A Lesson in Earth and Community Building

Since November 2016, Conscious Impact has been working to build a permanent office space for the Nawalpur Women's Microfinance Cooperative. For over 5 years, the 730+ women members have been assisting each-other in economic empowerment and self-sufficiency for over 5 years... all out of an office the size of a small closet. After purchasing land and hearing of our rebuilding efforts in Takure, members of the Cooperative reached out to us for assistance in building a larger, sustainable, affordable and earthquake-resistant space with which to continue their operations.

 The sixth annual Women's Microfinance Cooperative gathering.

The sixth annual Women's Microfinance Cooperative gathering.

In response, Conscious Impact's resident architects (Satwika, Fred and Oliver) have teamed up with Nitzan and Maya of Back to Earth Community to design a functional space using an earth-building technique known as “Rammed Earth.” Volunteers, Nepali women and Nepali brick-masons alike have spent the last month working together to move rocks and dig the foundation for the project. It's been a truly inspiring experience, and by April 2017 we aim to provide Nawalpur with its very own completed rammed earth Women's Microfinance Co-Op Office building. 

 Conscious Impact resident architect, Satwika, explains the design for the project to volunteers

Conscious Impact resident architect, Satwika, explains the design for the project to volunteers


Why Rammed Earth?

Rammed earth is an ancient earth-building technique that requires a specific mixture of compacted sand, gravel, and soil to make full rock-wall panels. This technique essentially mimics how nature makes rock by compacting sediment in place. The whole process personally reminds me of making a bread recipe from scratch with local ingredients for a large group of people. You first use small molds to test differently proportioned “recipes” made with your locally available earth ingredients to see which one holds its shape best. The nature of our soil here is preferred for rammed earth because it is more sandy and gravely than clayey. Rammed earth is highly dependent on gravel for stability and durability. By the end of preparation for this project, Nitzan said he tested over 20 different mixtures to find the right one.

 Allen and Maxime ram the walls inside the formwork for a test section.

Allen and Maxime ram the walls inside the formwork for a test section.

Once perfected, you multiply your recipe proportions to a large enough scale that you can mix it in large batches on-site. These batches are then poured layer by layer into a wall formwork usually made with wooden panels. To construct the walls, people stand inside the formwork and use ramming tools (somewhere between a long-handled ice scraper and a garden-hoe) to compact the mixture layer by layer until it is finally full and stable. The result is a rammed earth rock wall. If you fit together enough of these wall sections on top of a stone foundation and put your desired roof on top (in our case, concrete) you eventually have a durable, affordable, earthquake-resistant, sustainable rammed-earth building. It is for these reasons that this method perfectly complemented our vision for the Co-Op, and why we chose to use it.


Day 1 and Beyond: A Rock-Solid Project

After weeks of meeting with the women in the Co-op and finally getting the proper permits from the Nepali government, on Nov 19th we were able to hike to Nawalpur and begin construction. A team of six of us hiked the 30 minutes to town to start manually leveling out a terrace for the supply-truck we ordered carrying bamboo, stones, gabion (rock retaining wall) cages and sheet metal. After 40 minutes of shoveling, we managed to finish constructing the resultant soil-ramp with 5 minutes to spare.

 CI volunteer John moving rocks between terraces for the foundation.

CI volunteer John moving rocks between terraces for the foundation.

The rest of the day was spent constructing the foundation of a temporary bamboo/sheet-metal supply shed that will remain there to house our tools until the project's completion. We unloaded the trucks, measured out our bamboo poles, cleared out a 3x2 square meter rectangle of vegetation, and dug four 60-cm deep holes for the frame. After being in the sun all day and eating heavy chowmein for lunch, I ended up falling asleep on the ground for 20 minutes before returning to work. Nevertheless, we finished the foundation prep work for the shed to go up the next day.

 CI Volunteer Joshua helps Maya and Nitzan (behind) move rocks for the gabions.

CI Volunteer Joshua helps Maya and Nitzan (behind) move rocks for the gabions.

 BEFORE - Setting the stage to build gabions for the retaining wall.

BEFORE - Setting the stage to build gabions for the retaining wall.

 AFTER- The retaining wall is completed! 

AFTER- The retaining wall is completed! 

 Nitzan, putting the finishing touches on the retaining wall.

Nitzan, putting the finishing touches on the retaining wall.

It is now Day #22. In 3 weeks, we have built a septic tank in addition to a beautiful retaining wall supporting the Co-Op structure. In two days, we will also be ready to pour the cement for the foundation before building the walls in January. I have been back at the project on multiple mornings to clear out, level, dig and transport rocks for the Co-op foundation, and the experience has been nothing short of inspiring. It has been exciting and empowering to work alongside so many people from different parts of the world to bring this project into fruition.

 Day 2: Clearing the land.

Day 2: Clearing the land.

 Day 16: Foundation in progress!

Day 16: Foundation in progress!

More than 40 volunteers, Nepali women and masons came out for our Saturday Tea Party to kick off the digging for the foundation. On any given day, anywhere from 10-15 people from all different backgrounds are working on site doing manual labor side by side to complete this project. It has been a true example of sustainable collaboration with a meaningful cause, and I cannot express enough how important it is that a project like this exists. Ultimately, we hope it will serve as a living example of the potential for sustainable earth-building technology in an area that sorely needs it.

 Saturday digging party to get ready for constructing the foundation. 

Saturday digging party to get ready for constructing the foundation. 

 

Get Involved!

 Hammers with handles made for us by the local carpenter next door.

Hammers with handles made for us by the local carpenter next door.

 View from the site of the Women's Microfinance Co-op

View from the site of the Women's Microfinance Co-op

Stay tuned for more updates! "Like" us at Back to Earth Facebook Page and Conscious Impact Facebook Page.

Social Media Hashtags: #rammedearthnepal #dunga #steppedstonefoundation #cometonepal @consciousimpact @backtoearthcommunity

Want some more visuals of the project? Here's a short video of the last 3 weeks of work!

As always, Namaste!


Anne Goodman is a long-term volunteer with us at Conscious Impact. If you would like to read more of her personal writing, you can follow her blog at https://thecycledthymes.wordpress.com/