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Straws of steel: Earthquake-proof houses

Posted on : Thursday, 26 January, 2012


KATHMANDU, Jan 9: When young Nepalis opt to study outside their native land, they often do so with the hope of improving their own lives. But Ashraya Dixit used the opportunities in America to make a difference back home in Nepal.

A student at Grinnell College, Ashraya is a recipient of the prestigious Davis Projects for Peace, 2011, which grants US$10,000 to youth with innovative methods of building peace.

Ashraya’s project titled Straws of Steel took place in the summer of 2011 and aimed to “introduce a new, efficient, low cost, and safe building technique using straw bales to Shivagadi village in the Kapilvastu district of Nepal, an area that frequently faces flashfloods, droughts, fires and earthquakes.

“The project was a startup as a first-time effort to construct straw bale building in the area and help promote low-cost, energy-efficient and earthquake-safe buildings.”

As to why he chose to work to make earthquake-proof buildings, Ashraya’s report states, “Low economic development and regular occurrence of different natural hazards make Nepal a disaster hotspot. Nepal’s common disasters include earthquakes, floods, landslides, droughts, fires, avalanches, glacial outburst floods, hailstorms, cold and hot waves, and epidemics.” Not to mention the looming prediction of earthquake that will hit the country with a magnitude of over eight on the Richter scale. Ashraya believes that more deaths will occur due to poorly built houses.

Taking all this into consideration, he piloted his project in Shivagadi which has an area of 76.34 sq km, and a population of 5,418 people who live in 955 households. He began the project with the hopes that “the Straw Bale Initiative, while encouraging people to pursue this alternative house-building method as an enterprise, would also help promote harmony in the community that has been much divided and disturbed from the decade-long insurgency and the communal troubles that followed.”

The technique involves using straws, packed tightly into rectangular bundles as walls, instead of bricks or concrete. According to Ashraya’s proposal, “Straw bale houses are light and energy-efficient. They are easy to build, structurally sound and have low disaster risks. They are, above all, low cost. Low cost straw bale houses are energy-efficient, environmentally safe, and have low carbon footprint. With a strong foundation, they are extremely resilient against earthquakes and significantly reduce the risks of disaster. Straw bales also require less water and produce less waste, and negate the need for materials like bricks and concrete that put tremendous pressures on the environment. The houses are also well insulated, staying warm in winter and cool in summer, and tightly packed bales with plastered walls make the houses fire-resistant as well.”

Working in four phases of planning, conducting workshops with community members, construction, and documenting materials to be used in the future, Ashraya worked with The Institute for Social and Environmental Transition-Nepal (ISET-N), a research organization in Kathmandu, to introduce the Manakamana Cooperative in Shivagadi Village Development Committee of Kapilvastu district to the technique.

“I spent my first month in Kathmandu working on a pilot building with ISET-N. We built a small load-bearing straw bale building within the premise of their office, using this new technology for the first time in Nepal. This was mainly a learning process with a lot of trial and error and a lot of improvisation,” says Ashraya of his time in Nepal working on Straws of Steel.

After choosing a site and completing a building that was already on the site, Ashraya says, “I went to Shivagadi along with representatives from ISET-N to teach the locals how to build straw bales and discuss what straw bales are with the larger community. We held a presentation session on the first day, explaining what exactly we were going to do and how we were going to do it.”

The actual process also came with its difficulties. “The monsoon was a huge factor concerning time during the course of the project. All the members of the cooperative were providing their voluntary support to the project and monsoon was the time for plantation, one of the most important times for a farmer. Hence we weren’t able to progress as much as we would’ve liked to.”

Besides these disadvantageous conditions, Ashraya shares, “Building the bales was a very laborious and time-consuming work. The cooperative had groups of women in samuhas working in making bundles for the bales, and we hired workers to work on compressing and tying the bales.”

Irrespective of difficulties, Ashraya is pleased. “Other than the delay with the monsoon, the project went very well. The people of the Manakamana Cooperative took in the technology well and saw great potential in it. They were able to identify this new technology as a new skill for livelihood development and were even considering making furniture with the bales. They were pleased and somewhat astonished as to how useful these bales could be, even though most of their houses were built of straw, and were quite eager to see the finished product.”

Overall, the project could be deemed a success. “This new skill and knowledge can now be replicated in other villages and lead to more dialogue and harmony in southern Nepal. With such a level of acceptance of a new technology, it seems that in time this idea can spread to other parts of Nepal.”

And through all of his work and efforts, Ashraya was able to learn much. “My time in Kapilvastu and Kathmandu, while working on the project, tells me that working for peace means working for the betterment of someone other than yourself. Being able to work with people in an alternate setting was the greatest experience I could get from my project. The project has made me realize the resourcefulness in people and their capacity to learn and convinced  me that actions can mean a lot.”

He adds, “Though the project may be relatively small in size in comparison to the problems facing southern Nepal and many regions in South Asia, I can imagine the idea catching on, proving to be the cog in the wheel of development in Nepal and the whole of South Asia.”

And there is no reason the concept won’t pick up, as Ashraya himself says, “Working with people from Shivagadi really did put a positive spin on introducing straw bales to Nepal.

Their enthusiasm, ability to learn and improvise with materials so local to them was very uplifting and gave an impression that this idea of straw bale houses in Nepal may have a future.”






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