Meet My Dream Home. This Cambodian start-up is one of the 25 nominees of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge 2018. In the capital Phnom Penh, rural-urban migration sees millions seek opportunities for education and employment. But a lack of affordable housing sees tenants sharing the smallest of spaces, and families forced apart. Kongngy Hav, founder of My Dream Home, aims to solve Phnom Penh’s housing crisis, brick by brick: made from compressed earth, his interlocking ‘LEGO’ blocks are cheap to produce, easy to assemble and - for those struggling to get on the housing ladder - life-changing.

Please introduce My Dream Home
“My Dream Home is a social enterprise that addresses the lack of affordable housing in Cambodia by producing compressed earth bricks that interlock like LEGO.”

How did you come up with your idea?
“When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I lived in an area with a lot of garment workers. It was tiny - about 12sqm - with four or five people living there. It wasn’t good. When I was in Australia, I saw a YouTube video about building houses from straw bales. I thought, Cambodia has lots of rice straw so that’s a possibility. But I researched more and found compressed earth to be more suitable: it was strong, and more beautiful. Now, our biggest challenge is that we can’t supply enough bricks to customers.”

Who is affected by the lack of affordable housing?
“In Cambodia, 70% of the population is aged under 30. Many are uneducated. Most people earn less than $100 per month, so it’s hard to save even $50 per month. Developers aren’t willing to build a house to sell for less than around $40,000. So people must save for more than a lifetime to buy a house.”

Town project 2

Founder Hav Kongngy being interviewed

Why focus just on Phnom Penh?
“A lot of people move to the capital for education or employment. They can get a salary, but not enough to buy a proper house. Land is getting more expensive, and is mostly occupied by the rich. Many cannot afford that. On average, a typical Cambodian family is about five people. But it’s usually only those who can work who come to the city, with much of what they earn sent back to relatives in their village. With money for a house, they could also bring the kids for a better education, better sanitation. Culturally, it’s so important for people to have a house they feel proud of.”

What are the problems with current building materials - thin zinc in cheap housing, for example, or red clay bricks?
“Houses built from zinc get very hot in summer. Construction from red clay bricks gets very expensive, and takes time and skill - plus cement, which is polluting. Recently, a human rights NGO found that the red clay brick industry exploits child labor, and many factory workers have a debt to the owners.”

How are your bricks made?
“They’re made from top soil which is no good for growing. We buy it from farmers, sieve, and mix it with less than 10% cement. It then goes through a pressing machine. We now have three of those, and make almost 200sqm per day. By end 2018, we will add one more machine, taking us to 250sqm per day. I have 15 workers in production, and am recruiting more. We also have a construction team of around 13. After a three hour training, people can build a house by themselves”

And the houses?
“So far we’ve built over 300 houses. For My Dream Home to build a small home - two stories of 4 x 8.5m - costs around $10,000. A traditional alternative would be at least $15,000. Most of the core reduction is skilled labor: we require fewer workers, and it’s faster - one worker can lay 20sqm of bricks per day, as opposed to 10sqm for traditional, and you don’t need to plaster to make a smooth coating. You need less supporting materials like wood or iron, and the LEGO way of building is super simple! People can be trained within three hours and with support, can build a house by themselves.”

What kind of partnerships have you already established?
“The Cambodian government is now starting to focus on this issue. We’ve spoken with Cambodia’s Ministry of Urban Planning and Construction, and the Ministry of Finance. They are providing some subsidies for social enterprises, including tax exemption, and connecting resources like electricity and clean water.”

What opportunities do you see for My Dream Home on a global scale?
“Countries like Myanmar, Laos or Indonesia could be next. They are similar culturally, and share the same Asian economy. But before that, we need to show that this can really work. We will be able to do that within the next two years. We definitely want to find a partner, because this issue affects one in six urban dweller worldwide. We only need $50,000 to make a great impact. Let’s pray we’ll make it to the final of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge!”

 Borin Rananakiri