The architectural landscape in hill districts hit by the earthquakes is fast changing with a majority of the new homes being built with brick, concrete and tin
By Shuvechchhya Pradhan
Apr 28, 2018-When a school child is asked to draw a village house in art classes in Kathmandu, one could bank on them producing a two-storied mud mortar house with a slant roof made of either slate or straw. This archetypal pastoral home has been impressed onto young minds not just by art teachers but also the traditional homes that dot the landscape in Nepal’s mid-hills.
But now, traveling into districts that hug Kathmandu from the north, you sense that this landscape is quickly changing. A majority of the new houses being built to replace traditional homes that were brought down by the earthquakes are being built with brick and concrete. This change is palpable in villages in Dolakha and Sindhupalchok, where reconstruction work is chugging ahead at a brisk pace in order to meet the government’s mid-July deadline for the second tranche of housing grants.
At Okharbote of TamakoshiGaunpalika in Dolakha, traditional three-storied houses have by and large been replaced by one-storied, two-room houses, while the slate roofs are being replaced by tin.
“It’s not earthquakes that kill but the houses,” DadhiramPokharel, a local resident who is also involved in the BaliyoGhar Project of NSET, reiterates. Most of the villagers too share his sentiments as they explain how their old, stone and mud homes were brought down by the earthquake because of the heavy slate roofs.
According to Rajendra Sharma, sub-engineer appointed by the Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA), people are opting for tin roofs either because most house models released by the NRA recommend tin roofs for its lightness or because of the low cost of the material.
Sagar Acharya, the chief of NRA-Dolakha, says that in addition to people choosing modern building methods for budgetary reasons, the lack of planning and research about how traditional architecture and building methods could be incorporated into the rebuilding process has also contributed to the changing landscape. “Because of the criticism from the public and the media about how slow paced the reconstruction work was the government and the NRA worked under tremendous pressure from the get go. This has meant that resources could not be dedicated to researching which model of houses would best suit the locality it was being built in,” he says, adding that this is one of the chief reasons why despite being an exporter of slates, and having its own mine at Bigu, most houses in Dolakha are now being rebuilt with tin roofs.
Two volumes of catalogues on house designs, Design Catalogue for Reconstruction of Earthquake Resistant Houses Volume I and Volume II, were published in October 2015 and March 2017, respectively. Both of these catalogues have 17 models each, with Volume II having alternate and improved designs from Volume I. But Acharya says that the guidelines published in the catalogues did not effectively trickle down to the public. “When we introduced the model houses, the public took them as the only models that would be approved by the NRA. That is why we are seeing so many two-room houses being erected,” he says.
HariramParajuli, an executive committee member at the NRA, also agrees that communication gaps when publicising earthquake-resistant house models is one of the reasons why traditional houses have fallen to the wayside. “As long as the minimum measurement is met, one can build house with traditional materials with slate and straw, (and) the house will be approved after it is inspected by our engineers,” he says. According to the Volume I of the catalogue, the designs can be used as it is or can be adapted based on the parameters as defined in the National Building Code of Nepal.
The case in Sindhupalchok mirrors that of Dolakha. In PipalDanda, near the district headquarter of Chautara, a couple of concrete houses are already up, while more are slowly on their way.
Here, Jit Bahadur BK is rebuilding his house from scratch in the same place his old house once stood. After ploughing the land with the help of a dozer to stabilise it, Jit Bahadur has already started working on the ground level by using Rs 50,000 he received as the first tranche of the building grant. “Most of the stones from my old house could not be salvaged and the remaining has been used up to fill up the foundation of the house,” he shares, adding that cutting the stones used in traditional building methods is now both expensive and time consuming compared to bringing bricks from neighbouringBanepa and Bhaktapur. “The Rs 300,000 grant given by the government isn’t enough,” he says, “And the traditional house needs more land for the same room space compared to concrete houses because the walls need to be bigger.”
At the same time the sub-engineer of Okharbote, Rajendra Sharma, also cites the acute shortage of skilled manpower required to build the traditional houses as one of the reasons why people have been reluctant to build them.
Currently, most of the workers building at Okharbote are migrant workers from the southern plains. “The time allocated by the government to finish building up to a certain level in order to become eligible for the second tranche of payments has left most people with little choice but to build and build quickly,” he adds
When the main concern for the people is to finish their houses as soon as possible and that of the government is to finish the rebuilding and rehabilitation expediently, it is not surprising that preserving and promoting traditional, indigenous architecture has been put on the back burner for now.
But for a country like Nepal that has always promoted and capitalised on its architecture as a cultural selling point to tourists—be it in the Kathmandu Valley or in rural Dolakha—the quickly changing architectural landscape will change how the earthquake ravaged mid-hills are perceived and portrayed; if it doesn’t change the identity of settlements like Okharbote and PipalDanda altogether.
From On Saturday (The Kathmandu Post)