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Traditionelle Architektur in tropischem Klima am Beispiel von Kambodscha / Rural architecture in a tropical climate in the example of Cambodia
Research Project 2006-09

University of Applied Sciences, HTW Chur
Course leader: Daniel A. Walser (1st and 2nd phase) in collaboration with Michel He
imgartner, structural engineer ETH (2nd and 3rd phase)

Initiator: Peter and Tine Truog, Chur

Group of students: Roman Hug, Simon Gäzi, Marianne Hefti, Ruth Schwendener
Technical support laser scanner: Aldo Menegon, Untervaz
Local organisation: Hong Gau, Phnom Penh


Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Wars and the disaster of the red Khmer destroyed people, knowledge and important historical substances. Nevertheless the country has a rich and prominent rural architecture. All over the country one can find very simple buildings of the same type. They are highly optimised for a hot tropical climate. The floor has small gaps where air can enter and exit through the roof. If the ventilation of such a house functions well, the temperature inside the house is more or less the same as outside. But due to electric light and television mosquitos are attracted when it is dark. As a reaction people are closing the natural ventilation system and the temperature inside can rise at the apex during the day up to 42 degrees. This is a problem come about with the modernization of society. Especially in the urban house type, the Chinese shop house in the city, in the central inner rooms, the ventilation is very bad and people have started using air conditioner; bearing in mind this is a country where the cost of electricity is much higher than in western Europe.

Furthermore the research analyses the structural system together with the structural engineering department of the HTW Chur. Based on this research new construction details were developed.

The project focuses on the potential of rural constructions methods for today.


Typical street view in inner Phnom Penh.

Learning from Cambodia

The rural Khmer building: functional structures
The rural Khmer building is a perfect example of a house type completely reduced in its construction to serve its main functions. The building provides more than a space for living and working. It shelters and orders life and work around basic issues of living on a rural site: rain, sun, and seasons.

Because the Khmer house stands upon pillars a large open space is provided underneath the house. During daytime the house functions for this large open space as a "shading umbrella". Work and daily life is situated below the house where the most effective shade is provided. This space is used for eating and resting at the same time, as well for working, repairing farming equipment, and crafting. Even a small factory with looms can be placed in the house. Because underneath the building it is dry and there is easy access to some less used parts at the side, which are used for storage. Here people store wood until they are able to build the next house for their relatives, as an example.

During daytime, people do not stay upstairs, except for sleeping during the night and cooking in a separate space next to the main living room (often a step lower then the upper living floor). Of course if people need room for themselves, elderly people with problems walking stairs might stay upstairs more often. If a person is seriously ill they might stay upstairs the whole day.

Probably the larger the pillars are the more the inhabitants are protected from insects or other creatures crawling up to the house. No wonder the newest houses have extremely large concrete pillars. Never before, were they constructed as long as they are these days.

Spatial organisation of the house
If people are poor their kitchen is on the ground floor. As soon as the have a bit of money the kitchen is raised from the ground level. Then the kitchen is situated in the back of the house, often some steps lower and attached to the main building. The kitchen has always two entrances: one from upstairs and one directly from downstairs.

The inside of a house for a foreigner does not look very much structured, but a is clear organisation is based of the traditional values of a Khmer family. The upper floor is usually one entire room. The four central pillars formulate a common space with a Buddha figure, television, and electric battery light in the middle attached to the central pillars. On the right or the left side of the central entrance the parents have their sleeping room. The bed of the parents is at least most of the time separated from the rest of the room with textiles. In the back on the left side the girls have their space, on the right side the boys. Depending on the family the children as well can be placed on the other side. But they are always placed in the back of the house and separated by gender. In a large house where more rooms are added to the central main rooms more variations in the positions are possible but the central room remains always the most important space with a Buddha figure, television, and battery light.

As soon as a family gets some money, they often start to enlarge their house by closing a part of the open floor underneath the house to provide more room. These rooms are often used as storage, workrooms, or for animals. Simple palm leaves form these rooms. If the family has some more money the new walls can be built in wood, or even by bricks.

People in Cambodian do not have much furniture. But they always have a large, multifunctional low table, which is used for sleeping, sitting, talking and working. You can find this kind of furniture in different qualities upstairs and downstairs (always below the building). Below the house the main furniture for daily life is situated. During daytime a hammock is the most relaxing and comfortable furniture used for sleeping. Upstairs the same table like furniture is during night mainly used as a bed and a char and table during daytime. The more urban the people a sideboard becomes the kind of furniture with all the important goods: television, Buddha shrine, electric battery light, mobile phones, and photographs of their grandfathers and dead family members added. Because of the spatial organisation of the basic house the furniture is placed along the outside walls in the corners where the people have their own space. The central part of the house always remains the common space.

Especially in new built houses, inside some details are very much taken care of as the main beam of the roof and the main pillars - they are partly wrapped with glimmering metal band to protect the house with the good ghosts.

Surrounding of a Khmer house and its relation to the site
The plot of a rural Khmer house today is situated between the main street in the front and the rice fields at the back. If the street has a lot of traffic often a shop (a small and simple wooden shelter) is situated beside the street. Here they can sell all kinds of goods. Often the houses today have a sign of a political party along the street. The main ground is separated from the street by water where the bullock can get a bath and lotus plants are able to grow. Of course as soon as a group of houses form a more urban place the water is more of a drainage to get it from the ground when a monsoon storm starts flooding the place. On one side in front of the house you can find in most cases a drinking water source (ground water) and a Buddha shrine welcoming visitors. The ground in front of the house is the main open working space for large and intensive work where one needs space. Here they dry rice, sometimes even on the warm asphalt, threshing rice, have a mill, and do all kinds of reparation works.

The house itself is placed on the highest place on the ground. Due to heavy monsoon rain and water floods it is important that the main workspace below the house does not gets flooded. Beside and mainly behind a house banana trees and coconut palms often grow. Sometimes vegetables are planted. All these plants on one hand shelter the house from the powerful sun and protect the building from falling aside by a fast wind or a storm.

In the back or aside (depending on the available space) a clay house for rice storage is situated. If they have pigs they have their barn in that area as well. The back of the house is a more privately used area. For example toilets can be found here. But as well the garbage is placed in that area. The ground on the backside is often used as storage for palm trees, used and unused material of all kind. This ground is less intensively used then in front of the house.

If the children marry, or some other relatives move to the house more independent buildings get built beside the main house. At the beginning when money or building material is missing, they often live beside or behind the main building in a temporary shelter on the ground. As soon as possible the new building will be erected. These added buildings stand independently and today, because of money reasons and shortage of building materials, they are smaller than the main house.

All estates are similar organised and repeated along a street. If a village is more compact, without direct access to the rice fields, which are around the village, and cut off from traffic, buildings are still independent from each other and remain separated by a garden with banana trees, coconut palms and a vegetable garden. Here the rice fields are situated outside the village.