Building Lives A Case of Academia's Involvement in the Community Development of Smile Village, Cambodia

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Cities in Southeast Asia countries are growing. With economic progress, there is pressure on limited land for development in the cities. Slum eviction of the urban poor is also common in cities such as Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Many NGOs step in to provide housing for the urban poor but providing a roof over their heads is solving only one aspect of a complex issue. The solution must be a wholistic one that addresses education, livelihood and environment as well, to have impactful community development and a resilient community (Bhattacharyya, 2004; Mathie, 2003).

Smile Village

Smile Village (SV) is located 12km from the city centre and surrounded by fields. It is accessible by a local road and located within a 3-km radius are factories, temples, market and other villages. The heart of SV comprises a Community Hall, a Childcare and a playground. Around the centre of the village are 2-storey paired houses, each with its own rainwater collection from the roof. The SV is constructed in phases. Phase 1 of SV has been completed and consists of houses for 70 families, a childcare centre, chalets for bed & breakfast (for volunteers/visitors), a community centre and a social enterprise/training centre. Phase 2 will consist of completing another 60 houses depending on funds available from donors. In the meantime, empty plots will be used for agriculture.

Smile Village came about to respond to a slum eviction in Phnom Penh. Families of children attending school at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), a general education and vocational institute for underprivileged children, were evicted from dump sites and need a new housing to prevent their children from dropping out. PSE & Solutions to End Poverty (STEP) venture into building housing on a vacant land of 2.2ha. Its vision, however, has evolved from merely providing housing into creating a community campus to support underprivileged families to achieve social and financial mobility.

The SV developed three sectors for its programming, namely, Environmental and Shelter, Livelihood and Enterprise, and Community and Education. Several strategies were deployed to support the programmes including empowering the families to set up personal or communal businesses, providing early childcare education, and vocational training with parental commitment in the rental contract. Since the families moved into Smile Village in September 2015, several micro businesses have been set up. For example, rug-making (among a group of ladies) and a bed & breakfast service (i.e. cooking, housekeeping for volunteers and visitors who are staying in the chalets). The next social enterprise businesses will be a recycling, landscape and woodworking industries.

PSE & STEP collaborate with many key partners to share expertise and resources. PSE is a non-profit organization (NPO) in Cambodia that provides free education from preschool to vocational school (e.g. on hospitality) to underprivileged children. STEP, on the other hands, is a non-profit organisation based in Singapore that raises funds and brings in industry partners/contractors to support constructions; it also approaches Singapore tertiary institutions to provide community training or train-the-trainer program. The collaborators, among others, include Grenzone that contributed their corporate social responsibility to construct SV buildings; Garden and Landscape Centre that developed plant nursery and SV landscape plan; Habitat for Humanity that was the key partner in completing all the first houses; and two Singapore-based designers, URBNARC (a Design firm that provided pro-bono service for SV master plan) and Billion Bricks (an NPO design consultancy that designed the masterplan and Khmer style houses). The SV also depends on student volunteers and interns to support the various initiatives in health, social enterprise, agriculture, and design.

Figure 1. Master plan of Smile Village when it is eventually fully built (source: Smile Village Management)

Figure 1. The master plan of Smile Village when it is eventually fully built (source: Smile Village Management)

Academia’s Involvement in Smile Village

STEP had approached different faculties and student organisations in National University of Singapore (NUS) to contribute to the Smile Village project in various ways. During the Smile Village’s planning stage, students from the NUS University Scholars Program conducted a Community-Asset Mapping of the dumpsite residents who will be moving to Smile Village, to understand their aspirations and priorities. The mapping helps PSE & STEP to plan the village and programmes better in fulfilling residents’ needs. NUS Medical School’s students conducted health screening for the residents and public health education lessons, while students from the Business School surveyed micro businesses and proposed possible types of social enterprises. The Architecture School students produced conceptual masterplan ideas, designs of buildings in the Smile Village, raised funds for the design and built playgrounds and childcare furniture. While the Landscape Architecture’s students came up with an edible landscape plan, conducted demonstrations of urban farming and laid the groundwork for a tree nursery in SV. These participations were through channels of formal academic modules, holiday enrichment programs, service learning (Sigmon, 1996) and student association’s activities (Tan, 2013). This process was documented in photos and videos, and the experiences were shared with others on Facebook.[1]

Some involvement of the Architecture and Landscape Architecture’s students are detailed below:

1. Masterplan & Building Design

The collaboration between NUS Architecture, STEP and PSE started in June 2012. In the first trip, after learning about PSE and establishing user requirements of SV childcare, the students engaged the stakeholders through participatory methods to map the needs and aspirations for the future childcare. They also did quick design charettes to discuss ideas of the childcare and social enterprise with them. After the trip, the students spent one semester (13 weeks) in a Design Studio module to create a master plan of the SV and designs of the childcare and social enterprise centres followed.

The SV had an original master plan done in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, it was in a typology of high density 2 to 3-storeys cluster courtyard blocks to maximise land use. A concern was raised whether the residents who have been living in single-storey dwellings can adapt to living on higher floors. The Design studio, then, explored alternative masterplans of different morphology and density, incorporating ideas of environmental and social sustainability and resilience, e.g. one alternative was to provide larger shared community plots with a small garden plot for every household to enable them to grow their own vegetables. The masterplan was later finalised by URBNARC and Billion Bricks. Residents now have a small plot of land in front of their house for gardening.

2. Edible Landscape

Introducing the concept of growing your own food in a tight space is an important one as the PSE students and their families will be ready to practise it by the time the SV is ready. PSE campus was the right laboratory for it. There are pockets of open space in the campus but consists of decorative plants. A group of NUS landscape architecture students did a Design studio on an edible landscape for the PSE Campus. They proposed a masterplan of greening the PSE campus with edible plants and build pilot green plots with the help of PSE students and the landscape company. PSE students were taught how to grow plants in recycled plastic bottles.

In June 2016, a group of NUS architecture students & staff, in partnership with Garden & Landscape Centre, planned a tree nursery and prepared the ground for the nursery at SV. They also taught volunteers and residents how to build bioswales. The tree nursery will be an enterprise that is a revenue source.

3. Childcare Furniture

In January 2014, NUS architecture students went to Cambodia during university holidays to design and build prototype furniture for the future childcare using recycled materials and upcycled materials e.g. seats and see-saw were made from discarded tires from the PSE fleet of school buses and storage shelves were made from wood pallets. The Smile Village childcare has not started construction, but the prototype furniture was used in other PSE childcares. This way, students can have first-hand knowledge on the flaws of their design and re-adjust accordingly.

Six months later, two teams of NUS Architecture students went to PSE. One team built an improved version of the last prototype learning from the failed designs of the first attempt. They also designed new multifunctional pieces that can double up as shelves and tables. The idea of a multifunctional piece of furniture is to maximize the limited budget and restricted childcare space available. It was heartening to see that the PSE staff and students built more of the tire play objects and improved the design using the sample pieces we constructed on the previous trip.

Figure 2. Furniture prototype, 2014

Figure 2. Furniture prototype, 2014

4. Playground & Building as Learning Aid

The second team designed and built a playground at one of PSE’s childcare. After getting feedback from childcare teachers and PSE management at the community presentation, the design of the playground prototype was modified immediately. Then, it was constructed using recycled tyres and local materials. Teachers participated in the construction process. After a year, in June 2015 PSE requested the students to design and build a new playground to cater for children attending the childcare of the SV. PSE feedback to the NUS team that the playground was very popular among children due to the creative play and physical challenges stimulated by the features. Yet, the parts of the playground have given way.

The students needed more in-depth knowledge to design a better playground. The author, then, contacted an outdoor adventure expert in Singapore and he volunteered to give consultation on playground design to the students. With PSE’s feedback and the guidance from the outdoor adventure expert, the students proposed an adventure playground design. The design stimulates the development of the gross motor skills for different age groups of children with various types of activities. After the design went through a feedback session with SV staff and residents, necessary modifications were made followed by procurement of materials and construction. A few local residents were hired for the construction of the playground. The children made art on the columns of the playground with thumbprints. Students also produced a step-by-step construction manual that was left for the community. This is intended to enable them to carry out their own maintenance and to empower them in building their own playground in other existing PSE childcare.

Figure 3. Engagement meeting with Smile Village residents and staff about the playground design

Figure 3. Engagement meeting with Smile Village residents and staff about the playground design

The new playground was so popular that on weekends, there were nearly 300 children from SV and the surrounding villages congregating and playing there. As it is located at the heart of SV, it is not just a playground, but it also serves as a social gathering space. Parents gather there to watch their children play and chit-chat with each other. For the first time, children have a safe space to play in.

Figure 4. The Adventure Playground in Smile Village

Figure 4. The Adventure Playground in Smile Village

5. “Youth Playground”

By September 2015, all phase one houses, Community Hall, and Bed & Breakfast chalets were completed and families moved in. The years of civil war and Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia have destroyed trust among some people. In addition, families came from different dumpsites in Phnom Penh and establishing communication and trust among them is one of the priorities and an ongoing process. STEP & PSE conducted sessions on community building & capacity building for residents.

In 2016 SV management requested that we design and build an Activity Circuit or ‘Youth Playground’. Thus, NUS Architecture students took a volunteered trip in May. The circuit aims to support youth leadership-training program where identified youth leaders learn team building through doing activities. In fact, after the circuit was built, it was used to conduct team-building exercises for SV staff, residents and village leaders and for the volunteers’ team building program on bed & breakfast visits. Fifteen architecture students designed and built the activity circuit structure with the help of MyCorp volunteers from Malaysia. It was a challenging project as there were no specific brief. Smile Village staff and residents had no idea what it should look like. Again, the same outdoor adventure expert in Singapore served as the consultant to the students on the types of activities needed to enhance team building. Students proceeded to design a structure that can be used for multiple activities, with open-ended structures for creating new activities. Due to the difficulty of communicating remotely with Smile Village staff from Singapore, the engagement exercise on the design was done after the students arrived there. Modifications were made based on the feedback from management and residents.

Figure 5. Residents taking part in team-building activities at the Activity Circuit or "Youth playground" in Smile Village

Figure 5. Residents taking part in team-building activities at the Activity Circuit or “Youth playground” in Smile Village

Lesson Learnt

Wholistic approach to problem-solving

The SV project is a good example for architecture students to witness that planning and architecture alone cannot solve social problems. Empowerment and engagement of the community in changing their mind set and behaviour are key, e.g., residents were taught and were involved in in-depth discussions about hygiene, the organisation of trash with proper disposal units and cleanliness of the village. Students witnessed how some residents, who once were scavengers, have found new jobs in rug making and working together as a group. They also witnessed ladies receive on-the-job training as cooks (how to cook in a hygienic way) and serving skills. We were the first group that the ladies practised on – cooking and serving us food, while we were there to construct the Smile Village playground. The students saw the excited and anxious cooks watch us eat, wondering about our response to their food. Interaction with the residents made the situations real for students instead of reading about it from a book.

Timing of project and Sustainability (Community Ownership)

In the construction of the first playground in SV, the community was not ready. There were only about 15 families who have moved in and they were busy with livelihood issues. Thus, only a few residents participated in the construction as paid hire. The sense of ownership by residents of the playground was not strong even though it was well used by the kids and was a popular gathering place in the evening. Thus, a year later, the residents did not put an effort to fix a few broken parts, although it is a simple job to do. It was due to management issues. The playground maintenance was under the childcare management, while residents were under a different management team. The childcare teachers did not have the funds, skills and tools to fix the broken parts. The residents were also not well organised yet among themselves to take the initiative to fix the playground.

The construction of the second structure for Activity Circuit was more successful in community engagement. By then there were 70 families living there. The village was a bustling place. Unlike the first trip, we scheduled construction activity in the evening due to the hot weather in the day. In the evening after school, youths and kids chipped in to help with the construction without being asked. Hopefully, this time they will have the initiative to take care of the structure.

The construction of the second structure for Activity Circuit was more successful in community engagement. By then there were 70 families living there. The village was a bustling place. Unlike the first trip, we scheduled construction activity in the evening due to the hot weather in the day. In the evening after school, youths and kids chipped in to help with the construction without being asked. Hopefully, this time they will have the initiative to take care of the structure.

Not just hardware but also software

Students had only planned for enough time to complete the construction of the Activity Circuit. There was insufficient time to demonstrate the use of the circuit and conduct activities on the circuit before departing for home. The Smile Village staff and residents did not really understand how to use the Circuit despite verbal explanations with the use of the physical model and a written user manual illustrated with drawings. As a result, a few students and the outdoor adventure expert made a trip back to conduct training. The staff, youths and village leaders took part in activities targeted at improving communication, building trust and team building. They now appreciated what the structure is for and will, in turn, be trainers to train others. The SV management found the training valuable and has requested further training. Students had to expand beyond the domain of architecture design, venture into activity design and conducting training to make a truly meaningful contribution.

Prototype before implementation

To do piloting first before finally building the actual project was a sound move. Two rounds of prototyping different furniture designs and left for use by the stakeholders gave valuable lessons on what worked and what did not. Similarly, valuable insights were gained from the pilot playground that was built for use by an existing childcare. It was fortunate that there was PSE campus that serves as a “lab” for piloting an edible landscape before knowledge is transferred to Smile Village.

Visibility and incidental learning

The location of where work in progress is carried out can have good side effects. In the first furniture prototype exercise, we worked next to an after-school care space on PSE campus. There was a high footfall of students passing by and gathering at the afterschool care space. They saw our students sketching, measuring, sanding, sawing, hammering and drilling. They were curious about what we were making from recycled materials and joined us in learning how to use woodwork tools and the measuring tape. In their mind, doing manual work is usually for the lowly educated and the poor. Knowing our students were from a renowned foreign university yet doing manual work changed their perception towards manual work and working with their hands. It also opened their eyes to how recycled materials can be given a new use. The downside of working in such a location was keeping away over-enthusiastic children from interrupting the construction.

Be adaptable & flexible

Engaging with a real-world project is often subjected to changes in schedule, conditions and information (or the lack of) from the client. Back in 2012, we hoped that one of the selected student childcare designs could be built and students can participate in the construction. It did not materialise because the original start date for the construction of Smile Village was delayed due to changes in vision (thus changes in the master plan), fluctuating government commitment to provide water and sewerage infrastructure, lack of funding and many other factors over the years. The author later designed the childcare centre based on the master plan done by the professionals. The childcare construction timing also could not match the university calendar thus students could not participate. Subsequently, in July 2014, we planned a trip to build the playground at SV, but the site was not ready and we ended up building a pilot one at another childcare which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Using real-world assignment as an academic Design studio project is also challenging as the client’s decision to change the program partway affected the completion of the academic project. A curriculum that has the flexibility to allow changes and a university management that is supportive are necessary. In developing countries, things do not work like clockwork and NPOs run on lean manpower and resources. Students learned to adjust their expectation for efficient, quick response to requests and to keep to the timeline.

Using real-world assignment as an academic Design studio project is also challenging as the client’s decision to change the program partway affected the completion of the academic project. A curriculum that has the flexibility to allow changes and a university management that is supportive are necessary. In developing countries, things do not work like clockwork and NPOs run on lean manpower and resources. Students learned to lower their expectation for efficiency, quick response to requests and to keep to

Learning beyond planning and architecture

Through the involvement in planning their trip and project implementation, students get to interact with the NPO staff. They witnessed the work processes, how staff multitasked in a lean organisation, the challenges and fulfilment of working for an NPO and so forth. Over the years, they also saw the politics of tussle/negotiation between different organisations and government.

They see the effects of rapid urbanisation and development of Phnom Penh and the effect on staff turnover. Some staff left the NPO for a better salary in the private sector, such as some of the teachers who received childcare training and middle management staff. In planning and executing the trips and their projects, students learned the soft skills of communicating with people from a different culture, project management, budgeting, scheduling, conflict resolution and teamwork. These are often compartmentalised into different modules in school but have now come together as an integrated learning in their projects. A student summed it up as follows:

 “This is a very different project compared to the rest I have done. It brings about a different perspective of seeing, and even more, a different attitude towards the project as it was not only a real one, but a real one with much more constraints, budget, materials, technology, culture, symbolic implications, lack of information and sudden changes in brief. Never once in my academic years did I feel such immersive real engagement to the project contexts.” Year 4 student


This article shares the learning points from a few years of service learning and academic projects from a practice perspective. While the case is specific to Cambodia, the author believes the lessons learnt are transferable to other countries. Seeing the transformation of Smile Village from an empty land into a vibrant community four years later has been gratifying. The transformation is a testimony to how partners with the passion to help can collaborate to make a difference despite various obstacles along the way. Community development and empowerment of residents is an ongoing process and it will be interesting to follow the future outcome of Smile Village. As for the education of NUS architecture students, the author’s belief is that Seeing is Believing and Doing is Learning. Empathy is the seed for a good designer. With the heart in the right place, a meaningful design will result. The author hopes to train architecture students not just to build buildings but also to build lives by empowering the community.


My heartfelt thanks to Ms Ong Ailin of STEP, Mr. Sovan Ouk, Mr. Sry Chanratha and Mr. Mao Ye of PSE and Smile Village, and residents of Smile Village for the opportunity to collaborate with them; to all the PSE and Smile Village staff who has supported us in one way or another during our visits; to the students involved in the projects for their enthusiasm and hard work; to the NUS Department of Architecture for funding students’ travel and to the former Head, Department of Architecture, Assoc. Prof Wong Yunn Chii for his encouragement and support.


Bhattacharyya, J. (2004). Theorizing Community Development. Journal of the Community Development Society, Volume 34 (2).

Mathie, A. and Cunningham, G. (2003). From Clients to Citizens: Asset-Based Community Development as a Strategy for Community-Driven Development. Development in Practice, Vol. 13 (5).

Sigmon, R. (1996). Journey to Service Learning.

Tan, B. K. (2013). Community Projects at NUS. In RUMAH50 Review of Urbanism, Modern Architecture & Housing, 182D188. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Architects.

[1] Playground construction video 2016 –

Facebook page of PSE-NUS Smile Village –

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Beng Kiang Tan
Dr. Tan Beng Kiang holds a Doctoral degree from Harvard University, Master of Architecture from UCLA and Bachelor of Architecture (Honours) from National University of Singapore. She is a registered architect with rich experience in both the public and private sectors. She was the former Deputy Head of the Architecture Department, Year 4 leader and Leader of the Community and Housing Design Section. She served as a council member of the Singapore Institute of Architects and currently sits on various technical and advisory committees. She is a recipient of ten design and teaching awards.

As a strong advocate of participatory community design, she led community centric Design Studio projects in Singapore, Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand. Her teaching and research interests are in Participatory Community Design & Planning, Service Learning, Community Development, Design for Aging, Social and Environmental Sustainable Housing and Learning Environments. She is an active conference speaker and reviewer. Her publications are in journals, books and conference proceedings.

TAN Beng Kiang
Associate Professor
Department of Architecture
School of Design and Environment
National University of Singapore