Bishnu Panthee, Managing Director of Cage Consult Pvt Ltd, is one of Nepal’s senior professional architects, designing and building residential as well as commercial buildings for the past 16 years. United World Trade Centre (UWTC), Trade Tower, Aswin Medical College, Manmohan Medical College, Kantipur Dental College, Hotel Kashai (Lumbini), Landmark Forest Resort (Sauraha), Metro Park (Kathmandu), National Life Insurance Company Building (Lazimpat) are some of the famous commercial buildings and structures he has designed and built. A former Vice-president of the Society of Nepalese Architects (SONA), Panthee recently spoke to Akhilesh Tripathi of New Business Age, about the damage caused by the earthquake even to newly constructed buildings, suitability of high-rise apartment blocks in the capital Kathmandu and other issues pertaining to the post-disaster reconstruction. Excerpts:
The earthquake destroyed thousands of houses. The almost total damage to old buildings is understandable. But what went wrong with the new houses that were built just a few years ago?
There could be many. The quality of the raw material used, design of the building and its location matter a lot. However, another important factor is the land-use mapping system. Had this system been introduced and used in Nepal, it would have been easier to design structures, with respect to their size, to a particular area. Furthermore, we would’ve also been aware of the type and quality of soil, ultimately making it easier to estimate the weight bearing capacity of the particular soil. The lack of such a system led to unplanned urbanization which triggered the collapse of many buildings.
Was the damage in Kathmandu less than expected?
Yes, indeed. Everyone thought that a disaster of this scale would destroy the whole of Kathmandu. But thankfully, our engineers constructed stronger and sturdier buildings. Because of their expertise, many buildings are sustainable structurally and are able to stay upright even after such powerful shocks and several aftershocks.
Some experts who visited Nepal after the earthquake claimed that even the modern houses and buildings in Nepal are built as per the Indian Building Code which is not a very modern code. Is it true?
No! That is not true. The Indian Building Code is a modern code. Buildings collapsed or were damaged because of other reasons which I mentioned earlier - the soil bearing capacity, design of the building, quality of the material used and the location of the building.
People are sceptical as to whether the real estate sector in high rises will recover. Many believe that tall buildings should be banned especially in Kathmandu. Is there any way in which this sector can regain trust and recover from the current crisis?
As an architect, I completely against the idea of banning the construction of high-rise buildings in Kathmandu. One of the major features of urbanization is high-rises. The problem lies in our cultural attitude. We do not have a high-rise culture. The earthquake struck when we were just beginning to accept them (tower blocks). But by studying the soil quality carefully and using new technology and designs, safe tall buildings can be built. The rapid population growth has made people realize that high-rise buildings are a basic fact of life in a modern city. Land prices are spiraling up every day, thus it is more cost effective to expand vertically than horizontally. If we go upwards, we can create more space. In addition, the apartments built in Kathmandu have never been called structurally weak by any foreign or national housing code.
Some experts say that Katmandu’s soil is unique in that it liquefies when heated. Is this the reason behind the extent of devastation caused by the two major quakes?
We all know that Kathmandu was a lake many years ago. This is why we can still find large quantities of soft soil under its surface. But, the rumors about the soil being liquefied are not true. Had it been true, underground water would have seeped out. But again, if that was true then, why was the government silent when so many buildings were constructed? Unfortunately, we have only been able to determine the underground soil quality up to a depth of 50 metres. But the reason cannot be limited to depth of soil. The mechanism that we use when constructing in order to increase the weight bearing capacity of any building must also be looked at. Not only loose soil, but obviously, the weight bearing capacity of the soil should be determined prior to construction. In other words, the structure should match the weight bearing capacity of the soil.
Thousands of people are either going to rebuild or fix their homes. Do you have any tips or suggestions for them?
What I suggest is that before any reconstruction work is carried out, people should get their homes assessed by experts first. They should also not rush into it since it is a matter of life and death. Later, workshops could be held as well, to teach other people about the right approach.
Most people, while constructing their houses ignore the role of engineers, more specifically architects. An architect’s help is sought to prepare the blue print of the structure. Then contractors, who are not engineers, are hired to execute the construction process. Don’t you think engineers should be involved in the building phase as well?
Yes, I agree. People approach engineers just to make sure that the government formalities are met. Once the blue print is ready, engineers are ignored. But that’s not the right way. I personally think that from now on, people will approach engineers themselves to make sure that the latter, too, actively participate in the building process.
What about the buildings and structures that you designed? Are they safe?
I won’t say that all of my buildings are safe. Some of them have been damaged by the recent earthquakes. But all of them are repairable. Right now we are carrying out repairs and making the necessary changes where ever they are needed.
We know Nepal lies in an earthquake prone area. So we must be prepared for future shocks as well. Are there any alternatives to building with brick and concrete?
Using local resources is very effective not only in terms of safety but also from a tourism perspective. Locally available material can easily be used for residential purposes. But for high-rise buildings, using light structures is the best option. The only problem is that light materials are quite expensive. Since our country is not industrialized, we need to import the expensive material. But if the policy is strong and supportive enough, then it can be the best option.