School in the sky!

Project: Shree Janasewa Primary School, Nepal

Architects: Sustainable Mountain Architecture, Nepal

Text by: Prof. Anne Feenstra with inputs from Sapana Shakya, Rabita Shakya, Aman Raj Khatakho and Ashwini Kumar

Post-earthquake Nepal sees an innovatively designed school, carefully crafted in its context…
Post-earthquake Makaldamar: Situated at 620m altitude in Makaldamar, Makwanpur district, sitting on a tiny triangular piece of land, the primary school had collapsed beyond repair in the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquakes. Most of the family houses in nearby villages, like Silinge, got ruined. The reason was simple; the semi-nomadic Chepang community in Silinge, had only settled down half a century ago. They had not yet developed vast experience in vernacular construction techniques like the Newar, Gurung or Tamang communities.

The design team had surveyed the site of the collapsed two classroom building. The new school would need four classrooms and better facilities for the teachers. The architects were keen to design a school which would promote playfulness and stimulate learning, but the land was diminutive. With this larger programme and a tight budget, one of the major concerns was with two sides of the land sloping steep down and the third side sloping up; where on earth could the children run and play?

The Purple Classroom: The stepped courtyard in the centre of the school is shaped by three building blocks with a natural parasol of Jacaranda tree. In order to reduce the heat gain during the warmest months, the four trapezium- shaped classrooms are placed in pairs on the north-west and the north-east. In addition, the large Chiuri, Sal and Cotton trees help shield the school from the hot summer sun. The 350mm thick walls made out of hammer-dressed local broken river stone, work efficiently as natural thermal mass and keep the buildings cool in the summer. In the winter these thick walls keep warmth inside the classroom.

Careful examination of the plan shows two back-to-back trapezia forming a bowtie shape. This shape responds to the functional need for more entry/exit space for the children towards the courtyard. Inside, the asymmetric classroom plan with curved corners of the hammer- dressed river stone walls and the protruding concrete beams result in better acoustics. The window and door frames are from local Sal wood, treated with linseed oil only. The greyish river stone contrasts with the four unique colours used for each classroom. During a site visit with the school already open, project architect noticed the names of the classrooms have become; Pink, Green, Blue and Yellow. And probably, a future ‘Purple’ classroom under the shade of the growing Jacaranda in the stepped courtyard.

The Upper Level: Bouncy steps of several different heights were designed and a slide was included. These playing steps can be used for seating during a group congregation or theatre performance. A 1:10 sand-scale model of these steps was made on-site to assist the builder in setting out work for construction. Once at the level of the roof, children can actually run around via bridges and play on the rooftops of their own school. The light metal bridges are almost floating in the sky, while the heavy building blocks have a sturdiness of their own. The flat roof surfaces are ideal for badminton or hopscotch. Additionally, the upper level offers possibilities for roof gardening; children can get their hands dirty and enjoy their own produce of organic greens.

Everything is Moving: The architecture invites natural cross ventilation to come in. Rounded corners guide the breeze through the courtyard and into the classrooms. Movement of the children around the playfully placed ten circular columns and the free flow of fresh air were the two starting points for the design. As play is an integral part of learning and growing up, the architecture had to be child-friendly. The school turned out to be comfortable throughout the year and the playful roof circuit is used by the children every day.

Client: LiScha Himalaya e.V. + Unity for Sustainable Development

Design team: Prof. Anne Feenstra, Bikash Palikhey, Sapana Shakya, Aman Raj Khatakho, Heena Gyawali Supervision team: Sapana Shakya, Aman Raj Khatakho, Laxman Khanal (Engineering)

Consultants: Salin Shrestha (Structural)

Building contractor: Diwakar Pudasainee

Total gross area: 232sq m

Budget: Rs 68.5 lakh

Year of completion: 2019