Can the Nepal Earthquake Become a Reason to Discard the Vernacular of its Settlements?

by May 25, 2015Smart Cities

Swati Pujari

Swati Pujari is an architect and urban manger from Nepal and an alumna of Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is also a writer/blogger. For more of her works please visit,

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Ruins of the Dharahara tower in Kathmandu [Credit: Salokya]

Ruins of the Dharahara tower in Kathmandu [Credit: Salokya]

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit parts of Nepal on 25th April 2015, and the series of aftershocks that followed, has claimed more than 8,000 lives and injured more than 20,000. Besides the overwhelming human loss, numerous settlements have been affected. In the capital and its surrounding towns many residences, old palaces, temples and other structures either collapsed or are severely damaged. Some remote settlements suffered worse fate with entire villages crumbled and roads blocked by landslides. According to the National Emergency Operation Centre, the total number of private houses completely damaged is 488,789 and 267,477 are partially damaged.

After the first few weeks of fear for life, amplified by a massive aftershock more than two weeks after the first quake, people slowly moved back home. Yet, those who lost their houses continue to live in tents and even the ones who returned are scared. Professional organizations deployed groups of engineers and architects, with a basic training, for Rapid Visual Assessment of buildings in several districts. Yet, the fear lurks on.

Ruined houses in Katle-Danda, a village in Dhading in the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley

Ruined houses in Katle-Danda, a village in Dhading in the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley

Walking the streets of core Kathmandu makes one strongly feel the vernacular heritage of the place. Compact settlements with shops, from adjacent row houses, flowing into narrow streets; this is the quintessential form of the old settlements in Kathmandu valley. However, this image has been gradually changing, over several decades. Urban sprawl has slowly turned the once dense and compact settlement into a usurper of adjoining farmlands; red exposed brick, giving way to concrete, metal and glass. Beyond Kathmandu valley, settlements were based on local self-built stone, brick, timber, and/or mud structures. This too was undergoing gradual change along roadways, where modern materials, mostly cement, could be transported. The common pre-earthquake sight was an interspersion of cemented buildings with stone or brick structures in easily accessible areas, but mainly traditional houses elsewhere. This form, in many places, is now damaged.

Current discussion is shifting from what has been lost to what can/ will/ should be rebuilt, and how. These are very crucial questions. The basic (and immediate) need for shelter surpasses other factors, especially with the monsoons approaching. Monsoons are an extremely important part of livelihoods, especially for farmers. Therefore, acceptable shelter before the rains is a necessity. Ergo, a policy for temporary shelter until the monsoons and permanent shelter thereafter has been implemented. But this need should certainly not be addressed with a short term vision.

The question of how Nepal will rebuild is being met with some particularly alarming choices. In the quest to rebuild post disaster, quick reconstruction, can easily be considered efficient reconstruction. Within this discussion ideas of ‘prefabricated houses’ and ‘modular construction’, are circulating in the media and social media. A subsidized loan, at 2% interest, has been announced; its details are under discussion. The idea of prefabrication seems to be gaining momentum as it is viewed as quick and affordable. However, its sustainability is questionable, especially, since prefabricated houses are not produced in Nepal, although some suppliers can be found.

Several factors need to be considered for sustainable rebuilding. Primarily rebuilding should enable people to build safely, not just this once, but in the future as well. A model based on prefabrication focuses on supplying houses rather than empowering locals. Elizabeth Hausler’s analysis of post-earthquake rebuilding, in different contexts, indicates that empowering home-owners, local builders, local government, construction workers etc. is a more cost-effective and lasting solution than supplying ready to move-in houses.

Prefabrication also shifts the identity of a house from a place to a product. A study on success and failure of prefabrication by Correia, Murtinho and Simões da Silva shows that prefabricated housing units, like automobiles, are advertised and sold from catalogues. Several catalogue pictures are already circulating in the cities of Nepal; their photographs wash the walls of social media referring to them as affordable post-earthquake solutions. Correia et. al. identify a lack of understanding for future maintenance (building lifecycle); and top-down design approach as two of the several factors that contribute to the failure of prefabrication. These factors are important to understand, especially for an imported solution that does not share the local know-how.

Image of prefabricated houses currently circling social media [Sources: Varied]

Image of prefabricated houses currently circling social media [Sources: Varied]

Non-native technology and labour was used in Iran after the earthquakes of 1990 in Manjil and 2003 in Bam. Zh. Pooyan explains that the process proved to be more expensive, plus discarding local knowledge meant local construction workers could not be employed. In Bam, owing to the difficult working conditions of the location, non-native workers found it challenging to adapt in those places. Remote regions of Nepal too have difficult climatic and living conditions, which can cause complications to non-natives. It would require additional incentive to carry out rebuilding, thus risking additional expenditure, in an already expensive process.

A shift towards importing prefabricated houses can create a major economic strain; funds for rebuilding will be used to buy products from international markets, making reconstruction vulnerable to international fluctuations in prices. Although subsidized, people will still have to pay a 2% interest, while national funds will be used for the subsidies, all of which will be invested away from the local economy. In the long run, in structures based on non-local knowledge people will not know how to maintain or make adjustments, therefore skills and knowledge needs to again be imported, creating even more financial strain in the future.

The issue becomes more disquieting when authorities or professionals refer to prefabrication, without considering the possibility of retrofitting traditional technology. In such time of fear, people can look to government bodies or professionals for advice. Therefore one should be extremely careful before advising non-local top-down solutions. However, the probability of pre-fabrication being commercially promoted as ‘safe’, ‘quick’ and ‘affordable’ cannot be neglected. These commercially promoted ideas can be false, as they do not consider the time needed to import and supply, besides as it was found in Iran, using non-native skills shifts the investment away from the affected population, making the solution more expensive.

Moreover, safety can only be ensured with responsive design and quality control. After the 1999 earthquake in Chamoli, India, production facilities of prefabricated components were introduced, but owing to low quality, the roofs leaked and cast-in-situ concrete layers were added (Hausler, 2010). Top-down architectural designs were also locally inappropriate; houses had toilets inside, while the residents preferred them outside, also the doors led to streets instead of courtyards. When such imported designs are not user-friendly, people tend to either make drastic changes or not move-in at all. In Manjil, Iran identical designs and materials were used in all houses, to the dissatisfaction of the locals who decided to add space to adapt to their lifestyle (Pooyan, 2012). Unsupervised physical changes post-construction can compromise the safety of the structure. Therefore design has to be sensitive to local lifestyle, which can only be achieved by involving local people in making decisions about the designs as well. Moreover, for people to believe the buildings are safe, it is crucial that they oversee the construction themselves and are satisfied.

Temporary shelters built by homeowners in Katle-Danda using local resources and salvaged components

Temporary shelters built by homeowners in Katle-Danda using local resources and salvaged components

Top-down, prefabrication based concepts when introduced discard the community’s collective knowledge on locally based technology, which can easily be the biggest knowledge and skill pool. A reconstruction model based on the local skills will also ensure investment in the local economy as opposed to international market. Promotion non-local, housing solutions, may appear time and money efficient at first, but not considering the long-term impact, can turn into another national disaster in the long run.

The potential loss of vernacular will, nevertheless, be more than an architectural loss. Importing a new technology, design, style etc. will turn into a socio-economic loss; the funds meant for rehabilitation purchasing non-local pre-designed products compelling people to live in structures they have no communication with. They will not be able to use their skills to maintain these structures, thus making them perpetually dependent on external input. Therefore, in order to have a sustainable long-term rehabilitation, it is important that locally conscious bottom-up approaches developed from the prevalent local knowledge and prioritize investing in local economy. However, one should also expect certain aspects of prefabrication and standardization to be used, but, such solutions should come from locally responsible processes and not from a catalogue.

This earthquake has triggered a discussion on the perceived benefits of modular and prefabricated houses; it has also highlighted the need to retrofit and develop from traditional technology and knowledge. It is crucial to understand rebuilding processes using international experiences, and ensure that this rehabilitation does not end up as a missed opportunity to empower and enable people for the future. The question of whether this earthquake will result in an obliteration of the vernacular is yet to be seen, but unfortunately, if rehabilitation focuses on supplying shelter from international markets, it is not entirely improbable!


Hausler, E., 2010. Building earthquake-resistant houses in Haiti – The homeowner-driven model. Innovations, 5 (4), pp. 91-115.

Lopes Correia, A., Murtinho, V. and Simões da Silva, L. 2013. Housing industrialization, success and failure, universal and local: Limits for housing globalization. In: P. Cruz ed., 2013. Structures and Architecture: Concepts, Applications and Challenges. London: Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 999-1006.

Pooyan, Z., ed., 2012. Earthquake recovery experiences: Some principles toward sustainability, [Proceedings of the 15th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering]. Lisbon, 2012-09-24 / 2012-09-28.

Photo Courtesy of AFP Photo/ Sajjad Hussain: Aerial view showing damaged homes in Gorkha District on May 1, 2015 


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