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Phil’s Khyuang build site notes

Philip Breese

In October 2018 Philip became managing partner responsible for the overall day to day operational management of the practice in the UK.

It's the little building techniques that are so fascinating. The thin long plastic transparent tube filled with water used as a spirit level. And the horizontal fishing line that slides along two vertical lines to give the brick coursing datum.

Construction is basic here but it doesn't matter. Each builder (or farmer) builds with a sense of craft and pride in their work when not crouching in the shade to avoid the intense heat. The piercing omnipresent sun enforces this- it is just too hot to work for prolonged spells. But progress does find its own tranquil pace and things get done. The real energy filters from the children learning in their noisy classrooms around the perimeter of the dusty school compound, a beautiful space pinned by two large drooping trees that filter the overhead sun. 

The school we are expanding lies at the south east corner of Khyuang village where the surrounding landscape is defined by a patchwork of paddy fields. It is flat as far as the eye can see punctuated only by distant trees, roaming white cattle and the occasional farmer. Fledgling rice plants create bands of green that enrich the view even further.  

The horizon is captured in the design of the new school building with the windows and doors framing these distant views. Two classroom blocks are separated in pairs creating a central open bay with a sunken oval meeting place. These openings serve to draw through air providing respite from the searing heat of the day. 

The new school building provides three new classrooms and a library using a repeating 3.6 square planning module. The central bay works as a covered external space faced by the library and a classroom with the sunken ellipse at its centre where the immaculately dressed school children in white shirts and navy skirts and trousers can sit, rest and play.   

A stroll around the village is quick and reveals a traditional house typology where individual homes are raised off the ground, typically by a storey, to avoid the heavy summer monsoon downpours with a prominent stair leading to living accommodation above. The dusty area below accommodates all sorts: chickens, the statutory Honda 50 moped, cattle, dogs (but no cats), and provides space for the essentials of washing, cleaning and storage. 

Houses are colourful with deep tones of rich red, blue and green. It is unfortunate more recent metal cladding additions look decidedly out of place in stark colours but hopefully weathering will tone these down in time. Doors and window shutters typically have a contrasting vibrant colour often chalk blue, lime green or mustard yellow.  

The common brick in Cambodia is a red clay 175 x 85 x 85 module with four distinctive one inch circular holes through its centre. It presents a number of design opportunities to create patterns through different bonds, the filtering of light and drawing air through its characteristic four holes- a curious reminder of Anthony Gormley's 'Field' installation in the 1990's. There is an expectation that the brick be rendered otherwise it can be construed as unfinished however, deployed creatively and laid with greater attention to the pointing its inherent base qualities undeniably add interest and character. 

 Fabrication of the roof steelwork, welded up on bamboo poles in the school yard, is crude. A specialist worker known as Monkeyman crouches with an arc welder to create the roof trusses from right-angled section. At the same time he tends to his colourful pet cockerel who dances inside a small dome enclosure made from chicken wire.  

Monkeyman comes into his own as the steel trusses are hauled into position onto the concrete frame tip-toeing along the ring beam and arc-welding connections and attempting to drill holes with an archaic Bosch hammer drill. NYPD style sun glasses a size too big for his small face are at least some protection to the fierce arc light. 

The school Principal occasionally strolls his compound taking what appears to be a cursory interest in the school build. His demeanour though perhaps not reflective of a Principal about to receive a new school building but more likely a show of authority. 

For now the new building sits at the edge of Khyuang where the school compound meets the vast open expanse of paddy fields. Doors and windows are painted a fresh green referencing the young rice plant shoots and complimenting the red brick wall panels as the landscape blends with the village boundary. Square coloured panels on the doors identify the individual classrooms and library for the school children, only becoming visible when the doors are opened up each morning at sunrise. 

Another intuitive building technique has been demonstrated by Monkeyman perched high on a pair of roof trusses that were hauled up with little more than a few lengths of thick string (to reduce lifting weight the trusses are welded together in-situ). G-clamps would be a luxury here so instead a stick is wound through a rope to clamp the steel together and the weld completed.  

In a matter of weeks the Khyuangchan community will have a new school building to provide desperately needed space to educate the volume of children in the village. It is the individual stories woven into the build that makes it all so special. 

Philip Breese

In October 2018 Philip became managing partner responsible for the overall day to day operational management of the practice in the UK.

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.