For a safer solution to building homes, the ancient rammed earth technology in the modern form is making great inroads.
--BY Nikeeta Gautam
Co-founder of Rammed Earth Solution
Constructing eco-friendly structures has become a popular global trend in recent years as the fast degrading environment of the earth has forced people to change the way they live. Many people now-a-days view that building eco-friendly houses optimally utilising the available local resources can be a possible solution in terms of protecting the environment.
As Nepal is also not left unscathed by the effects of the climate change, the arguments to construct eco-friendly houses have gained momentum lately. A Nepali startup company has come up with a brilliant idea aiming to leave a positive footprint in this regard. Rammed Earth Solution, a startup based in Godavari, Lalitpur is working to build a healthy and environmental friendly future by using an ancient solution.
A house constructed utilising raw materials from the earth by natural methods (without using any machine) would sound unique to many who have been living in a concrete forest like Kathmandu. Narayan Acharya, Co-founder of Rammed Earth Solution felt the importance of building natural homes to contribute to a healthy environment many years ago when he started learning about sustainable building through research and work. “Technology has a very big place in the world and living without it is unimaginable. But there is something common people rarely think of which is the effects of polluted air in the environment,” he says.
According to him, the raw materials required for constructing modern concrete buildings are among the factors contributing to the air pollution. He claims that cement industries add to the greenhouse effect while they also destroy the most fertile layer of earth which is the top soil. And, brick factories release huge quantities of toxic elements that are hazardous to health. “We have lived in mud houses for hundreds of years and many people in rural areas are still residing in the same types of structures. Living in such houses is a quite healthy way of living,” opines Acharya. The startup is adopting the same house building techniques with slightly different raw materials to suit the modern needs.
With 60 percent local sand-mixed soil, 20 percent clay, 15 percent construction aggregates and five percent cement, Rammed Earth Solution constructs sustainable houses without using any machines. The construction process requires a small amount of cement to make the work efficient for the workers. “While constructing, we fit the formwork which is made from temporary and permanent molds to pour in the construction materials, and do the ramming with hands,” he informs. The foundations of such houses are made from stone which makes a strong base to construct the structure. The construction process does not involve the use of energy or fuel except during the transportation of a few raw materials that need to be brought from outside the local areas. The walls of such structures are 18 inches thick ensuring a good level of strength in the houses. According to Acharya, living in these types of houses saves energy as the residents don’t have to use heaters in the winter and fans in the summer. The building has a passive solar design in which the window, walls and floors are designed in a way to collect and store heat in the winter and are cool in the summer.
Acharya, originally from Jumla,has been observant since his childhood, he says. Despite being raised in one of the remotest areas of the country, prudent and visionary Acharya came to the capital, struggled and worked in many places to get established. He has also worked on projects for the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and United Nations in the area of beekeeping. He went to the United Kingdom in 2001 and took a short course on sustainable building and worked there in the same area. Till 2006, he worked outside Nepal.
He and his wife were looking for sustainable options to build a house and found the rammed earth technique as most beneficial and started constructing a house in Godavari in 2011. “When we started staying in the house after one and half years, we found the structure to be more comfortable than expected,” he expresses. He shares that many people have visited his house in order to know about the building technology. Acharya gradually started promoting the sustainable concept of housing. Starting from a goat farm in Chitlang, Makwanpur, the startup created eco-friendly structures for a hospital in Acham, a trauma centre in Ashapuri, Bhaktapur, public buildings in Kavre and Sindhupalchowk and also residential houses in Bhaisepati, Lalitpur. The venture has also constructed the building of the British School in Kathmandu. The company started its work from 2013 and was officially registered in March, 2015.
Acharya states that 60 percent of the concrete houses in Nepal are not safe from earthquakes.“We constructed five buildings before the earthquake and all structures remained safe without developing any cracks during the disaster. More people were attracted towards the rammed earth structure. The earthquake was a test for us. So after the disaster, we became more aware and started placing double rods instead of single rods as beams while constructing the buildings,” he notes. The company examines the soil of each place multiple times and does not construct more than two storey houses in any area. Acharya mentions that the construction process faces stoppages during the monsoon season.“Mostly, we hand over buildings within one year to our clients,” he shares.
Acharya points out to the improper implementation of existing policies in any sector as the most discouraging factor in terms of entrepreneurship in Nepal. “We need to design the structures carefully in earthquake prone areas. However, poor implementation of the Building Code makes the situation complicated,” he remarks.
Another challenge, according to Acharya, is the lack of awareness about building earthquake resistant homes among the general public. Acharya does not miss an opportunity to inform people on the benefits of the rammed earth technique in housing. He says that there are only a few people at present who are endorsing the sustainable and eco-friendly method of housing. “Due to this drawback, our words are not that effective in terms of creating an impact. However, as we go on with our work, more people will understand it and adopt this method gradually to construct safer and environment-friendly habitats,” he says.
The Management Part
Started with an initial investment of Rs 2 million, Rammed Earth Solution has now come to a break-even stage. “The cost of building a rammed earth structure is economical than a concrete house. However, as we are not able to reach the masses now, our cost is close to a concrete house. With more people getting interested in constructing their houses using our technique in the upcoming days, we can store the raw materials which will help reduce construction costs,” he says hopefully. It costs Rs 3,200 to Rs 3,500 per square feet to construct a rammed earth building. “The cost also depends on the location because if the soil is worthy in the area, the transportation costs will be less,” he informs.
According to Acharya, so far the feedback of every client has been positive. “This definitely gives hope and confidence to our company that the business will become sustainable in the future as well,” he views. Acharya has a special relation with every client and nowhere has he behaved with them like a contractor. “We regularly do meetings with the clients during the construction process so as to avoid misunderstanding in the work,” he says. The company also modifies the designs of the houses according to the needs of the clients.
The company has good team synergy which includes three co-founders from two different backgrounds. Acharya has an environmental work background while his two partners have engineering backgrounds. The startup has given jobs to around 50 people among which 70 percent are from Acharya’s hometown Jumla. When the team goes to remote areas, they also educate the villagers about the methods of rammed earth technology.
While the company was established, the team had no idea about any effective business model and management practice. It was only after when they went for a 100 days accelerator programme to learn about the essentials to run a successful company and they have been systematically applying it at present.
Five Years On
The company has a goal to construct at least five rammed earth houses every year.“In addition, being a startup with social and environmental impacts, we also want to design a green village with rammed earth buildings and this place will be known as an eco-friendly community,” he shares. For re-creation purposes, the venture also wants to construct cottages at rural areas targeting both international and domestic tourists.