The perils of indiscriminate construction

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
The absence of residential zonings means that the neighbourhood’s form and function may change in a matter of a few months. KT/Rama Ariadi

When it comes to property, it is hard to beat low prices and convenience, but it takes more than cheap dwelling and proximity to basic necessities to ensure an adequate quality of life.
Rama Ariadi explores how the indiscriminate construction boom in Phnom Penh, enabled by the lack of enforceable building codes and zoning regulations, may actually contribute to the decline in quality of life of the city’s residents — in more ways than one.

After having spent the better part of three decades in his adopted home in France, Ka Rachana decided to retire and spend his golden years in Cambodia. Not unlike most people who made the leap into retirement, Mr Rachana purchased the top two floors of a shophouse, a stone’s throw away from the Central Market — all the while thinking that by doing so, he could live comfortably on the passive income generated from the lease of his unit, which he had renovated and furnished to modern standards. However, things didn’t turn out as smoothly he expected. Real estate agents came and went, but no lessee seems very keen to call his unit their home away from home.

“I decided to list the property on Airbnb in the hope of earning some income from short-term tenants or tourists, sadly to no avail,” said Mr Rachana. “I contemplated selling the unit — but interests haven’t been as high as I wanted it to be.”

At first glance, one may think that it is rather odd that a nicely appointed unit in the middle of all the action receives little to no attention from prospective tenants. But a simple gander on the property listing reveals the reason behind the slump — in the spirit of fair and full disclosure, Mr Rachana warned prospective tenants that ongoing construction around the area, coupled with heavy rush hour traffic on the street where his unit is located, may contribute to ‘excessive levels of noise after 7am’.

So it seems, whereas amenities and connectivity may not be an issue, stretching one’s sleep beyond sunrise is a distant possibility — a major deal breaker among prospective tenants, especially with young professionals and families.

Indeed, evidence of indiscriminate construction can be seen in all corners of the city. As the city’s urban sprawl begins to crawl southwards, the streetscape of the Russian Market has been transformed — with its namesake market looking more and more like an anomalous enclave, surrounded by residential towers all around its perimeter. Despite the southward trend, areas due north of the city centre have not been spared from the scythes of development too, with numerous projects clustered around Boeung Kak and Tuol Kork quickly changing the skyline of the area to meet the increasing demand for both residential and commercial spaces.

This spells misfortune for Mr Rachana and his neighbours, for as long as the cranes remain on the horizon, so would the irksome, tenant-repelling noises. But to many others, intrusive ambient noise is the least of their concern.

The leafy suburb of BKK1 is a magnet for expatriates, owing to its central location, relative calm, as well as the abundance of shops and service providers that cater to their needs. Once dominated by low-density dwellings, the streetscape has changed significantly in recent years. The sight of high-rises that sit rather uncomfortably among houses and villas along its tree-lined streets are no longer uncommon — as property developers race to build high-rises to reap profits from higher-than-average prices that residential and commercial spaces in the area commands. Traditional low-density houses that once dot the streets are now increasingly becoming harder to spot — as many have been razed to make way for high-rise, high-density developments.

While this practice would probably put land developers in other urban centres in hot waters, it is not the case in Cambodia — as the kingdom currently does not have an enforceable zoning regulations that prevent developers from erecting high-rises and commercial spaces in the middle of a residential area. As a result, many landowners followed suit — and in the place of their homes, now rises apartment buildings that were built with the sole purpose of benefiting from the high demand, almost entirely to the detriment of quality. In many cases, buildings are constructed so close to one another to the point of blocking out sunlight and airflow. In extreme cases, tenants from one building can peer into their neighbour’s living room and list out their furniture without having to strain their necks, creating obvious privacy issues.

“The problem caused by the absence of building codes and zoning regulations goes beyond simply spite-housing neighbouring buildings,” said Melbourne-based architect, Arya Triadi.

“Building codes do not only regulate how buildings are positioned in relation to one another, as it also regulates other elements of a particular building that are often overlooked particularly in Asia — which ranges from design, fire hazard mitigation systems, to other aspects that relate directly to human well-being, such as natural light and ventilation.”

The correlation between exposure to natural light and well-being isn’t at all abstract in nature — after all, a human’s internal body clock takes its cues from the absence or abundance of natural light, which affects a person’s ability to focus, as well as to rest and recuperate.

“While the lack of natural light can be rectified by installing more light sources, bear in mind that artificial light has a different impact on our body’s circadian rhythm,” continued Mr Triadi. “Furthermore, it is an energy inefficient solution that negatively impacts our carbon footprint in the long run.”

“The benefits of passive design — that is, designs that allow dwellings to make use of its immediate environment to regulate its interior condition — have been widely extolled, but the implementation of such principles will take some time, especially in regions where construction is largely dictated by profits,” he continued. “Codifying such principles into a legally enforceable set of regulations can help the government curb indiscriminate construction — thereby ensuring that the quality of life of the city’s residents are not sacrificed for the sake of meeting existing demands.”

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