Entrepreneur building up Cambodia with 'Lego-like' bricks

Entrepreneur building up Cambodia with 'Lego-like' bricks

A Cambodian social entrepreneur has won plaudits for his "My Dream Home" project, which aims to provide affordable and environmentally-friendly housing solutions to the country's poor.

PHNOM PENH: Kongngy Hav is no engineer. He is no construction expert, nor a designer.

Yet the young Cambodian is trying to indelibly shape the country’s housing sector.

Amid Cambodia’s looming housing crisis, Kongngy, 31, is becoming a force for social change through a simple idea that is slowly finding foundations.

He has developed “My Dream Home”, a program designed to provide quality, affordable green housing to those who cannot afford to buy traditional housing.

It utilises an interlocking brick system, which resembles Lego, designed to provide sturdy construction and that can be put together by people without building skills.

Social entrepreneur Kongngy Hav

Through the initiative, an average small two-storied home can be built for between US$4,000 and US$6,000, including design and construction help. Kongngy says such a dwelling would take two low-skilled people just a couple of months to build.

He says that is 20-40 per cent cheaper than traditional housing, less labour intensive and better for the environment, with consideration about location, safety and access to utilities and clean water.

“It’s not a place to stay but a place to live that will be comfortable for life,”

The bricks, mostly made from soil and sand, are also aesthetic for modern building and do not harm the environment when they are made, Kongngy explains.

Cheap housing is in high demand in Phnom Penh and that need is only going to grow more pressing. Despite some efforts by other non-government organisations the “chronic shortage”, as Kongngy describes it, remains an imposing challenge.

The government estimates that 1.1 million new homes will be needed by 2030, on top of the housing shortage that exists now. Most of these dwellings will be for low-income families, as people flock for opportunities in the capital.

“People are moving to live in cities to find employment or education. It’s a global phenomenon. They are trying to find something better,” Kongngy said.

“So Phnom Penh is very crowded and government workers live in small houses, with four or five people living inside and they eat, sleep, play, do everything inside. It’s not good for them.”

The partially built house of Chan Thy on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Kongngy's idea stemmed from a personal dilemma. He and his wife could not afford a home in the city.

“We had a good education and can find a good job but we were already working for seven years and could afford anything,” he said.

“How about the other people? How many years would they spend to buy a house? He recounts the time he spent living in communities of garment workers, Cambodia’s ubiquitous economy-drivers trying to survive on as little as US$61 a month as recently as 2012.

“In their lifetime they cannot earn enough money to build a house. This gave me some reflection and I thought I should do something. I know how hard it is.”

Despite no formal qualifications, and being called a “crazy man” by his wife for trying such a venture using his own savings, about 40 different projects have now been completed.

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Chan Thy is building a new house for his family, after moving from Kampong Speu. He is toiling alone in the sun. But even if he does not work every day he is preparing to move in by July. The cost for materials was just US$1,700.

The natural look of the bricks have found their way into projects by the likes of hipster favourite Brown Coffee

Many Kongngy’s customers are businesses, including local cafe chain Brown Coffee and restauranteur Lim Vann.

“The bricks represent the manual work of Cambodian people. It looks beautiful,” he said.

While this does match his original ambition to help the poor, Kongngy admits these ventures spread awareness and boost funds that can be used to subsidise other projects.

“We want to do something that will at least give new hope to a lot of people,” he says.

“And maybe one day I can build my own dream home.”

The finished "My Dream Home" product, constructed by a middle-income Cambodian family for a total of US$16,000.

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Source: CNA/jb