Sustainable Building Materials Crafted from Water Hyacinths

A trio of students have come up with an innovative idea they hope will revolutionize the construction industry - building materials made from water hyacinths
The trio of students who have come up with an innovative idea they hope will revolutionize the construction industry. Kiripost/Siv Channa
The trio of students who have come up with an innovative idea they hope will revolutionize the construction industry. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Chhay Kimsenh is a 20-year-old who is passionate about the environment. Amid the rise of construction in Phnom Penh and its impact on the natural world, Kimsenh and his classmates have discovered plant-based construction materials that can be used for design purposes.

Kimsenh, Se Chanchorornay and Kao Satya, are all Year 3 architecture students at Paragon International University and their mission is to save the environment impacted by construction using concrete and other materials.

“I think to make it more consistent and also to align the environmental aspect, we have to make building more sustainable by changing the materials and also the design of the building, and introducing techniques to make our buildings more sustainable,” Kimsenh told Kiripost in a recent interview.

The team recently pitched the idea under a startup named, AquaBuild, to Impact Hub Phnom Penh and won the Build4People Sustainable Building Incubator in February.

AquaBuild also won $2,000 from Re: Edge Architecture, an architecture and design company, for their pitch.

AquaBuild works on making building materials more sustainable and environmentally-friendly from water hyacinths to eliminate waste and limit water pollution, especially in the Tonle Sap Lake area.

Construction boards built by AquaBuild team. Kiripost/supplied
Construction boards built by AquaBuild team. Kiripost/supplied

Construction in Cambodia is booming with more than $1.2 billion dollars having been invested in the country’s construction sector in the first six months of 2022 in more than 2,000 projects. China ranked top, followed by South Korea, Japan and Thailand.

Chanchorornay, 19, believes that sustainable construction plays a pivotal role in improving the environment and, starting with small changes in the way people build, it will lead to a bigger positive impact.

“If each building helps a little, it will make a change to the whole environment. So, I believe that it is really important to let everyone notice that and take it into account in the design,” Chanchorornay said.

Another team member Satya, 20, said that with the rise of construction, which is a good transition for the country, in addition to upgrading the design it should be an eye for better living and environment.

“I think it is better to cooperate with the sustainable design of our building, as well as to make it greener and more environmentally-friendly,” Satya said.

“If we keep repeating the same cycle, which is focusing on just the traditional design, we will keep using the materials that are really affecting the environment,” he added.

How it started

Impact Hub Phnom Penh initially organized the Build4People Sustainable Building Incubator program and contacted Paragon University to encourage students to participate. The university then invited architecture students to join.

Kimsenh, Chanchorornay and Satyafrom share the same dream and were impressed by the topic. They formed a team to find business ideas to solve the issue of how to make building materials more sustainable and greener.

During the four-month entrepreneurial program, they conducted a lot of online research and discovered there are many countries that are able to produce construction materials using plants that are rich in fiber. Then, they have sourced inspiration from their research.

Chhay Kimsenh
Chhay Kimsenh

Water hyacinths are abundant in Cambodia, especially along the Tonle Sap Lake, and they can be potentially used as a raw material for eco-friendly constructions.

The team decided to choose the plants to produce a biodegradable (green board) material that can be used in a variety of functions, such as flooring, ceiling and wall decoration, in the interior design of buildings.

“Water hyacinth is really impactful to the environment, as we can see in many other countries as well that they need a lot of afford to take that problem into account. That’s why we chose water-hyacinth,” Chanchorornay said.

“As we think we might take it out from the water like a lot of it, so it might help the environment,” she said.

The mission

AquaBuild has the vision to make building more sustainable after seeing that most construction materials are imported from abroad, especially China, Vietnam and Thailand, at higher prices while also affecting the environment.

The AquaBuild team wants to be a changemaker in how construction materials are used in more environmentally-friendly ways by using water hyacinth to produce interior materials for buildings and homes.

“For our mission, we try to use water hyacinth from the Tonle Sap Lake to make into a building material. Also, we want to create job opportunities for the people there,” Satya said. "Last but not least, we want to cut down water hyacinths that grow invasively in that area and make our environment greener.”

Kao Satya
Kao Satya

The team said that by turning invasive plants, like water-hyacinth, which are harmful to the environment and the biodiversity of the Tonle Sap lake by transforming it into a sustainable interior decoration board has a huge purpose.

They said it will help cut down the amount of water hyacinth and at the same time make it more affordable, eco-friendly, beautiful and part of reducing the high price of real estate.

They hope this innovative material can be a part of an environmental problem solver and at the same time produce more economical benefits for local people.

Still in process of testing

Kimsenh said currently, 50 percent of concrete and 50 percent of water-hyacinth mixed together into one board of one square meter weighs three kilograms. This requires 1.5 kilograms of dried water-hyacinth.

However, they are still in the process of testing and attempting to find another raw material to mix with water-hyacinth instead of cement.

Even though the idea might be impressive and environmentally-friendly, technological infrastructure and experts are needed to help with quality evaluation and finding a market for the products, which is still a fresh start and will take some time and challenges for the startup.

“We might seek real testing from the lab at ITC (Institute of Technology of Cambodia), if possible, and also seek guidance from professionals because as we are still new in this industry, we need help from those professionals,” Satya said. “It will take a lot of time to see the results and whether we can put it in the market or not. That’s why we want to seek help and guidance and test the longevity of our board to see whether it can be put in the market.

“Right now, we are not so sure about it but we continue testing and doing the product experiment to see how it works because we don’t want to commit ourselves to something that we’re not sure about. We want to make something that works and then, we will put commitment into it,” Kimsenh said.
Se Chanchorornay
Se Chanchorornay

The team is also facing other challenges to make it a real business due to lack of time and financial resources. Therefore, further support from family and outside resources from stakeholders are needed for the young entrepreneurs to make an impact on society.

“To launch this business into the real market is really a challenging for us three, especially right now that we are students that depend on our parents. We don’t have money to launch our business yet,” Satya said.

Hun Chansan, principle at Re: Edge Architecture and a judge on the pitching committee of Build4People Incubator program, said he was impressed by the confidence and teamwork of the three students.

“Their presentation skill was easy to understand, they identified the problem of the abundance of water hyacinths that reduce the amount of oxygen in the water for the ecosystem and they clog the waterway,” Chansan told Kiripost.

“The simplicity of the raw material, which grows naturally, made me believe that it is a scalable business. Since it is now proposed for only indoor building materials, it should not pose any climatic challenges in the future.”