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Articles & Stories

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Building a King’s vision for the future of Bhutan

Bhutan is unlike any nation on earth. Its remote location nestled into the towering Himalayas has enabled the small country to focus on preserving its resources and cultural identity while the rest of the world races to keep up with each other in terms of development, influence, and Gross National Product.

In contrast, Bhutan has made the choice to create policy by evaluating the effects on overall happiness of their people, instead of simply based on GPD-type indexes.

“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan, once said. In 1972, he conceived and enacted Bhutan’s development philosophy that is known as Gross National Happiness – GNH for short.

According to the present King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck - “Today GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people, but to me it signifies simply – development with values. GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future.”

The Royal Academy Project is just one of the policy’s many practical applications currently underway in Bhutan. Mr. Karma Thinley, the project director, very generously granted me a tour of the construction site located in the village of Pangbisa overlooking the Paro valley, and he shared the vision they all share for what this school will mean for Bhutan.

“This is the Royal Academy project, which is an initiative of His Majesty the King,” Mr. Thinley said. “What we are trying to do is to introduce a new system of education in Bhutan. We see that our education system needs to adapt to the ever-changing social, economic environment in the world around us. We are building it in isolation from the rest of the public school system. Then 7 to 10 years down the line when we have a new curriculum, new methodology, and a new system of running and operating a school, the idea is that we will introduce that into the whole public school system in Bhutan.”

The whole project is estimated to take 8 years before full completion, but already a small, schoolhouse, canteen, and dormitory is set up for the 60 students currently enrolled. According to the school’s website, “The Academy School will have about 700 Bhutanese students from classes 7-12. Approximately 60% of the student body will be meritorious Bhutanese students from economically vulnerable backgrounds. These students will be fully supported through His Majesty’s Gyalpoi Tozay scholarship programme.”

The main centre structure will be a massive Dzong – a traditional Bhutanese fortress – and other buildings will radiate out from the central Dzong along the converging mountain ridges. The website shares – “These facilities include housing for students and faculty, athletic grounds and gymnasiums, outdoor amphitheatres, and multi-purpose halls and spaces.”

“The main campus is almost from 2,600 metres above sea level,” Mr. Thinley shared. “And then at the highest point, the campus almost touches 3,000 metres. So it’s pretty high.”

“The project here, given the size and the magnitude, there are a few other things, apart from just building the campus, but in the process, there are so many things we are trying to achieve. One is introducing new building technologies.

Consistent with the spirit of the project, great lengths are being taken to implement eco-friendly aspects into the project by considering the existing site’s ecology and preserving it as much as possible.

“The whole look will go for a traditional design,” Mr. Thinley shared. “And in Bhutan, traditional design means lots of wood and timber is going to be used.” The project is estimated to require 28,000 cubic metres of wood – the equivalent of 400 average-sized fully wooden homes. With the amount of timber required at a construction site an hour’s drive up a winding mountain road, Mr. Thinley and the other project leaders had a challenge ahead of them – how to procure that much timber in an economically-friendly and eco-friendly way, and ensure flexibility to keep the project on schedule.

They started by buying their own sawmill and installing it on-site – at first a small swingblade sawmill, but they soon realized would be insufficient for their needs, particularly because of the amount of sawdust wasted by the swingblade milling process. So they looked around for sawmilling solutions that would make even more economical use of the logs they were buying in. They decided on a Wood-Mizer LT70 sawmill. Wood-Mizer, an American company operating worldwide, originally pioneered what is referred to as thin-kerf sawmilling technology. Kerf is the amount of wood removed by the sawmill blade during the cutting process. The Wood-Mizer technology is currently the sawmilling method with the least amount of wood wasted.

“Prior to the Wood-Mizer we had a swingblade portable sawmill,” Mr. Thinley shared. “We thought we would run with that. But then again we did some cost analysis and calculated that loss against our total approximate volume of timber that was required for the project, we found that it was better for us to invest in a Wood-Mizer, where the wastage percentage is much lower. We find a difference of almost 15-20%, in terms of waste reduction. And when we did a calculation on the costs of the waste of timber, we found that approximately one third of the total timber requirement for the project, just from the waste alone, we can recover the cost of by investing in the Wood-Mizer.”

The LT70 sawmill has been in place for close to a year now, and is running non-stop to stockpile needed timber, as workers excavate and prepare foundations.

“There are so many aspects that we looked at,” Mr. Thinley said. “When we were looking at the size of this project, and the amount of timber that is required, and the location of the project is quite a distance from the main town. So transportation and all those things were going to be a problem.

“The second thing is in terms of the supply,” Mr. Thinley shared. “We went around and found that if we gave [the timber order] to a particular sawmiller, meeting the demand was going to be very, very difficult.

“The third thing is flexibility. If you go to a sawmill, we can only buy timber,” Mr. Thinley said. “But here we are buying in logs, and we are sawing whatever components we need – flooring, etc. And we have a wood fabrication unit where we can utilise the offcuts. What normally is considered as waste can be utilised. So we find at the end of the day, we get more than we invested, in terms of our return.”

The sawmill is allowing them to experiment with the introduction of another new building technology that holds great promise – glulam. The sawmill is producing timbers which then are glued and pressed into larger, stronger beams under the direction of Swiss engineers.

“Glulam is one example that could be an appropriate technology in Bhutan,” Mr. Thinley shared. “Because our construction industry is heavily dependent on timber.”

“We are also trying to work on other technologies like mud block,” Mr. Thinley said. “Mud is a local resource, so if we can use that even as a building material, anything from mud. Going back to the basics, but improving.”

Other projects around the globe have made similar use of thin-kerf sawmilling technology to reduce waste, use fewer logs to fulfil the required timber quotas, and have more flexibility on site to prepare needed wood products. For one such project – the Ark Encounter in Kentucky is now recognised as the world’s largest timber frame – a Wood-Mizer LT15 was used to process around 50% of the Douglas fir beams to the exact dimensions needed before they were moved onto massive CNC machines for computer-controlled cutting.

In Bhutan, due to the vision of the King and project leaders, the Royal Academy will be a project to watch and learn from.

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