Thanksgiving Checklist- Extrapolated

We haven’t had internet for the past 24 hours, so this post is a post-Thanksgiving post about my Thanksgiving day.


Happy Thanksgiving! It doesn’t exactly feel like the third thursday of November here, and in fact I didn’t even remember it was a holiday until Kelly reminded me at dinner.

There’s so much to be thankful for. A lot of them are obvious but no less significant- Mom, Dad, Cass, Pete, Hesse, Chris. Sammy dog. Chad and Lily. Skunky and Pearl. Family friends. My own set of friends – from Tufts, from BC, from Groton.

But this year, there’s a whole new list. This place has become such an engulfing home that I very much feel that it is a home, and it’s hard to believe I haven’t even been here 3 months. I’m full entrenched in adoration of the 42 kids, in gratitude for the Aunties who cook and take care of the house, in appreciation for the Uncles who I get to work with and who are putting up the new addition, in camaraderie with the other Fellows and Maggie. None of these could possibly be overstated, especially the bond I’ve developed with the kids.

Perhaps most of all though, I’ve fallen deeply in love with the project. With what its done to me – the way I think and feel and react to life. It’s such a dynamic beast, and one that, in all truth, I am by no means qualified to help lead. But that’s where we find ourselves, and things are running smoothly.

With that said, here’s today’s extrapolated checklist, which actually applies to the next three days:

1. Redo Brick
I’m going to take apart the brick that I made in the last post and redo it. While undoubtedly beautiful, it has also developed cracks due the my lack of foresight in placing two bamboo “pipes” through it. As the brick has dried, it has shrunk. Not significantly enough for me to even notice, but intuitively I know it to be true that clay shrinker when it dried. Conversely, the bamboo has expanded as it’s absorbed water from the surrounding earth. Result: crack.

While it is true that the brick took a very long time to make, redoing it would be rather quick. I would guess that at least 90% of the labor time making it originally was spent mixing and pulverizing the clay. This is one huge advantage of building with rammed earth. The walls can be knocked down (with a sledgehammer, rest assured), reground, and rerammed. Taking apart this brick will give me a chance to see what this process is like.

It will also be interesting to see whether to brick is dried in its center. It’s been a counterintuitive drying process, because the outside has remained wet despite the fact you’d expect the outside to dry first. And yet- when the outside has dried and the inside remains wet, where does the interior moisture go to? Duh, the outside, and then the outside seems to stay wet. I’m excited to dig into the brick and see if it’s “core” is dried and hardened.

2. Get plans to Shane
Maggie has been gone for about a month and a half now. She returns to Kathmandu in 3 days, and then comes up to Surkhet a few days afterwards. She’s bringing a friend from home, Shane, who has done a lot of masonwork. The day after she returns, I’ll be taking 3 of our work crew and going down to Dhulikhel, an hour east of KTM, to train with Nripal in rammed earth construction for about 10 days. I’m also sending one of our carpenter’s to train with Nripal’s organization in Chitwan National Park (5 hrs south of KTM) and learn how to build effectively with bamboo and to treat bamboo with boric acid (which prevents rot and insect damage without the poisons of copper or arsenic).
This opportunity is crazy,i but it’s also extremely important having 3 of our crew with us. In general, I know the uncles and workers think that we’re crazy to try and build a whole school out of clay and sand and water, with no cement. All of the locals would as well. Community buy-in is huge, and it’s extremely important that most of the workers believe in what we’re building with.
In the past two weeks, there’s been a tickling restlessness among the workers. They’ve been busy with building the new addition, but I realized that, in their minds, I really haven’t done anything whatsoever despite having been here for 2.5 months. While few things are farther from the truth, I have no difficulty understanding why they’d think that. I haven’t show them the plans or the research we’ve done, or really even been able to include them in countless Skypes or conversations with Tope because we don’t speak the same language.

This is all to say that I’ll be handing over the building of the DNK1 building (daycare, nursery, KG, and 1st grade) to Maggie’s friend, Shane, and let him manage it. I’ve never built a foundation, so as long as he has the specific plans, we should be all set. Once Terri, the crew, and I return from Dhulikhel, we can start our walls with minimal waiting for the concrete of our foundation to cure and set. While the planning has been happening for months, the physical motions have all the sudden kicked into gear. As you’ll see lower down.

3. Write to Chris
Chris is an architect in NYC who is helping us with our architectural drawings. He has our models of the DNK1 building and is going to provide us with exact plans for the whole structure before we get started with out walls. It’s all pro-bono work, and he already is at his architecture firm from 8 until 6 pm or something, so I couldn’t be more thankful to have him working with us (more thanks).

4. Molds?
I’m thinking about making our own molds for RE. The ones that Nripal uses are from Italy, made from ABS plastic, and take a long time to order/deliver. He uses them because they are quick to take apart and are lightweight. It’s not so simple as creating two sides like one would do with pouring a basement’s walls. They need to be extremely strong to withstand ramming, and must be precise enough so that they can be used throughout the wall structure without having to build a lot of different sizes. This also means that the gaps between the windows, doors, and corners have to remain relatively modular so one mold can be used on this wall, and the next one over.
I still think we can make our own molds, provided we spend an adequate amount of time making sure they’ll work the way we want to. I am going to try making some tomorrow, using aluminum studs as back bracing for a plywood boards.

5. Send pictures to Nripal
I’m going to send pictures of disassembling the brick to Nripal. Despite having worked with RE for the past few years, he’s always curious about new experiments and every little trial that Terri and I have done on our own. That’s how I know he’ll be great to work with – always open to learn more, never assuming that what he knows is set in stone.

6. Kelly Frames
Kelly is rearranging her office. I’m helping Lee-Ann, a donor who is visiting and helping Kelly design the new arrangement, to make some decorative frames for the office. Lee-Ann bought some shiny, pretty fabric, and I’m going to tack it into plywood boards and make a bamboo framing around it.

7. Printer/print
Our brand new Printer/Copy machine is broken at the school. I spent an hour last night trying to fix it. It copies just fine, but when you print it doesn’t respond. I finally got it to respond to my demands, but then it gave me a “load paper” error. Grr..
8. SketchUp Key points/measures
With tomorrow’s work incoming, I’ve got to figure out key points on our landsite that our EXCAVATORS need to work to. Mmmmhmmm. Read on.

9. More details to Karuna
I’m applying for a pretty substantial grant from an organization in Nepal that funds Solar PV systems, rainwater harvesting systems, bamboo construction, and vocational centers. We’re planning on doing all of these, so it just makes sense to get in touch with them. One of their field workers visited us a couple of months ago- a French woman named Margot- and I’ve been in touch with her since. She’s been helping me write the grant proposal.

10. Soil Tests
I took two more special soil samples from the land today. They’re from much deeper down, and probably a better indication of what most of our soil is like.
11. Skype w Willen
Was planning on doing this. Buuut.. there’s no internet. Of course, once I post this I’ll have internet, but by then Willen will think I’ve stood him up. Oops.

12. Make bread
!! I’m going to try to make bread. The Rick Lahey style- no-knead method. The only problem is that the yeast in town is from China and we don’t have the following: measuring cups, measuring spoons, and oven. We have what is essentially an easy-bake oven, and I’ll probably have to end up using that.

Soils tests and rising dough.

Soils tests and rising dough.

I mixed the bread a couple of hours ago, and haven’t noticed any activity yet. It’s sitting next to the soil tests on my desk.

13. Choose Bicycle
Bazina! Tope is buying me my very own bicycle so I can get to the land every day without needing a driver to take me in the car or motorcycle. Originally, I thought a motorcycle would be better, but I’ve since changed my mind. A bicycle is perfect, and I won’t need to worry about buying gas or maintenance or where to park it. I chose out a great bike today after working, with the only criteria that it had to have double shock absorbers at the front so I don’t destroy my body and the bike going over the awful roads here.

14. Check bathroom fan

The stinky toilet ventilation system (STVS).

The stinky toilet ventilation system (STVS).

The downstairs bathroom reeks constantly, no matter how clean it is. It stinks up the entire first floor. A few days ago I went into town and bought a 12V DC fan. I checked the voltage on our solar batteries, which are stored right outside the bathroom, and – sure enough – they were a little over 13 volts. It was perfect. I cut out holes from plywood boards to match the windows, covered them with a plastic wrap to disallow any airflow, and set up the fan directly to the batteries so it runs constantly.
It’s the exact same principle as a composting toilet. If you make the rest of the system airtight, all airflow comes in through exactly where you don’t want smell to travel. The end result – the smell from the bathroom is completely undetectable until you’re standing over the toilet.

The last thing on my list to share is that today, we officially began excavating the new land. While I can’t share our official plans (with buildings) for the campus on such a public forum, I can show a couple pictures of what we’re going to end up doing to the land itself. I suppose I can also now show the first campus plan that I had come up with before Terri arrived. Since she got here and we’ve been able to bounce ideas off each other, the campus has completely evolved and no longer even remotely resembles the massing plan below. But still, this gives a general sense of the scope of this project – Daycare, Nursery, KG through 12th grade. Cafetorium (cafeteria and auditorium space), Media Center, gardens, clinic, administration building, parking.

(One of the earliest massing plans) Looking North. Clockwise from upper right: DNK1, Clinic, Admin, Cafetorium, Elementary School, Library, High School.

(One of the earliest massing plans) Looking North. Clockwise from upper right: DNK1, Clinic, Admin, Cafetorium, Elementary School, Library, High School.


And now. Forget everything in the image above. None of it is real or is ever likely to be real. Instead, we’re going with a much more terraced design (and hence sticking with a Nepali look). Here’s what we’ll be doing with the landscaping over the next week.

The land before any changes.

The land before any changes.

The land after basic excavation.

The land after basic excavation.

The land after final landscaping (buildings not shown).

The land after final landscaping (buildings not shown).


Anyway, my 2013 Thanksgiving was a momentous day. We had a backhoe and a dump truck, and watching that first bucket load get dumped into the truck was nothing short of exhilarating. I think I almost cried, in fact, with the feeling that things were getting off the ground and watching this huge physical “object” turn into the thing I’ve obsessed over for months and seen from every possible prospective on my computer screen. It was an absolutely overwhelming rush.

Because I need to get to Dhulikhel by the end of next week and we want to start the foundation for the DNK1 building before then, we’re going to be hiring two excavators and a dump truck for the next few days to crank out the rest of the basic landscaping and terracework. In the US, an excavator would bring you back about $100 an hour, and a dump truck only slightly less. Here (Dad and Chris are going to need new pants), the excavators are $20/hour and the dump truck is only $10/hour. (!!! 10 bucks an hour is what I used to charge when I was 15 helping people out with their landscaping).

Family picnic in the middle of the worksite.

Family picnic in the middle of the worksite.

After day one of excavations. Looking from the SW corner.

After day one of excavations. Looking from the SW corner.

Keep in mind, a lot of the clay that we’re digging up is going straight into our walls. Some of the rest will go into landscaping and filling in the ravine in the jungle.


5 comments on “Thanksgiving Checklist- Extrapolated

  1. Josh says:

    Luke you move me to tears reading this– and I’ve only read 4 paragraphs! I’m sure you were PISSED you couldn’t post it yesterday, cuz what use is a Xmas card on the 26th, but I like it better this way. It’s good to be reminded to be grateful going forward.

    You clearly have discovered the best in you from your mother and me. How you managed to slough the bath water I’ll never know. It’s said children come out fine despite their parents best efforts; you prove the point!

    So keep mixing that clay, and please keep writing. Now I’ve said my bit, and I’ll go back and finish. I want to hear all about what’s going on in the lab!

  2. Cass says:

    i dig your list-driven blog posts. woot woot so exciting the excavation is getting going! let us know how that bread turns out..

  3. Josh says:

    so now I’ve read it, Luke, and I am ready to move to Nepal. The US is suddenly feeling pretty unappealing; not much useful left to do! I envy you so deeply your state of mind, almost weeping watching that dirt go into the truck.
    Yesterday I gave a toast for thanksgiving that I was grateful just to feel grateful. It sounds like you got to that lesson well before me! We’re so spoiled we don’t even know it, and gratitude is what makes it all worth doing.

  4. Cass says:

    and im thankful for YOU, dear brother, and all the amazing work you are doing! cant wait to see it in person

  5. kathy Beaird says:

    Lukestar, I love being able to accompany you on this journey of a lifetime…you are changing all of us in many ways. I think of you so often.

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