vernacular way of living. This includes getting away from the stereotypes.”
Cheap housing with clever design, without the leaky roofs and endless repair needs of scrap makeshift shelters, lifts residents out of the constant reminder of poverty.
“When [homeowners] appreciate the status of the building type itself – ‘OK, this makes me feel like I’m in a higher level of society.’ To me, this gives them hope: ‘I’m not poor anymore.’ By giving them this type of design, it gives them more pride to preserve it.”
An architect and lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Vitou explains why there were no Cambodian entries among the winning designs though the challenge addressed a Cambodian problem.
He says students and graduate architects are too concerned with forging careers and escaping poverty to take up the mantle of equitable design or sustainability just yet. Traditional Cambodian housing design – distinct from the widespread Southeast Asian timber stilt dwelling – is not fully appreciated by the younger generation, educated in the vacuum of post-Khmer Rouge university faculties.
“So you’re disconnected from your roots. There’s no guidelines, then you pick up new forms; these Western influences are easy to pick up and copy.
“I see some programs tying to connect [students] to Cambodian history and architecture but it’s not easy.”
The most unusual of the winning designs is that of Australian firm Visionary Design Development, which took traditional design and flood protection as functional inspiration for their “wet dry house”. With ground-level “floating” floor and a stilt living area, rather than avoid the unavoidable, the house is designed to be flooded. When the waters hit the ground floor, the family retreats upstairs.
“Our approach to this challenge is to understand the problem from a communal viewpoint – if we do it together, we will go a long way,” explains lead project designer Muhammad Kamil. “Social architecture beyond shelter – a place of nurture. There are four fundamental components to this approach: openings, footprint, water and accessibility.”
In all, 10 designs will be built as part of Habitat for Humanity Cambodia’s anniversary celebrations. Most of the locations where the NGO works are resettlement sites, says HFH program coordinator Iv Bonnakar. Construction manager Kea Sarith and a team of professional builders oversee the construction sites while the families themselves build the houses, assisted by a revolving team of local and international volunteers.
“Homeowners help to build; this gives them ownership of the house,” Sarith says. The houses need to last, but for environmental sustainability, building materials need to change, both Habitat for Humanity Cambodia and David Cole stress.
“As a whole, the housing issue in Cambodia is the same worldwide. The construction industry is generating 60 per cent of carbon pollution. I think the construction industry needs to think about using sustainable materials. The only way to address that is to [use bamboo products, adobe bricks] to replace things like steel and concrete.”
Bamboo is already used in walls (although “there’s a mindset that bamboo is a poor man’s product,” says Cole), but pure timber houses must also adapt to the reality of dwindling resources, Weddel says. “The country will have to evolve because people can’t afford timber homes in Cambodia anymore, even though they love them.”
Material use and construction technique was the second priority in the international competition, says Vitou. “Make sure [the house] responds to climate and environment. Make sure the building design – the roof and overhang – responds to the Cambodian climate . . . Wind, rain – it’s so crazy like never before.”
While the ideal house needs to withstand the temperature changes and extreme weather events of climate change – and severe monsoons like the 2011 floods – it also needs to be designed to be renovated and last the wear and tear of everyday use. “The house had to be flexible enough so when more people are around, you just . . . extend it and it doesn’t destroy the house,” Vitou says.
“One of the things that are in the back of our minds is the lifetime costs of the building. Not to build something that will last 10 or 15 years,” Cole agrees.
Building time is fast approaching for the new designs, when three families will settle into a safe and secure home. “It is heartwarming,” Cole says of watching the project come full circle. “One of these families came around [to see the designs]. They’re living in a hospital grounds, and they were going to be living in [the model house] in six weeks.”