Diamond Island’s Connexion development points to a possible new future for Phnom Penh’s structural environment
On Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island (Koh Pich), an abandoned development has been given a new lease on life as a project radically different from what its initial builders had envisioned.
Connexion, the mixed-use work, culture and recreational building at the centre of the development, has become one of Phnom Penh’s largest experiments in both bioclimatic architecture and in repurposing existing projects. One of the first of its kind, the project stands as a potential role model for transforming many stalled and abandoned construction projects across Cambodia, turning them from problems to opportunities.
The initial developers of the Koh Pich project had planned to build five skyscrapers surrounding a central mall. Ultimately they ceased construction on the project, likely due to financial difficulties. All but two of the half-completed buildings were transferred to the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC), the developers of the Diamond Island Satellite City.
Seeing potential in the partially constructed mall, Alexis de Suremain, Connexion’s operator, proposed that it be reimagined as a mixed-use building. “We thought we could make one of the first large-scale bioclimatic, repurposed buildings, where we would allow the air to flow between the floors,” he said.
The existing construction was skeletal in nature, consisting only of slabs and columns. With large, six-metre clearances between floors and ceilings, it was an ideal canvas for repurposing, de Suremain said. Heavy construction work had already been done by the original developers, leaving a building that “was just empty holes basically, which was really interesting because there was a lot of space for the architects to work and for the imagination to blossom.”
T3, the architectural firm responsible for the new design, has taken maximum advantage to produce a building reflecting the principles of bioclimatic architecture. Each of the commercial, retail and office elements within the building will be enclosed in 3.2-metre-high “boxes,” enabling air to enter via the facade and circulate in the space above each box. Each box will also have inlets for air, positioned near the floor, and outlets near the ceiling, thus optimising the flow of air within each box for maximum cooling. The area initially intended to be the mall’s central atrium has been reconfigured into a massive heat chimney, enabling hot air to rise from the building.
Planters will be attached to the facade of the building at every level. As the plants grow and hang down over the building, they will offer shade from the heat of the sun, further reducing temperatures within. The buildings’ “boxes” are also inset from the facade, allowing the roof to provide additional shade to those within.
While such measures cannot completely negate the need for air conditioning, they have the potential to substantially reduce it, said de Suremain. “My ambition is that we could increase the number of days where you don’t absolutely need air conditioning by maybe 100 days, 150 days a year,” he said.
The steps taken to minimise the need for artificial climate control for comfortable habitation also generate a positive impact for the surrounding area. Densely built cities in warm climates tend to generate urban heat islands, as the manmade environment traps heat and creates substantially higher temperatures than in the surrounding countryside.
The open design of Connexion will go a long way towards mitigating its contribution to this effect, according to de Suremain. “Because we have so much space between the floors, we will be able to keep maybe one-third of the volume for the air to flow through the building,” he said.
Projects such as Connexion and Factory Phnom Penh, a former garment factory repurposed into a mixed-use creative hub, may point the way forward for Cambodia’s real-estate sector. Cambodian cities are currently plagued with a glut of unfinished and abandoned projects. In Sihanoukville alone, the government has identified nearly 400 unfinished or abandoned construction projects. The country’s garment sector is contracting, with hundreds of factories forced to close or suspend operations.
The hurdles to repurposing are manifold. One example is poor access to information regarding the structural soundness of abandoned projects. But as Connexion’s bioclimatic design shows, these challenges come with more than a need for damage control: They offer an opportunity to redefine urbanism in the Cambodian context.