Joy in the midst of hardship
ML Varudh Varavarn, the founder and director of Vin Varavarn Architects, designs affordable micro-homes for low-income families in Klong Toey.
Rusty tin shacks sprawl under skyscrapers and billboards. Garbage disperses and floats on the smelly river. Last year a fire broke out near a local mosque. With the third wave of the coronavirus epidemic, the Klong Toey neighborhood is hanging by a thread.
Naowarat Sayan, 66, has lived in Klong Toey slum for 40 years. Five members – one of them falling ill – cram into a dilapidated house with a leaky roof and a rickety wall. Thousands of people live in what is the oldest and largest ghetto covering 198 spoke of land in the country. Klong Toey is home to poor city dwellers who form the backbone of Bangkok but are shunned and left behind.
It is the consequence of a rapid change after the Siamese revolution of 1932. At the time, the government started to build Klong Toey or the port of Bangkok in an area of more than 2000 spoke. This has led to a mass exodus of people from rural areas by boat carrying construction materials. When the port opened in 1951, they continued to live and work here. New faces poured in by word of mouth.
The hardships persisted for decades, but when Naowarat saw her new home, she couldn’t hold back her tears of joy. She opened the door and found that “it’s like a castle”. A small park was in front of his house, partly stamped with purple. The children were riding bikes and laughing.
Naowarat is one of those who received micro-houses as part of the home improvement program for the needy in Bangkok and 25 central provinces last month. It is led by the Royal Thai Army in support of initiated royalty Jit Arsa (spirit of volunteerism) of King Rama X. In light of this, Life spoke with ML Varudh Varavarn, the founder and director of Vin Varavarn Architects, about how he designed affordable homes for low-income people in Klong Toey.
Local residents are sitting outside their new micro-house.
Show true colors
When Varudh first visited the slum, he was shocked to see their living conditions. He walked on the swampy ground and saw children playing in the dirty water. Garbage piled up because the community was too confined for garbage trucks to enter. Just steps away, an elderly nun was forced to move out after a python took refuge in her tin hut.
“It’s very crowded and deplorable. When the army technicians started building, they put the materials outside and carried them piece by piece. They had to stamp poles into the ground because the piles could not be brought in. Lack of machines can cause errors. Some of them were also allergic to dirty water, “he said.
As part of this program, the committee considered applications from low-income families with dilapidated homes in Klong Toey. It received financial support from the Charoen Pokphand Foundation. In the first phase, the project reconstructed 28 houses, but they did not meet individual needs. Then Varudh was asked to help develop new prototypes. It delivered 38 more homes last year and plans to offer 47 more this year. The first batch of nine micro-houses was handed over to residents of Soi 4-6 earlier this month. Staff are working on the next batch.
Varudh said the construction proved difficult as each house sits on uneven ground. He cannot use a single prototype. Instead, it customizes for each family within a budget of plus or minus 100,000 baht. In the process, he found that they had a very strong sense of belonging.
“In the past there had been attempts to divide the land equally, but they refused and withdrew from the project. I think they had to struggle a lot to live here so they don’t want to lose it. This explains why some big families live in very small houses. There is no single model, ”he said.
The micro-houses are free of gables to allow free passage in an emergency. They are taller than the previous models to prepare for an extension of additional floors. The roofs are made of sheet metal with 5 cm thermal insulation. The walls and floors are made of fire-retardant fiber cement panels.
Surprisingly, the local residents got creative in the design of their homes. At first he used white and brown colors, but they repainted them in green, blue and pink. In this phase, it allowed them to choose their favorite colors to create a lively atmosphere. He also planned to build empty rooms to maximize space, but they would like partitions because they want bedrooms and living quarters.
“We have learned that it can prevent sexual harassment [at home]. In addition, we have changed the hidden corners where young people engage in illegal activities in public spaces. When the area improves, people will take better care of their community, ”he said.
However, the home improvement program is being carried out as part of projects to relocate at least 12,000 slum households to make way for the construction of a smart port. The Thai Port Authority is offering residents three options and is investigating. They can choose to live in condos as part of the Smart Community Project, get free land in Nong Chok, or receive demolition compensation and return to their provincial home.
A student walks past a new micro-house.
Rebuild after a disaster
Varudh is no stranger to volunteer work. In fact, he is a household name in the architectural world. In 2014, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake destroyed 73 schools in Chiang Rai, and the nonprofit Design for Disasters network launched a disaster recovery program to rebuild nine schools. He designed the Baan Huay Sarn Yaw earthquake resistant school and won the highly recommended award at the World Architecture Festival in 2016.
He used steel for the main structure and lightweight materials such as fiber cement panels and transparent resin roofs. Bamboo was also used to cover sheets of metal to reduce noise and heat pollution, make gutters and build shelves for flower pots. It also became a model for the Baan Hong Hae school in Tak. Then he designed the Baan Klong Bon School and an art space in Phangnga.
He is now working with the Build Foundation to renovate a dilapidated floating classroom at a branch of Baan Koh School in Lamphun. Located in the Mae Ping National Park area, it offers primary education for barge children. The film The teacher’s journal or Kid Teung Wittaya (2014) was also shot here.
“In the past, the construction of dams flooded the local community, which divided the villagers into two groups some of whom lived off the land while others lived on rafts,” he said.
In addition to schools, he designed dormitories for ethnic children and earthquake-resistant portable parsonages. He believes that everyone can contribute to society.
“I never imagined that I would be at a point where I should offer my services. I am an architect who designs beautiful buildings but with my experience I can improve my community. Creativity can solve many problems,” said he added.
A woman is exploring her new home for the first time.
Local residents paint their homes in bright colors.
ML Varudh Varavarn, the founder and director of Vin Varavarn Architects, is working on a floating classroom in the branch of Baan Koh School in Lamphun.
ML Varudh Varavarn, the founder and director of Vin Varavarn Architects, designs affordable micro-homes for low-income people in Klong Toey.
Klong Toey slum in 1972. BANGKOK POST ARCHIVE
Overview of Klong Toey slum in 1973. BANGKOK POST ARCHIVE