The Future for Cambodia’s Social Housing

What modern affordable housing could look like in Phnom Penh

Architecture is shaping the future of our cities, from where we socialise, work and live to how we socialise, work and live. For emerging economies, sweeping economic development should improve livelihoods for all, yet it is those left on the margins of society that are particularly vulnerable to shocks to the system. Architecture is key to social change and functioning cities, yet disrupting cycles of poverty while safeguarding at-risk communities is a delicate tightrope for the best of urban planners.

Human stories are dictated by powerful design, yet changing the narrative for the better is no straightforward task. As populations multiply and cities continue to swell, the rush to ease strains on essential infrastructure often comes at the expense of low-income workers. In Phnom Penh, unprecedented economic growth and a greater demand for housing have led to soaring rental prices, driving a building frenzy of condominiums and luxury malls catering to high earners and the growing middle class.

In recent decades, an increasing number of migrants coming from rural areas to the city in search of work have had no option but to occupy whatever space is left, which in reality has meant alongside sewers, roads, railway lines or waterways. Some of these so-called informal settlements have existed since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, residents constructing modest homes from wood and tin and forming makeshift communities around lakes, rivers and canals. Many find income from fishing and farming nutrient-rich waters.

A Cambodian take on community architecture

In 2018, the Room was tasked with preparing a master plan for an informal settlement upgrading project (Human Rights Based Spatial Planning II, led by NGO People in Need) for three communities around Boeung Tompun, a 2,600-hectare lake to the south of the capital. Much of the lake had at the time been allocated to a private conglomerate for the construction of a satellite city, a part of the state’s ambitious 2035 master plan for the development of Phnom Penh.

Alongside day-to-day hazards such as floods and fires, poor quality housing and gaps in essential infrastructure, unrecognised legal claims to the land mean these communities face ongoing threats of being pushed off their property. In recent years, lakes have been filled with sand and whole neighbourhoods evicted to make way for lucrative developments.

Architecture attempts to affix a level of stability and order that is inherently rejected by informal settlements, from legal regulation and construction parameters to aesthetic standards. Well-thought out spaces become a luxury in this context as they are borne out of necessity rather than design.

Our affordable housing approach keeps the spirit of how these settlements were raised in the first place. Makeshift, spontaneous and transgressive, these structures and communities have nevertheless become part of the fabric and culture of the capital. Indeed, as in the case of Boeung Tompun, they are sometimes key to the functioning of the city itself. Lacking a wastewater treatment centre, Phnom Penh instead relies on natural wetlands to filter dirty water and prevent flooding. Morning glory and water mimosa, both farmed on Boeung Tompun lake, are biologically equipped to treat wastewater coming from the city before it’s released in the Tonle Bassac river.

We aimed to integrate an affordable housing system around the development plans already in place – which included filling in some of the lake – thereby preserving a way of life while keeping an eye on a realistic future. Financing strategies were also considered as well as new sustainable business models for residents. In Cambodia these kinds of projects are usually partially funded by private investors, who receive a portion of land in return for financing a housing development, so each design incorporates suggested areas for private land ownership.

Lakeside residents design their own homes

At the core of the design is community. We believe that including beneficiaries in the design process inspires them to become active creators rather than passive observers of the construction process. Designs are conceived based on community needs and wants – the architect becomes the facilitator, and communities otherwise surrounded by luxury developments are able to remain the creators of their own space.

Alongside improvements to key infrastructure, including access to healthcare, education and other services through a network of community centres and areas, we conceived Boeung Tompun as the green heart of Phnom Penh. With city developments envisioning a leisure and entertainment park that would bring in people from the city, we proposed transforming the lake into a tourist hub that would make use of existing local skills and provide new sources of income. This could include trips around the lake, cooking classes or handicraft workshops, and constructing other facilities for public use, such as a floating market. In this way the remaining lake becomes an important asset not only for its residents but for the wider city as a whole, which notably lacks healthy, green space. A multifunctional path above the lake could then connect the three communities.

Our innovative flexible housing model is a contemporary take on the traditional Khmer stilt home. Each unit can be adapted to the needs of its owners, the size of the family and available income. House construction would be separated into two stages, with the key structure, roofing, kitchen and toilet provided by professionals, while – in keeping with the spontaneous style of these kinds of settlements – the walls can be finished individually by the owners of the house. The available space is plentiful and caters to all, whether tuk tuk driver, morning glory cultivator, factory worker, fisherman, home business owner or gardener. Shared walls between houses and cheap local materials – concrete, wood, bamboo, bricks etc. – keep prices low. Houses can also be extended to a second floor when a family can financially afford it. A total of 397 houses were proposed for this project.

Social housing architecture doesn’t need to be boring – dynamic, interesting and functional societies around the globe are discarding static, monotonous units and understand that a modern city should be a city for all. Ensuring the happiness, health and security of the most vulnerable is at the heart of negotiating the complex, inter-connected labyrinth of elements needed for the smart development of a capital. Community architecture builds culture as it builds homes, and for Phnom Penh this could be the next great chapter of the building boom.

Also take a look at our 2018 Affordable Housing Challenge competition entry, City for Women: a bold 3000-unit master plan for a development aimed at factory workers inside the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone.

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