A picture-less update!

I’m long overdue for an update on the work up at the land. I think part of this is that I’ve felt like my main current project – building a fence – sounds like an exceedingly lame endeavor, and I’ve wanted to wait until it somewhat resembles my vision before I show photos and discuss details. But the work has been going relatively slowly, mostly due to our slow-moving and deceitful neighbors, so I think I’ll need to post an update on the fence in the next few days.
We have about 20 columns built over the past 40 days (about 230 feet in length). This is about half the speed I was hoping for. Ironically, I’ve actually had to slow down the advance of our wall because our neighbors needed a large, empty space to drive a tractor through to transport materials from their demolished house. They consistently said “yes, in 5 days it will be gone” for a month straight! Just yesterday, they finished moving out.

In the ravine, the large retaining wall, replacing last year’s gabion wall, is almost halfway done. I’ve given up on micro-managing projects to ensure this will be an ultra-green campus. It’s already too late, it’s not going to be: we have 1000 feet of solid brick wall, we have hundreds of bags of cement in this newest retaining wall, and I have serious doubts about the buildings of the main campus.

With that said, the retaining wall is actually fantastic- it’s beautiful and looks very strong, and has helped me come to the important conclusion that, at times, the use of cement is unavoidable. The gabion wall was expensive, ugly, and ultimately failed during the flood waters this past monsoon season. Not to mention that the steel wire used in it had its own intense carbon output. Building this new wall with just stone and cement has allowed us to build with curves- an immense improvement on the old, blocky gabion aesthetic.

I suppose another source of my pause in blog updates has been a subconscious reluctance to write negatively about the work of others. The main campus is a fine example of this. Here are my thoughts:

The main campus construction is going. Just going. Hemendra is the lead contractor on this, and taking a contractor’s pay for his work. He hasn’t been here in 4 weeks. Amod is his second in command. He hasn’t been here in two weeks. Suraj is younger than me, and the engineer on site. He earns $80-100 a month. The workers earn $3.80 per day, and work 7 days a week (their own choice). [to be fair, $4.50 is probably the average in Surkhet]. The absence of higher level leadership has been frustrating.

The foundation, at its lower 3 feet, is over 4 feet wide. There are doubled-up 20 mm steel rods placed every 4 feet that will connect to a concrete tie beam at the top and bottom of each floor. These rods are anchored under the foundation in 6″ of high-cement-content concrete (at 4.5′ wide, and 300 feet long, this beam alone contains 675 cft of concrete at 22% cement content – yikes). Worse still, others hoping to replicate our example in the future will ask, “how did they do their foundation? How much did it cost?” The response might deter them from repeating what we’ve done – building from RE.

None of this is to say that the design won’t be beautiful- it will be stunning, I have no doubt. And I’d certainly prefer that the structure err on the side of safety rather than aggressive minimalism, but there’s a limit. I’ve had two separate, mildly heated conversations with architects here (Terri and Prabal), trying to explain that there is such a thing as “safe enough” and that, after a point, you’re simply wasting money, time, and carbon emissions. There’s no limit on “as safe/earthquake proof as possible.” A category 25 earthquake, the apocalypse, could be just around the corner). To a certain point, this is quantifiable in a “factor of safety” and one needs to decide if an FoS of 3 is good enough or if it needs to be 10. There is a tradeoff with everything. Clearly, Prabal and his structural engineers didn’t agree. And yes, look at Luke, the mechanical engineer, questioning the structural engineers. How dare he. Except I have obsessively scoured rammed earth safety manuals/standards and I know such a massive foundation is overkill for building on rocky soil such as ours. And while this is only one building, it establishes a precedent for what future rammed earth buildings will look like.

I’ve certainly lost some interest and devotion to the main campus. It’s a feeling that has risen from deep inside me over the course of the last 12 months, and thankfully, I listened to it. There is no shortage of other work and projects. The fence, new formwork, the PrePrimary campus with Nripal. He visited last weekend to show me the design. It’s a wonderful mix of smart/safe/beautiful design (using strong curves and single story buildings). Unfortunately, it seems to require that we cut a lot of the remaining trees. I’m working with Jamie to come up with a transplant plan.

I would share the design if I could, but even Maggie hasn’t seen it yet. I just know that I haven’t been so internally excited about a project for a while. Curved, multi-leveled classrooms underneath a continuous, super-structure roof build around a round, open air courtyard. I can hardly wait. We’ll likely be starting in approximately 2 months, when I expect to finishing up my boundary fence.

Lastly, I daily (usually) post photos on my Instagram page during the day while I work. It’s much easier than wordpress, since the only writing is for captions! Here is the link below:



3 comments on “A picture-less update!

  1. Josh says:

    Very honest, Luke. I’m so glad to read you’ve narrowed your scope to what truly excites you. It’s more than enough to keep you busy for the next year.

  2. cassidia8 says:

    I learned in Costa Rica to estimate the amount of time a project would take, and then quadruple that number to come up with something more realistic… And looking back, probably the biggest lessons for me were in flexibility and accepting the chaos of things not going perfectly. You’re not alone Luke! Keep on going, and like Dad said, just focus on the parts that you will be proud of in the end. xoxoxo

  3. Anthony Thacher says:

    You are presently in a part of the world that has practiced meditation for centuries. It won’t solve your problems but it will relieve a lot of stress and frustration. And, occasionally, when you step back from an insurmountable problem and breath deeply, the problem becomes smaller and ways to circumvent emerge. You are learning to do great things. Good luck and keep at it. Tim

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