24 Jun 2017
7 min read
The year 2015 will be clearly imprinted in the minds of all Nepalis--due to the many adversities that befell the country. The tragedies that the April 2015 earthquakes caused cannot be overstated. And just when the citizens were recovering from the first blow, a second one, dealt by the unofficial blockade imposed on Nepal, wrecked things all over again. As a result of the blockade, supermarket shelves, predominantly filled by goods manufactured in India, lay bare and most kirana shops ran out of supplies. The average number of fuel trucks entering Nepal from India dwindled down from 300 a day to 9-10 a day. Everyday life was difficult, to say the least.
But while the majority of Nepali citizens struggled to keep their households running, in Budhanilkantha, Hemendra Bohra made it through the earthquakes and the blockade unscathed. He had no problems procuring food, commuting (in his electric car) or running his household. That was because Bohra had already created for himself a self-sustaining ecosystem to situate his house in. The ecosystem's infrastructure seamlessly works to make the entire setup eco-friendly, comfortable to inhabit and capable of functioning largely off-the-grid—without Bohra's having to depend primarily on fossil fuels.
Bohra's house, which he has christened 'Matoghar', sits on a 4.5-ropani estate on the foothills of Shivapuri. A committed environmentalist, Bohra wanted to construct a house that wouldn't pollute the environment during its construction and after. Before he started his project, Bohra first conducted thorough research on sustainable building techniques. In the course of research and consultation, he stumbled upon rammed-earth building techniques, a construction method that has been traditionally employed in places such as Mustang. Bohra was the first builder in Nepal to use a modernised version of rammed-earth building techniques. In December 2010, Bohra started constructing his rammed-earth home—the centrepiece of his sustainable, exceedingly eco-friendly ecosystem that he inhabits today.
Modern rammed-earth housing
Rammed earth is a construction method for building houses and walls using raw materials such as chalk, earth, lime, among others. It involves the use of compressed soil and clay, instead of bricks baked in a kiln. "The composition of soil and clay is tamped down to construct the walls, section by section," says Bohra. Several options are available for adding the roof, but Bohra decided to use—for the first time in Nepal—treated bamboo to construct the rafters and the ceiling. Bamboo can be grown quickly and procured easily and is more eco-friendly as opposed to steel, or wooden rafters, which involves cutting down forests.
Using rammed earth to build provides much benefits. One benefit is that the walls have high thermal mass. "This means that it takes longer than usual for heat (or cold) to penetrate through the thick and dense walls used in rammed-earth buildings," says Bohra. "Therefore, during summer, the house remains cool, as heat from the outside cannot easily penetrate through the walls. Similarly, during winter, the house remains warm, as it takes a lot of time for the cold outside to enter the building." In addition, rammed-earth walls are fire-proof, pest-proof, non-toxic, need little to no maintenance, and are environmentally- as well as health-friendly.
But that's not all that contributes to regulating temperatures inside the house. Bohra's house is built according to what is called a passive design—a design philosophy that takes advantage of the climate to regulate the temperature in a home without an owner's having to purchase auxiliary equipment for heating or cooling. "The design takes into consideration the variations in the sun's path during summer and winter, in addition to the direction of winds," says Bohra. He has implemented this philosophy in a number of ways, the first one being the use of carefully positioned overhanging roofs that obstruct direct sunlight from hitting the walls from the south side. These roofs, apart from protecting the mud walls of his house from rain, serve important purposes in both summer and winter. Due to the angle at which the sun's rays fall, the overhanging roof has been adjusted accordingly to completely block sunlight during summer. During winter, however, the trajectory at which sunlight travels is just right for it to enter the building via the glass panels, which are double glazed. Double-glazed windows help retain heat and keep the house comfortably warm. These windows can significantly reduce energy bills and also create an environment that is healthier to live in, compared to when a living area is constantly exposed to artificially conditioned air. Moreover, Bohra has designed his floor plan to have his most frequently used rooms face south—to get the maximum sunlight. All the other rooms—the bathroom, the laundry room, the pantry—are to the north. "Thanks to passive design, there's hardly any difference in ambient temperature during summer and winter," says Bohra.
Matoghar also makes use of a water-harvesting system. "The groundwater situation in Budhanilkantha, at least around my house, is excellent. You don't have to dig very deep to hit a spring," says Bohra. The roof of his house (which also serve as insulators) features catchment areas that collect rainwater—all of which is deposited into a 30,000-litre tank. "We flush away the first few litres of rainwater so that all the dirt and impurities on the roof do not enter the tank," says Bohra. "We depend a lot for our household needs on the rainwater collected. And when this tank is full, we use the excess rainwater to recharge groundwater."
Apart from this, the Bohra household also makes use of waste-water recycling. "All the water from the showers and the sinks are considered gray water, and are stored separately so that they can be used to water the plants or wash cars," he says. "The water from the bathrooms are all directed to a septic tank, where it is treated and subsequently reused."
Another benefit of using rammed-earth is the way it looks. "The design may not appeal to everyone, but rammed-earth houses have a certain earthy—let's say, Nepali—aesthetic that concrete houses cannot replicate," says Bohra. "For example, the walls have a layered look, resulting from the tamping down of the earth during construction; the effect you get is similar to the layers you see in sedimentary rocks." The interiors of his house, which are mostly furnished with wicker furniture, complement the earthy feel of the walls, which Bohra has left unpainted.
"I did want a pool in my house, but I didnít want it to be of the conventional kind," says Bohra. Which is why inside his compound sits a replica of an actual pond, known as a constructed wetland. The artificial pond makes use of reed beds to form a mini water-purifier system of sorts within the pond. The pond is lined with gravel, on which the reed beds grow. The dirt in the pond—dust from the air, or dirt as a result of swimming in it—is cleaned by the micro-organisms thriving on the roots of the reed bed. These organisms make use of the aforementioned impurities to obtain nutrients, leaving behind clean water fit to swim in.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Bohra uses solar panels to generate electricity. "We use solar panels that generate 2.8 kilowatts of electricity per second," says Bohra. "All of this energy is stored in inverters, and is then channelled to our appliances." Bohra's panels are even used to power induction cookers. In his house, a single gas cylinder (which functions almost as backup) lasts for about four to five months. Almost 90 per cent of his total electricity need comes from solar power, and he can very well go completely off the grid if he wishes to.
In his compound, Bohra has a sizable amount of land besides the area occupied by his house and pond. He has made use of the area around his house to grow a food forest of sorts. "Kathmandu is really blessed, as far as the soil is concerned," says Bohra. "We grow most of the usual seasonal fruits and vegetables, and a few rarities, too." Currently, the Bohra household grows potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes, lychees, apples, oranges, pomegranates, grapes, kiwis, passion fruits, pecan nuts, guavas, papaya, amla, lapsi, olives, curry leaves, mint, lemons, bananas, corn, among many others. "There's a certain type of contentment that you feel when you pluck a fruit grown in your own farm and bite into it," says Bohra, who together with other family members, takes care of the forest. The fertiliser that Bohra uses is organic too—he has domesticated rabbits, whose solid waste and urine he uses to fertilise his plants. He is strictly against using chemical on his plants. In addition to all this, Bohra also practises companion planting—which makes use of various plants for pest control and pollination. For example, Bohra has planted tomatoes and has surrounded them with marigolds—one of the most well-known plants for repelling pests.
While visitors to his house are almost always impressed by the range of features that Matoghar boasts, Bohra, who also runs a rammed-earth construction company (also named Matoghar) feels that his house is not a very good example of how rammed-earth housing can be adopted on a wide scale. "If I'm not careful, my house definitely suggests that you need huge areas of land and that rammed-earth houses cannot accommodate more than one storey," says Bohra. "I want more Nepalis to see the value of living in a rammed-earth house and to understand that it is possible to opt for sustainable and ethical building practices."