Moving and reassembling traditional house on stilts

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – A century ago,
Cambodia’s rice fields were filled with majestic, elevated wooden houses.
Today, few noteworthy examples remain, largely because of the cost of
maintaining them and the near-universal desire for air-conditioned, Western-style
homes.

So when Darryl Collins, an Australian art
historian who has lived in the country since 1994, had the opportunity to buy
one four years ago, he couldn’t pass it up.
Built in 1915 by a wealthy Chinese-Khmer timber merchant on a remote island in
the Mekong River, the house was set on stilts, 2.75 meters off the ground, to
protect it from floods and to maximize air circulation. It was constructed with
at least five types of Cambodian hardwood, and the interior woodwork was
decorated with ornate carvings of phoenixes, plum blossoms and fruit – symbols
of success, abundance and wealth.
“When I walked in, I was amazed,” said Collins, 63, who heard about the house
from a friend documenting the country’s historic wooden architecture.

At the time, he was facing the prospect of
turning 60 and was looking to make a dramatic change from his life in Phnom
Penh.
But the elderly owners had no plans to sell the house – because of its isolated
location and the general lack of interest in old homes, they assumed it would
be more profitable to dismantle it and sell off the decorative elements. To
prevent that from happening, Collins penned a contract on the spot, agreeing to
buy the house for $6,400 (in U.S. dollars, the de facto Cambodian currency), a
figure the sellers deemed auspicious for its square eights (eight and nine are
considered lucky numbers in Asia) and its amount. Antiques dealers, Collins
said, would have driven “a harder bargain.”

The location of the house – nearly 320
kilometres from Siem Reap, the town near the Angkor Wat temples where Collins
planned to retire – didn’t deter him. He simply had it moved. The traditional
wedge-and-pin construction made it possible for the 150-square-metre structure
to be pulled apart; walls were sliced into panels by a team of 20 carpenters.

“I was horrified,” he said. “I didn’t
believe it could ever be put back together again.”

The pieces – which weighed about 50 tons and
included two dozen 9-metre columns and 400 10-metre floor boards – were
hand-carried and loaded onto ferries that transported them to a nearby town.
Then a truck took them to land Collins had bought for $60,000, where a new
concrete foundation waited. Working with a local architect, Collins embarked on
a 10-month-long reconstruction that was completed in July 2007 and cost about
$94,000 (including the relocation and the installation of electricity and
running water).

The main interior space, framed by an elaborate
decorative archway, functions as a large living and sleeping area, with a simply
furnished master bedroom. Collins added two staircases, one lighted by lamps
made from old chicken cages, and a two-story concrete wing to house the
kitchen, the bathrooms and a guest room; a second new structure contains the
garage, a storage area and another bedroom. Along with the patio under the
house, which was retiled, the additions quadrupled the living space, to more
than 600 square meters.

Although the house was built to provide
natural ventilation in sweltering Cambodia, Collins spends much of his time on
the patio, which he has furnished with high-backed antique chairs, a platform
bed and a bamboo birdcage filled with origami birds. Here, in the space defined
by giant columns, he sees the true value of his hard work.

“Older people who
grew up in houses like these will just walk right under the house and hug a
column,” he said. “They connect the house with something they knew a long, long
time ago.”

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