By Mike Eckel
John Vink/Magnum Photos
Belgian photographer John Vink and his wife built a two-story home in Kep, Cambodia
Belgian photographer John Vink spent years splitting his time between Europe and Southeast Asia, shooting photographs of refugees in war-torn countries. Since 2000, he’s traveled a little less—going between Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and the sleepy coastal town of Kep. But in early 2009, he decided to build a permanent place in the hills outside Kep.
The 62-year-old and his wife already owned several properties in the capital city. But he says they wanted to escape Phnom Penh’s incessant noise and pollution.
Mr. Vink bought the 2,000-square-meter lot from a local religious order that was moving its pagoda to a new location, and paid about $5 a square meter for the scrubby, jungly property. The nearby hills obscure the view of Kep’s shoreline over the Gulf of Thailand, which is why he says he paid less than the going rate for Kep property, which he estimates is about $100 a square meter. Instead, the home, which sits on a hillside roughly 60 meters above sea level, has a sweeping view of the Kampot plains to the northwest.
Mr. Vink hired Phnom Penh-based French architect Julien Sellon to build the 160-square-meter, two-level abode set onto the hillside with stilts. He worked with a French-trained Cambodian contractor, and got the bulk of the construction materials locally, with the exception of a few things, such as imported steel and cement.
Building on a hilltop is unusual in Cambodia because of cultural customs and costs, says Mr. Vink, so he faced some challenges in ensuring that he had an experienced contractor and proper permits. At one point a month after construction began, he thought all the permits were in order, until an inspector from the local environmental protection office showed up and ordered a halt to the project. But $300 in “fees” later—a sizeable sum in Cambodia—the necessary permits were obtained and the project moved forward, Mr. Vink says.
Built at a cost of about $170,000, including permits, architecture plans and construction materials, the house is newly completed, but Mr. Vink is still furnishing it and landscaping is a work in progress.
Native grasses, low jungle vegetation, plus the planned addition of various trees—cashew nut, mango, lemon and grapefruit–will eventually create a lush outdoor ambience. Three terraces and other landscaping will link the house to the swimming pool, set about four meters below.
To blunt the effect of the often-piercing sun, the architect, Mr. Sellon, decided to cover the southern-facing side of the house with steel horizontal louvers. They’re set away from the exterior wall by about one meter and function as a sort of Venetian blind, allowing shaded air to circulate along the sunny, south wall. Mr. Vink says he plans to put in greenery to grow up and down alongside the louvers.
The steel louvers also cover the top half-meter of the western and northwestern sides of the building, above the balcony, shading the living area—which has three-meter-high ceilings—from the midday sun.
Building an environmentally efficient house was part of the goal, says Mr. Vink. A rooftop passive solar water heater helps keep monthly electricity costs to about $100 or so (to power some appliances and the pump filter for the pool). He’s looked into wind power, and says he hopes to eventually install photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity. And he’s considered putting a “green” roof on top—growing vegetation on the roof to provide insulation from the sun.
An environmentally friendly cooling system was central to the plan: A chimney-type design is built into the middle of the house, and functions as a wind-driven cooling system. Air rises from ground level after passing over a small, artificial pond (filled with fish, frogs and lily pads) and draws the water-cooled air up to the second-level living area, before moving out through a vented skylight. Mr. Vink says the sea winds that travel to the hills provide a constant breeze moving into, up and out of the house, eliminating any need for air-conditioning.
The home’s three bedrooms all have a three-level, split layout, so that you can see the view from the window while sleeping or standing. The top-most opening is shaded by louvers and is open to the outside. The steady wind circulating through house, according to Mr. Vink, keeps the mosquitoes at bay.
Like all construction projects, there were a few blips: Mr. Vink says thieves have twice swiped the copper wires that run electricity up the one-kilometer hill from the road to the house. But those headaches are a small price to pay for a home and a view that, he says, “Cleans the head and gives a bit of room to contemplate the world.”