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AIA UK 2015 Exellence in Design Awards, Noel Hill Travel Award

Fiona Mckay

Arriving into a hot, humid, Cambodian day, we were greeted by our destination and the place to which we would call home for the next two months. Taking the day to adjust to the time and climate differences we talked over the project in preparation for work the next day.

Waking up in darkness began the early morning routine throughout the project. An ambitious two month time scale had been set to complete the build. Making our way to site which was located adjacent to where we were living in the slum we started work on foundations. To our surprise we found that the demolition company whom we had hired to demolish the existing concrete framed building on site had forgotten to tell us that they had not removed the foundations of the previously existing school the week before our arrival. Being unable to start our build without this job being completed, we hired an excavator on site to simultaneously dig our pad foundation whilst removing the foundations of the previous building. Whilst this was underway on site half of the team set to assembling the vast amount of steel reinforcement cages which had to be assembled for the foundations and full concrete structure.

tarting the second week we prepared for what would be our first experience of pouring concrete foundations by hand on a constrained site. Access to the site was limited. We anticipated that the ready mix concrete truck would not be able to squeeze up the tight dirt path to our site therefore we had to devise a way to procure the concrete on site. This came with the employment of two flat bed trucks and hundreds of recycled twenty five litre paint buckets. The buckets were filled individually in the flat beds at the bottom of the access path, transported to the top of the site where the use of a human chain would send them to the specific pad foundation. This process would repeat throughout the build and become a regular occurrence on each concrete pour. Completing the first concrete pour over two days, with a day of rain delay in-between, we were ready to start on the timber falsework which would support the pour of our main concrete structure.

Our main structure was to be poured in reinforced concrete using an unconventional formwork made from a geo-textile fabric. By using a fabric formwork we saved ourselves an extensive amount of timber, this was beneficial for the build due to the lack of sustainable timber which can be found in Cambodia. The geo textile however required a timber falsework which creates tension in the fabric whilst the concrete is being poured, vibrated and cured. Erecting this structure of timber falsework and fabric formwork created a puzzling maze on site which had to be expertly navigated whilst the concrete structure was curing.

When revealing the concrete structure once it had dried we found that it had a few wobbles due to the manual pouring technique and only being able to hand tighten the fabric formwork in it’s falsework clamps. With the concrete still being structurally sound we noticed that when taking a closer look at the detail that the geo textile formwork had left a fascinating gridded texture in the structure.

Finishing the concrete frame sped the build up exponentially. We moved on to the upper steel ring beams and roof trusses which were manually lifted using a pulley system and welded into place. Following this the insulated aluminium roofing panels arrived on site, again being manually lifted onto the roof and secured intoplace. The site started to become busier with the final push getting near. A team of masons arrived on site 

completing the retaining walls which created raised areas within the playground as well as the perforated brick gable walls, these acted as a double skin meaning that there will always be a cooling air flow around the building. Whilst this was happening electricians wired up the lighting, sliding doors were hung and the brick floor was laid. The building started to come together and we gained a glimpse of the community centre which we had designed.

With the finish line close working days got later and we pushed through to make sure that the school would be ready to move into by the time we left. Working up to the very last minute, we tied the last pieces of bamboo to the doors, stopped and enjoyed the celebration with the local community. Most of the team left the following morning so to say goodbye we joined together in the classroom of the centre with some of the Cambodian workers, with whom we had became close friends throughout the project, for a final meal and time to reflect and dream of what would come next in our architectural adventure.

Author: Ryan McGaffney and Jennifer Taggart

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