Phuleli School Nears Completion

Post by Travis Hughbanks (Phuleli School Project Architect)

Time for me to break down and finally write my first blog post. I had intended on writing last week, but two days after returning from the project site I got sick and spent a week confined to the apartment. It is interesting how your body can absorb so much strain, and then as soon as you give it a chance to rest it lets you know that your current pace is not sustainable. All is well now, though.

Ridge beam in place

First off, let me give a quick update on the Phuleli school. We are just over 50 days into construction and nearing completion. The earthbag walls are up and plastered, ring beam is poured, roof structure has been constructed, metal roof installed, and the concrete floor completed. Over the next couple of days the exterior soffit will be enclosed, wood paneled ceiling installed and school painted. Earthbag has been a remarkable success, and we have been very fortunate to not run into any major stumbling blocks.

When we initially arrived in Kathmandu back in October, we were still considering whether or not to build the first school in Phuleli out of earthbags. First, we thought that building the school in stone would give us an extra couple of months to get our heads around the material availability, pricing, and general logistics of earthbag construction in these remote and unfamiliar locations. But after a couple of sleepless nights and long discussions, we decided that if the village was accepting of the earthbag method we would move forward. It didn’t make any sense to travel halfway around the world to get cold feet.

At our first visit with the village School Development Committee back in October, I came in well prepared with photographs, diagrams, technical data on earthquake resistance, and 3D models, ready to give a persuasive speech to villagers steeped in tradition about why we should build their school out of bags filled with dirt, rather than with traditional stone construction. Turns out none of my documents were necessary. After a 10 minute conversation between the Committee, most of which was in Nepali, it was decided. Earthbag was in. Most of the villagers did seem pretty amused, though, that these bags they use for concrete and rice and that litter the hiking trails around their community could be used for such a purpose.

This is what the site looked like four days after my arrival in the village.

After finalizing the design over a couple of weeks in Kathmandu, we headed back to Phuleli to kick off construction. The plan was to arrive on the project site early on a Monday morning and start staking out the building foot print that afternoon. After a two day hike in, we cleared the last ridge and the bird’s eye view of the village came into sight. My heart sank a little. Only 25 percent of the site had been cleared thus far, and what looked to be piles of dirt in the distance were actually four very large veins of solid rock that had been unearthed and were slowly being chipped away by hammer and chisel. Ram, the project lead from The Small World, simply looked at me, shrugged, and said, “Ke garne?” This roughly translates to mean, “What can you do?”

Ram, who has played a major role in the success of the project to date, has a very calm disposition and the ability to defuse almost any situation with a single comment. Where I was stressing out about the gravel pieces being too large, he always maintained the “can-do” Nepali confidence and smile. We spent most of the project joined at the hip and became fast friends. We balance each other out well.

One week of back-breaking work later, we had cleared the majority of the site and the volunteers had arrived. With 14 western volunteers and an equal number of Nepali workers we made quick work and were on to building the foundation and filling our first earthbags sooner than expected. It was a great example of how logical earthbag construction is. When you level a site, you are left with large piles of stone and dirt. The stone is used for the building foundation, the dirt for the walls. The materials are right there and no effort is wasted. It makes so much sense.

2 Spools of barbed wire equals 175 lbs. Portered 15 miles through the mountains. Our strongest volunteer collapsed after two steps in an attempt to carry this. Photo by Rachael Weaver

After a couple of days of hauling and stacking the 18″x30″ bags full of gravel and filtered dirt the volunteers were getting a little tired. I am not sure how much the individual bags weighed, but they were very heavy and we needed to haul and stack over 2000 of them. This is where the legendary strength of the Nepalese people did not disappoint. While the volunteers devised a stretcher that allowed two people to carry an individual bag from dirt pile to the school, barefoot Nepali teenagers, girls and boys, walked right beside them with a full bag on their shoulders. It was amazing.

In no time we had completed the walls and poured the concrete ring beam. Cold weather was slowing the curing of the ring beam so we opted to start the plastering before we started the roof. A risky decision because any rain would wash away plaster that had not had time to set.

On the first day of plastering it was a balmy 42 degree morning, which is not a good start for plastering. As we prepared the first batch of plaster for the scratch coat (first coat to fill the holes between the bags), I was assuring Ram and the workers that the plaster would have no problem sticking to the smooth surface of the polypropylene bags. Ram grabbed a pan, filled it with plaster, and, with a trowel in hand, walked over to the glossy white wall. With one flick of his wrist we knew we had a problem. The plaster flew off the trowel, hit the wall and bounced right off. Time and time again plaster flew through the air and ended with a thud on the ground.

Ram's millet porridge experiment

We tried a wetter mixture, a different ratio of sand to cement, hand applying the plaster, but nothing worked. We considered all the potential culprits. The bags did seem slicker than bags I had used before in Texas. The temperature was definitely a little cold and that could be the problem. There were countless possibilities. An hour after dark we decided to call it a night and sleep on it. After a restless night I decided to head to the project site early to test out a couple new ideas. I arrived at 7:00 a.m. to find Ram painting a small portion of the bags with a brown paste. Apparently, he could not sleep either. He explained that late last night he had an epiphany to paste millet porridge, his standard morning breakfast, on the bags to give them some texture. Nepali ingenuity. It was a brilliant solution, and at that moment I knew there was no problem that could arise that we would not be able to solve. By the end of the day we had a 40-foot section of wall plastered and it was holding strong – no millet porridge necessary.

One week later the walls were plastered, the roof was up and I was back in Kathmandu. Within a couple of days the school will be 99% complete. The students plan to move in at the beginning of February, and we will now start the transition to the next project site in Basa.

Throughout this process, much has been learned and much confidence has been gained. We are no longer asking can/should we build with earthbag, but now asking what is a more efficient way to build with earthbag.

Before signing off I wanted to give a big thank you to the Boston and Austin chapters of Architecture for Humanity for all of their help researching, fundraising, building mock-ups and aiding in the design process for the Phuleli school.

That is it for now.  Below is a slide show of some images from the project site.

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One thought on “Phuleli School Nears Completion

  1. Travis,
    That is a beautiful building! And it went up so quickly. I’m envious of your experience in Nepal. Thank you for the photos and video.
    We experimented with a thin coating on the bags for the shed in Austin, to help the plaster adhere, and it worked very well, just like millet porridge.
    I’m looking forward to more of your blogging.
    Mark Zell

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