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Graduate Student Travels to Nepal to Design and Construct Housing for Earthquake Victims

Author: Carrie Gates

It is more than 80 degrees and raining hard on the gravel road outside Pokhara, Nepal. When the truck driver says it isn’t safe to cross the raging river ahead, his passengers—including Notre Dame graduate student Kevin Phaup—find themselves contemplating a narrow footbridge with no railings, followed by a winding journey up the side of a mountain.

The passengers hesitate for only a moment before disembarking, hoisting the 12-foot sheets of tin roofing material above their heads, and beginning the trek to the earthquake-ravaged village of Thaprek, more than a mile away.

Phaup, who is pursuing a master’s degree in industrial design, went to Nepal last summer to conduct research for his thesis project—designing stronger, safer, cost-effective temporary shelters for refugees and victims of natural disasters.

Kevin Phaup, holding bamboo Kevin Phaup, in Nepal holding bamboo

While there, he worked with Hope for Nepal, an organization co-founded by Assistant Professor Ann-Marie Conrado, to construct temporary shelters, permanent homes, and schools after an April 2015 earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and displaced more than 3 million.

“At first, I was afraid to go there. It was a major earthquake, and I didn’t really know what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t know if we would be able to get food or water. But I just decided that it was the kind of opportunity to go and help that I couldn’t pass up. It was a very rewarding, very humbling experience.”

Take a Chance

Although Phaup has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Miami University, he didn’t intend to focus on buildings when he began his graduate program in Notre Dame’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design.

Phaup, who also has a bachelor’s of fine arts in metalsmithing and jewelry design, saw industrial design as a perfect bridge of his two interests—a “vast middle ground” where he would be able to bring his ideas to life.

He was drawn to Notre Dame, he said, because of the scale of the program, the faculty and facilities, and the department’s commitment to “design for social good”—using design to improve people’s lives and to address injustices in the world.

“There’s a sign in our industrial design shop that says, ‘make stuff that matters,’” he said. “At Notre Dame, we’re interested in making a difference, thinking about how we can help people through design.”

In his second year, Phaup found a way to do just that—by designing a “postural support device” that can adapt donated wheelchairs to fit children and smaller adults in developing countries, including Nepal. The project was one of three finalists in the Accelovate Design Competition by USAID and Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University.

Phaup, who first visited Nepal in December 2014 to work on his wheelchair-device project, was already planning to return in summer 2015 when the earthquake hit. Instead of canceling the trip, he embarked on a new project—focused on what the nation now needed most.

With funding from Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and a small bag of tools, Phaup made his way to the Pokhara Valley to research the effectiveness of temporary shelters and help train villagers in safer construction techniques.

Government-issued temporary housing in Nepal Government-issued temporary housing after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Solve a Problem

Phaup found that several factors were hindering the rebuilding efforts, particularly in rural areas. The government had distributed temporary shelters—single, curved pieces of corrugated metal—but many occupants soon abandoned them.

“We found these empty all over Nepal, and we started asking why,” he said. “People said that once you close up the ends to secure yourself and your property, it becomes like an oven inside.

“And with the monsoon rains, it gets very loud—it’s a metal roof that goes all the way to the ground, so there is no way for the noise to escape. People would rather live under a tarp outside than live in there, and seeing that was very sad.”

Some villagers in remote areas were also attempting to build their own temporary shelters—often using stones and cinder blocks—but had very little construction experience.

“If they aren’t built correctly, they’re very dangerous,” Phaup said. “There is a lot of weight there, and it will come down.”

The quality and safety of the temporary structures is especially important because the nation’s poorest residents, who can’t afford to rebuild a permanent home, may end up using them for years.

“I am very interested in how I can help them rethink the way they’re building these, using lighter-weight materials. It’s worth investigating how they can be stronger, how they can be done more efficiently,” he said. “Perhaps we can design it in a way where it’s meant to fall, but it falls in a way that we want it to.”

Kevin Phaup working in Nepal Kevin Phaup, working to rebuild a structure in Nepal.

Forge a Partnership

Phaup also wants to ensure that his design fits the architectural vernacular of the region and allows Nepalese people to have some choice and control over their housing.

“That’s very important to me, because of my background in architecture and because of the time I have spent in Nepal,” he said. “I have many friends there, and I have fallen in love with the country. They deserve the same consideration that I get in my country, in terms of housing and environment.

“They need to be involved in rebuilding their own homes.”

In fact, Phaup said one of the most powerful aspects of his experience over the summer was working alongside Nepalese people in Pokhara to design and build several permanent homes and a temporary school, which will later become a community center.

“I learned a lot working in the village—about their construction techniques, their heritage, their way of life,” he said. “I saw the realities of how difficult it was to work there because of the heat, because their tools are often dull or weak, because there isn’t enough food. But, the people of Nepal are a close-knit, resilient community, and I was inspired by the way they came together during this crisis.”

A school structure Phaup helped build Nepalese residents examine the temporary school Phaup helped build.

Rebuild a Community

It was while working on those projects that Phaup and his colleagues learned of Thaprek, the village an hour and half away from Pokhara. It hadn’t been reached by outside help since the earthquake, and 18 of the 20 houses that were clustered together there had been damaged or destroyed.

After visiting the site on motorbikes, the Hope for Nepal team gathered tools and supplies—including tin to serve as roofs for all the houses—and hired a truck driver to take them to the village. Once the truck could take them no farther, the crew, along with villagers who came down the mountain, carried the tin and supplies up the path.

Phaup and four fellow volunteers worked with the villagers to salvage whatever materials they could from the houses that had been destroyed. In one week, they rebuilt houses for two families and taught the community how to continue the work after they left.

“They can now look at what we did—which wasn’t beautiful, but was efficient and strong—and build more temporary shelters themselves,” he said. “My dream is to go back to this village with some permanent housing ideas and rebuild for the same people.”