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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world
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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Khumbu Climbing School Model - North View
Khumbu Climbing School Model - North View
Sunday, 11/22/09 -- The ins and outskirts of town

There is no better way to experience a city than having a single purpose such as the Khumbu Climbing School project. Today was a multifaceted work day. It started with sprawling our architectural paraphernalia across the floor of the lobby of our hotel while we drafted shop drawings for the suppliers and manufacturers we were to meet with today. We broke out the trace paper and drew details to take with us as ammunition for the day's venture in Kathmandu. Architects don't just claim a workspace, they take it over.

When Chhongpa dai Sherpa, our guardian angel and Nepali guide, arrived to take us into the wilds of the city, he brought more coffee. He introduced us to the temporal anomaly that is Nepali time. Everything happens a bit slower and disjointed here, as morning schedules become afternoon schedule and afternoon schedules slip into the evening. This idea was well received, as we architects loved a few extra hours to complete our allotted tasks on the cheery lobby floor.

Finally, after our long lunch at a nearby café, we piled into a van to witness the inner realms of the building construction realities of Kathmandu. Our first stop was a glass manufacturer on the outskirts of town. This apparent hole-in-the-wall frontage blossomed into a network of working factory rooms, complete with kilns, tempering machines and a newly acquired vacuum process that creates double insulated glazing.

Serendipitous occurrences abound in exotic locales, but the fact that this glass company was recently equipped with this new technology within the last week is beyond coincidental. If we had arrived two weeks earlier, we would have had to order our double pane glazing system from either India or China. This is a first for Nepal and as a result the Khumbu Climbing School will now have an insulated window system that is locally manufactured. The factory manager, Dr. Ratna Kumar Shrestha, proudly gave us a tour of the unsuspecting, yet highly sophisticated, factory. It was a revealing journey for all of us to investigate the glazing manufacturing process. While sophisticated, the factory was hardly a place that would meet OSHA standards, let alone be an acceptable university field trip. Yet, despite the dangers, the educational opportunities were abundant. This is the reality of architecture in action: it's only worthy if you are willing to get your hands dirty.

Khumbu Climbing School Model - East View
Khumbu Climbing School Model - East View
Next, we ventured back into the city to visit our metal fabricator's shop to review the truss manufacturing. Again, we were the center of attention, as all the shop workers watched us with fascination. Coffee was offered again, and was gratefully received as afternoon bled into evening. The translations for this meeting seemed a bit more ambiguous as the nodding and shaking of heads were both used in apparent gestures of agreement. Despite the translations through Chhongba, as we concluded the discussions we were glad to be meeting again tomorrow to validate the agreed upon design decisions through the actions of their work as opposed to the enigmatic body language.

After a not so quick dinner at the hotel - Nepali time still rules as evening hours blend into an hour-and-a-half of waiting for your food order - we all went to bed, tired and still jet lagged, with a new respect for the process of manifesting architecture and the consistent effort it requires.

-- Christopher Hancock

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Khumbu Climbing School Model - South View
Khumbu Climbing School Model - South View

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

The MSU team at the Boudha Nath Temple in Kathmandu
The MSU team at the Boudha Nath Temple in Kathmandu. From left: Dean Soderberg, Adam Rouns, Elissa Jones, Marit Jensen, Jaron Mickolio, Chris Hancock and Mike Everts.
Saturday, 11/21/09 -- Temples of Kathmandu

Saturday is the holy day of the week, so we took a break and toured several of the shrines and temples around the perimeter of Kathmandu. Our local guide, Chhongba, showed up shortly after breakfast and we crammed into two taxis, like sardines smashed in a can. The eight of us headed out on our way to see the first temple, Boudha Nath, on the far east of the city. The temple, though exhilarating and beautiful by itself, was very hard to focus on…venders and shops much like the rest of the city surrounded the temple, which seemed to question the sacredness of it all. Still, the prayer flags and glaring temple eyes painted on top of the tower brought small chills to the back of one's neck. Next, we headed south to Pashupati Nath, a Hindu shrine.

Driving up, one would think this was similar to our last visit, providing a variety of lavish statutes surrounded by buildings leading up to a large scaled temple. This would not be the case. As we began walking around taking hundreds of pictures, a strange tingling aroma began to fill the air. Walking under an archway leading up to the Bagmati River, we could see that there were several smoldering fires located on platforms next to the river's edge. These weren't ordinary fires, however, but sacred fires for the remains of two cremated bodies. Also, just across a bridge we could see that thousands of people were watching a body being prepared (for cremation). The next 30 minutes could only be described as life changing. Our guide informed us that the body would be washed and clothed by family members and then cremated next to the river's edge. The sight of this was breath taking. For the first time on the trip, each of us was truly speechless, only able to individually reflect and take in what was happening. As the body began to burn, we decided that we had witnessed enough and it was time to move on.

Body of the deceased is washed and clothed by family members in preparation for cremation.
Body of the deceased is washed and clothed by family members in preparation for cremation
We visited the last temple, Swayambhu Nath, at lunch time… fresh squeezed juices from pineapple, apple and pomegranate made lunch a delicacy. The view from the cafe was amazing as well, overlooking the entire city. It gave us a sense of scale, thousands of densely packed midrise buildings crammed tighter than the houses of Anaconda, Montana as far as you could see.

Heading back to the hotel, our usually loud and outspoken group was still silenced by the day's events. Our guide had the cure by taking us out to his niece's for dinner, where we were introduced to Tongba beer: hot water poured over fermented millet grains into a large metal cup. Sitting and waiting for the water to cool, all of us began stirring vigorously as anyone would do in order to bring out the flavor and taste. It wasn't long, however, before our guide informed us that the more one stirs the stronger the drink becomes. The taste was a mix between beer and whisky, and it wasn't long before song and laughter filled the air and we began to be ourselves once more. It went perfect with our deep-fat-fried momos (Nepalese dumplings) and French fries.

-- Adam Rouns

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Payer Wheels The stupa of the Boudha Nath Temple in Kathmandu The stupa of the Boudha Nath Temple in Kathmandu

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

A street in Kathmandu
A street in Kathmandu
11/20/09 -- Windows

Friday started with sit-ups on the roof. Three Americans frantic to get in shape before an arduous trek, simultaneously a woman in a sari across the terrace lights incense to bless the day. Today was a day of speeds, speeds of all varying extremes, as a manifestation of (Kathmandu) itself.

This was exemplified to the nines in our chaotic taxi ride to our first official meeting of the trip. Having traveled mostly afoot until now, the distance from the hotel to the shop was far enough that (our guide) Chhongba decided a taxi cab was necessary. The walking experience in Kathmandu is unlike any other, with the cars, buses, motorbikes, and bicycles all coming from a million directions, honking at varying degrees of loudness and pitch as they come inches from reducing you to dust. This experience was a Sunday walk in the park compared to what was about to take place in taxi ride. The experience is truly unrivaled by any other and it seems useless to use words to try and describe it, but It went something like this… Cram into car, honk, start car, honk, maneuver around people, animals, other vehicles, honk, honk, gain speed, honk, swerve in and out of traffic in both lanes, honk, stop, honk, long honk, longer honk, shift gears to go uphill, begin to pick up reckless amounts of speed, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, avoid head on collision for the umpteenth time, honk, arrive at destination, honk. Add a hundred or so more honks and I think that about sums it up.

Children in a Nepali market
Children in a Nepali market
Arriving at the manufacturing plant, we all piled out of the taxi into a courtyard filled with stacks of aluminum storefront pieces in various shapes and sizes. We were led to the office, instructed to remove our shoes, pulled up extra plastic lawn chairs and commenced the meeting. The mission; discuss with Mingma, the aluminum storefront manufacturer, the production and transportation of the window systems in the project into the Khumbu Valley. Producing an unprecedented quantity and quality of glazing in this region presented some interesting problems, to say the least. After a half-hour of discussion, calculations, and conversion factors, (to everyone's surprise and delight Adam-The-Rain-Man-Rouns apparently has a hidden gift for converting measurements from U.S. to metric and was spitting out numbers faster than Chris could type them into the calculator), our cost estimate for the window system will be substantially lower than we were expecting including transportation options of helicopters, airplanes and porters.

Here, it is important to say that our first round of mango juice boxes was distributed. This seemed to develop into a trend throughout the meeting. When the discussion seemed to take a rather intense turn, in came another around round of mango juice. This proved strategic, as it cleared our pallets and our minds. As the juices flowed, so did the solutions. To substantiate this fact, when Mingma said that double-insulated glazing doesn't exist in Nepal, and cannot be found anywhere in the city, another round of juice and a 10-minute phone call later, he informed us that a certain glazing manufacture in Kathmandu just started producing the very glass we needed for our design. In the end, we were able to get over and above what we had expected for window storefront materials. Logistically, this was the breakdown.

  1. We have 142 - 3'-4"x2'-0" pieces of double pane 1" insulating glass

  2. Transportation costs to Phortse were figured a couple ways:

    Option 1: Fly windows from Kathmandu to Lukla and then porter from Lukla to Phortse…the windows weigh a total of 2,412 kilos, helicopter can take 3,200 kilos, cost is $2,500…porter from Lukla to Phortse for $7,000.

    Option 2: fly glass from Kathmandu directly to Phortse, $7,000 plus $3,000 for training since the landing at Phortse is tricky.

After quantifying these components, Mingma was given the go ahead to price out the aluminum that would be needed for the project, and we had a meeting set with the glass manufacturer later in the week. A half-hour later, socially enhanced and well hydrated, we left the shop feeling we had accomplished great things in a great way.

However, upon seeing the bus that was to take us back to the hotel, Jaron asked if he could use the bathroom…

-- Elissa Jones

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Mango juiceboxes at the windows meeting.Prayer flags Working with Nepali suppliers

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

MSU works with project materials suppliers
MSU works with project materials suppliers
11/19/09 -- Kathmandu

As we began to write this entry, power in the Thamel district of Kathmandu went out. We sat atop our hotel with headlamps and rapidly draining laptops trying to digest what had happened during that day.

Suffice it to say we all were still in shock after the excitement of the day, or we had become witness to many extremes today.

The extremeness of the geography had only begun to set in. In the midst of the drone and boredom of commercial flying came little flickers of excitement on the right side of the plane. Many of us were still filling out our visa applications but others dropped everything and plastered ourselves to the window with wonder. The horizon on the entire right side of the plane was finally fractured from the flat horizon we had become accustomed to over the last four flights. The Himalayas had shown themselves finally. This serrated horizon has come as an instant reminder of our goals and the project. We are here and this is going to happen.

Still in awe from what we had seen from the plane, we disembarked into Nepal's customs department. The line felt painfully slow. We were chomping at the bit to explode into Kathmandu at this point. As we emerge from the Kathmandu airport, we see what is in store for us. People, dogs, birds, bikes, cars, and, more noticeably, car horns. We are brought back from our momentary daze by Chhongba. Chhongba, our guide for the rest of the trip through Kathmandu and into the Khumbu, is our saving grace in this unfamiliar. As we take turns introducing ourselves with the traditional "Namaste," Chhongba places a laurel of marigolds over each of us in turn. From here we waste no time in making our way to the van.

You hear that Kathmandu is chaotic. It is not. It is anarchy! The chaos we had envisioned seemed tame compared to the frenzy we find ourselves in. Horns blare but seem to have little effect on the events of the street. Imminent head on collisions are averted at the last second. The roads are packed and yet steady progress is made through the city. Shrines, shops, and carts litter the roadside. I would be hard pressed to describe Kathmandu as anything other than extreme. The amount of movement alone is nothing short of overstimulating. The juxtaposition of shanties with holy shrines (most of those which populated the roadside are Hindu) brings to fore the extremes within the city.

Sunset over Kathmandu
Sunset over Kathmandu
We arrive at Hotel Marsyangdi Mandala and begin to pick-up our bags from the floor. This calm gives us a chance to begin to understand for ourselves what we had just seen, and from this we begin to realize that we are going to be truly immersed in Kathmandu. We haven't yet brought our bags to our room before we sit and immediately begin to discuss with Chhongba the specifics of our ultimate focus on this trip, the Khumbu Climbing School. Shortly into our discussion we are joined by Jiban, our coordinator in Kathmandu, who has been setting up meetings with manufacturers and suppliers of materials. We work on setting up our game plan for the next few before we retreat to our rooms to unload our gear. This, too, is short lived as after only about a half hour we return to the lobby to have coffee and meet with two of our material suppliers and fabricators. Tec is our man in charge of fabricating the trusses. We hope to get one full-size truss made while we are in Nepal. Mingma is our contact for aluminum storefronts. Both have had experience with transporting and installing materials in the Khumbu. Much of our discussion is about the minute specifics of materials and member sizing, as well as the capacity and history of transporting materials to the (remote) Khumbu.

This process in itself is a distinct extreme of the project's process. We have begun to develop an understanding of architecture as a synthesis of two distinct notions, that of building knowledge and materiality, and that of the driving concepts of design. Our meetings today were the first face-to-face meeting of these forces. We bring with us the driving concept for the design and the flexibility to integrate and collaborate with the material processes and specifics of Kathmandu, the Khumbu and our collaborators. We shake hands, share a cup of coffee and make real-time decisions about the design with near immediate import. Nothing can compare.

After getting the process rolling, we break for a well earned dinner. Now we walk through Kathmandu. The streets are labyrinthine at best, but fantastic. Chongba leads the way to Fire and Ice, a favorite for travelers. Our journey, now in the dusk of Kathmandu is through the cacophony of the street. We pass vendor after vendor and learn to jump to the side at the sounding of each car horn. Fake North Face gear is everywhere, along with wool garments, the occasional music shop, and dime-a-dozen travel guiding outfits. Our way back is marked with uncertainty about our ability to make it back to the hotel without Chongba. To our surprise, we took in more than we could recall on our journey to dinner and had little trouble in finding our way, a good sign for the days to come.

I feel that I can only reiterate that today was a day of extremes. The extremeness of geography has grounded us in place, a place of extreme frenzy and excitement. It is a lot to take in and I think we will be digesting what has happened for weeks to come.

-- Dean Soderberg

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MSU works with project materials suppliersKathmandu street scenesKathmandu street scenes
A harrowing taxi ride in Kathmandu

Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

Mount Everest from the airMount Everest from the air

MSU students at a layover in the Taipei airport. The students left Bozeman on Tuesday afternoon and arrived in Nepal about 24 hours later.
MSU students at a layover in the Taipei airport. The students left Bozeman on Tuesday afternoon and arrived in Nepal about 24 hours later.
11/17/09 -- Leaving Bozeman

As architecture students, we live in somewhat of a fantasy world. We discus abstract theories, spend months creating complex concepts, and design, for the most part, in the flexible, no-rules world of computers. It is rare to get the opportunity while in school to truly experience the concrete realities of practicing architecture.

We are not oblivious or unaware of what happens with a real building design, but to understand and physically experience the process is incredibly valuable. New technology can disconnect us from a hands-on, tangible understanding of architecture if it is simply lines on a computer screen.

With the vast communication advances in the world, our limitations shrink daily. The Khumbu Climbing School is a great example of how connected we are globally. This project would not have been feasible without the ability to communicate practically in real time with a village on the other side of the world. The idea of "far-away" becomes unreal – there is no way to understand and comprehend distance when dealing with instant communication. We may think we know it, but it has become an abstract concept.

MSU students catch some sleep at the Bangkok airport while awaiting a flight to Kathmandu.
MSU students catch some sleep at the Bangkok airport while awaiting a flight to Kathmandu.
As we sit around for four hours into a 14-hour flight that will take us most of the way around the world, this distance becomes real. We can feel it - we are experiencing it. In the same way, this project and our understanding of the realities of building a dramatic new building type in a culture much different from our own will become real as we experience it. We will, after several more flights and a nap in the Bangkok airport, be meeting in person with those who previously have been contacted with just a click of a mouse. We will be involved in the process of making this project real. We will meet with the storefront and truss manufacturers, see and experience the specific materials being used, and coordinate details with the experts making them. It would have been possible in this project to have just sent the completed construction documents and building instructions across the world and left it at that. But soon we will be there in person. It is not just a rendering in a 3-D model… it is a piece of timber that will soon hold up a roof.

When we trek up four days of rigorous mountain terrain in the Himalayas, we will be experiencing the same difficult path that the materials must travel as all supplies must be brought up by porters or on yaks. It is an extreme project, and will be an extreme experience- making clear the lack of perspective created by our connected flat world. It will make tangible the complexities of building a climbing school on the other side of the world. It will make real the practicalities of architecture. And it will help create a real building, for real people, with real people, in a real and incredible culture.

-- Marit Jensen

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Khumbu Blog - MSU students build a school at the top of the world

If you would like to respond to this blog, send an e-mail to: cschmidt@montana.edu

To read an MSU news story about MSU's work on the Khumbu Climbing School, see MSU architecture students help design school at the top of the world.

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