Many organisations are dedicated to the relief of poverty and often venture into other countries to achieve this mission. One such is the Finnish Non-governmental organisation (ngo), Ukumbi, which aims to alleviate poverty through participatory architecture. thanks to the underlying theme “give a man a fish; you have fed him for a day, teach him to fish; and he can feed for a lifetime,” the people of Sra Pou in Oudong, Cambodia are now able to play a significant role in determining their future.
It began in the spring of 2010, when Ukumbi organised an architectural workshop with Aalto University in Finland to assist Blue Tent, a Cambodian NGO with the design of a vocational training centre. Team members 23 year-old Hilla Rudanko and 27 year-old Anssi Kankkumen, participated in what was initially a theoretical student project.
The purpose of the vocational training centre was to encourage and teach underprivileged families in Sra Pou, Oudong, Cambodia to make their own living, give professional training and help the people start sustainable businesses as well as provide a venue for public gathering and democratic decision-making for the whole community.
While Blue Tent had already planned vocational training activities, Rudanko and Kankkunen were asked to design a building to house a vocational centre for the 510 families of Sra Pou that had to be relocated from their homes in an informal settlement in Phnom Penh city in 2009, because the land they occupied was required for real estate development.
As only the wealthier families could afford to buy new homes, those less privileged were moved to sites far from the city, without basic infrastructure and public services, a secure environment or any sustainable means of income.
Rudanko and Kankkumen were so convinced of the real need for their project that in 2011 they organised the actual construction of the centre with support from the community of Sra Pou and private donors, founding their own architectural practice, Rudanko + Kankkunen, in the process.
They visited the community several times and talked to the leaders, the local children who would attend the vocational school and to those who would teach in the facility. They also prepared initial sketches and presented them to the locals who liked the design and arranged for permission to build on the site.
The concept behind the project was to utilise local materials, and traditional building techniques, with labour directly from the community, to generate a public facility that could act as a catalyst to transform the economy of the area. All aspects of the construction process were undertaken by hand, from the creation of blocks of red sun-dried soil, to manual building techniques, to creating the brightly coloured panels that act as partial sunshades.
The soil blocks were made with a technique discovered in a local Cambodian construction site, using soil, sand, cement and water. Rudanko and Kankkunen decided to reduce the use of cement by adding straw to the mix and produce two types; blocks with more cement for the foundation and blocks with less for the upper walls. It takes six minutes to mix all the ingredients and pack them into a mould and another 28 days for the block to dry.
The vocational school is a two-story, open-air structure which blends into the surrounding landscape. Bricks with holes were included in the walls to allow more daylight in, as well as to encourage natural ventilation. Bright and colourful handmade shutters not only protect from the sun, but also make the centre cheery and welcoming. A large covered porch creates an outdoor community room, while the interior caters to workshops, acts as a storage space and has toilet facilities.
The building has a vocational training room where students can participate in a range of courses such as applying make-up, hairdressing, hand sewing, machine sewing, computer skills and motorcycle repairs, as well as handicraft such as basket-making and carpentry. A community room was included in the design for gatherings, parties and afternoon school, with lockable storage for classrooms and workshops. To promote natural sustainability, rainwater is collected for reuse.
Hope for Tomorrow
The entire project was built by local workers who received training on the job, as part of the aim to teach people how to make the most out of materials that are readily available, so that they could apply the same construction techniques for their own houses in the future.
Rudanko and Kankkunen continued to monitor the progress of the vocational school project and made a second visit to Sra Pou in 2012, to evaluate the functionality of the building during its first year, and working together with the community, designed necessary changes and amendments.
The handcrafted doors were not durable enough and were replaced with solid metal doors which were decorated in artwork painted by community children under the guidance of a local artist. The roof was enhanced and a maintenance schedule for the building was implemented.
The school is now owned by the Sra Pou community, and functions under the watchful eye of Blue Tent. The main activity is sewing: the top floor accommodates eleven sewing machines bought with micro-loans and is operated and owned by a sewing society of eleven women. The ground floor with its new doors can now be used as a beauty parlour, and the open community space provides a good place for motorcycle repair.
The Sra Pou vocational centre serves as a testament to the drive and resilience of two individuals who set out to make a difference. It shows what can be achieved, regardless of location, providing a learning opportunity for everyone involved in the project, and giving a community the chance to become self-sufficient.