4-10 October 2013 #676

Earth, fire, and air

Like most visitors to Kathmandu, Norwegian professor Viggo Brunn was fascinated by what people of Kathmandu take for granted: the ubiquitous use of bricks for building construction. Wherever Brunn turned, there were ‘bricks, bricks and more bricks’: in houses, walls, and palaces, temples, wells, waterways, and the Darbar Squares. The professor’s curiosity was further piqued when he couldn’t find much literature on brick production. Thus began a decade-long research into brick-making in Kathmandu Valley and resulted in the book, Fired Earth: Bricks, Kilns and Workers in Kathmandu Valley , which was released in July by Himal Books.

Those outraged by the sight of the process of brick baking - the gouging of fertile topsoil in Kathmandu Valley, the black smoke from kiln chimneys, the exploitation of bricklayers and their families - will be disappointed by Brunn’s dispassionate academic style. The book is the result of meticulous research into the brick business and goes into the technicalities of various types of kilns, from the bull trench to forced draught, to the Hoffman chimney. Since this is a qualitative study, there are no charts with breakdowns and percentages. Thus, one misses the statistics of total production, rate of growth, and what proportion of Kathmandu’s pollution is made up of particulates - less than 10 microns small - from soot. But Brunn has also personalised his research with extensive interviews with workers and owners. Fired Earth has everything you wanted to know about brick-making, but couldn’t be bothered.

Through Brunn’s research, we learn that the bricks of the Changu Narayan temple were baked 2,500 years ago and are probably the earliest fired bricks found in the Valley. He uses Google Earth to take a census of the kilns and maps 114 of them. Brunn interviews brick workers who say harvests fall by 20 percent when the land is let out to brick kilns because of the loss of fertile silt. But the loss is compensated by the rental cash and the possibility of finding non-farm work during the peak brick season.

The author also looks at less polluting forms of brick baking, like the forced-draught Habla model. This kiln is cheaper and more energy efficient, but is yet to catch on. The biggest problem for brick kiln owners now is how to get land, which has become expensive. Farmers would also rather sell it to real estate agents than rent it for bricks.

After reading this book, the reader will not look at bricks the same way again. The conclusion is that brick baking will soon go extinct in Kathmandu, not because of popular outcry about urbanisation or the environment, but because there is just little suitable soil or real estate left. In effect, the kiln-produced bricks killed the kilns.

Kunda Dixit

Fired Earth: Bricks, Kilns and Workers in Kathmandu Valley

By Viggo Brunn

Himal Books 2013

Price Rs 1100

102 pages

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Mexico City's lessons for Kathmandu

Dirty bricks

The hue and cry over air pollution caused by brick kilns in Kathmandu Valley prompted the government to outlaw moveable chimneys. However, demand from the construction industry fueled the growth and spread of kilns. Since more kilns were licenced and the use of low grade coal and other fuels increased, pollution has gotten worse. The government has fixed 700 micrograms per cubic metre as the maximum limit of suspended particulate matters in brick kiln emissions. However, there is little monitoring to see if this threshold is met. In winter, soot mixes with dust and diesel emission to form a toxic inversion layer of pollution. Other rules, like kilns not being allowed within one km of residential areas, are also flouted.

“We were hesitant to change to fixed chimneys in the beginning, but now we are glad we did, because it is fuel efficient,” says Jitendra Khayamali of Shree Brahmayani Brick Factory in Bhaktapur, one of few that are part of the Brick Clean Network. With soaring land prices, brick kiln operators in Kathmandu are finding it increasingly difficult to find clay and have to transport raw material from Kavre.

“People think of brick and cement as the only available building materials,” says Bhusan Tuladhar of UN Habitat, which is promoting soil cement blocks in its Green Homes initiative. “Soil cement blocks are just as durable as kiln-baked bricks and the production process is a lot cleaner.”

Bhrikuti Rai

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Blood bricks

Green bricks


Alternative bricks

There is a way to make bricks without destroying the soil and fouling up the air. Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks uses a mixture of mud and cement in 96:4 ratio and compresses it with 15 tons of machine pressure (see pic). The resulting bricks are even stronger than kiln-baked bricks, while lighter and cheaper. Since customers want red bricks, they can be easily dyed.

Ecotech Building System in Lele makes compressed unbaked bricks and sells them through an outlet in Satdobato. Instead of mud, Badri Maharjan, director of Ecotech, uses stone dust from the quarries, which used to go waste, and mixes it with ash and rice husk. “The biggest problem is that people think bricks have to be red and that they think compressed bricks are not strong,” Maharjan explains. His bricks sell at Rs 12 per piece while Bhaktapur bricks cost Rs 16.

A polluter tax on baked bricks would force others to also go for compressed non-baked bricks. But for that we need a more enlightened government.