A brief insight into a very different culture shows a system that doesn’t suffer from the boom and bust cycle, at least not yet …

Richard Jones

On a recent trip into the mountains of Vietnam, I was fortunate enough to come across the remarkable sight of a traditional communal villageconstruction in progress (see photos). Amish-style, the protocol is that everyone in the village, men and women alike, takes part in the build in return for being fed (the meat was alarmingly fresh, being prepared in the corner of the site) and in the knowledge that they will receive reciprocal help when building their own dwelling.

The construction was in kit-form, heavy timber, extremely rudimentary and with no mechanical tools whatsoever. Once the frame was assembled in front of our eyes, it was evident that a plumb-bob was not on the equipment list. Never mind, just move the foundations to align (roughly) with where the timber columns hit the ground, we hadn’t initially realised that the concrete foundation posts were just loosely planted in the earth, all the easier to move.

It was very obviously a major social occasion for the village and a high time was being had by all; health and safety however played no part in the proceedings to the extent that a mallet-head falling three storeys into a crowd was greeted with widespread laughter.

So low cost, high community value, but extremely dangerous. This communal approach to construction shows the best features of vernacular architecture - a building typology which is adapted to its context and shaped by local needs and traditions over time. Contrary to our system, this vernacular system does not suffer from the boom and bust cycles and all its economic implications because they only build what they need.

Cut to Vo Trong Nghia’s prototype for a modern low-cost dwelling, which I noticed on my return. This might look basic but I can assure you it would rank highly against some of our accommodation. Lightweight, kit form, economic, safe and easy to assemble. One can only wish them huge success with this. It looks like a winner providing they can find a different way of engaging the community.

Richard Jones is a senior partner at Jackson Coles