Site rehabilitation, Tseto Goenpa, Bhutan, 2016

Seismic Retrofitting in the Clouds

Site rehabilitation, Tseto Goenpa, Bhutan, 2016

In November 2016 WMF project consultant Stephen Kelley returned to Tseto Goenpa Monastery in Bhutan. In this blog post, he talks about the challenges of rehabilitating the temple and monks’ quarters.


Other than Thimphu, Paro is a village unlike all the villages that traverse Bhutan.  It is nestled in a vast complex of interconnected rice paddies, with interspersed farmhouse islands and random rammed earth remains of abandoned farm houses.  The rice crop dictated the timing of my trip in mid-November. The laborers at Tseto Goenpa Monastery are also rice farmers, and the previous two weeks had been taken up with harvesting the crop. Everyone in the village works collaboratively to bring in the crop, and the lines of one’s work are not dictated by the mud dams that hold the water in your paddies.  This is the very essence of what is meant by the word “village.” So the construction site had to close down for harvesting. What was left upon my arrival were dried rice paddy beds and piles of rice stalks. The foreman at the monastery had insisted that I join him for tea in his farmhouse perched on a shallow island in the vast sea of dried mud after my first day on site. He showed me his crop and explained how the rice husks were going to be separated from the stalks a week after my departure. Later in another process the rice kernels would be separated from the husks. These are time-consuming tasks that would again bring the village together.

Meanwhile at the site, the carpenters had milled and lightly assembled entrance doors and windows which were left for a further season. These units will eventually be disassembled and reassembled in place as the rammed earth walls are erected around them. Sonam Penjor, the architect foreman, had scouted out all the best places to quarry clay for the rammed earth walls. He would take samples, shake them inside a water bottle and let the suspended particles settle.  At the bottom was sand, then a layer of silt, and finally a layer of clay with organic matter floating to the top. The clay to sand ratio at the quarries on site proved to be suitable for rammed earth construction without having to add anything other than water. The stiff mud mix is then pounded into wood formwork. By the time of my arrival many of the rammed earth walls had been completed.

But the challenge ahead is the rehabilitation of the temple and monks’ quarters. During this phase we will carefully remove the wall murals inside the monastery that are painted on paper where they will be taken to the Ministry of Culture for conservation and restoration. The bare walls will then be repaired inside and out. Cracks will be filled and loose areas will be removed and reset.  A seismic retrofit system will be installed and will act as a series of belts that will horizontally wrap the outside walls of the temple at the first and second levels. The make up of these belts is still under development, but they will be hidden from view. An exception is where the exterior wall of the temple is adjacent to the anteroom. Here we will leave the belt system exposed for the contemplation and wonderment of future visitors. For rammed earth buildings, if they have boots (a stone foundation) and a hat (an overhanging roof) they will stay strong.

How long will the walls last, really? That is a question I ponder as I view the abandoned farm houses where wood floors, roofs and lintels decayed away long ago and the earth walls remain like immense ant colonies. They are a physical metaphor of the Buddhist belief in impermanence.