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Green learning in Little Tibet

High in the Indian Himalayas is one of the last remaining communities, Ladakh, where a traditional Tibetan Buddhist way of life is practised. Here in ‘Little Tibet’ – a remote, high-altitude desert environment – is a school for over 500 children in the ancient capital of Shey, founded in 2001 by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual leader of Ladakh. The Druk White Lotus School (DWLS) has drawn international attention for the way it combines a modern education with a sound grounding in Ladakhi language, culture and tradition. This mix of the old and the new also inspired the architecture, winning the institution a host of awards – most recently The Emirates Glass LEAF Awards 2012 for Best Sustainable Development.

International architects Arup Associates say their aim was to create a ‘simple/smart’ technological model for appropriate, cost-effective and sustainable development. The firm studied design styles of local Tibetan monasteries and used the experience of a local team of construction workers. The result is a school that has been built in phases, and values the outdoors as much as the classroom: spacious and light-filled interiors lie adjacent to tree-lined courtyards protected by silk awnings. The roof – made of mud, wood and rock, insulated with wool and felt and topped with aluminium and sand – does its job during the harsh winters and short but hot summers. Say the architects, “In the bitter winters, teaching spaces heat quickly thanks to their optimal 30° south-east orientation, combined with fully glazed solar façades that gather the sun’s energy and store heat. We used use special heat-trapping Trombe Walls for the residences, which are coated externally with dark, heat-absorbing material and are faced with a double layer of glass. Heat is conducted inwards to the dormitories at night-time.”

While snow may cut the area off from with the outside world for as much as seven months a year, solar panels power up electricity and broadband, allowing teachers and pupils to access the globe digitally. The snowmelt from the surrounding Himalayas provides the school and community with its only water source. Groundwater from the 32 metre-deep water table is pumped by solar power to a 60 000 litre tank at the surface and gravityfed to gardens and water faucets. Water scarcity knowledge forms part of the school’s extensive green curriculum. Because shifting weather patterns have led to receding glaciers, not a drop of precious water is wasted. The school’s sanitation system has been called a breakthrough for developing countries, utilising a solar-driven flue to eliminate bacteria and smells.

The architects were obliged to take other factors into account as well. The school is located in an area of considerable seismic activity, and a major earthquake that struck adjacent Pakistan in 2005 was a wake-up call. Simple, strong timber frames independent of the walls were added to new buildings to resist seismic loads, and steel connections and cross-bracing provide earthquake stability. The school is also in an area susceptible to flash floods and a three metre-high mudslide defence wall has now been completed.

Category: Winter 2013

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