Building houses, building change
During the wet season in Cambodia, the monsoons last for months. This year, thanks to a group of UTS Design, Architecture and Building students, a series of newly-built houses will help shelter residents of this developing country from the rain.
In July 2018, a group of students studying the Construction for Developing Communities (CDC) elective subject travelled to Koh Ramdual, an island approximately an hour outside of Phnom Penh. As part of a longstanding partnership with local charity Side by Side Cambodia, the students spent a week building six dwellings for local residents, many of whom live in poverty.
Back in Australia, the students were completing industry cadetship programs and learning their way around the construction sector. In Cambodia, the contrast between the two worlds was apparent immediately: the houses were simply designed, safety protocols were virtually non-existent, and the bare bones construction process meant that everyone had to work by hand.
“We were digging holes, nailing the wooden frames together. The floors are made of bamboo, so you spend a lot of time stripping that to get it ready. Then you’ve got to build the walls, which are made of thatched palm leaves,” says construction project management student James Forsyth.
“It was very labour-intensive work — it’s programming and understanding construction at its base level. No power tools, all manual labour, and working through that process.”
As well as mastering the physical challenges of manual labour, the students found themselves coming face-to-face with Cambodia’s tragic history under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. A tour of the nearby killing fields also helped them contextualise the scale of devastation that led to the significant development challenges the country faces today.
The project on Koh Ramdual was just one of a series of international fieldwork placements that UTS students have completed as part of the CDC subject, which has been running since 2008 with the assistance of charities and industry sponsors such as HD Projects. Over the last 10 years, students have travelled to underprivileged communities in central Australia, Thailand and the Maldives — but with nine trips completed to date, Cambodia remains its central focus.
The work makes a lasting difference to local communities who might otherwise struggle to build new homes and other communal buildings that shape the way they live.
According to Dr Michael Er, the subject coordinator for the CDC elective, the purpose of the subject is twofold: to give students the opportunity to test their skills in a challenging real-world environment, and to show them how their expertise can drive meaningful change in the wider world.
We have an amazing amount of skill and understanding that’s given to us doing this sort of degree. This experience has really solidified in my mind that I’d like to do something for the global community.
“Essentially, this is a construction project management subject, and students apply their knowledge to put together management plans, such as a building program and risk plan,” Dr Er says.
“The subject also provides a global perspective of culture outside Australia and immerses students into locations and the life of locals in underprivileged communities. Personally, I hope it also builds some character for students — the reality of much of the world is far from our privileged life in Australia.”
If building character is the goal, then Dr Er seems to be getting his wish — the subject continues to have a lasting impact on students. Forsyth, whose internship is focused on property development, is now re-evaluating his future career, and is considering applying his expertise in developing communities and disaster relief zones.
For student Sophie Bowen-James, who has had previous experience volunteering on international development projects, working in developing countries has always been part of her plan — but the experience in Cambodia provided some valuable perspective that will shape her career going forward.
“We have an amazing amount of skill and understanding that’s given to us doing this sort of degree and our cadetships as well that contractors in these peripheral nations don’t have,” she says.
“This experience has really solidified in my mind that I’d like to do something for the global community.”
UTS would like to thank the charities and industry sponsors who have made the CDC builds possible: Side By Side Cambodia, The Fenwick Foundation and HD Projects.