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Building a Brighter Future in Siem Reap

The cost of education is a heavy burden in Cambodia’s rural areas. Parents who cannot afford to educate all of their children are forced to choose those who can attend school. Teachers are paid as little as ten dollars a month, and often eke out a livelihood with additional jobs that take them away from the classroom.

With the vision of creating a world-class learning environment in Cambodia, the Jay Pritzker Academy (JPA) in the northern city of Siem Reap, turned to the School of Architecture at MIT for advice. Founded by philanthropists Daniel and Karen Pritzker, JPA aims to educate talented and motivated students from low-income families while offering support to schools in the surrounding area.

Since opening in 2006, JPA has outgrown its current location. As part of the fall 2009 Service Learning class, Special Problems in Building Technology - Design for a Sustainable Future, 17 Architecture and Civil Engineering students worked alongside Professors Marilyne Andersen, John Ochsendorf and Meejin Yoon to design classroom structures to accommodate 400 students.

After researching the cultural and climatic needs, the students designed an “ideal” classroom and an overall master plan with systems for built-in water management and natural ventilation. To inform the design and put real faces on a seemingly distant place, students in the workshop were paired with students from JPA.  Throughout the course of the fall semester they discovered what really mattered to their Cambodian pen pals.  “It was important for calibrating our designs to kid life and changing our perspective,” says Julianna Sassaman (G Course 4).

In January 2010, the class traveled to Siem Reap with the support of the Public Service Center, the Jay Pritzker Academy, and the Department of Architecture.  For two and a half weeks, the students tackled three challenges: to work with the original campus’ architects, LBL International, and further develop the design conceived during the fall semester; to devise strategies to increase the comfort and usability of the existing library; and to design and build a new outdoor kitchen for the nearby Ampil Peam school.  The students split into three groups and often shifted from one to the next, learning about the local approach to the issues and offering their own expertise in turn.

Working with design-build guru Jim Adamson and alongside Cambodian construction workers, students constructed the 4-meter by 8-meter outdoor kitchen and dining pavilion. Called a pteasbai in Khmer, the pavillion would host Ampil Peam’s 200 primary school children, many who suffer from malnutrition. The team had the opportunity to learn local building techniques like methods for laying hollow cored bricks and how to use simple tamping tools nicknamed “elephant feet,” made from bamboo handles and sections of tree stumps.  They also showed the locals how to create experimental materials like rice husk ash as a partial replacement to cement in concrete mixes and rammed earth for eating benches.

On their last morning in Siem Reap, they had an inaugural breakfast with the Ampil Peam students under the newly completed pavilion.  The children immediately took to the new structure and began playing hopscotch on the new paving, far exceeding the “kids per linear meter” estimation that Zachary Lamb (M.Arch ‘10) and others on the team had made.

These interactions and more made the biggest impression on Sassaman.  “It was really awesome to connect with part of the community through working with them and not just as tourists. … being there long enough to see how people live and how they build helped me understand how it all makes sense together,” she says.  “We still have a lot to learn from other cultures and expertise,” but this opportunity was one step in helping children in Siem Reap build a better future for themselves, their families, and their country.

Construction on the classrooms is slated to begin in September 2010.

Read more about students and their public service projects...