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A lotus in the desert

Nalini Menon (Deccan Chronical) - A green school that is a fascinating reflection of inter-cultural dialogue (click here to read the original article in PDF format)

Is your child going to a green school? No, don't fall over with shock, this is a trend that is slowly but surely making an impact worldwide. The Green Schools Initiative, for example was founded in the US in 2004 by parent-environmentalists who were alarmed to find how un-environment-friendly their kids' schools were. Determined to protect their children's health - at school and in the world beyond - they worked on a "Four Pillars" framework that integrated efforts to reduce the schools' ecological footprints. In India too, the Centre for Science and Environment's Green Schools Programme involves the assessment of the environmental practices of schools by their students.

Taking off from here is a school that is the winner of three World Architecture Awards - for the best "Asian Building", the best "Green Building" and the best "Education Building". And recently the prestigious British Council for School Environment (BCSE) award for the most "Inspiring Design". "The local community and the designers have shared their expertise to produce buildings that are ... a fascinating reflection of an inter-cultural dialogue," said BCSE.

This unique initiative that was advanced by the Druk Pema Karpo Education Society (a non-profit Ladakhi society), supported by the Drukpa Trust, is situated around 15 km southeast of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir. Called the Druk White Lotus School, this is one of India's most innovative "green" schools. Designed to provide education from kindergarten and nursery through to secondary education and vocational training, the school is named after the 4th Gyalwang Drukpa, Kunkhyen Padma Karpo, who is revered as the greatest scholar of the Drukpa lineage.

Inspired by His Holiness, Gyalwang Drukpa, the 12th spiritual head of the Drukpa Buddhist sect, which owns and manages the school and designed by Arup Associates the school has building blocks that trap sunlight through glass panels and solar discs. The classrooms use natural light. The rays of the early sun filter in through a row of light vents facing the east, the noon sun pours in through a column of overhead light shafts and the evening sun bathes the rooms in a golden glow through glass panes facing the west. The light shafts are complemented by tall French windows that open out to the east.

The solar panels outside harness the energy from the sun to keep the turbines running. "We commissioned the solar generator in 2008 because Ladakh has nearly 300 days of clear sunshine," said Philip Cornwell, First Chair of the Drukpa Trust, London. "The design team strongly believed that building in a context like Ladakh would need to be responsive to that particular extraordinary environment; buildings would need to be designed as intuitive and easy to operate; the site would use the available resources in a sustainable and appropriate way; the overall design would support the teaching and learning activities by providing simple, flexible and comfortable spaces that celebrate local culture and skills. This was in clear contrast to the high-tech approach often adopted in the area in the recent years," said Francesca Galeazzi of Arup Associates. "The plan for the school buildings is based on the traditional nine-square grid of the mandala, a symbolic figure of particular significance in Buddhist philosophy, surrounded by a series of concentric circles, formed by low walls, stupas and willow trees," she added.

The award winning features of the school were the ventilation improved pit latrines that did not need water "in a desert environment", passive solar heating devices and "trombe" walls that trapped heat and released it slowly through narrow spaces between the facades, a gravity feed water system that pumped snow-melt water from a depth of 30 metres and anti-seismic wooden rods and steel support structures to withstand earthquakes.

A spokesperson at the Drukpa's office explained that the "trombe walls are used to provide evening heat to the dormitories. They are constructed of ventilated mud-brick and granite cavity walls with double glazing. They are coated externally with a dark, heat-absorbing material and faced with a double layer of glass. As the sun heats up this surface, heat is stored in the mass wall and later conducted inwards to the dormitory rooms at night by way of operable vents."

The school also offers a carbon offset investment programme to visitors flying into Ladakh to reduce their carbon footprints by investing in the school's solar generator system. Meanwhile work on the school continues with the addition of a new library and more classrooms -all going on to show what commitment to greening the environment can achieve!