Team-up aims to build eco-friendly homes for Siem Reap’s down and out

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A man builds a house with environmental bricks in June. SUPPLIED

With the same core vision of providing underprivileged people with their own shelters, Volunteer Building Cambodia (VBC), which has been recruiting volunteers from around the world to build houses for the poor in Cambodia for nearly a decade, has partnered with Environmental Bricks in their mission to provide sustainable and decent housing in Siem Reap.

Meang Sinn, founder and managing director of VBC, told The Post: “We are excited about this new partnership. We are currently building a model home which will showcase the use of environmentally friendly bricks in building homes for the poor here in Siem Reap.”

Sinn lost his father during the Khmer Rouge regime and grew up in a poor family with two illiterate sisters in Koh Thom district, Kandal province. At the age of 16, with a low level of education and no skills, he became a construction worker in Phnom Penh, where he spent time learning English and computer skills before moving to work at a sawmill in Kampong Thom province. Eventually, he became a construction foreman in Siem Reap.

“I also began organising services for tourists who were visiting Angkor Wat. That was when I built relationships with many foreign guests to the Kingdom – the starting point of the Building Cambodia organisation, back in 2014,” he added.

Prior to the partnership with Environmental Bricks, the organisation built wooden houses with zinc roofs. The homes measured 4x5 metres and were built on poles, above a concrete pad. Each house cost $3,000 to complete. A separate toilet with a tiled floor and galvanized roof costs $320.

“Since 2014, we have completed 345 houses, 208 toilets, 143 wells, and installed 93 water filters and 105 solar panels,” he said.

To date, the organisation has built homes for the less well off members of society in a total of 11 communes and 26 villages in six districts: Prasat Bakong, Banteay Srey, Sotr Nikum, Puok, Chi Kraeng and Siem Reap.

The VBC has received funding – as well as volunteers – from Australia, Singapore, South Korea, China, the United States and many other countries around the world.

For the new project, the VBC turned to My Dream Home, the manufacturers of the environmentally friendly bricks. My Dream Home provided the bricks needed for the first model home, and training on how to employ them.

Hav Kong Ngy, managing director of My Dream Home and founder of Environmental Bricks, has the same objectives as Sinn. He sees owning a home as a basic human need, and wants to help people achieve it.

With the goal of building decent housing in Cambodia, Environment Bricks and My Dream Home were established in 2015 after Kong Ngy realised that people under the age of 35 make up almost 70 per cent of the population. He knew they were going to get married and have children, and would need their own homes.

He also mentioned a recent Habitat for Humanity report which said Cambodia will need more than one million homes from now until 2030, with the rest of the world needing 1.6 billion.

Kong Ngy recounted his personal experience: “I still remember that in 2013, my family and I collected our combined total savings of more than seven years, but still could not buy a house in Phnom Penh.”

The cost of building a house depends largely on the amount of imported construction materials, while consideration of environmentally friendly construction materials is minimal, he said.

“The creation of construction materials that are easy to build with – like toys – is appropriate in the Cambodian context,” he added.

What’s unique about his product is that lego-like assembly of the bricks means that potential homeowners can build their own homes, albeit with supervision by the company’s experts.

He claimed that in addition to using up to five times less sand and cement than red bricks, his are up to three times stronger.

He continued to describe the benefits of building an environmentally friendly brick house: “Brick walls do not need to be plastered, but still have good aesthetics, are as long lived and hard wearing as cement products and even reduce the heat retained by the house.”

My Dream Home, which has received many national and international awards – as well as environmentally friendly business plaudits from the Ministry of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation – has designed the houses which will be built in Siem Reap.

“The project to build houses with VBC starts at the end of this month, and my company will sell them the materials at 50 per cent of the usual price. We will continue to provide Environmental Bricks at this price until we have completed about 20 homes,” he said.

“After they are built, we intend to continue to contribute, but it will depend on the business and on access to subsidies to the poor,” said Kong Ngy.

He said construction of a 7.4sqm house would take less than seven days, and cost around $3,000.

After studying the start of the model house construction, Sinn – who has a background in construction – said that using the bricks to build houses was easy, reduced pollution, cost less and was going to save time.

“We chose to build environmentally friendly brick houses to facilitate the work of our volunteers, who are mostly students with no experience of construction work. Building a house from these bricks is very simple,” said Sinn.

“We will use them to build houses for the poor in remote areas of Siem Reap, and aim to expand to a large number of provinces in the near future,” he added.