Starting Nepal’s green school movement

Surkhet has a new, community focused eco-friendly school that could be a model for others

With its new highway to the north, Surkhet has become the gateway to the Karnali and is morphing into a boomtown. But 10 minutes out of the dusty, bustling city nestled amidst a terraced landscape, the Kopila Valley School (KVS) is a functioning model for the rest of Nepal on how schools should be built and administered.

At a time when progress is marked by the rise of glass and concrete structures, the school employs rammed-earth technology with an ecofriendly philosophy that uses local materials for construction, harnesses the sun and sewage for energy, harvests rainwater and minimises waste.

But even founder Maggie Doyne at first needed convincing by architect Prabal Thapa to accept a mud design for the buildings. Her vision of an environment-friendly school was one made of bamboo, like the Green School she had seen in Bali.

“Look, we’re not in Bali,” Thapa told her. “We are in Nepal, and Nepal is known for mountains. With rammed earth, you’re making mountains.”

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All photos: SHEILIN TEO

Rammed earth provides excellent thermal mass to keep temperature stable indoors, it uses local material and labour, the structure is durable and easy to maintain. The walls are nearly 0.5m thick, and reinforced with steel and concrete banding for seismic resistance.

“We wanted the school to feel Nepali through and through, to stay true to local architecture that is so stunningly beautiful,” explains Doyne, showing us around the campus.

The two-storey school blocks are simple and rectangular, with gabled roofs, breezy stairwells, and are connected by corridors on one side, much like traditional farmhouses in Nepal. The buildings are designed as modular blocks that can be arranged in various ways to suit the landscape and functions required by the school. The simplicity and repeatability of the modules were important considerations to allow ease of building by unskilled local labourers, many of them women trained on the job.

Standing within the grounds, it becomes clear why buildings were sited as they were: they form a protective coterie around a central sports court and create ancillary terraces where children play. The topography creates opportunities for passive surveillance from the administrative block that sits towards the top of the sloping site, and plenty of gathering and resting places along stone-lined steps that double as bleachers overlooking play areas and gardens. When children pour out of their classrooms, they tumble across the sports court and down the stairs, bobbing along ramps that slice across the school’s terrace walls brightly coloured in house colours of reds, blues, yellows and greens.

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“Construction was so difficult, and the only thing that got us through the really hard moments was knowing that one day there would be kids in these classrooms,” Doyne says, explaining that complications in scheduling, budgets and differences of opinion about expectations and work values of intercultural and international teams proved to be challenges.

The project is not just a simple school. Strengthened with steel, stabilised with cement and concrete, fitted with high performance, durable windows, the school buildings called for experience and skills beyond those required by a traditional project. More advanced, outside-the-box technology gives the campus an edge of self-sufficiency, ease of maintenance and durability.

Green technology comes at a cost, with lengthy payback periods that are possibly out of reach of most other schools in Nepal, but are easily adaptable to the local context: filtration systems, biogas, rainwater harvesting by Smart Paani, and solar systems by Sun Farmer. At Kopila, all these design elements are integrated in the school’s new buildings, their functions and terrain, giving the school its green edge.

“I feel that this campus has so much integrity. Every step of the way, we made decisions that were sometimes hard, or that had cost implications, or we had to forgo certain things in order to have others, but there’s nothing I would change,” says Doyne.

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This approach is not limited to the physical design of the school; its curriculum is also grounded in place-based learning that adapts Nepal’s national curriculum to the school’s philosophy. Principal Naim Chaudhari explains: “It is about trying to integrate what we find in the community, what we can learn from and what we can give back to it. After all, when the children graduate they go into the community and they will live there. That is where they will grow further.”

The school has a farm and a vocational focus, and the students learn at least one skill each year from among cooking, washing, cleaning, driving, farming, agro-forestry, animal husbandry, horticulture, welding, woodwork, machine work and electrical skills.

“When our children graduate from here, they should either go for further studies or be able to find a job,” says Chaudhari.

The school includes Grades 1-10 and an Early Childhood Village that focuses on self-learning through play and exploration. The older ‘plus-two’ students are still in an old bamboo school by the highway, but there are plans to bring them into the new buildings.

The school’s design allows the new classrooms to blend into the greenery, preserving the productive fruiting trees on site. Just as village life still clings to the fringes of Surkhet, the school’s program extends to the students’ families, farms and the community.

“We are a full service community school,” Doyne explains. “It is not just for the kids who study here — we want to bring the community in. This buildings belong to them, and I hope it makes them think about what they ultimately build someday. Just like Bali inspired Kopila, I hope that there will be other schools like this in Nepal, because this one existed.”

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Maggie's mission

In 2005 when she was 19, Maggie Doyne was trekking in Nepal when she met Hima, a child worker. That started Doyne's Nepal journey, and her efforts to help children go to school eventually expanded to setting up Kopila Valley School and its sister initiatives in Surkhet.

Doyne was named the 2014 Unsung Hero of Compassion, awarded by the Dalai Lama, and won the 2015 CNN Hero of the Year Award. Kopila is funded by The BlinkNow Foundation, a non-profit Doyne founded in 2007 as part of a network of initiatives comprising a children’s home, housing for at-risk girls, a training centre for women and a health clinic. KVS admits primarily children from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing for their education and welfare needs. It also runs a Futures Program to teach life skills, and provides vocational and academic support for senior students.

Sun roof

Concentrated solar panels on the roof of the canteen, by Sunworks Nepal, power cookers in the kitchen and replace Rs60,000 worth of LPG per year. Gas is still used as backup, but it is methane from a digester hidden under the artificial turf of a sports court, fed by effluent from the toilets. Irrigation for the school’s vegetable garden and landscaping comes from black and grey-water filtration beds. Rainwater from the roofs is harvested into a 300,000l water storage tank under the school canteen, designed to fill all water needs for a year. Arrays of solar photovoltaics power the school, backed up by a diesel generator. Compost from black-water waste is used to grow the KVS’s organic produce.