Resurrection

I think the title of this blog is a fitting one: I haven’t posted an update to this site in over 6 months. I had been away for much of that time, yes, but writing entries on here is a great way to organize my thoughts and share progress or lack thereof. But the resumption of this blog coincides with another resurrection of sorts: after March of last year, I became a relatively miserable and burnt-out wreck working 60-70 hours weeks and obsessing over every small detail of my work here and every factor I could not control. It took me two months at home, relaxing with my family/friends and eating food I genuinely love, for me to again feel like myself.

And now, an actual update:

The main campus remains in a horribly frustrating stall. When we began the construction process, we already knew we wanted Hemendra to build the campus. He’s intelligent and trustworthy, and he is among 3-4 people in the country who have extensive experience in rammed earth. His story is remarkable, and perhaps one for another blog post: he grew up in a tiny, remote village and did so well on his regional standardized test in 6th grade that he was sent to study in Kathmandu. From there, he did so well that he ended up going on to get a B.S. in Environmental Engineering from Harvard.

Front page of our bid document. yay!

Front page of our bid document. yay!

Regardless, none of our team has ever done something like this before, and because we already knew Hemendra was “the guy,” we neglected to go through a proper bidding process. Having caught our mistake over the summer, we retroactively began the process, but it is lengthy and filled with hundreds of pages of documents and consultations with lawyers and engineers. Even with a proper bid process, there’s no guarantee that anyone, even Hemendra, will “qualify.” Until we are able to properly select a qualified Rammed Earth, Nepali contractor, we cannot legally resume construction. To put it mildly, Nepal is a difficult country to work in. At best, we’ll restart the work and start ramming walls on the main campus in January.

Fortunately, this doesn’t effect our work on the Early Childhood Village or Vocational campus.

On the vocational campus, we now have 4 cows, 10 chickens/1 rooster/15 chicks, and my beloved baby goats have all doubled in size! It’s hard to believe I was carrying them down a mountain just half a year ago. There’s a big cow barn, surprisingly well built, next to the chicken house I bought last year. The solid and liquid waste from the cows drains neatly into a trough, and Jamie is planning on running this into a biogas system to supply all the cooking needs on campus. That work should be starting next week.

Also, I’m building an office. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to realize we needed a clean space with tables, WiFi, and good lighting. Perhaps I’ve been a Luddite, preferring instead to keep my backpack on the ground and lean against a tree as I work on my computer. No longer! I had my guys pull out the old and uneven clay floor from a room in the house on campus and fill in the space with plywood boards. Today, we began painting the walls with an all-natural clay paint that we’re making from flour, clay, and chalk powder. I also arranged to get a WiFi antenna installed, and I’m going to set up a dedicated solar PV system and LED tape for a good ambience.

Jamie sitting in our newly carpeted office.

Jamie sitting in our newly carpeted office.

My other current project is working with a group that came here to install an “Aquaponics” system. Right now, we’re building the structure (a substantial 26’ x 34’) to house the system, which is a closed water circuit feeding both fish and plants. Beginning in a 1,500 gallon tank housing approximately 150 carp and their waste output, water flows by gravity into hanging columns of greens, which filter the compost from the water like a bioswale. The water then drains into grow beds built into the ground, and from there into a large cistern underground. From here, the water is pumped back up into the fish tank, where the cycle begins again. So, for the price of fish food, we get fresh fish (up to 250 kg/year) and rapidly growing greens. The whole system is meant to run on solar, but I’m having doubts about the power usage of the pump. The group is exceedingly knowledgeable about the system itself, but less so about power and solar usage and building construction, so it’s turned into a fruitful and fun collaboration.

Artistic depiction of an aquaponics system. (Photo courtesy of Carla Smith)

Artistic depiction of an aquaponics system. (Photo courtesy of Carla Smith)

When I was in Kathmandu, I had the following nightmare (written at 3 am in a sweaty, putrid hotel room):

I’ve been away from Kopila for almost four months now, due to a stay at home that was twice extended. During that time it has rained buckets and buckets, as Nepal and India are prone to do during their monsoon seasons when the Himalayas block the passage of moisture sweeping up from the warm Indian Ocean.

I dreamt I arrived at the land, as I’ll do later today, and found it utterly unchanged, my rammed earth fence included. As I walked closer though, I realized that my Nepali counterparts had painted my rammed earth blue out of fear it would erode in the rain! Shocked and offended, I looked closer, only to notice that they had been right, and that the columns, and my water repellent coating, were in fact damaged – they had cracked in spots from settling, and rainwater had crept along their bases, undercutting the rammed earth, the first sign of damage. Perhaps I had made a huge mistake not building with cement, solely to prove my misguided belief that no cement was needed.

Then, inspecting even closer, I saw that other columns had entire chunks the size of my hand missing, and when I pressed my thumb again the soil it was soft and muddy, like a dirty road. The whole time, a curious group of Nepali boys was following me, watching and observing me like a show. I wanted to lie down and ponder this disaster I had created, but they began to say, in Nepali, that I looked sad and beaten. In truth though, I was absorbing the shock and thinking of solutions: we could plaster the holes with more rammed earth, coat all the columns with a lime render, or simply fill any damaged areas with cement.

I stood up, remembering the three columns that Laxmin had made that were too dry, and ran down to see how they had withstood the monsoon deluge.

They had been utterly decimated, split into pieces, melted into the ground, or simply missing. This after just 4 months. Now I was truly beaten and I fell to the ground with dismay. I remember thinking “This CANNOT be real. Please have this be a dream, please be a dream.” I tried and tried, but I couldn’t escape, so I slowly realized that this unmitigated disaster was in fact reality, and I was the architect.

There were two of Kopila’s students there, and they asked me if I wanted to play soccer. I relented believing it may be a dream and simply kicked around with them until I finally did emerge into my Kathmandu hotel room, desperately relieved.

Not only did the fence survive, but at close inspection I haven’t found a single sign of wear. This is HUGE, and completely validates my belief in rammed earth as a viable building material for this country. A typical home has 3 or 4 foot overhangs, my fence has 6 inch overhangs. Of course, it remains to seen how the fence will fare after 30 or 40 monsoon seasons, but I feel like I’ve proven something significant already, that even without any cement, rammed earth is not only beautiful, but durable.

The rammed earth fence, alive and well.

The rammed earth fence, alive and well.

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5 comments on “Resurrection

  1. Josh says:

    what a great post, Luke! Resurrection indeed.

  2. Hope Cannon says:

    Thanks, Luke, for this update. The lunch we had together in Woodstock and all that you shared about your work and experience devoted to this HUGE endeavor gave such a fuller idea of it all. I love having a small window opened into your everyday experience (as well as big picture ideas). I like knowing some of how it is effecting you as a person, as a young man and as an engineer.Thus, this post is so welcomed. What a great and beautiful (really beautiful) fence. Hooray for rammed earth. I remain tres impressed by your design sense as well as your know-how.Thank you.

  3. Tim and Barrie says:

    Hi Luke: Glad to have you surface once again after a long silence. Rather than repeat the sentiments, I defer to Hope Cannon who has has expressed them well for Barrie and me. Life is truly an adventure, and setbacks part of the trip, but you are surviving, conquering, and maturing, for which I greatly admire you and your work. You also express yourself well. Somehow, we never got together during your restorative return to the People’s Republic of Vermont, for which I apologize. A blog response will have to do for now. I spent most of the summer caregiving for Barrie and her damaged achilles tendon that left her housebound on the couch with an annoying cast on her leg, and leaving me as major doom and cook (which she somehow survived). Shalom. Tim

  4. cassidia8 says:

    My favorite take-aways from this post:
    1. Your new office, carpet and wifi to boot… you definitely deserve it!
    2. Painting the walls with clay .. I did that on paper with the kids when Pete and I were there — it’s pretty cool to know clay can be used that way
    3. The new aquaponics project … fantastic! I can’t wait to hear how it pans out
    4. The fence .. it’s still looking fabulous. You should remember to admire it whenever you’re having a bad day.

  5. Wimby says:

    Hooray for rammed earth ! Sorry to hear you have to wait to continue with the buildings, I’m sort of surprised. Here in Hartland it seems there are no rules or zoning, just Act250. I’m sure in town it would be very different. Love reading of your exploits.

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