I read this article in the New York Times a few days ago.
This house looks ugly as hell; only French people can build a thing like that (and I am not a Francophobe, quite the contrary). I know of a small hotel in Phnom Penh, the owner of which transformed a rented house into that nice boutique hotel – the Blue Lime. It turned out to be a success commercially, but the rooms are ugly as hell as well. He used only concrete and steel wire as furniture. On his website he calls it minimalist. But then I must be pretty old-fashioned as the guests like it. There is even one hotel that copied it to the T. (The ‘252’)
The house in Siem Reap in the picture looks like it also has just bare concrete walls; normally a nice coat of paint makes a house look more attractive, doesn’t it? Well, not to some French people, it seems. Perhaps that’s the new style in Southern France? I don’t know. I haven’t been there in ages. Anyway, what surprised me most was the price tag for that house. According to the NYT they paid approximately $300,000 for 3,000 square feet – it is not clear whether this includes the swimming pool - it looks more like a foot bath - and the yard. 3,000 square feet equals about 279 m2, in other words, they paid about $1,080 per m2. I am inclined to think that includes the yard as well. The house doesn’t like it is more than 4 m wide (standard Cambodian width) and 10 m long.
Cambodian builders have perfected the art of building a house in a jiffy. I see all these row houses spring up all over the city at an incredible speed. Since I just recently built a house myself and was involved in a smaller development I know a little bit about building houses.
Basic building materials like cement ($80/mt) and bricks ($400 for 10,000 pcs.) have come down from previous heights, but it may come as no surprise that construction prices haven’t. Usually, prices are quoted by m2, including everything from tiles to windows, doors, bathroom installations. Depending on the quality of the materials except bricks and cement and workmanship, of course, these prices can vary quite a bit.
A regular row house, ground floor only, costs about $200 to $220/m2, including that half-floor; the first floor will be at the same price, the second floor (half of which is usually a terrace) is half that price. So normally a row house is 4 m x 12 m, sometimes 4 x 14 m, or 48 m2 to 64 m2 of floor area (Cambodian lots are typically 4 x 20m – 4 m in front must be kept free as sidewalk, and 1 m in the rear needs to separate it from the adjoining wall there.) If you do the math this will come out as round about $10,000 to $12,000 for a ground floor only, with first floor $22,000 to $25,000. No kitchen cabinets or anything else besides the toilets and the wall shower are included. If you want things a little bit more complete or modern, like a real shower, you will have to figure in another $5,000 minimum. The price for the land is not included, of course.
If you fancy something more extraordinary there is no limit to what you might need to pony up. Those huge villas we see all over the place in Cambodia are around the $500 - $800 mark. Some of them are outright palatial; Khmer people have a tendency toward bigness, if they have the money for it. Modesty or understatement seem to be unknown terms for them.
But coming back to that French house in Siem Reap that price seems to be a bit high, even considering that the owner changed a few things while it was being built. The way it looks I would have guessed it at about $250/m2. To me it looks like half-finished, but then that’s me. Just look at the teal colored drain pipes sticking out from the first floor wrap-around balcony.
The rather plain house I built cost me $237/m2, not including air conditioning, shower stalls, special bathtub, special windows, window screens, the garage, the driveway tiles and around the house, the high ‘Tiki hut’, a water filtration system (well water), the connection to the power grid (about 1 km away), etc. Considering that the house is located in the countryside we got a pretty good deal. Prices in the provinces are usually higher as all the materials need to be hauled from Phnom Penh.
Of course, when you buy land (my wife is Khmer), you need to build a wall around it so as to officially stake your claim to the land and so that everybody can see there is an owner and this land is not for squatting. That wall plus the barbed wire, the gate, etc. are all extra, not to mention the yard or garden as we would rather call it, which is not nearly finished. We will do that bit by bit. The grass for about 1,000 m2 was about the same amount in dollars, with two thirds going towards the transport from the sod place to our house. I kept part of the land free for possible later construction of a boarding house for fishing tourists. Something I am planning to do on the side.
Altogether we spent about half the money that a ‘normal’ 2,000 sq.ft. house would cost in Florida, with the major difference being that the land is three times as large, and that all interior walls are brick. The ceilings are 3.50 m high, although not vaulted as is the normal style in Florida these days. The floorplan is such that the front and back door are in a direct line so that the wind can blow right through the house; additionally, we build a ventilation shaft so there is an air flow from the great room through the roof. We hardly ever need the a/c during the day; we just turn it on for about one hour before we go to bed.
A final word about workmanship; the quality of the brickwork is, as far as I can judge, equal to Western standards. The plastering and more delicate work in corners, etc., could do with some improvement. The ventilation shaft gave them a lot of problems, because it was a first for them. The roof frame is galvanized steel; the concrete foundation is solidly built 50 cm into the ground. The woodwork, like built-in under sink cabinets, or the slatted door to the walk-in closet are pretty poor as is all the sanitation work. The bathroom fixtures are all first quality (Karat), but the installation was definitely lacking. When we moved in I had redo all the hose connections as they were leaking. Also, what they obviously don’t know how to do is build floor-drains so that no odor wafts back from the pipes leading into the septic tanks. I closed them all as we have no need for floor drains since we have shower stalls, which incidentally were also leaking and needed to be re-sealed. Of course, the builder gave a 5-year warranty and all the repair work was done under warranty. The whole house was built in just 5 months. You can’t beat that for speed. Overall I am pretty happy with the work, and the builder did a terrific job. Seeing him for the first time you are not inclined to put your trust in him. But he came with good references and actually lived up to them too. It is located in a somewhat remote area, but that’s the way I like it.
Here is a look at it:
In comparison here is a look at the house I own in Florida, which as everybody can see is up for sale.