All Stories,  Architecture,  Cambodia,  Outdoors

Natural Building in Cambodia

Cambodia has a lot of hippy foreigners building things in the middle of nowhere, and I have been hoping to join them (at least temporarily) along my nomadic adventures. Since arriving in Cambodia last year, I have hunted down a few projects using natural and recycled materials around the country but haven’t yet gotten my hands dirty.

A while ago, when I went down to the coast, I visited a few natural building projects involving earthships and bottles building, and was planning on volunteering with them for a few days whenever I had a chance…. but that never happened! So recently I saw a posting on Facebook about a different natural building project asking for volunteers for an earthbag library, and luckily I had some free time!
I am interested in more sustainable and healthy building options after working with a straw bale architecture firm in Canada. I researched other building techniques with earth and helped design a few structures with earthbags but we never got around to building them, so I was excited to see how it actually works.
This project was run by two engineers from Seattle who were basically building the entire structure themselves  in a small village outside of Siem Reap. They were running behind schedule and with all the hard labour were asking for a few extra hands. I contacted them right away and was happy to hear that I could help out and be able to stay in the middle of nowhere with the Cambodian family who owned the property – living in Phnom Penh, I rarely get to practice my Khmer. 
Upon arriving to Siem Reap, I found out that we were to leave at 6am the following morning! I hadn’t gotten up that early in ages, unless its for a flight where I can go back to sleep immediately, but this is what they do everyday in order to escape the heat…. and it was hot! On average it is about 35 degrees Celsius, without any sort of breeze. The next morning we drove their moto out to the middle of nowhere, rural Cambodia which looks much the same to me anywhere in the country – rice paddies, random cows, chickens and children wandering around, palm trees and thick humidity. However our site now had a half built earthbag library and three foreigners arriving to finish the job!
In actuality I was only helping out for a few days and even though much of the structure was already started, building with earthbags is very labour intensive and can take some time, especially with only three people! Luckily the roof was built separately so we were able to work in the shade. Our job was to fill rice bags with an earth mixture and pile them in courses lined with barbed wire, but the more we worked the heavier the bags got! 
Within minutes I was dripping sweat everywhere and my unusual perspiration locations reappeared from India, mostly being kneecaps and the back of my hands. Some of the hardest work was just shoveling all the dirt from one place to another and by the time it was lunch we all needed a nap in a hammock.
The Cambodian family was really nice, even if only one of them spoke English… with my nonexistent Khmer this made things interesting. The guy who does speak English initiated the idea for a community library since there are no such public services nearby, working with a local organization, he offered his property to build the ecohut. However in the meantime he supports his family by running a bar in town and was happy to have some beers with us after a long days work.
He lives there with his family and his wife’s parents who provided us with lunch, aka rice (the Khmer word for “eat” literally translates to “eat rice”) which usually comes surrounded by flies and with something meaty that I feel fortunate not having to eat (see my post on tarantulas). The other difficult part about staying in the countryside was sleeping, not because I wasn’t exhausted or had my own room with a nice bed to sleep on, but because I am usually spoiled with air conditioning, and this typical Cambodian home is without electricity, which means not only no AC but neither a fan nor bed net to keep the mosquitoes away while I sweat all night!
I was relieved to wake up the next day – even if it was at sunrise – just to get some fresh air and rinse off all the stickiness. For the few days that I worked on the earthbag building I stayed with the family and did not really shower. They sort of had a shower but if the door is closed in the little outhouse it is too hot and just makes you sweat more, so I kept it to a minimum splash.
On our third day, a few more people came to help from Siem Reap and we were able to make a lot more progress. The walls started to take shape (although a little lopsided in places) and our pile of dirt was shrinking quickly. I was also happy to have some stronger people to help lift the bags as our walls started to get taller. 
My last day there I woke up and started to stretch when I turned to the side and saw one of the biggest spiders I have ever witnessed alive. I actually ran to the opposite side of the room and tried to take a picture that turned out pretty blurry since I was so far away. As soon as I was able to gather my belongings I got out of the room and booked a hotel for that evening! I like the outdoors and roughing it, as I don’t require many material goods but spiders is where I have to draw the line before going into epileptic shock.
I was happy to get a ride back to Siem Reap with the other volunteers, many of whom offered me a place to stay. However I was excited to check into one of the nicest hotels in the city covered in dirt and days of sweat and crash on my bed after ordering a feast of everything except rice.
So although I couldn’t stay to complete the walls of the building, I got a good sense of the construction process. I even learned a few techniques to make things easier and more stable that I will definitely incorporate into future designs (protecting bags from UV rays, shading, ratio of wall size to bag size, string leveling, and lots of tamping), however after understanding how labour intensive earthbagging is, I might hesitate to recommend the method without a full team of workers! It was still a great learning experience and hopefully I will be going back next month to help finish it up – plaster the bags, do the floor and build a glass bottle wall….. all of which I will be sure to update you about!