Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us?

'Design with nature’ is the quintessential guiding principle for a collaborative team in the Himalayan mountain range.

by Anne Feenstra, Rabita ShakyaPublished on : Jan 15, 2022

Towards the end of 2020, a German-Nepalese-Finnish organisation called Akasha Academy requested us to assist them in the making of a master plan for their new academy, which focuses on health and regeneration. They had acquired 13,000 sqm of land for their prospective students, teachers and staff under the guidance of Tulku Khyungdor Rinpoche. The land is part of the Northern hills of Kathmandu valley in Nepal. It borders Shivapuri National Park, which is known for receiving the maximum rainfall in the valley - 1400 mm per year. The stunning piece of land has several different micro-climates with a colder, moist northern part and a barren, sun-exposed, terraced southern part. Some patches have a mixed forest, while some are used for agricultural land.

With a height difference of 52m between the highest and the lowest part of the land, several smaller landslides had already taken place in the last years. This left part of the land scarred and vulnerable to further erosion.

Energy Process Diagram ; In the monochrome clouds above, we have all the tasks and actions and in the triple colored diagram below, we depict the energy/time spent by team members. The four purple circles represent crucial moments. | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
Energy Process Diagram: In the monochrome clouds above, we have all the tasks and actions and in the triple coloured diagram below, we depict the energy/time spent by team members. The four purple circles represent crucial moments Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)

During several site visits, dialogues and brainstorm sessions, there was one overarching agreement. This is not a project; this is a process! We also agreed that we, the Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA) team, would start to listen to what the land itself had to say. Its geology, the water shed, the contours, the flora and fauna, the soil and microbes would greatly determine what would be possible. This is very much along the lines of the Danish poet-author Josefine Klougart…

When we speak, we are nature speaking;
when we think, we are nature thinking:
when we subdue nature out there,
we are nature, subduing something inside ourselves.

-An excerpt from Connectedness, an incomplete encyclopaedia of the Anthropocene.

  • Members of the project team - 1 | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
    Members of the project team - 1 Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)
  • Members of the project team - 2 | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
    Members of the project team - 2 Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)
  • Members of the project team - 3| Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
    Members of the project team - 3 Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)

Inclusiveness

To ensure inclusiveness throughout the process, we requested all the members of the multidisciplinary and international team to actively partake in this process. As future teachers, board members, staff and visitors, they would need to become as much self-sustainable as possible to set an example. The students of the academy would also learn self-empowerment, an important component of being physically and mentally healthy. The process also sees other local Nepalese experts being involved. For stabilising the land, senior geologist, Prof. Basanta Devkota, joined in. For water harvesting and the land's water balance, Smart Paani got involved, and we are working with bamboo experts to make use of the bamboo that grows on the land.

Listening to the land

In some places the land was happy. The land with soft loamy soil, towards the northern gorge showed a great biodiversity with many butterflies and dragonflies hovering over a broad floral spectrum. On the southern terraces, several fruit trees and flowering patches welcomed bees and small birds. Coincidentally, during one of the site visits, we got a bag full of four kilograms of delicious persimmon fruits. How we enjoyed chomping down that orange delight!

Mouth-watering juicy persimmons plucked by Nabin Rai on the land | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
Mouth-watering juicy persimmons plucked by Nabin Rai on the land Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)

In other parts, the land was in a barren shape or simply wounded (e.g. by landslides). And this is where the complication appears. The sandy soil does not have enough clay content and thus erodes fast when exposed to the torrential Nepalese monsoon rains. But clean rainwater is such a great blessing. You can drink it! And the amount of precipitation on the land asks for some sort of a water harvesting system to not just slow down the speed of the water, especially the run-off, but also to be able to sustain the future demand of the users of the Akasha Academy. So far calculations suggest about 75-85 per cent of the water demand can be met by the combination of several measures. Of course, there will be a decentralised water harvesting system and grey water will be collected and re-used. The tree coverage will be increased to reduce evaporation and careful water usage for agricultural/ horticultural purposes will greatly contribute. 

Watershed map by Shyamli Dongol showing the rainwater run-off following the natural terrain of the land | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
Watershed map by Shyamli Dongol showing the rainwater run-off following the natural terrain of the land Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)

Reading the land

Character Study | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
Character Study Image: Courtesy of Christopher Deegan and Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)

During several site visits by Akasha members and the SMA team, the land revealed more of itself. Through high-technology drone-shots by site-manager Nabin (Akasha), and low-tech measurements on the ground by engineer Anjan and architect Aman (both SMA), we got a better understanding of the totality of the 13,000 sqm and the vastly different nooks and corners within the land. To capture this and make it communicable, SMA worked together with Christopher Deegan on a series of monochrome interpretative illustrations of the land. The graphic language of the NYC-based designer was kept to a bare minimum along the lines of Marie Kondo.

“The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.”

Considering just three layers of vegetation, sun orientation and existing terraces, we were able to carefully start reading the essence of the land and thus find natural ways forward for designing with the given natural settings.

Character Study | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
Superimposed scapes Image: Courtesy of Christopher Deegan and Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA)

Nature trails

In some places, small trails had formed on the land. People, cattle, goats, deer, but also small mammals and big birds had made connecting networks. The ones made by people were by far the most illogical ones. These paths would need improvements, additions, corrections. In some places they would actually have to be removed as several people have already slipped during rainy days.

Connecting nature trail network | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
Connecting nature trail network Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA) and Christopher Deegan

With the steep slopes, a downpour of rain can be very destructive. Especially in the mountains, the simple model of linear development, unfortunately practiced too often for infrastructure, can cause flash floods. Deeply eroding slopes can collapse and surplus quantities of water will saturate the soil, eventually leading to landslides. Slowing down and guiding the water became the mantra for the land in the monsoon of 2021. So rather than imposing infrastructure, which would lead to more scars, Vinay made use of his previous nature trail experience to work with Nabin and carefully merged the nature trails in the landscape. We identified three typologies of trails the land would be able to naturally embrace; the horizontals (green), the zig-zags (red) and the diagonals (dark yellow).

Process of development of nature trails | Suntakhan: Do we design the land, or does the land design us? | STIRworld
Process of development of nature trails Image: Courtesy of Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA) and Christopher Deegan

To be continued...

About five million years ago, the Himalayas took shape. And still, the most impressive mountain range on the planet keeps on growing every day. The Himalayas are sometimes called the third pole of our planet. The range provides water to billions of people.

We at SMA have only been active in Nepal for the last eight years. We started the Akasha Academy process 11 months ago, but we are very sure that we have embarked on something special. Prof. Anne Feenstra stated in a recent meeting in Kathmandu: "This is a process where a real alternative approach to linear development can be demonstrated. While creating the habitat for homo sapiens, we need to take the responsibility of including not only all other species of flora or fauna, but also pay great respect to soil and microbes…."

He ended with a good punch line: “While COP26 was summarised by Greta Thunberg in a short Twitter line: "bla bla bla", we as architects/ designers in Nepal do not have the luxury to talk about this for years; we are accountable for the evidence we create and it better be damn good!

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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