Nepali Times
Better climate for education


When Sonam Wangchuk first came to this western Tarai district to look at schools last winter, he was surprised to see the classrooms half empty.

When he entered the schools, it was clear why: the rooms were just too cold. He was determined to do something about it.

Wangchuk is from Ladakh and has been working to improve the curriculum and classroom infrastructure in the harsh climate of the trans-Himalayan region of India where the temperature in winter often drops to 10 degrees below zero. But the classrooms stay a toasty 17 degrees in the daytime.

"The problem in the Nepal Tarai is a bit different," Wangchuk says. "You have a temperature variation of 44 degrees in summer and nearly zero in winter. This poses a much bigger challenge."

As an engineer, Wangchuk came up with a new design that oriented the classroom to face the sun in winter, and with awnings that shade the windows in summer. The walls are made of compressed mud blocks that retain heat and insulate the rooms.

"Design, orientation and construction materials make a lot of difference," says Wangchuk. Three more two-room school-buildings with this design are being built in Bardiya.

The advantages of the new design are: the building is ready in less than three weeks; the rooms are climate responsive; the classroom is earthquake safe; the mud blocks have good insulating properties; local materials and labour are used; and the construction process empowers the community.

"This building shows that if we work together we can do it," says Hasina Banu Sheikh of the group BASE which supported the construction. Banu says the government should use designs specific to theTarai and mountains in the 15,000 new classrooms it wants to build in the next five years under an ADB/World Bank-funded program.

INSTANT CLASSROOMS: This school building with two classrooms was completed in 20 days using the new earth design perfected by Ladakh-based engineer, Sonam Wangchuk .
The Maoist-led government wants to achieve 100 per cent literacy in the next two years, for which it needs classrooms for 7.8 million children. Many are skeptical that this can be done, but Mahasharan Sharma, Director at the Department of Education says it can. "The money has been set aside for 9,000 classrooms this year alone, and if we launch this on a war-footing it is possible," he told Nepali Times.

The prototype school in Bardiya was built in 20 days and was inaugurated this week by Danish Ambassador Finn Thilsted. The building is part of a program to improve the quality of education for the children of ex-Kamaiyas as well as to upgrade classrooms in schools in the district.

The Education for Freedom campaign is supported by the Danish group, MS, with its local partner, BASE. It is partly funded by high school children in Denmark who set aside a single day's earning every November and have so far collected more than Rs85 million.

The Janatanagar school was built using earth blocks made of 94 per cent mud and 6 per cent cement compressed with a manual compactor. Wangchuk conducted workshops for Department of Education engineers on the process, but says many people have a mental block against mud architecture.

He says: "They think it is for poor people, but this technology is appropriate not just for schools but also for residential buildings."

Mud saves time and money

HOSTE HAINSE: Villagers in Janatanagar use a manual compressor that delivers 15 tons of pressure needed to forge stabilised earth blocks for the construction of the school.
As concrete and glass become the symbols of progress, proponents of adobe and mud architecture are fighting a losing battle.

However, research in mud technology has shown that sun-baked adobe bricks can be superior to kiln bricks both in strength and insulation properties. Our ancestors understood this and used mud, which is why old buildings are cool in summer and warm in winter. In stark contrast, concrete and cement structures have poor thermal qualities, making their interiors baking hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

Research at the Auroville Earth Institute in India has proved that the bias against mud will need to change if society wants to graduate to energy-efficient, appropriate building practices.

The technology used to build the Bardiya school used Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks (CSEB). Mud is mixed with cement in a ratio of 96:4 and compressed with 15 tons of pressure with a manual compactor (see picture). The resulting bricks are even stronger than kiln-baked bricks.

In addition, they use much less energy and the kiln chimneys do not pollute the environment. The mud blocks emit eight times less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than kiln-baked bricks and each school building saves 15 tons of firewood.

The lightness of the blocks also makes the buildings earthquake safe and the walls are reinforced with six horizontal RCC ties and a vertical tie every 1.5 metres.

Mud has its down sides: it takes training to use properly, needs maintenance and is generally not waterproof or insect proof. However, most of these disadvantages can be addressed with CSEBs which use six per cent cement to stabilise the mud. The compression technique makes strong, durable blocks as strong as baked bricks.

The technology could be easily used to mass produce cheaper and environment-friendly bricks even for the Kathmandu Valley. For aesthetes, the bricks could easily be dyed red to make them look like kiln-baked bricks.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)