The Big Build Blog

A team of CALA volunteers have arrived safely in Cambodia for the Big Build project, where they have joined 259 volunteers from across the world to build 29 homes in just 10 days for vulnerable families.

CALA Group. 16 November 2017


It's handover day in Cambodia and the CALA team reflect on the Big Build experience. Rachel Dillon blogs:

In the last couple of days we have put the final work into our house to get it ready to handover. The roof is on, windows painted and the house cleaned out in preparation for the family. The toilet needs to be fitted still but otherwise we are pretty much there, and one of the few crews to get that far by the end.

Good times along the way also mean we have all been assigned our site nicknames…

  • Craig, King of the Trowel
  • Andrew, The Curator
  • Rachel, The Interrogator

The standard house type here comprises of one room, with a corner enclosed by an internal wall for the bathroom. This will have a toilet and a hand held shower fitted, both with running water. The structure of the build will also enable the family to add a second level to the home if there is a time for them that it is right to do this. All of family life will take place in this room. Our house is destined for a family of 4 but many of these will house much bigger groups.

We had an official handover with our family to move them into their home. We decorated their house for them and had a ribbon cutting ceremony where they were presented with some gifts, including a framed picture of us during the build. Safety shoes, gloves and a few other things were also all donated to the local people.

We were invited into our family’s new home and to take a seat with them. Through the translator, each of us shared a little bit of the significance of participating in the build. This was a difficult moment to try and put into words, but reflections from all made it clear what a pleasure and privilege it had been to do this, and the hope that it brings such health and happiness for something we take for granted. We all agree that as we go about our busy lives, we will all think very regularly about these families, imagine them in their homes and wonder what they might be doing.

 Adventure follows us and the bus ride back to Siem Reap for our flight, with another bus in the convoy broken down, long story short we had a 5 hour ride on a bus where the temperature clocked 34 degrees. While we would all re do the whole of the rest of the trip, we might give that bit a miss!

We all agree that this has been one of the greatest things we have ever been given the chance to do. The skills we have learned and the people we have met will be imprinted in our memory and the collective experience has offered all three of us so much. When you imagine the graft of the build, you might assume an element of selflessness was involved but the personal reward for all of us has been and remains, huge.

On a personal note, the three of us have also got on truly exceptionally. It has been a gift to spend so much time with fantastic colleagues and I feel incredibly proud to call them that. We've gained a little more insight into each other's lives, and know that on the inside, these people are motivated by something good. Never an irritable word between us and a proud moment to have an Ankgor beer together at the end, still in the filthy site clothes of course. Who knew a compliment from the King of the Trowel on the bricklaying or shovelling capabilities would mean more than any performance rating.

The word privilege is perhaps the most significant. We have been incredibly privileged to be able to support this family. The reward of doing something so immediately tangible in terms of its benefits and being able to see them move in to their home will be up there in terms of the most profound moments in life for all of us.

But privilege has another context too and both quietly and collectively, we have all reflected hugely on the lives that we were born into and that through a lot of circumstance and perhaps a stroke of luck, we have been enabled to lead. When we flush our toilets, when we brush our teeth, when we have somewhere to shelter from pouring rain or burning sun, or we eat again just because we can, we all hope the memory of what we have seen, smelt and touched will remain, to remember that these things are all of course, a privilege.



As the Big Build in Cambodia progresses, the CALA team learn about Cambodian construction techniques. Rachel Dillon sends an update: 

"I think we would all agree that it’s been a tough few days - it’s extremely hot and humid. Our house leader is out of action due to food poisoning and one of the Australian volunteers is suffering with the heat (yes, really!). We’re being plied with water to keep hydrated and I think we will all be a bit more careful of the food from now on - it’ll be rice, rice and a side order of rice … yum! 

"On top of this, I was put to work in the Compress Earth Block (CEB) factory, so Craig and Andrew have been working with a much depleted team. 

"CEBs are the main build material we are using to construct the homes here. Their design is primarily the work of one of our HFH team leaders and has been born out of many years of research. The manufacturing process is literally as it sounds, and I had a shot in the factory, assisting in the production line. 

First, the earth needs to be moved from one area to another so it’s all hands on shovels and away we go – filling buckets which are then transported to the factory. The earth is then pushed back and forth across a giant sieve, to allow the finer stuff to accumulate underneath. The heavier granules on top are then loaded into a bucket and dumped on a waste pile and the finer stuff is collected and lifted into a manual mixer. 

"The earth is then mixed with the cement and water and put into the compressing machine. This is a small machine, operated by two guys. Once out, the blocks have to dry out for two days under cover to ensure they won't disintegrate. 

"Just like the UK, the site is dealing with a major brick shortage. This factory needs to manually produce 700-1000 blocks a day to sustain the pace of the build. 

"Despite the challenging conditions, the build is progressing well and the two GB teams on site are ahead of schedule. We are all in pretty high spirits, and fortunately none of us have food poisoning! I’ve been working on getting the walls built right up to the rafters (benefitting from a long arm reach) and the guys have been getting the internal wall complete, with the boss man Leishman very complimentary of Andrew's work. We are fully anticipating being deployed to a CALA site on our return. 




The team have experienced their first day on site, as well as having a chance to explore the local area. Rachel Dillon, Learning and Development Manager at CALA Group, sends her update:

"Day 1 on the build and after a welcome and safety briefing, we headed to our plot. We are working on our house with others from the UK as well as volunteers from Hong-Kong Kong and Australia. We've also been teamed with some local tradesmen and fortunately, a translator (though despite a language barrier they've made it quite clear when we are not getting it right!). 

"It has been pretty hot and humid during the day and subsequently there are lots of warnings about dehydration, as well as a fairly consistent message of DO NOT EAT THE STREET FOOD!

"The site is really busy, not just with volunteers but also the people living next door, and the kids and dogs that are running free (another consistent message from the build leaders here... DO NOT TOUCH THE DOGS!). We have some respite in the shade at lunchtime but there are lots of local children who are keen to play.

"In the afternoon we make a bit more progress on our plot before torrential rain sets in. It absolutely poured it down and the road quickly became a river making it impossible to work and unfortunately, we had to call it a day.

"In the evening we had a chance to explore locally. We experienced our first ride on a Tuk Tuk (a little cart attached to a motorbike) which can only be summarised by the words 'hold on'. The rules of the road out here are ambiguous to say the least!

"We also attended a dinner at the Governor of Battambang's home as he wanted to support the work of Habitat for Humanity in the town. A total of 259 volunteers were seated on his front courtyard for a buffet, local dancing and entertainment.

"However the day to day lives of many people in Battambang are very far from this - wealth and poverty are close neighbours here in Cambodia. Life here looks to be lived very locally, with few people owning cars and many reliant on selling their wares at the side of the road or farming. The majority of homes are very simple; made from corrugated iron, with little protection from sun, rain and risk. Houses are often on stilts to offer some protection from the flood waters and there is no evidence of electricity or a clean water supply in many."

You can keep track of the Big Build on our website or by searching #CALACambodia on social media.

To find out more about Big Build project, click here.