Sustainable Single-Family Homes in Cambodia

Three sustainably designed dwellings in Phnom Penh show how far two grand can go.

Proving the durability of site-specific, sustainable design and the efficacy of low-cost construction, a competition sponsored by leading NGOs Building Trust International, Habitat for Humanity, and Karuna Cambodia provided an array of creative dwellings for the expanding metropolis of Phnom Penh. Tasked with creating affordable single-family homes which can also stand up to the periodic flooding of the Mekong, more than 600 teams submitted proposals last year, three of which were selected and have now been constructed on the city’s outskirts for roughly $2,000 each.

According to Jess Lumley, who designed the Courtyard House with Alexander Koller, empathy and understanding of the environment informed their approach, and both drew on years of experience working in Cambodia. Simplicity ruled; the English team referenced and recast traditional elements, such as a brick wall, timber posts, and palm leaf matting and bamboo shutters, which created playful patterns of light. Lofted on stilts, their raised structure provides shade and space for motorbikes and hammocks, with a bridged courtyard connecting the upper spaces of the house that separates the cooking and washing areas, serves as a natural clothesline, and provides ventilation and breathing room on a confined (5-by-12-meter) plot.

“We wanted to create a house that was familiar to the family that would move in,” says Lumley, “a home that would be comfortable and not feel alien in its surroundings.”

For the Wet + Dry House, created by a team of Australian designers from Visionary Design Development Pty. Ltd. (Muhammad Kamil, Nick Shearman, Ralph Green and Mary Ann Jackson), a focus on flooding led to an unorthodox approach to dealing with rising water levels. Rather than elevate the entire dwelling, the structure was constructed with the idea of a multi-stage response in mind, set at different heights to allow for more sustained use. While the building boasts a small building footprint, which reduces overall building (and potential replacement) costs and pays things forward environmentally by encouraging the planting of more trees and vegetation, there’s no corresponding lack of functionality. The dual-purpose porch is meant to serve as a storefront, and the entry ramp provides access to the disabled.

“We hope the design of the Wet + Dry House can, in some small way, empower its residents socially and economically,” says Jackson. “The porch keeps the sense of community alive by symbolically opening the home to neighbors.”

American designers Keith Greenwald and Lisa Ekle, who designed the Open Embrace prototype, had been studying urban development and landscapes along the Mekong River delta when they discovered and then entered the competition last year. Informed by first-hand experience, they imagined a responsible, locally sourced dwelling of bamboo and timber that would be a catalyst for the local economy. The living quarters, set on clay brick piers, embraces the cyclical nature of the local climate, protecting against floods while opening up space to socialize in the dry season. The corrugated zinc roof, indented slightly to let in natural sunlight and the occasional breeze, not only reduces heat gain, but captures rainwater in cisterns.

“The materials of the house are familiar and largely produced locally, stimulating economies and connecting communities,” says Greenwald. “They honor vernacular traditions and techniques, updating them into a modern Cambodian vision. Cambodia has a long and rich architectural legacy, and its domestic spaces should be no less a point of cultural pride than the grandest of Khmer Architecture.”

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