Abari: For the love of bamboo and mud

May 20, 2013 , by Shreya Thapa, 6 Comments
Abari: For the love of bamboo and mud » My Dreams Mag
While cement buildings take over the cityscape of Kathmandu, Abari, a small organization is working on bringing back natural materials like mud and bamboo but with a modern twist.  

“We’re working on future steel,” says 32-year-old Nripal Adhikari with a smile on his face and enthusiasm in his voice, “…and that’s bamboo.”

At first glance, the statement may not make a lot of sense but when getting into conversation, Adhikari shares many facts about bamboo: it’s one of the fastest growing plants which matures in four years, it’s a grass (not timber) so the more you cut the more it grows, it’s lighter than bird’s bone in density, and it is as strong as steel.

But Adhikari didn’t always know that he’d develop a passion for bamboo, “Once upon a time, I used to live in New York City and I was studying art at City College,” he begins his tale. “I watched this movie with Jackie Chan that had a lot of beautiful Chinese structures so I got into architecture,” he explains of his switch from art to architecture.

Even after making the shift, he knew he didn’t want to go mainstream, “I didn’t want to do mainstream architecture—I didn’t want to design skyscrapers…or toilets for skyscrapers,” he says with a laugh and so he applied for a job to build a dome in Mongolia.

The proposal was accepted but there remained one problem, “I didn’t know how to build a dome,” Adhikari admits.

Upon doing some research, Adkihari found himself joining a four-month long program in New Mexico where he learned to make adobes, “It’s like Nepali bricks—sun dried, no burning,” he explains.

What he learned in New Mexico, Adhikari applied in Mongolia and discovered what field he wanted to work it.

“We built a beautiful dome—Mongolia was perfect because they don’t have wood, and it has a tradition of using clay. Doing this project I loved working with the community, I loved the whole experience and realized this is what I want to do.”

Eventually, after working in Europe for a stint, he came back to Nepal with hopes of furthering the skills he has developed. “But Nepal is wet and earthquake prone so I had to find a new material to work with. I didn’t want to use wood or concrete so I started exploring bamboo.”

What he discovered was promising but problematic.

“Everybody loves bamboo, I went and looked around and talked to people an they all say it’s a great material and it’s so strong but it doesn’t last long—maybe only two or three years–which is why they only used it make doko, kokro, nanglo and I thought it was cool and I thought there must be some way to make it last longer.”

And so in collaboration with a friend, Ram Krishna, the two developed a method to add to the longevity of bamboo,.

“We developed this really cool machine—it’s a small tank where you apply pressure to it with some chemical. You connect it to bamboo and it pushes the chemical into the bamboo, which makes it last longer. It was really sensational!”

The technology, though set up in Kathmandu, is a portable system and so orders for the treated bamboo came in from India to Bhutan and even Ethiopia.

“You can use this bamboo for anything—construction, or even furniture,” Adhikari says.

Then, in 2006 when he was offered a construction job in Janakpur, he set about establishing the organization Adobe and Bamboo Research Institute, better known as Abari.

“The Janakpur project was like a dream project for me because they wanted to use all natural materials, and at Abari we wanted to focus on mud and bamboo construction,” Adhikari explains.

But of course, as with anything, the materials of his choosing came with challenges.

“Bamboo hasn’t been used much because the durability was an issue, and it’s a hard material to work with –not all bamboo is straight, it needs a lot of craftsmanship, precision and tools,” he says.

But where problems arise, Abari works towards resolution.

“We’re trying to develop tools to work with bamboo as well as new technologies so that bamboo can be more mainstream.”

At the heart of it, Abari started to “give an alternative to concrete and steel,” and looked to natural materials that weren’t being given their due credit.

“We have an amazing history of vernacular architecture. Not like the temples–the temples are nice but they’re over-studied and they’re given too much attention. But our vernacular architecture is amazing and no body teaches these.”

He expands on the merits that are underrated in Nepal:  “We’re the only country in South Asia where we have double storey, multiple storey mud buildings. Our stone buildings are amazing—there are stone buildings in Jumla that are earthquake resistant, it’s amazing technology. But unfortunately there is a professional bias and neglect; no body wants to continue with these.”

Slowly though, Abari has been able to create a shift.

“Before, if you said bamboo people would be surprised, but now upper middle class people are using our bamboo to build expensive houses, and I think somehow now we’ve pushed the boundaries, we’ve pushed the limits–now there’s a market for it.”

Since Abari was established in 2006, they’ve helped build over a dozen buildings and while the focus is on construction, there is much more that Abari does.

“We do a lot of consultancy and we share technology,” Adhikari says adding, “We work with another organization called International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR)—they’re a broader more global organization and we do consultancy for them.” Adhikari is currently also employed by INBAR which works with Abari on several projects.

Additional, Abari has been able to design a machine that tests the strength of bamboo, they’ve designed a water tank with bamboo, and this technology has even been exported to Ethiopia.

“It’s an amazing collaboration, we took our engineers from here and went to Ethiopia in May of this year and taught the masons there how to build the water tank.”

Abari attempts to build and promote technologies abroad as well as at home.

“What we’re trying to do is train more people to build—we don’t want to just go and build ourselves. We want to build a team of masons and carpenters who go to other places and can train and build. We’ve done that to a degree but we want to do more.”

“We want to build schools, I want to build a lot of schools using natural materials but that isn’t possible, but I know what I could do is train people who can go back to their own village and build a school.”

Right now, Abari is building a roof for a school in Gorkha and the benefits are numerous.

“If all the roofs were changed to natural materials the therma-conditions would be better for the students, it would be cheaper, and it would help the local economy.”

Ultimately, the plan is to help people help themselves.

“We want to create a center for sustainable living,” Adhikari shares. “Currently, in Chitwan and Dhulikhel we have two centers and we want to show people how to do sustainable living, sustainable farming, sustainable architecture and train them in the purpose.”

For example, women have learned to make furniture, he says.

“My other passion is furniture,” Adhikari says, “so in 2011 Sulava Piya and I started building bamboo furniture.”

This initiative started by training men, but in Adhikari’s opinion men weren’t ideal because after they’d been trained for a few months they would get arrogant and want to be paid more, or they would leave in search of employment to the Middle East.

“So we said forget about it and focused on women—at first they’re hard to convince but once convinced they are meticulous, now they use power-tools and do everything and this is a self funded project, no donations or anything.”

And it is to Abari’s credit that it’s been able to mostly fund itself, “We’ve been lucky, in the beginning Sulava and I used my own funds to make the treatment machine, but after that we’ve had people who pay for the technology.”

Besides using natural, local, materials there are other benefits to using mud and bamboo—it’s cheaper.

“We are still refining our technology and it’s work that needs a lot of supervision and training so it’s not totally cheap but it’s cheaper.” 

In the future, Abari hopes to take 30-40% off of construction costs “making bamboo and earth a mainstream material.” 

But already there are other issues that rise.

“Abari focuses on construction projects, we started with bamboo and have invested a lot of time, money, and energy on bamboo but there is a shortage of bamboo right now.”

Though faced with a problem, Abari is already working towards a solution in the A Million Bamboo campaign.

“The plan is to plant a million bamboo along river banks in Nepal,” Adhikar shares, and already 400 bamboos from 20 different species were planted in Chitwan two years ago.

As Abari adapts to changes and tackles challenges as they come, Adhakari laughs and confesses, “It’s a rollercoaster, sometimes we think we’re the best, other times we think we suck!” Even then, there is one idea at the heart of the organization: to use local materials and modernize it so that it gets the dignity it deserves.

 For more information visit abari.org



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6 comments on “Abari: For the love of bamboo and mud

  1. Anup Bhattarai says:

    I am 19 year old, student of civil engineering. Its my second year (3rd semester). I found this bamboo-construction-technique as unique and most suitable for our country, Nepal. I want to know about it in details. I would be glad if i get a chance to visit your organisation and few sites of bamboo architectures(where you are working). You can contact me through my email above. I would look forward for your response.

    • Yugen says:

      Dear Nirpal dai, very impressed with your idea and work. I am very eagar to have my dream project for disabled vocational centre to have a building as per your technique. How can i reach you for further details?

  2. Dear Mr. Nripal Adhikari Namaskar,
    We are very interested in rebuilding our Healthpost Keraunja Ganesh Himal.
    We prefer Earthquake proof and see your Bamboo constructions.
    Problem could be the available of bamboo in that area.
    To avoid deforestation it is not so wise to take so lots of bamboo
    from the forest.
    May be you have some ideas for us to rebuilt our Healthpost, school and also for the houses
    in that area?
    On forehand thank you so much for your answer,
    Sincerely yours,
    Robert K.T. Kölber (Rob)

  3. Ian Buckley says:

    Dear Adhikari, I did have quite a large comment, but it got lost trying to send it. I would like to make contact regarding your bamboo venture. Ian Buckley. EM9S

  4. Ashok says:

    Is there any site from where I can download the latest design of the latest machine describe here
    “We developed this really cool machine—it’s a small tank where you apply pressure to it with some chemical. You connect it to bamboo and it pushes the chemical into the bamboo, which makes it last longer. It was really sensational”
    Pl see http://www.acmathur.me/domes/bamboo-tunnel-polyhouse

  5. Jaya bdr. Malla says:

    Contact no pls.

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