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Bomnong L'or Week 7 - Brick Sky

Last Sunday we began making plans for the final fornight constructing new facilities for the Goodwill (Bomnong L'or) Centre in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. A list of jobs was drawn up and a daily schedule pinned up on the wall. With a mere twelve days left and major components such as the roofing, floors and internal walls still not started, our prospects for finishing on time weren't as sunny as we would have liked.

Then Monday came and with it a barrage of relentless heavy rains, thunder and lightning which lasted a full two days, never subsiding to less than a persistent drizzle. With two days immediately lost, we set to work on the roof, eager to finally have protection from the wet and space to work uninterrupted.

The poor weather also made us appreciate the traditional Cambodian architecture even more. Most traditional buildings are raised up on stilts, with occupants living in the undercroft area during the day and retreating upstairs at night. The area below offers shade and ventilation during hot weather and protection from water damage during the heavy tropical rains. Unfortunately most new build in Cambodia have abandoned these features leading, in many cases, to oppressive dark spaces at ground level.

A member of our local Khmer team, Dina, is an architecture student who has just completed his first year at The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Dina used to attend the Centre for evening classes and has come back to join us during his summer to gain knowledge and experience in construction. In this community, his opportunity to attend university is a rare one. Asked what he thought of the design of the new Centre, his first comment praised the modern take on a traditional Khmer house, hoping that it would influence others in the community to embrace the significant benefits of the vernacular style again.

As the rains subsided, we raced to get the roof sheets installed. These posed a number of logistical challenges with hoisting large heavy sheets at height within such a tight urban site. Each roofing panel also comprises a rigid insulation core, a key factor in keeping the internal spaces below cool and comfortable, yet this also adds weight making fitting them a more precarious and slower process.

Eventually, with a roof over our heads, work started on laying the brick floor tiles. Our aim has been to create a raised brick platform as a series of streets, rooms and courtyards spanning above a playful landscape below and offering views across the city and the far-reaching ocean sky. Produced locally, these small clay bricks also rise up to create large gable-end walls as well as dividing the internal space.

Alongside the two main blocks, we have been redeveloping one of the Centre’s original buildings to create a new IT suite, soap production room and an office. Set within the original concrete and masonry shell, this lightweight steel structure rises up to join the raised brick platform of the main blocks, linking over a slender steel walkway. Work has now begun on the facade at first floor level and will be clad in the re-used fabric formwork (formerly used to cast the concrete frame) with internal bamboo screens behind. This same design will be used on the doors and windows for the main building and will allow light and air to flow more freely through the internal spaces during the day and at night will light up like a lantern - a light set at the centre of the community.

We ended the week at the temporary Centre where the children entertained us with traditional Khmer singing, a play and dancing. We also welcomed Edinburgh-based artist, Lindsay Perth (www.lippi.org), onto site this week who will be working closely with our local Khmer team and the wider community to create a series of films documenting this unique area and new project.