Rebuilding considering the socio cultural and ecological aspect

Two months have passed now. The day I was awakened by the turbulent chimes of the bells, had witnessed the devotion turned into desperation, saw the history crumbling down right in front of my eyes as I lay helpless. The history that spoke to me once, was silent then, all I could hear was a terrifying cacophony. The centuries old architectonic works tumbled down so did the spirit of a young aspiring architect.

The first few weeks we were all striving to help meet the primary needs of the Earthquake victims. Meanwhile thousands of temporary shelters were been built, the government proposing an integrated settlements with a scope of welcoming global architecture.I stood there on crossroads trying to understand the intellects concern about inclusive and exclusive architecture, about the socio cultural values while initiating the rebuilding process, engineers proposals about bringing change in materials and construction scenario of the rural areas. With the monsoon season already starting, it seems like a large void has been created between the immediate solutions and future riots. I understand human lives are a first priority. Saving lives are more important than saving culture and architecture and I will not want to live inside a home built with mud mortar but we cannot turn a blind eye to the socio- cultural aspects being jeopardized. We can see a door open for global architecture, rapid development but can the people be forced to leap into a revolution which took the westerners 300 years?

Architecture or a built environment of a place defines the person’s past, present and future. It is because the humans react and interact with the built environment on a daily basis. People see themselves in it. But the choice is theirs whether to write new stories in the blank slate nature has given to fill in or cling to the past.

There is always a conflict between the natural and industrial materials in terms of flexibility, ecological balance, cost and availability. Industrial materials like concrete and steel being responsible for global warming by 50% but being a reliable and durable means of construction while the natural and biodegradable materials like bamboo, timber, rammed earth, stone being more climate responsive but the cost and reliability being questioned.

One could speculate that our ancestors had the belief of living with the nature or maybe it was by default. They had used the bio degradable materials in their conventional way of construction. The residential buildings were built with such materials because they respected in the theory of impermanence and accepted the defeat against nature gracefully or again we can ponder that they had no other choice. While the materials used for heritages and temples were strong and expensive which needed high level of craftsmanship since heritages are supposed to last longer for the posterity and ordinary people couldn’t afford those materials.

All I wanted to say is that the past architecture was ecological responsive, were  self-sustaining. Now as the government opens door for prefabricated houses as physical rebuilding process, the memories and identity of a place could possibly be extinguished. A place can trigger memories of a past, the memories have no chance of existing if the whole geography of the place is being airbrushed out

Bhaktapur, known as the living museum, we would marvel at its authenticity and ingenuity. Now, as the city lies in rubbles, I can’t help but wonder if the same genuineness could be portrayed.

Careful consideration is vital in order to triumphantly rebuild the lost artifacts whilst accepting the nature of destruction. The reasons of failure of structures could be the lack of maintenance, overlooking the life span of the materials and structure as a whole, use of low-grade construction materials and the techniques used, ustable grounds, waterlogged soil, slopy grounds, raising storeys  etc.

With the lessons learnt from this great catastrophe and taking in account the flaws of our past construction patterns and also the socio cultural aspects, we need to find a middle way. There needs to be a balance between the conventional and modern way of construction in the process of rebuilding. We need to look at the situation in a different angle.

Nepal being an Earthquake prone area, mud mortar need to be exiled. Bricks and stones are as strong as the mortar is. The brick obtained from the 55 window palace carries more strength than the first class bricks even after 300 years according to Architect and cultural historian Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, so maybe we need to explore the methods used by our ancestors and try to bring more strength to it by modern technologies. The engineers may take a challenge in creating a strong mortar so that even natural resources can be incorporated into the designs. Earth rammed houses can be a hype considering the ecological aspect. The lower floors can be constructed with rammed earth walls while the upper floors could consist bamboo walls covered in mud plaster. It is easier to incorporate traditional techniques and aesthetics by use of light jhingati roofs. The cost of timber is sky rocketing, it is impossible to rebuild with timber as a structural element again, we can maybe replace it with some steel sections in the inside while maintaining the aesthetics in the front facade.

However some changes should be made. Light plays an important role in our daily lives. The traditional houses admit minimal light, the kitchen placed at the top floor. The idiosyncratic beliefs have to be encountered.

Nepal is rich in culture and art. The rebuilding process shall not overlook the socio cultural aspect. We need to incorporate modern techniques and materials as well but the dependency should not be exceed. The formidable prospect of rebuilding is overwhelming but the essence of a certain village, the identity must also be preserved in my opinion but also the lessons from the past must be taken into consideration  in providing strength and resilience. Only then Nepal will rise in a true sense.


Some suggestions

Search for comments by me mentioning “holcim”. I keep mentioning this but I rarely get feedback, and I am not sure if the info is passed on. There are other researchers that I’ve found who might be able to provide assistance as well in these matters.

As for reconstruction: the sites that were also visited by tourists must be among the most well documented buildings on the planet (owing to the photos, many probably geotagged as well). It should not be impossible to perform a highly accurate 3D model that can be used as model for a laser patterned reconstruction. Preferably with improved statics. The tech feasibility is there, the question is socio-economical viability.

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3D photogrammetry with free software

For the start of the 3D models that trythis envisions, photogrammetry would be the discipline to dive into. Specifically, 3D reconstruction from multiple images. There are high-quality ways to do this with free software. For those who just want to try it with a series of photos they made from any object, try AutoDesk 123D Catch. It’s a fascinating technology :slight_smile:


We raster images in Autocad and its an arduous job. Photogrammetry. fascinating indeed.

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Hello, thank you! i will search the word. However my point was the rebuilding of the villages and not the heritages because we actually have the blueprints of the heritage sites well preserved. What concerned me was the reconstruction of the destroyed villages, they may bring up more concrete, more steel and iron and the indigenous knowledge and materials may be exiled.

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forgot to mention as search word…

Large-scale top-down planning never works

The Western experience is: large-scale urban planning according to rational criteria has consistently failed. This is associated to the name of urban studies scholar Jane Jacobs. My main reference for this story is this.

I understand the urgency, but human settlements that grow “organically”, with building standards but not too much of a plan, usually turn out to be more livable and more successful in the end.

That said, I am not sure I understand completely the context of @shweta’s post. In terms of construction materials, embracing Jacob’s ideas means refraining from embarking in large-scale projects; allowing different types of materials to co-exist (over time, this leads to building with different ages and prices standing side by side, which leads to neighborhood diversity, which leads to safety and economic success).

threat of prefab settlements

I understand. Yes, i support the settlements that grow “organically”. The villages that have to rebuild completely, they may bring in the prefabricated homes and settlements. I am quite a bit lost because i cannot advocate organic building when i live in a concrete house. so, i think there sould be a balance. instead of completely building with only the natural resources, some modern techniques must be collaborated.

Yes you can

re “I am quite a bit lost because i cannot advocate organic building when i live in a concrete house.”

You can. It just sounds a little bit like Al Gore style - but it does not fully discredit an argument. Also with materials you need to look at the bottom line - some applications of concrete make more sense than others. But if you check out the ICE databank (embodied energy) you’ll see that those will be the exception and not the rule.

I love Jacob’s approach to the urban space - the idea of openness and fluidity, easy access and dynamic changes. She was totally right about the fate of American Cities, which now seems to be largely a fate of European cities. I hope Nepal will never get there, even if some symptoms are already visible. Anyway.

Maybe the reason why regular, common houses were built with techniques that did not stand forever is that these spaces need flexibility and adaptability as well. The way rural houses were designed indeed has a lot of flaws, ie. think of this little detail: new generations of Nepali, due to some factors (maybe improved diet?) seem to be much taller than their parents and grandparents. Kids going to secondary schools right now will just… not fit into these 5’7’’ high spaces. I had problems doing it, Matthias simply could not enter their houses;)

As the lifestyle changes, access to technology improves, these places simply have and should follow, balancing in a smart way what seems to be important for the identity and aesthetics and what makes peoples’ lives easier. I do understand the nostalgia for cute and rural - what we do with them in Poland is called skansen, sort of an open-air museum with tons of amazing, stunning houses that served their purpose long time ago.

Question of the selection of materials is beyond my expertise - but as there is a lot of very good quality materials all around in Nepal, this could be a good starting point. There are plenty of smart, eco-friendly architects who are doing a great job and their expertise will probably contribute to creating very nice, safe and sustainable houses. What I really do not hope for is that Nepal would be spotted one day with these 3-4-more-story-high residential buildings with columns, which look so similar, kind of western with this little strange twist. Which do not contribute to sense of local identity - that’s my feeling. I love the Newari houses, and as this tradition of crafting is continued (and as many buildings around Patan show, their architecture, whether reinforced or relatively new, survived the hard 7.9 test) - it is possible to reproduce these amazing, beautiful pieces of architecture. I need to look up more of these traditional urban styles in other parts of Nepal.

thank you

Thank you for your insights Natalia. i should definitely polish the article with the feedbacks ive been getting. before i was unsure whether to post it because it seemed a little unprofessional to me.hmm. but seems like i did the right thing. :slight_smile:

have you visited the Patan museum?? you must notice the modern frame structures, universal beams and columns used there and the museum in the Keshav Narayan chowk is the only one intact Also the aesthetics and essence of the traditional architecture is well presented and  so, maybe we shouldn’t be so reluctant to welcome some modern techniques and materials while maintaining its integrity and history what do you say?

The Life and Beauty of Earthen Architecture

I strongly criticize the disregard for earthen architecture and its forms (adobe, rammed earth). Earth is the oldest construction material, and in Katmandu has certainly stood several earthquakes for hundreds of years. It is a technology that required a certain amount of maintenances. In the past elements were used to be replaced before failure.

Nepal, like Iran, Peru, and California are earthquake zones, and a common conclusion of the failure of the old structures is the lack of maintenance.  (Of the new usually are design and construction quality that usually leads to changes in the building codes).

Mud and mortar cannot be exiled!!!  If you have the chance to visit Lima, Cusco, Sana’a or Santa Monica you will be in the presence of very well kept earthen buildings that have survived earthquakes and are still standing; of course they needed a seismic retrofitting, but guess what. It has been done using the same traditional materials.  The Peruvian Building Code, as well as the California seismic safety code, provisions for earthen architecture design.

In brief: is not the material, and in the new earthen buildings is mostly the poor construction quality and lack of technical direction since nowadays is hard to find competent adobe masons anywhere in the world but in Peru and Morocco. Well, I met one in Santa Barbara who takes care of the Spanish Presidio, but his fees are unaffordable.

Brick are not stronger because of the cement mortar, without reinforcement is even weaker that earth in case of a quake. Their downturns are the uses of fertile soil, low-resistance if their not factory made, excessive use of energy to fire the brick kiln and the finite particulates they create affect the air quality.

One advantage of earthen construction is that requires minimum skills and allows self-construction techniques and communal participation. In many Andean villages like this one in Puno, close to Bolivia  ( building a house involves all the community.

Some areas of mayor cities and intermediate towns night nor be suitable for earthen architecture, in this case the new structures has to acknowledge he past and the always changing lifestyle. New materials are more expensive and require more technical advise; and as Natalia states, has to consider flexibility and adaptability. In this regards the experiences of PREVI in Peru and Elemental in Chile are just extraordinary. Instead of giving you a full little house, you get half, you will finish as you wish, as money comes by, as babies arrive. But more than shell-houses, it is important to organize then to allow the creation of organic public spaces; but organic by design. Recommended reading: Urban Acupuncture by Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba.  Sorry Alberto, I’m not that familiar with Jane Jacobs, I only know she became Canadian to protect her children from Vietnam War.

In the heat of the emergency, there are priorities, and when life is not under threat, I guess that is at the third day. Heritage sites can follow the procedures of their emergency plans. Hope there is some on going, if not; at least stabilize them to avoid further damage and plan some actions.

Is our obligation to pass to the next generation what we have received. Without culture a nation perishes, we will be alive but empty without the ability for being stroke by beauty.


Thank you @Hector . I have

Thank you @hector . I have not disregarded the earthen architecture. (I guess i wasn’t clear. ). Moreover, i reckon this would be the perfect time to promote earthen architecture. We have few adobe houses here as well and they did quite well during the quake but yes they are rather expensive. I had attended a conference about the role of indigenous materials and knowledge in post quake rebuilding and the architect was adamant about maintaining the authenticity of materials. One even said,“if the mud building collapse, let it collapse, we’ll build again, embrace the nature’s atrocity…” and then i had talked to a german architect Wolfgang Korn and he had totally different opinions about building the same way our forefathers did. he said there must the changes in materials. We cannot afford timber for building cities anymore, we need to adopt the structural members as well, he said. there must be a balance. the traditional essence should not be compromised in the facade or anything but the building must be given strength. So, the article is the summary of both the opinions and i think i might’ve lost you guys in many points. I shall edit some parts with your insights and thank you for the recommendations.

Super interesting!

Wow, @Hector: that was a hell of a comment. Way to go, and welcome to Edgeryders!

Many of us deeply sympathise with the DIY approach, and almost everybody in Edgeryders struggles with the “tyranny of the mortgage”: I myself have chosen “co-living”, a large space shared by three adult couples. I often wonder how societal dynamics would change if Europe was more like Thailand, where I’m guessing a simple thatched home with bamboo structures must cost like a large car. Thailand is favoured by a climate that makes insulation a very low priority, but even in Europe we have technologies for living in alternative to the house or condo, from containers (look at this fantastic thread about how to live in them!) to house-sized 3D printers. Where we get stuck is building regulation: anything cheap or provisional is forbidden.

The construction industry is a very important source of jobs (over 13 million employed in Europe – source), so the last thing the regulators want is N “uberization of construction”. As a result, it seems, real estate developers lobby for ever more stringent regulation that are impossible to comply with for a group of friends, however skilled and resourceful like @trythis or @Matthias, who want to try and build their own home. As a result, the price of construction has doubled in ten years:

We are not going back to mud and mortar any time soon. Which is sad, because I think you are dead right.

Lessons from Haiti

“Recognizing that most Haitians were already repairing their houses by themselves, the U. S. NGO Build Change came up with a homeowner-driven strategy for seismic retrofits. The method leaves residents in charge of building works, while providing them with financial and technical assistance.”

Thanks @LucasG for pointing it to us!

Thanks @shweta.

Thanks @Shweta.

Well, I think Korn is thinking more from the First World point of view, where housing development means suburbia, massive construction sites and business. Remember in those places there are labor and building codes, zoning by-laws, energy performance goals, insurance, and always a business plan. And working in timber means a production and distribution lines, drying kilns, certifications, lumber yards, and more blah blah blah, they love to do before you get your piece of lumber. However, in Canada is cheaper, and in Chile it can be a competitive option, against brick and concrete.

In the rest of the world, manpower is cheaper and the materials (almost) free. The major task is community organization, is too much work for a single family. In the Andes is called “Ayni” is an still existing Inca social institution for cooperation and reciprocity, this month we will build/fix your house; next, mine. From the conservation point of views, this also means that every generation is adding a layer, challenging the concepts of authenticity.

Wattle and daub (mud + cane) changes name according to the region. It can be easily rebuilt but better to put aside their Messianic powers. If properly done and maintained (is not concrete, it needs regular maintenance) can stand mayor seismic events; and there is no need to see it collapsing. It’s just soil,  the most humble of the materials…

Shweta, I’m sharing some information from the Getty, I used to work there in the Earthen Initiative.

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Good stuff

Wow - this looks like some good stuff.

As you said in many cases the bottleneck is in the workmanship and community organization - would you happen to know resource that are either already in audio format - or can largely be transformed into audio format to address this problem. I have heard about the “half a house” approach as well but forgot to mention it. I think this is a pretty smart approach if nothing serious can be leveled against it.

Do you think it would be possible to educate some helpers before a small semi-professional crew arrives and trains them on the job to get them to where they can build the less critical/difficult part of the house? What would be the required in terms of preparation or training for the helpers to contribute to the helpful side instead of the “stand in the way” side?

I think if you have the manpower and follow some relatively simple guides you could also improve the quality of natural materials considerably.

Another thing that just crossed my mind… didn’t you guys close most of your cement factories around Nepal? and don’t you import bricks from India or China rather than make them home?

Maybe it’s not necessarily that the production of local materials would be unaffordable - if it wasn’t for the competition with huge cheap markets which flood you with materials. There must be a way to avoid this, and as a result: give people jobs in producing these local materials, and support their market competitiveness.

Egypts experience with organic building

This is what slums look like in Cairo - عشوائيات  in Arabic -. I always divide the city in 3 parts:

  1. The historic core, mostly pre-1952 and definitely pre-1970's (Downtown, some former suburbs that are pretty much downtown now) → It was planned, built to a stringent building code and evolved somewhat naturally since. 
  2. The slums, which started appearing in the 1980's (Form a belt around the city, and surround the ring road, basically repurposed former farmland (!) ) → Basically illegal, completely unplanned and barely serviced by utilities. 
  3. The desert satellite cities, mostly from the 1990's onward. (Government master plans to move people to the desert and protect farm land) → Built ~30 of km's away from the city center, mix between light dense walkup apartment buildings, public housing, and upscale compounds. Extreme urban sprawl

Out of these, 1. is from another era, 2. is unplanned and developed organically and 3. is government master plans.

  1. The desert cities are a slowly unfolding disaster and are completely car-centric and dependant.

  2. The slums are interesting in that they are the perfect embodiment of le Corbusier’s building style: An efficient concrete skeleton and stairway, and everything else red bricks. They were built according to no building standards at all, and are thus very problem prone as well.

I find it is interesting how a western building style was appropriated locally and replicated so widely, most probably due to the its cheap costs.

Comparing the unplanned (2, slums) and the planned (3, desert cities) from the modern era I can’t quite conclude which is worse. The slums house communities and somehow work, but are universally detested and are highly problematic: Hygiene, safety, services etc. The desert cities overburden the utilities, are a drain on public money and are very fast experiencing extreme congestion as they are completely car reliant! They are an environmental disaster in the making!

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The worst of two worlds

It looks like Egypt’s slums manage to have the worst features of both Le Corbusier’s soulless rationalism and Jacob’s chaos! (just kidding)