MIT Design Students Look to Revamp Traditional Schools

From shutters to walls to cisterns, a group of researchers and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is hoping to give the traditional Cambodian schoolhouse a modern facelift.

The team arrived in Siem Reap last week on a 19-day mission to test how locally sourced, inexpensive materials can be used to cool, light and provide consistent access to water for traditional one-level, government-designed schools.

“Our hope is that we can make schools a more desirable place to go, a place that students and teachers can be proud of,” said Steve Ray, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Mech­anical Engineering program and one of the team’s leaders.

According to Mr Ray, the MIT en­gineers and architects sat down with Siem Reap-based contractors to discuss the ways in which local practices and ideas could inform the im­plementation of innovations from the academy, ranging from new building materials to heat-dissipating buffers.

Kelly Clonts, a senior majoring in architecture, described how prior to the trip she and her fellow students designed a model Cambo­dian school­house in order to identify weaknesses within the government’s current blueprint.

“We used EcoTech software to create a simulated environment into which we could download trees…and where we placed a schoolhouse built to government specifications,” said Ms Clonts, adding that using MIT-developed software, the class was able to download a profile of Cambodian weather to simulate the wear and tear of a year and highlight lighting and airflow problems as well as structural opportunities.

A new rain catchment system will take advantage of roof space by funneling water down gutters and into a series of five angled cisterns that Ms Clonts says will be capable of holding 6,000 liters. A prototype is being installed on a schoolhouse in Ang­kor Chhum district.

“Cambodian people seem to realize that we don’t want to just learn from our project, but from them as well,” said Ms Clonts.

Before the team arrived, they discussed the schoolhouse project with Sopheap Phim, a US State Depart­ment-funded fellow in MIT’s Special Program for Urban and Regional Studies. Mr Phim is the former Se­nior Program Coordinator of Hab­itat for Humanity Cambodia, which partnered with MIT on the current project.

“I told the students that government here is behind other nationals in the region and that teachers have low capacity,” said Mr Phim, who returned to Cambodia with the MIT team, adding that he hoped “new technologies could help children focus on studying.”

Habitat Cambodia Communica­tions Manager Melissa Cronin said yesterday that she was pleased that the MIT group was using a soil-based brick her organization pioneered as a key construction material.

“New green materials are helpful so long as they can be cheap,” said Ms Cronin, adding that Habitat would consider using a rice husk ash-concrete compound MIT is testing if it proves structurally sound.

Professor John Ochsendorf, one of the MIT team’s leaders, said the new building material could create a new local industry based on waste and lower building costs.

“These are the sorts of developments that make meaningful differences,” said Mr Ochsendorf.

According to Mr Ochsendorf, the MIT team is also testing the benefits of placing a buffer beneath the tile roof to stop radiant heat and in­stalling shutters with hinges on top that will allow windows to remain open in the wet season, letting in much needed light.

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.