Building a School in India
East Meets West through Construction
Since 1997, engineers and architects from Arup and Arup Associates in London have been working with the Ladakhi Buddhist community and the United Kingdom-based charity, the Drupka Trust, to design and build a self-sustaining community using a combination of traditional and modern building methods and materials. The project team is diverse. Working with the British engineers and architects are carpenters from Punjab and Nepalese laborers, many of whom are women.
The architects and engineers carried out a two-year study before starting the construction phase. This region experiences a severe climate and seismic activity comparable to that of California, so they realized that modern concrete construction would be unsuitable.
Sonam Angdus, the site manager, who was raised in the nearby village of Shey, explains that the construction season is limited to April to November. Winter temperatures can be as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 Centigrade) even though the sun shines year round. Snow makes large areas of Ladakh inaccessible in the winter except by air.
Angdus smiles wryly when asked about working with Western engineers, but as he says, the relationship is good. "The engineers always listened to us," he explains, "and they accommodated our local ideas in the building. There were a number of construction details that were changed to use local methods." One visit to a neighboring millennia-old monastery is proof that local ideas are based on "firm foundations."
Angdus said: "Everyone agreed on granite walls with a mud core. These are stable and well insulated and they blend in naturally with the surroundings. They are also available locally."
Rory McGowan, Project Director from Arup said, "We had great ambitions when we began this project believing that high-powered engineering software and the latest thinking in design could be applied just as easily to Ladakh as to a London office block." They realized that approach wouldn't work when they saw that the cost and difficulty of importing materials to the remote area would make mud brick, granite, and wood preferable to steel.
Now they have collaborated with local people to build a school that balances economic and environmental factors. Furthermore, Annie Smith, director of the Drupka Trust, was instrumental in working with the Arup team led by Jonathan Rose and Jim Fleming to ensure that human needs were incorporated into the design.
Self-Sustaining Environmental Controls
The school has been designed to optimize use of natural resources such as solar radiation, shading, and natural ventilation. The facility its own energy and reduces local emissions by using solar panels that take maximum advantage of Ladakh's high and consistent exposure to direct sunlight.
Water is a limited resource in a region with very little rainfall. The main source of water is snow melt from the surrounding Himalayas.
The water distribution system reuses water for irrigation and directs any rainfall to planted areas. Groundwater from the 105-foot (32-meter) deep water table is pumped by solar power to a 16,000-gallon (60,000 liter) tank at the surface. Drinking and irrigation water is then gravity fed to gardens and water faucets. When not driving the water pump, the solar panels feed batteries used to power the school's computers.
Trombe walls are used throughout the school. These are ventilated cavity walls of mud brick, granite, and double-glazing, which collect solar heat, store it in their thermal mass during the day, and release it at night.
The roofs need good insulation to minimize heat transfer in both winter and summer. Angdus explains, "The roof is made from a combination of mud and local wood, which is poplar and willow. For insulation we use rock wool and felt. On top of this we have added corrugated aluminum sheets and sand to cover the felt to prevent it from melting under the constant sunshine."
The school's toilets use a "ventilated improved pit" system, considered an important and affordable breakthrough for improving sanitation in developing countries. The system uses no water but has a solar-driven flue to eliminate smells and insects. The ventilation dries the human waste, which eventually decomposes into compact and almost odorless fertilizer.
Supporting the Educational Experience
The completed classrooms provide a pleasant learning environment for both teachers and children, with light, airy spaces and polished wooden floors. Each building opens to either a small garden or a stone-paved street. In the summer, classes are held outdoors whenever possible.
The interiors would not look out of place in Manhattan lofts, but the exterior appearance is both in keeping with the environment and timeless in design. This project contributes to the development of industry standards for building in areas with limited natural resources. It will also provide invaluable data for future construction of education centers in similar areas.
This project has taken considerable planning. The setting is as stark as it is breathtaking. But despite the environmental challenges, the design of the school is, in itself, refreshing and inviting. Druk White Lotus School further illustrates that educational establishments can be fun and accommodating without looking like, well, schools!
Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.