Reaching for the Sky
On 26 June 2018, EuroCham hosted the Tall Buildings Forum, discussing the market of skyscrapers and laying out the nitty-gritty of their construction.
While arkear k’pours (high buildings) are mainly thought of as exclusively in Phnom Penh, urban planning masterplans have been finalized for other cities, which may see their skylines change in the future, according to H.E. Dr. Pen Sophal, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
He added that Siem Reap is safe from such change as short buildings have been decided as keeping with Angkor style as it is a cultural and heritage hub. However, the royal government has found the prospect for modernization is at the center of mulit-proposal policies in Preah Sihanouk and along the coast.
“It is a point that attracts investment, because they see the clean coastal area,” Dr. Pen explains. “With the politics and the incentives of the government since 2016, development has been starting with the clear definition of the areas where there can be tall buildings or short buildings.”
“Through many analyses compared to short buildings, we know that tall buildings are very useful for Cambodian development,” Dr. Pen said. Investment capital in construction with licenses from 2017 into 2018 increased 21.8% reaching $2.3 billion. “The income from 1 hectare of land we can get $1-2 million, as the government provides more employment and taxation, which serves the economy.”
Most people think of a skyscraper as 400-500 meters tall, according to Mr. Marshall Strabala, Design Partner with Strabala & Architecture. There are currently only 17 buildings of this height being constructed in the world. Yet internationally, countries have settled on 300 meters as the cut-off between low-rise and high-rise structures.
Even so, 25 meters (about 7 stories) has been a universal differentiation, because it is the limited height at which fire trucks can respond. “After that, safety factors change significantly,” Mr. Strabala said. “Every 20-30 stories, the costs go up.”
H.E. Dr. Chhann Sorpal, Director-General of the General Department of Construction at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, added that in Cambodia, anything over 11 stories is considered a tall building.
Vattanac Capital Tower in Phnom Penh is 188 meters or 39 stories.
Return on Investment
Because skyscrapers take “7-10 years to actually open and operate, it would help to centralize certain types of companies,” said Dr. Simon Vancliff, Investment and Development Director of ING Holdings. “The key issue is that this type of building need to be accessible, operated well, have high efficiency ratios, a grade A standard, and needs to be built to a specification to last longer for the payback period.”
He believes that “if you have the land and you have the cash… and are willing to wait for payback, it could work.” “More companies are requiring commercial space; this will affect the demand. At some point the demand will surpass what is currently available,” said Mr. Vancliff. “With specific criteria there is a possibility of it being financially viable based on the following requirements… sufficient parking, environmentally green design, meeting international health and safety standards required by multinational companies.”
According to Mr. Strabala, there are three stakeholders when considering a skyscraper project. First, the owner who pays the money. Second, the city (government), who approves planning and permits – and receives revenue from future taxes. Finally, the “people” must be considered, those “that walk by the city every day.”
Impact of Tall Buildings
“Don’t build something where you don’t have access to people,” Mr. Strabala warned. “Tall buildings can have 30,000 people per day. Density is good, but it makes nightmares: traffic congestion, goods in/trash out, people in/out.” Water usage also has a significant impact, both as intake for consumption, toilets and fire sprinkler systems, as well as drainage into the local sewer system.
Mr. Seng Vannak, architect and Director of Administration at the Phnom Penh Municipality explained that fire and safety requirements are regulated by the municipality for buildings between 500 and 3,000 square meters, while over 3,000 sqm are overseen by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
“The trend of the Asian region and ASEAN cities consists of clusters, and mixed usage – rich and middle class living together,” said Dr. Pen. “So tall buildings are very useful; we can have 200-400 families in it. We can protect the environment because it minimizes impact with land use.” He added that the majority of use in high density buildings is office space, hotels and housing with 1 hectare supporting 1,000 people.
“If you look at urban structure, where do you see a really big hole of green space? In public spaces right now, everyone wants sidewalks – connecting… in a modern city you have to master it properly,” discussed Mr. Seng. “You have to think about how to move from a to b. - where people have to walk to go to work - and taking buses. Phnom Penh Municipality has made large boulevards a priority.”
He added, “As long as you don’t have a better way to help people move from place to place, you can’t [build a skyscraper].” Mr. Veng addressed ongoing concerns about foot traffic in a city where shop owners horde the sidewalk space for their business. “Public spaces do not connect to private ownership, for example, the promenade. It’s just the beginning.”
Now that development is skyrocketing, the government has been trying to bring tax collection into order, but faces resistance from residents. According to Mr. Veng, people say, “I have been living here for 40 years and now you make me pay tax… NO. I’m too poor!”
Changing this way of thinking is a challenge for the city. “How to change this? We have to create a system to put them into the process, so they agree to do it,” said Mr. Veng. “Who is going to fund the sidewalks? When the city of Phnom Penh didn’t have any investment, we could only build the large roads. We had to ask owners to help 50/50. Owners rebuilt [sidewalks] by themselves for their business.”
Dr. Pen summed it up this way, “If we have good planning, we can have a beautiful city and beautiful buildings.”
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