SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology


Note: The contents below are published as provided by the architect/designer.

Architects and professionals engaged in the domain of planning, designing, construction and operation of the built environment; keen to learn, understand and appreciate the real meaning of sustainability, energy efficiency, resource efficiency, and carbon neutrality in the built environment in hills, must visit, look, study, analyze and understand the intent, content, and context of planning, designing and construction of the Institute ‘The Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL)’, located in Leh, the brainchild of engineer Sonam Wangchuk, an alumnus (1987) of the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar.

Located in the heart of Leh, nicknamed the cold desert, having one of the most hostile climates for human living and habitation, with temperature fluctuating wildly, bordering on extreme cold and moderate heat, educational campus housing globally known as ‘The Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL)’, has clearly demonstrated and showcased, how potential and inherent strength of art and science of Architecture can be appropriately leveraged, to overcome the extreme challenges posed by climate and adversities created by nature, by effectively, efficiently, appropriately and intelligentially, using the same very nature and natural resources, to create qualitative, environment-friendly, safe, cost-effective, energy/ resource efficient, zero-carbon, zero energy and sustainable example of built environment in hilly regions.

Spread over an area of 20-acre, the SECMOL campus, has a location at an altitude of 3500 metres from mean sea level, approximately 18 km away from Leh town in the Phey village of the Indus Valley, globally known for its most hostile cold desert climate, with temperatures ranging from 20°C in summer and -30°C in winter. The surrounding mountainous landscape is almost devoid of vegetation because Leh is positioned in a physical space which is above the tree line. However, region is blessed with more than 300 sunny days annually, making sun a highly dependable resource for sourcing uninterrupted solar energy for heating and lighting. Starting on an experimental basis, with a limited number of students, the SECMOL campus has grown and expanded, both horizontally and vertically, in its operation and activities, over the years. The campus now includes residential space for both students and campers besides an area for training, workspaces, a library, a kitchen and a dining area for the inhabitants. All the buildings on the campus have been planned, designed, constructed and maintained with nature, making optimum use of solar-based heating and lighting. In addition, the 20-acre campus, initially devoid of any vegetation, has also made additions to flora and fauna by planting more than 1000 trees in the desert environment besides creating vegetable gardens and greenhouses and maintaining cows. The expansive campus is entirely powered by solar energy and exclusively managed by the students, who are given the exclusive role and responsibility to manage the operation of the entire campus. In addition, SECMOL, as an institute of teaching-learning, remains different and distinct. Institute provides a new typology of education, having a distinct mandate, where the primary focus isn’t merely on imparting academic knowledge but also includes and involves, nurturing and promoting practical and social qualities and skills available to the students. SECMOL has always been a place of innovations, looking for effective and environmentally friendly solutions and low-cost options for human living without impacting nature and natural resources. Accordingly, the design of the entire campus of SECMOL, including all its buildings, is based on the principles of passive solar architecture. These buildings have been planned and designed to capture the maximum heat of the sun during the day and also retain it at night. The heat stored by mud walls during the day is released during the night, when the sun is gone, so that spaces within the building do not require any additional heating through burning of fossil fuels, even when the temperature outside dips to –25°C.

SECMOL buildings are characterized by thick walls, made of rammed earth, which are reinforced/insulated with material like wood shavings. Using rammed earth in the making of walls is based on the ancient practice of construction, which was used in the making of monasteries and forts in ancient Ladakh. For sourcing maximum solar heat and light, buildings have been designed in such a manner that all the rooms, involving human habitation, are positioned in the southern direction. Locating rooms in the southern direction helps in capturing more heat during the winter months when the sun is low. In addition, plastic sheets are also used to cover the open spaces created in the buildings, during the winter months to trap the solar heat and these sheets are rolled, in summer, to provide the required level of ventilation in the building.

In order to disseminate the ideas, knowledge, and skills involved in sustainable practices in the planning and design of built environments, SECMOL Skills University has been made operational recently. The university offers short and practical courses on renewable and sustainable energy, earth building, and passive solar architecture.

SECMOL campus operates on the analogy of being self-reliant, earning enough from these courses to meet the operational cost, making the institute free from the need to source funds from external agencies. SECMOL has emerged as a net-zero energy campus and accordingly remains off the grid for the reason that the entire campus is completely powered by solar energy.

In addition to heat and light, solar water heaters installed in the institute provide water for the bathing and washing needs of the residents; solar panels provide electricity that powers all lights and other appliances like computers and TVs; and large reflectors help cook food using solar energy. SECMOL is now experimenting with” creating pre-fabricated building blocks made from mud, wood shavings, and straw to be used in the construction rather than rammed earth walls; teaching eco-tourism and green architecture; promoting recycling; using plastic for insulation; creating awareness about climate change and rising temperatures; mitigating the adverse impact of climate change; and learning to understand the value of the smallest drop of water” as the focus area of teaching-learning in the institute.

SECMOL Campus, comprising one large school building, three residential houses, and 20 small cell rooms besides other necessary infrastructure, was started in the year 1994. Camus was inaugurated in the year 1998, by the Tibetan Spiritual Leader Dalai Lama. In 2016, the building was rated and judged by the jury of the international TERRA Award, as one of the best nine buildings, based on earthen construction.

Looking at the entire context, the salient feature of planning, designing and construction of the buildings in the SECMOL campus can be enumerated as under:

1.      Site:

  • The site selected for the SECMOL campus is located in Phey village approximately 18 kms away from Leh Town in the Indus Valley.
  • The site is located at an altitude of 3500 metres, from MSL in one of the most hostile cold desert climates, with temperatures ranging from 20°C in summer and -30°C in winter.
  • The site is flat, with no undulation, and is spread over an area measuring 20acrewith little vegetation and water.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 1

2.    Design Approach:

  • Design with limitations: The design approach used for SECMOL school was primarily led by options for overcoming the challenges posed by the trinity of tough terrain, peculiar climatic conditions, and difficulty in bringing outside building materials.
  • Design with Nature: The approach adopted for planning and designing the buildings on campus is based on the principle of designing with nature and using natural elements of Panch-bhutas, comprising of Agni (Sun), Prithvi (Land), Jal (Water), Vaayu (Air), and Aakash (Space), as integral parts of the design solution.
  • Design with Climate: The design of the buildings and the campus also included challenges posed by climate; options created by orientation and sunlight/ heat provided by Solar movement besides ably supported by local materials and ancient construction technologies.
  • Design Compact: Considering the need for conserving heat and avoiding loss of heat, buildings have been designed compactly, so as to seal the inner spaces for minimizing the heat loss.
  • Opting for passive architecture: The design option used for buildings is based on passive architecture, which involves creating a supportive environment within buildings for human living and working without resorting to mechanical means of air, light, ventilation, and air conditioning. In addition, buildings have been designed to have a large thermal mass due to thick earthen walls, which are known to retain a lot of solar radiation falling during the day and make it available/released at night for heating the inner spaces.
  • Net Zero Energy Building: Buildings have been planned and designed to make them net-zero-energy, requiring no energy provided by conventional sources or supplied by the grid. Buildings have no electric connection, nor do they require burning fossil fuel, for heating, even during peak winter months. Solar panels have been used for sourcing and generating solar energy and meeting the power requirements of buildings.
  • Natural lighting: The building envelope provides enough openings for bringing sun and sunlight for lighting, which is available in abundance, eliminating the electricity needed for lighting the spaces within the buildings in the daytime. Orienting rooms south and providing large openings has been used as the principle to ensure maximum solar heat gain. In order to source maximum sunlight, the glass to wall ratio has been placed at 80% on the southern side.
  • Using Skylights: Understanding the distinct advantages offered by skylights in terms of sourcing natural light and heat, skylights have been made an integral part of the roof design. Three skylights have been appropriately designed and covered with glass or clear plastic to allow light and eliminate seepage of water, etc. Two skylights are provided over the two staircases, placed on either side of the building, to provide adequate light to the staircases. whereas the third skylight has been provided over the library, to have an optimum skylight for reading.
  • Making optimum use of Site: Main school building has been planned, designed, and constructed, based on detailed study and analysis of prevailing soil characteristics, site conditions, tough terrain, peculiar climatic conditions, and difficulty in sourcing and transporting building materials for construction.
  • Creating Greenhouses: Considering the distinct advantages of green houses in sourcing light, trapping heat, and heating the inside air, greenhouses have been included as a design element, placed on the south side for trapping the heat of sun. Accordingly, in winters, huge plastic sheets are rolled down to create a big greenhouse that works as a solar collector, and in summers, these plastic sheets are rolled to allow fresh air to come into the building for ventilation and to modulate the inside temperature. Creating green house space helps the institute in creating a supportive environment for growing vegetables in the harsh cold climate, which are used for cooking food for the inhabitants, making the institute self-reliant to a large extent.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 3
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 5

3. Planning:

  • Rectangular Shape: The school building has been planned and designed based on opting for a rectangular shape, known for its simplicity in working and providing efficient planning of inner spaces. The school building has an overall length of 45 metres and depth of 13.5 metres with spaces planned in a symmetrical manner along a central corridor. Proportions of the depth to length of the building have been placed in the ratio of 1:3, for reasons of efficient working and optimum space utilization.
  • Low-rise structure: Considering the limitations imposed by cost, climate, materials, and construction, buildings have been planned and designed to be low-rise, double-story structures.
  • Compact Planning: Buildings have been planned and designed around a centrally positioned, doubly loaded corridor for reasons of simplicity, space efficiency, and having a higher order of carpet area.
  • Doubly loaded corridor: The planning of the building revolves around a central corridor to minimize the area under circulation and to increase the efficiency of the building. Higher proportions of space have been allocated to the area to be used for main or primary uses as compared to spaces that are supposed to be sub-servient or secondary to the main use of the building.
  • Classifying Spaces: Spaces within the building have been categorized into two distinct zones. Spaces which are largely inhabited by human beings and spaces where human habitation remains minimal. Looking at the positivity of the Southern side, spaces which are inhabited by human beings including; classrooms, offices, technical workshops, and assembly hall, have been placed on the southern side, whereas spaces where human habitation remains minimal, i.e., earth lab, stores, toilets, reception-cum-waiting, stairs, etc., have been placed on the northern side.
  • Trapping Heat: For facilitating and creating conditions which are, warm, cozy, conducive, and comfortable, classrooms and activity spaces, have been placed on the southern side and have been appropriately recessed from the adjoining space allocated to assembly hall, workshop, and office, for sourcing solar heat during the winter by putting a thick polythene sheet in the winter.
  • Zoning Spaces: In order to minimize heat loss, making optimum use of space, and effectively managing the inside temperature, the entire building has been divided into three distinct zones, which, despite being connected through a common corridor, could still operate and function independently.
  • Entrance: For minimizing heat loss from the building, entry to the building has been provided from the east side with minimum opening.
  • Natural Light: The building has been planned in such a manner, that all inner spaces have the distinct advantage of adequate natural light until it is available outside, in order to eliminate the need of using power sourced from conventional sources for lighting the inner spaces.
  • Making use of Geo-thermal Energy: The northern side/portion of the building, housing, stores, toilets, and part of the assembly hall, staircases etc., have been designed to be one metre below ground level in order to source the earth required for the construction of the building and for making use of geo-thermal energy for heating the cool northern side.
  • Multiple use of Spaces: In order to make optimum use of the limited space available in the building and to overcome the limitations imposed by the cold climate, a large central space earmarked as an assembly area, is used for performing multiple activities like teaching, meeting, undertaking cultural activities, and entertainment and accordingly remains the heart and soul of the school building.
  • Making use of Geo-Thermal energy: A portion of the building falling on the northern side has been planned and designed to be lower than normal ground level and has accordingly been kept one metre below the prevailing ground level because earth’s temperature at this depth has been recorded to be relatively warm in winters andcool in summers, which helps in creating comfortable living conditions in the northern part of the building, through the use of geo-thermal energy.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 7
Ground Floor Plan of the school building

4. Orientation

  • Understanding Solar Movement: Buildings have been planned and designed after a detailed study and in-depth analysis of the orientation of the site and the behavior or movement of the sun during the summer and winter seasons in the cold and dry climatic region.
  • Optimizing Solar Heat: Orientation has been embedded as an integral part of building design to make optimum use of solar heat and light in order to overcome the challenges posed by extreme cold and the non-availability of the light from the power grid/conventional sources of power.
  • Orienting South: Considering the distinct advantages offered by the southern side, buildings have been oriented with the larger part of buildings housing human activities facing south. South orientation keeps buildings warm in winters through passive solar heating, providing the most cost-effective option of creating ambient living and working conditions within buildings.
  • Large Windows provided on the southern side: For the best use of sunlight and sun heat, the building envelope has been designed with larger openings provided in the southern direction.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 9

5. Structure:

  • Simple: The structure system adopted for the building has been kept simple for ease of construction; use of locally available materials; and avoiding the use of steel and concrete.
  • Walls: The compact, double-story building has been constructed with one –two-feet-thick walls made of rammed earth sourced from the site itself, which also act as load-bearing structures. Thick rammed earth walls keep buildings warm in winters and cool in summers; they act as heat bank, absorbing heat from the sun during the day, storing it, and releasing it to rooms at night.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 11

6. Material:

  • Using Local Materials: Considering the non-availability of the latest building materials, the high cost of building technologies used in modern construction, and restrictions imposed by the cost and absence of skilled labour; using available local building materials based on earth and traditional construction technologies was considered the best and most appropriate option for making of buildings.
  • High Mass Building Envelop: The majority of materials used for construction in campus buildings include wood, sand, earth, and clay, which are known for their distinct qualities to have a high thermal mass and low thermal conductivity, which has helped in creating high mass building envelope, ensuring the retention of solar heat within the building.
  • Using Rammed Earth: The material used for the construction of thick walls is made out of rammed earth, sourced locally, by digging the north portion of the building. Earth sourced from the site is mixed with sand and clay, in a predetermined proportion and put in a wooden frame at the site. The mixture is then rammed/compacted with pounders to create bricks, which are then used for the construction of walls.
  • Building Envelop: The building envelop has been carefully and thoughtfully designed so as to minimize heat loss, maximize heat gain, and admit maximum daylight within the building. Accordingly, for making building envelopes efficient, the material used for creating building envelopes is bricks made of rammed earth. The thickness of walls has been varied from one to two feet, which not only act as structural walls, supporting the live and dead load of the building but also work and operate as the heat bank. Thick earthen walls help in storing daytime radiated solar heat which is emitted by walls at night to provide required heat to keep inside warm. The outer walls are insulated by erecting another jacket wall, which is separated from the inner wall by a gap of 6 inches. Gap between two walls is filled with low-cost insulating materials involving saw dust, wood shaving, wastepaper and plastic. Cow dung mixed with clay and earth is used for wall finishes, which have been found to be both cost-effective and energy efficient.
  • Sourcing Earth from Site: The earth used in the construction was sourced from the northern portion of the building, which was dug one metre below  ground level, in order to source the earth required for construction and make optimum use of geo-thermal energy to promote heating during the winter and cooling during the summer, and cooling of the northern side. In addition, the space dug out on the northern side was also made to act as the foundation and to provide stability to the building.
  • Minimizing Carbon footprints: Sourcing earth, the main building material used in building, from the site itself eliminated the need for transportation of basic materials from a long distance, reducing the embodied energy of the building and making the construction of building both cost-effective, energy efficient, besides minimizing pollution and the burning of fossil fuel due to transportation. When construction work was finished, the site had no debris to be thrown away, resulting in making environs neat and clean.
  • Insulating Roof: Wood waste generated from woodwork undertaken during construction was mixed with rammed earth to promote insulation in the roof, which led to minimized heat loss from the roof.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 13

7. Promoting Landscape:

  • Despite the fact that SECMOL is located and built in a desert having very little availability of water, the institution has been able to use its innovations to landscape the campus by planting fruit trees and creating vegetable gardens.
  • The approach road to the SECMOL is lined with fruit trees, including apricot, mulberry, and apple, whereas vegetable gardens have been created behind the kitchen and space housing cell rooms for students. The institution uses the mechanism of green houses to trap heat to grow vegetables even during the extreme cold months to meet the needs of fruit and vegetables required for the consumption of residents.
  • In addition, trees like Poplar, Willows, Russian Olives, and Robina (kikar) are also grown on campus which takes care of the needs of the wood/timber required for making additions and alterations to the construction undertaken on campus. In addition, campus has also planted numerous local plants, including Sea buckthorn and Leh Berry, which provide edible fruit and juice for human consumption.
  • All this has been made possible by the use of grey water, which is generated through the kitchen and bathrooms and used for meeting the needs of the water for the landscape and plants.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 15

8. Outcome:

  • High Degree of Energy efficiency: The building, during its successful operation for more than 25 years, has already demonstrated and established that it has remained highly energy efficient and resource efficient. The success of the building and building envelope in combating cold can be observed from the fact that when the outside temperature was recorded as low as -25°C in winters; inside temperature recorded was as high as +14°C, without the support of any mechanical means or fuel used for heating.
  • Net Zero Carbon: Considering the fact that the building does not have any grid-based electric connection and also does not require fossil fuels for heating, even during peak winter months, the building remains net zero carbon.
  • Using local material and technologies: SECMOL has clearly demonstrated and established the role, relevance, and importance of local culture, local materials, and traditional construction technologies in creating sustainable buildings.
  • Establishing the Role of Building design: SECMOL has also established the fact that the role of designing buildings, making optimum use of orientation, studying the climate, site conditions, traditional systems, and practices of human living remain relevant and critical in creating climate-responsive buildings.
  • Role of Natural elements: SECMOL has also established that the buildings designed with nature and making optimum use of natural elements of Prithvi, Jal, Agni, Vayu, and Akash remain the best option of creating most climate responsive, resilient, and sustainable buildings.
  • Reducing Operation and Maintenance Cost: Studies have revealed that, considering the life-cycle cost of a building, the initial cost has been estimated to be merely 10% of the total cost, whereas the cost of construction and maintenance of building over its entire lifespan has been estimated to be as high as 90%. Accordingly, in order to make the building cost-effective in the real sense of the term, it is more important to reduce the maintenance and operational costs of the building, in addition to reducing the initial cost. Considering the need for conserving heat, building design and the use of mud as a material of construction ensures that the building stays warm. In addition, to combat cold and to overcome the problem of heating the water, SECMOL has also innovated by creating its own solar water heater, costing merely Rs 3000/100 litres as compared to commercial heaters costing Rs 25,000/100 litres in the market. Moreover, since it is homemade, it can be repaired by the inhabitants itself. Further, since water is heated by solar heat, no cost is involved in the heating of the water, reducing the operational cost of the building.
SECMOL School In Leh: A Role Model of Vernacular, Passive and Sustainable Hill Architecture–defined by Local Culture, Local Skill, Local Materials, and Local Technology 17
Multiple use of Spaces- Assembly Hall- SECMOL

Note; This article is based on the material, sketches, and literature sourced from the article- SECMOL – A Trans-Himalayan Odyssey: Case Study on Climate ResponsiveArchitecture in Leh, written by Habeeb Riyan; Indian Architecture News; Passive Solar Architecture: Why Ladakh’s SECMOL School is the Most Unique School in the World; Curated By: Education and Careers Desk; TERRA-Awarded SECMOL School In Leh Is Epitome of Rammed Earth & Passive Solar Architecture by Ar. Bahga Sarabjit; and Padmanabhan Sujatha; SECMOL; Vikalap Sangam Website: Learning and Education; which is thankfully and gratefully acknowledged.

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