3-9 May 2013 #654

Building for tomorrow

Traditional mud and wood buildings can give ‘futuristic architecture’ a whole new meaning
Cindrey Liu

Nepal has a rich tradition of buildings made out of local materials such as mud, bamboo, and straw. The famous Basantapur Darbar and Singha Darbar are prime examples of mud, brick, and mortar buildings which have survived the test of time.

These traditional materials, which were cheaper, more ecological, and safer during earthquakes are giving way to concrete. As the road network spreads to rural areas, concrete is replacing traditional building materials even in the districts.

“Because of our education system, we try to copy everything from the West,” explains Nripal Adhikary of the Adobe and Bamboo Research Institute (ABARI). “We have an amazing history of vernacular architecture, but it is not considered glamorous enough. There is an inferiority complex of our own materials.”

GLORIOUS MUD: Unbaked bricks and mud plaster give this row of houses in Palpa a pleasing look in harmony with its surroundings. The buildings are also safer and more climate-friendly.

The media, especially television, also propagates the myth that only cement houses are durable. Another reason is the loss of relevant skills in handling local materials. Construction techniques were not documented and properly passed down, leading to poorly built houses that did not last long. Bamboo houses used to be naturally protected from insects by fireplace smoke, but as smoke-free stoves became popular, bamboo needs to be treated before construction.

Although concrete is essential for high-rises and needs proper design, most cement homes are neither sustainable nor environment friendly. Nepal imports 70 per cent of its cement from India and its manufacture has a huge carbon footprint, the structures are energy-intensive because they are cold in winter and hot in summer.

“Because construction techniques do not meet the required standards, we end up with very poor quality buildings that will not be safe in an earthquake,” says Aruna Paul, country representative of Habitat for Humanity Nepal.

Fortunately, a new breed of engineers are pushing the concept of sustainable architecture. Habitat and ABARI aim to build a million houses in Nepal by 2020 using mud, sun-dried bricks, straw, and bamboo. Aruna Paul is glad most customers, even in urban areas, don’t need to be convinced any more to use local materials as they are now demanded by the people. After the Saptakosi River flood displaced more than 60,000 Nepalis in 2008, the disaster relief program helped build bamboo and mud houses.

ABARI’s Nripal Adhikary sums it up: “We should not take from our future generations to build for ourselves now.”

A recent Sustainable Mountain Architecture exhibition at the Pulchok Campus featured three projects of Dutch architect Anne Feenstra: the Kargyak Learning Centre in Ladakh, the House With the Dancing Windows in Afghanistan, and the insulation of houses in Sikkim by re-using waste material.

An empty plastic bottle seems useless to most people, but it can be used to make a mountain home more habitable. Reusing waste materials was one of the many solutions presented at the exhibition.

“Nepal is an amazingly beautiful country and we have to be careful to keep it that way, these examples show us what is possible in Nepal,” says Feenstra. Reusing plastic bottles, cardboard, rubber slippers, and tetrapacks to seal roofs, ceilings, walls, doors, and windows of houses in Sikkim could be easily replicated in the mountains of Nepal. When homes were insulated in Sikkim, less firewood was needed for heating and that saved the habitat of the red panda.

However, Feenstra’s co-designer, Mariyam Zakiah, warns against the ‘copy-paste’ method of replicating without considering suitability. She said: “A building should be designed responding to the climate, local context, and most importantly the people it is designed for.”

Feenstra hopes Nepali students will go beyond aesthetics to also look at the reason for design. The House with Dancing Windows in Afghanistan, for example, is designed to give a contemporary edge with glass panels at the bottom so more sunlight can enter to heat the building.

Sophiya Gurung, a fourth year architecture student at Pulchok was excited: “We have seen a completely new way to design buildings here.”


**As strong as steel

**Long-lasting if not exposed to sun and rain

**Takes only five years to mature

**Absorbs carbon dioxide

**Light and flexible

Sun-dried bricks

**Ten times cheaper than baked bricks

**Insulating property

**Safe in earthquakes

**Low carbon footprint


**Insulating property



**Not flammable when treated and bundled


**Can be used to plaster floor, roof, and walls

**Clay readily available

**Cool in summer, warm in winter

**Breathable, allows stable indoor humidity

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