Today at Berkeley Lab

Lab Engineer Helps Nepalese Villages Rebuild After Massive Earthquake

— By Keri Troutman

Berkeley Lab civil/structural engineer Tim Hart took a giant step outside of his comfort zone last year, moving to Nepal for two months to volunteer his skills in the country’s continual post-earthquake reconstruction efforts. Hart volunteered through a nonprofit, Build Change, that he’s worked with since 2005.

When he arrived last October, Hart found the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, had largely recovered since he had first travelled to the country about a month after it was hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in April 2015. The massive earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people and injured thousands more. In his fact-finding trips to many of the country’s smaller villages, Hart observed a country still struggling with the financial and logistical aspects of reconstruction. Hart’s work was mostly focused on building technology and training programs for builders, engineers, and homeowners.

“Build Change’s motto is not to build back faster, but to build back better,” says Hart. As such, the organization focuses on local practices and local tradespeople in their efforts to rebuild in sustainable manner and really teach people about safer building practices. In Nepal, most homes are built from stone and mud mortar. It’s what’s available, especially in the more remote areas. Despite the materials limitations in small remote villages, improvements can be made. Build Change found that small changes such as using cement mortar instead of mud, or adding support beams and stones to the home designs can make a huge difference in building stability.

Hart spent much of his time in Nepal working on building designs not only for improving stone masonry, but also for confined masonry construction. Confined masonry consists of constructing masonry walls with either clay bricks or concrete blocks and then surrounding each segment of the walls with a reinforced concrete frame. It is common practice in many Latin American and Asian countries and may potentially be a good option to introduce in Nepal in place of stone or unreinforced masonry, says Hart.

To see these design improvements come into fruition requires training locals on how to build and inspect the construction. Some of the training involves the homeowners themselves, says Hart. Since construction inspections are not common practice in developing countries like Nepal, it is imperative that homeowners know how to ensure proper construction techniques are used in their reconstruction projects so that they can ensure that the work is inspected, even by the homeowners themselves. This also engages the homeowner in the construction process, which typically leads to better built homes since the homeowner is the primary beneficiary of a well-built house, Hart says.

An added challenge in Nepal has been the tumultuous state of the country’s government. Things have settled down somewhat, but much of the reconstruction funding is still stalled in governmental bureaucracy. Build Change tries to work around that by being more project-based rather than funding-based and by working directly with all the parties involved in the reconstruction effort including government agencies, non-government organizations, and the homeowners, says Hart.

Hart initially got involved with Build Change in 2005 when he was one of 12 volunteer structural engineers engaged to work on a housing reconstruction project in Banda Aceh, Indonesia following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Build Change had only been around for a year at that point and was looking for volunteer engineers. One of Hart’s colleagues was working with the nonprofit on organizing the volunteer team and encouraged him to volunteer. Since then, Hart has worked on Build Change projects in Indonesia, China, Haiti, The Philippines, Guatemala, Colombia, and Nepal, and has travelled to Indonesia, Haiti, Colombia, and Nepal to provide his engineering skills as a volunteer. He usually uses his vacation time for his volunteer trips, but last year’s two-month stint in Nepal required a more creative arrangement. Hart worked with Berkeley Lab HR and Facilities Division management to arrange to work part-time for the Lab remotely while he was there. “Berkeley Lab was so supportive and really worked with me to make it happen,” says Hart.

Hart says what’s kept him involved with Build Change all these years is the meaning he finds in the work. “I like to say that I’m saving the world one house at a time,” he adds.

“Really, the most rewarding part has been the one-on-one encounters I’ve had; the chance to really work with and interact with people at that level,” says Hart.

View Hart’s Nepal travel blog here.