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Nepal Semester Student's Catherine Von Holt's photograph of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

Bamboo Construction in Nepal: Working with ABARI

For my ISP, I went down to the village of Ramnagar in Chitwan district to work with ABARI, “a socially and environmentally committed research, design and building firm that examines, encourages, and celebrates the vernacular architectural tradition of Nepal.” They focus on construction using natural materials, primarily bamboo and earth, and have built dozens of beautiful and inspiring spaces throughout Nepal and even internationally.

Nepal has a rich and unique architectural history. The traditional style of the Kathmandu valley is characterized by natural, local materials and craftsmanship developed and sharpened over generations. In recent decades, the architectural landscape has industrialized as modern materials and construction techniques have filled the cities and even the villages with reinforced concrete and corrugated sheet metal. These materials serve some practical benefits, but they are environmentally taxing to produce and transport, and they threaten to crush the heritage and beauty of an architectural legacy under the great wheel of development and progress.

ABARI offers an alternative path to modernization by bringing modern science and intelligent design together with local materials and traditions. They support local economies and work with communities to design and build homes, schools, and farms that meet the needs and wants of the people who live there. They host workshops and trainings for bamboo farmers, carpenters, and masons and support them in finding employment. After the earthquakes in 2015, ABARI distributed open source designs for transitional shelters and permanent earthquake resistant homes. They assisted the construction of 1600 shelters in a rebuilding effort in Sindhupalchok, one of the hardest hit districts in Nepal, using a model of Owner Driven Reconstruction instead of Donor Driven Reconstruction, which is common among other foreign aid agencies that often leaves homeowners in a state of disempowerment and dependency.

The ABARI campus in Ramnagar will one day be a learning center and design studio where visitors can learn about natural building techniques but it’s still in the works. There is a crew of 8 or 9 workers that live and work on the property for a few months of the year and then return to their village in western Nepal to be with their families and work their own fields. They seem to be working on a hundred different projects all at once. Some days I worked alongside them as they toiled in the tropical Terai sun, breaking up stones with sledgehammers and removing dark red earth from the ground by the shovelful to lay the foundation for a new house. Other days I sat on the floor of the workshop, hammer and chisel in hand, painstakingly attempting to carve out a joint in the end of a bamboo culm. Jodha, the head carpenter, had demonstrated the technique with precise, mechanical movements of his wrist, producing a perfect joint in less than a minute. After 20 minutes, my piece of bamboo looked more like a rabid dog had been using it as a chew toy. At night, after several full plates of daal bhat, we would sit outside and swat mosquitoes as we played cards under a blanket of thick, warm night air.

But mostly I worked on my own project: designing and building a prototype crane for ABARI’s larger building projects. At first, I was a little intimidated by the assignment. No one spoke English, and my Nepali is barely good enough for negotiating fruit prices at the market, let alone exchanging ideas on the design of a piece of heavy construction equipment. I wasn’t totally confident in my ability to deliver what they wanted, and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. But the atmosphere was laidback and communication was limited but friendly and effective, and soon I was caught up in the excitement and satisfaction of watching an idea turn into a real thing. And it did! When the crane was finished, everyone got a kick out of turning the hand crank to hoist pieces of scrap metal and swing them around.

It was hard to say goodbye, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to live and work with the crew in Ramnagar. Hopefully, one day I’ll come back to see Dipendra, my best friend from the work crew who had slightly reckless tendencies when it came to power tools, in his pink flip flops, swinging a full size crane at a speed that would make an OSHA inspector’s eye twitch. But until then…