Big Smiles All Around

National University of Singapore architecture students with Smile Village residents at the childrenʼs playground, which they designed and built.

Architecture lecturer Tan Beng Kiang leads a team of students on an annual volunteer mission to design and build sustainable facilities for the poor in Cambodia’s Smile Village.



r Tan Beng Kiang, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Architecture, was on holiday in Vietnam when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on Dec 26, 2004. Although Vietnam was not affected, the extent of the damage and lives lost in countries like Indonesia and Thailand made an impression on her.

“It struck me that I could just as easily have been in Thailand instead,” she says. “I realised how transient life can be and that I should do something meaningful with my professional skills. I firmly believe that the poor deserve good design as much as those who can afford to hire architects.”

Since then, she has been involved with supervising student volunteers on projects to create sustainable designs for charities and social enterprises around the region. In 2012, a Singapore non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Solutions to End Poverty (STEP) and Cambodian NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) approached the NUS architecture department for help in building Smile Village. It was a new village in Phnom Penh which would house PSE beneficiary families that had been evicted from the slums.

On her first trip to Cambodia with her students that year, Dr Tan was shocked to see some PSE beneficiaries living in a dump site. She recalls: “The conditions were appalling. There was no proper sanitation, so people were defecating in the open. There were flies everywhere and there was a horrible stench. The shelters were sheds made from salvaged materials. For example, PVC banners were used for wall coverings.”

Dr Tan introduced a design module for the students to create a master plan for Smile Village, including buildings that can be used for childcare purposes as well as to support social enterprise, such as where villagers can take vocational lessons. When the semester was up, the students decided to volunteer annually because they had found the experience so meaningful.

FROM TOP: Architecture students getting feedback from Smile Village residents on the design of the playground; apart from designing a childcare centre at Smile Village, the students also made multi-purpose furniture for the place.

Over the past six years, Dr Tan and NUS architecture students have been involved in various aspects of Smile Village’s development, including designing a childcare and social enterprise centre, building multi-purpose childcare furniture and painting reusable teaching aids on the walls and floors.

Most recently, the group built a miniplayground using recycled tyres and locally sourced materials. More than for mere play, the playground develops motor skills like climbing and balancing.

To come up with the final design, the students studied playgrounds, participated in a nature park trek to observe kids at play, and consulted an outdoor adventure expert. The collaborative process also involved getting feedback from the Smile Village residents to understand their needs.

“They had to modify their design to suit what was available while meeting their schedule,” says Dr Tan. “In Singapore, you can plan ahead and everything will work like clockwork. In Cambodia, you have to adapt and think on the spot to solve problems.”

The process of working together also helped the students and the locals bond and develop better understanding of each other. Eugene Chan, a third year NUS architecture student, says: “I have learnt much about the Cambodian community, their lifestyle and their history. I was truly inspired by their strength in facing past adversities, and their optimism in the future.”

At the end of the day, seeing the kids enjoying themselves in the completed playground made the students happy. Chew Boyang, a fourth year NUS architecture student, says: “The playground was so simple and yet it was able to bring so much joy. It was a humbling experience that really put things in perspective for me.”

“ It is not just a playground but a social space for the community to bond. In the evening, the parents sit around the playground and chat. For the first time, the children have a safe place to play ”

Dr Tan Beng Kiang, senior lecture at National University of Singaporeʼs Department of Architecture


Dr Tan says that she will never forget the vast difference between the sad faces of the PSE beneficiaries when she first visited the slums and the relaxed faces of the mothers as they watched their kids play. “It is not just a playground but a social space for the community to bond. In the evening, the parents sit around the playground and chat. For the first time, the children have a safe place to play,” she says.

The playground has become so popular that on weekends, up to 300 children from Smile Village and the surrounding villages congregate there, she adds.

The NUS team is also involved in training Smile Village’s local management team to conduct team-building activities. To ensure sustainability, the goal is for residents to stay in the village for up to three years, until they are financially able to buy their own home and support themselves so other families can move in to take their place. During their stay, they pick up vocational skills such as rug making, woodcraft and sewing.

At the request of the management team, and in partnership with STEP, the students also designed and built a “Team Building Circuit” for the staff, residents and village leaders of Smile Village. This is used to conduct teambuilding exercises and to support youth leadership training programmes.

STEP’s chairman Aileen Ong says: “These programmes complement STEP’s overall training for Smile Village residents, so that families can be empowered to take ownership of their lives, be socially and financially adept, and afford their own homes.”



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