Glass Half Full | Nripal Adhikary, ABARI Earth

Nripal Adhikary is the founder of Abari Earth, a socially and environmentally committed research, design, and built firm, located in Kathmandu, Nepal. He is well known to use locally available materials to build beautiful, sustainable, viable, and economic structures. His vision is to bring together crafts, people, and forests, into a system of an abundant life. He has worked with Govt. of Nepal, Govt. of Bhutan, UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency), Asia Foundation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UNDP, and many more reputed organisations to help bring a change in the society with design as a tool.

We interviewed Nripal Adhikary, to know the inside story of his journey, the ideas behind his projects and understand how his contribution makes the glass half full.

Tell us about your journey.

I come from the arts and design background and I practice architecture. So, for me, beauty and poetry are very important. I believe crafts are a fundamental aspect of any identity. It is only now that craft is considered elitist. Earlier, art was an integral part of livelihood; from small copper vessels to door handles, everything in our villages was a craft, made with love. Nothing was mass-produced, everything was unique. People used to have a lot of sensibility towards the environment.

Sometimes, to see value in what we have, we must step outside.

I was in New York, I was into the arts and design, was showcasing some works in small galleries as a student. But, when I returned, I saw small paintings in Terai Village, I noticed beautiful stonework in the mountains. I realised these people don’t need architects, they already know what they are doing. It was a living tradition and I wanted to learn more from them. Hence, I travelled. I observed traditional buildings built of stone, mud or wood. But, now due to government regulations, wood has become an expensive material to use. Even if you can grow trees in your backyard, you need the government’s permission to get the tree cut. Also, wood is a misunderstood material. People associate it with a misplaced concept of conservation and thus think we must not cut trees. But, what is unrealized is that wood is the fastest regenerating building material on earth, it will grow back in 25-30 years, and can last up to 200 years. It is an incredible material that is not taught in schools. A gamut of things come into play, community, forests, and policies when we think of wood. It was an uphill battle for me, for which I do not have the resources to fight.

Then, I looked upon bamboo as a building material, which has wood-like properties, but it’s a grass. It grows very fast, up to 3 feet in a day, and achieves its full growth in 60 days. And, I wondered why people are not using it as a building material when they know about its strength. I work in the mountains, where resources and skills are abundant, and there is very less financial capital.

A modern school using earth and bamboo in Surket © ABARI

Which project would you like to talk about today?

I have been working on this project for about ten years now. It is in a small village in Chitwan. This project guides my philosophy for what is architecture. It serves as a reference point for me, every learning is evolved from that project. Every architect should have that kind of project. It doesn’t have to be a grand/big idea, it can be something small, but it is what defines your work.

In the Terai plains of Nepal, bordering Bihar in India, I had my first project.

I was drawing in a lot of traditional skills and incorporating them with modern ones. We were trying to achieve larger spans, by working with traditional materials and modern joints. We had built a beautiful structure, which I am proud of even today, ten years later. It was my first project, it did not cost much and it looked beautiful. And, I wondered why people prefer concrete buildings. It costs so much, looks ugly, and has no benefit. People do have a choice to live an abundant life, even with very little money.

Although, the community loved the project, it was hard to replicate. It was because the project was donor-driven, bamboo was imposed as a building material. If one has to pay from one's pocket, they would prefer a concrete house over a bamboo one. It is not because it is an inferior material, but because the connotation the material carries. We are taught in school, that traditional materials represent poverty or ‘underdevelopedness’. More than technical problems, I had to change people’s perception. Hence, I decided to also work with the upper-middle class, to get rid of the taboo associated with bamboo as a building material, making it a people’s choice and not imposed upon.

A modern school using earth and bamboo in Surket © ABARI

People often build their home as a show for neighbours and end up with a house empty from inside and extravagant on the outside. To fight the stigma, I had to be a private enterprise and get people interested in the material. Schools, seemed like an appropriate project to help remove perception about bamboo.

The condition of schools in our country is poor. They are made up of concrete blocks and metal roof. As a result, when it’s hot, the insides are too hot, when it's cold the insides are too cold and when it rains, one cannot listen under the roof. It fails to serve its architectural function.

So with my friend Justin, we built a beautiful school in Gorkha that would serve as a demonstration building throughout the country. We incorporated intricate trusses made out of bamboo, local earth plaster, and beautiful stone masonry. It achieved what we wanted- thermal efficiency, beauty, affordability and sustainability.

Interestingly enough, the location of school happened to be only 12 KM south of the epicentre of the 2015 Earthquake. The school survived the earthquake. It also happened to be one of the very few structures to survive the tremors in the region. And, all of a sudden, we were famous. Now, people were interested in our works. Our idea was vindicated.

Demonstration school that survived the earthquake © Learning Planet and ABARI

With my experience, I can say that architecture does not need to be complex and expensive.

It should be beautiful and liberating, and not under the weight of a 30-year mortgage. If it is, it is not architecture, but a prison. I have built four houses in the last four years, not because I have money, but because it is so easy. I have earth under my feet, and there is bamboo everywhere. I want to see this as part of a bigger movement.

I have been trying to make a systematic change in this village. One can have a beautiful house and a farm, there is nature’s therapy, and there is an abundance of everything one needs. One can have all the luxuries without being bogged down by a mortgage.

In the last 10 years, we have built beautiful structures, we even have a small pool. I know it sounds fancy, but all you need to do is dig a hole and plaster it. And, when the monsoon comes, it has water. We collaborate with tribal people here to make beautiful baskets and furniture. We have even made a bamboo bicycle. We make houses. We make everything. People are slowly realizing the need for an alternative.

Demonstration school built after the earthquake using Earth and Bamboo © ABARI

How do you strive for a glass half full in your work?

When you try something different, the results come out much later. The best test of resilience is how it copes in crisis. In the modern world, we are taught to buy everything, like air-conditioners and cooler, when it is hot. In architecture schools, they don’t teach one to design, they teach one to shop. And that is a limitation. It is a drain on one’s finances and one has to constantly work in their life to pay for it. Certain solutions can bring other kinds of problems. Like when one uses an AC, the indoor air becomes dry and unhealthy. Hence, it is important to see everything as a system, rather than in parts. In schools, we are taught to find a problem and its solution. We do not look at a broader picture with multiple problems and multiple solutions. If we think about these, we arrive at collaborative thinking. People ask me the techniques of building, how do you build, what is the ratio of sand to earth in the mix. I tell them that it’s a wrong question and that techniques are secondary.

The bigger question should be why one wants to do this.

Asking the ‘Why’ question makes one look into multiple things. I see architecture as my community, my craft, my health, and so many more collaborative aspects now.

Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (Library) built right in the centre of Kathmandu. An Example of the material being accepted as mainstream © ABARI

What message would you like to share with our readers?

Life is simple, it’s not very complex. We are basically running after an illusion. There is this arbitrary vision of the world, as to what is a successful life. It is like a mirage. It is a constructed imagery. Everyone is told this is how you should live, you should go to school, do this, do that, have a family. It comes with a whole gamut of conditions. In the meantime, you have to take loans and work for a cause that you don’t want to. And you are chasing this dream which is an arbitrary, illusionary dream. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

There is a beautiful reality.

Especially in our subcontinent, we have amazing history, amazing culture, amazing craft. Craft is embedded in us; it is in our culture. We need to celebrate this and create beautiful things. Forget about changing the world, let’s just enjoy. Enjoy the art and craft and things will be automatically beautiful.


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