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Concepts developed for Cambodia impact design in Canada

Got $1,800?

Sustainable.TO can build you a house.

Throw in another $650 and they'll add a nice walkway leading to a separate bedroom wing.

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The only requirements: a love of bamboo, monsoons and the ability to move to Cambodia.

Recently shortlisted as one of 10 finalists in Building Trust International's "Cambodian Sustainable Housing" competition that sought affordable, adaptable, flood-resistant housing for low-income residents of Phnom Penh, architect Paul Dowsett and Nicholas Discenza led the rest of Toronto's Sustainable.TO in creating "PHASEhouse," a striking brick and bamboo home that can be built in phases as homeowners secure funds.

While PHASEhouse wasn't picked as a winner (the three chosen from the approximately 600 entries were from Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.), this doesn't bother the green go-getters at Sustainable.TO one bit. Competitions such as these, says Mr. Dowsett, act like "little workshops in the office" – and there always seems to be one on the boardroom table at any given time – that foster collaboration and team-building.

"It gives us a chance to flex our muscles, get some intellectual exercise," says Mr. Dowsett, who opened for business in 2009 with a handful of employees at the back of a popular Leslieville vintage furniture store but, within a year, had taken over the top floor of a paint store at Queen Street East and Carlaw Avenue. "We go into flights of creativity that the Toronto architecture scene doesn't always allow us to do."

And while the creativity in this case made for a design that, on the surface, seems a tad western, Mr. Dowsett and Mr. Discenza argue that, at its heart, it's Southeast Asia all the way, combining materials Cambodians "make and use on a regular basis," such as mud bricks, thatched roofing, lashed bamboo and mosquito netting, that just happen to make for a "dynamic" shape: "It's almost the definition of alchemy," says Mr. Dowsett, "or spinning straw into gold." Hopefully, that uniqueness would foster pride for its owners.

Phase 1 would see the main house built at a cost of $1,790.15. Sustainable.TO's renderings show a tidy, perforated brick box with a monocline roof suspended by bamboo posts. A thin bamboo screen backed by mosquito netting fills the gap between brick walls and a "floating" zinc roof (to vent hot air and cooking odours). Inside, there's room for a large table that seats six, a credenza with a television set, and a countertop with a stove and sink. On the other side of the stove/sink wall is the generous (relatively speaking) three-piece bathroom; below the building is a cistern fed by the pitched roof.

With Habitat for Humanity co-sponsoring the competition, the team at Sustainable.TO used Habitat's "teach a man to fish" philosophy when coming up with the PHASEhouse design. In other words, as a direct result of Habitat's assistance and tutoring during the construction of Phase 1, costs would be reduced when building the next phases, since the family would now possess the skill set to do it themselves.

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Phase 2, then, would see the addition of a raised walkway with planter boxes extending out from the main house. This would bring the total cost to $2001.43, slightly over the $2000 limit set by the competition. In the planter boxes, says Mr. Dowsett, the family could plant food, but more likely pest-repellent plants as is done in Europe: "In Italy and southern Europe there are window boxes filled with geraniums, which everybody thinks are so pretty: They're really mosquito repellents so they don't fly in the open windows."

A large platform-on-stilts connected to the walkway would cost an extra $163.15 and make up Phase 3. Under here, in the cool shade, the family could sell crops, clothes, spare tires or what-have-you. During the annual flooding season, they could conduct business from the platform. Phase 4, however, would cover this platform with a thatched roof held aloft by crisscrossing bamboo supports (with walls of screen and netting once again) to create a large sleeping quarters for the family; this would bring the total cost to $2,456.73. The thatched roof, adds Mr. Discenza, would make for much quieter nights in a country that sees quite a lot of rain.

And while Sustainable.TO isn't sure they'll see the handsome PHASEhouse go from concept to reality (a model of it was built by students in Phnom Penh for an exhibition there in May), it has brought additional advantages to the office beyond team-building: "The simplicity of the idea, of getting something down to its absolute essence, is now something that we apply to every project that we work on," says Mr. Dowsett.

Indeed: As recently appointed sustainability consultants to Habitat for Humanity Canada, this kind of thinking will serve Sustainable.TO well, says Terry Petkau, Habitat's director of building services. The homes Habitat is building in Canada, Mr. Petkau admits, are "getting bigger, they're getting more costly to build and so we've got to bring things to a more modest, cost-effective level.

"I think there're some great things that we can learn from housing design in developing countries and come back to reality in Canada."

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