At our grand opening, we had a meeting with Palzang’s friends where we shared about our project and they shared about their work with HIV and AIDS in Tibet. We said our thank-you’s to each other and were very excited to have a successful first meeting at the eco-community center.
Part our design process was trying to figure out how many bottles we would need to collect and wash. To do this, you need to know which bottles you have access to. We chose the bottle that we thought we would be able to collect the most of. We then measured the diameter of the bottle and estimated the amount of space between each bottle for the length and the height. To get the calculation we subtracted the area of the door, window, and pillars. We estimated about 500 bottles for our front wall. We also decided to use two different bottles – one smaller and one larger. The smaller one would be used between the top two pillows in a design and would be structurally separated from the large bottles so it would be okay to use this different size.
Washing bottles is time consuming and is best with a small group of people. The reason that bottle washing is important is because if there is organic matter (like labels) inside the structure it will rot and smell. What we did when we washed the bottles was set up a few bins, one for washing with soap, a second for rinsing, and a third for the removed labels. We soaked the bottles with soap for ten minutes or so before scraping of the labels with a steel sponge. Often times if the bottles are old there is mold or dirt on the inside of the bottle that cannot be removed from washing and rinsing. To get at these spots, we got wire and attached yak fur to scrub the bottoms or sides of the bottles.
The bottles should also be completely dried before they are placed on the structure so it may be best to wash them and dry them ahead of time. Don’t forget to only clean the bottles that you can use or separate different sizes of bottles so that when the labels are removed you don’t accidentally use a slightly different bottle when building.
We couldn’t wash the bottles up our construction site because we did not have running water so we washed them elsewhere and transported them using a van.
Laying the Bottles:
We had planned on laying the bottles so that they were flush in the front by using a wooden plank. We ended up just doing it to eye. One person would stand on the backside of the wall and the other person would stand on the front side of the wall. We placed the bottles flat over a layer of mud, with the first layer starting with a layer of mortar over brick. Then we would put the mortar on top of the second later so that the gap between the two bottles would be filled. Keeping the bottles straight and flush with the wall was difficult. Sometimes it was easiest to readjust and make sure they were in line after one day of drying.
On our largest wall face we had placed all of the layers of bottles in one day. When we came back the next day the wall was drooping forward and it took about an hour to get it all back together. The lesson that we took from this was to not place bottle layers too high at once. Five to six layers should be at least partially dry before adding on more layers of bottles. Once the mortar is slightly dry the wall will begin to crack slightly. Just fill in the gaps with more mortar every time you see cracks.
On the bottle necks on the inside of the space, we crisscrossed a wire to support the placement of the bottles. As I said earlier, we decided to fill the interior wall completely with mortar. This is quick and easy. Just fill in the mud until the entire bottleneck is covered, making sure that there are no air pockets within the wall. If you use wire to support the bottlenecks you can just leave the wire covered and inside of the walls. After this we used a second layer ‘plaster’ which is a special white soil with a small amount of yak dung.
It first started in Charlottesville when we were brainstorming ways to build bottle houses. We found lots of examples of houses made of bottles, both plastic and glass. We collected all of structural and aesthetic examples that we thought we might want to use once we got to Lhamo into a document. We weren’t sure how we would actually support the structure but we saw examples of pillars and foundations made out of tires, bottles, and mud mixtures. At first we thought we wanted to use plastic bottle bricks, which are plastic bottles filled with sand or plastic bottles smashed and molded into a brick. These are good options, and are often used on many structures that we saw. However, for aesthetic reasons we decided to stick to only glass bottles, narrowing our examples of how to build these houses.
We spent a day in Charlottesville prototyping different ways to layout the bottles. We weren’t sure how to make the mud mixture so we just estimated using cow manure and assumed that we would get a more accurate mixture once we were at our site. In one of our two prototypes we positioned the bottles vertically and the other horizontally. For the vertical prototype we had two posts and a wire screen which we could tie the bottles to the screen and the posts once they were stacked. It was time consuming to stack the bottles so that they looked straight and there were gaps between the bottles that created a depression once the mud layer covered the bottles. The other stacking mechanisms were alternating stacking and stacking the bottles one on top of the other. We found the alternating stacking to be the strongest. We waited a few days until they dried and then we stood on top of them. Ideally, we would have also put a waterproofing on and tried spraying it with water.
We spent a lot of time digging around the Internet wondering how we would build the foundation and the frame, concerned with how the structure would stand. Luckily when we got to Lhamo, our community partner Palzang already had ideas of how the structure would be stable and still retain traditional architectural elements. It was decided that we would build a wooden frame, utilizing reused wooden pillars and a foundation made of stone and dirt. For us, it was essential that the structure had elements of traditional Tibetan architecture.
Traditional architecture contributes to the significance of our project. The purpose of the building looking traditional is to respect the cultural context our project as well as to restore an architectural craft, which is being depleted by quickly constructed concrete structures powered by rising tourism. Some of the traditional elements that we wanted to incorporate into the structure were including a layer of brick on the bottom of the building where the window would sit, having traditional framing around the windows created by the bottles, and a design between the top two pillows.
We knew we had access to materials to make a traditional mortar made out of yak dung, white soil, and cut up grasses. We also had access to old wooden pillars, bricks, and lots of trash. We also found out that we would have access to a carpenter, a brick layer, and the advice of a local architect. This helped form our decision-making process of what our building would be like.
After our initial meeting, we found out that we were expected to design the structure. This was a surprise to us since we thought we were just researching and prototyping. We had about a day to propose our first design for the structure. Drawing to scale on graph paper and coloring with pencils, we proposed a first design of the building and met with a local architect to see how well we were doing with the traditional elements. He advised us that we use only the same size bottles, that we fill in the inside wall with mortar so that the building can retain more heat, and that we use the bottles to create traditional designs.
Some questions still remained once we had designed the structure. For example, how would the windows and doors fit into the structure – would there need to be a wooden piece around the door that connected to the pillars?
Tibetan music was one of the first things I noticed upon arriving to our hostel. There is a projector that is often playing Tibetan music videos. By now, we all have our favorite songs and recognize which hostel employee turned on the music. The music videos are so different from what I am accustomed to – they are all with a singer wandering in nature and often have religious undertones.
People are frequently singing. They have very nice and distinct singing voices and often sing very loudly. The importance of music is apparent by our weekly karaoke night at the hostel. It is never planned but people just start singing and then someone takes the mic from behind the counter and the next few hours are dedicated to singing.
Earlier this week, a song was playing and people were singing and it erupted into an impromptu dance party. It was around 3pm and at first it was a few people from our group being taught how to Tibetan dance. Then somehow a very good dancer seemed to get a feeling that people were dancing and came into the room. Everyone pointed at him, indicating that he should be teaching us how to dance before he even started dancing. His reputation was valid and he carefully selected songs that he thought would be good for dancing to. We danced for a while and all laughed and grinned the whole time.
We finally got a day off in the lull of work. We decided to take a trip to visit nomad tents in the ‘wetlands’. We paid for a driver to take us the two hours away but when we arrived we were in a stunning mountain town. It wasn’t the wetlands that we expected but it was still spectacular. We had lunch where we had the opportunity to make our own tsampa. Tsampa is a staple food in Tibet made of yak butter and barley. I am a huge fan of putting tsampa in my yak yogurt in the morning. Although, we decided that it was hearty and would probably be ideal either in the dead of winter or before a long hike.
After lunch we went to a large canyon and went looking for a waterfall that we saw on a sign. The hike was steep with beautiful vistas but no waterfall was found. We drove back and were stopped by little piglets, yaks, sheep, and workers obstructing the road all the way back.
There’s a part of me who thinks it is a bad idea to include this into our blog, but another part of me knows that the experience is an interesting one.
It was our first day of physical labor on the worksite. We were filling in the foundation and the carpenter, Yizha, and myself were digging with shovels. Suddenly off the second story roof next door a large wooden plank was thrown off the roof landing on the side of my body and knocking me over. It hit my upper arm, my upper thigh, and my ankle. I fell and was yelping in pain. I remember thinking how surprised I was that the strange screeching noises were coming out of me.
The rest of the group ran over and called a doctor to come up. I had no feeling in my leg and I couldn’t tell if it was broken so I was afraid to move. I saw a large bump in my leg and shouted “I see my bone”. Of course, this stirred lots of anxiety around the group and it was only sudden swelling and skin under my pants. Nevertheless, I couldn’t feel anything and couldn’t be sure what was happening so I stayed on the dirt floor waiting for the doctor. When he came I got up and was carried to the car. It was decided that I should get an x-ray in the nearest hospital – two hours away.
The contractor of the construction team of the house where the plank was thrown off drove me to the hospital since he felt responsible for the accident. Yutong and Yizha joined me as well to help translate once we arrived at the hospital. Lots of phone calls were made in the car to friends in the next nearby town to find the best doctor and to inform everyone people knew what was happening. I felt bad but was vulnerable in this situation.
The first sign of how different the medical system was here was when we asked for ice. Someone ran out of the office and grabbed three bags of fruit and flashed a ‘thumbs-up’ at me. I wasn’t in the mood for eating but I wasn’t about to reject three perfectly good bags of fruit.
When we arrived at the hospital, I requested a wheelchair so that I could use the bathroom. Blank eyes stared back at me at this strange request. Hmmm. I decided to get carried to the bathroom but the nearest one was on the THIRD FLOOR! I couldn’t believe that there would be no bathroom on the first floor of a hospital. When I got to the bathroom they were squatting toilets. I could barely hold myself up with legs so this was a hard-hitting challenge.
When I got into the x-ray room others decided to join. Strangers came in to watch since I interesting. Also, shockingly the doctors were smoking while I was in the room. In the end, the x-rays showed that I did not have any broken bones or fractures so I just got a few packages of Chinese medicines and was on my way back to Lhamo.
I was taking many pills everyday and got a necklace from the pharmacy that protected my immune system with wrapped up dried vegetables and livers. I was off my feet for more than 10 days waiting for my leg to return to its full strength. While I was getting better, there was so much generosity by the hostel workers/our friends. They prayed for me, lit spiritual brush and blew the smoke at my leg, and brought me endless amount of food.
In honor of Yutong’s birthday we decided to have a feast. Most of the Chinese people in our group cooked one to two dishes, which made for way too much food. We also secretly bought a ‘birthday cake’. Cakes aren’t eaten here and so we bought some bread and melted chocolate on top and then sprinkled it with skittles.
Right when we were about to sit down, the power went out and so we lit candles and started our feast. We had just met one of our new volunteers who had seen our poster outside of the hostel. He was on a bike trip and was riding his bike a long distance but I can’t remember from where to where. We were happy to have this as an introduction for him.
Yizha was upset because he had made his favorite dish that he likes to cook – a full chicken in a spicy soup with potatoes – but it wasn’t finished yet. It is delicious but he kept yelling in broken up English to stop eating and save some room for his food. He also made sour faces at the Chinese food, indicating that his food was the only edible food. After our meal, we played card games until very late and regretted it very much the next day.
Since we could only use certain types of bottles for the structure, we had lots of leftover materials. We took advantage of our situation and decided to make some trashcans and other objects that we could make out of trash. It was the perfect day to do this since we were waiting for the frame of the structure to be finished.
Since Tibetans drink lots of red bull we had plenty of red bull bottles. We decided one trashcan would be made out of red bull bottles. This was a collaborative day for us. Locals were engaged in playing with our new creations and were levitating their hands over our half-built trashcans excited to throw something away in this unusual bin.
Jin posted the images of us creating the trashcan onto Twitter. We didn’t say anything about Red Bull but soon after, Red Bull had re-tweeted our project to 100,000 followers. We were famous! A local shop owner also took a pair of scissors and started creating a prayer wheel out of old soda cans. This was the most popular item and was passed around the hostel and again was an amusement for the monks.
A group of us also made peacocks out of soda cans to give to the generous bottle-donators and local helpers. As silly as it sounds this was our first finished accomplishment. We felt happy to have started and finished something with success.
the wood frame for our structure was my favorite part of the project. We wanted to find only reusable materials so we went around town looking for piles of used materials. Somehow the locals know who to call to meet us at specific wood piles and then we negotiate prices and measure the pieces to see which would be best.
Although this process is exciting it is also somewhat frustrating. The carpenter only speaks Tibetan and so we had a translation for negotiating for wood English to Chinese and Chinese to Tibetan and back. Simultaneously, there were also loud sawing noises that made it very difficult to hear. Communicating which pieces are for what is also extremely frustrating. “THE PILLOWS! “WHAT?!” “THE PILLARS?”. Luckily we had a drawing that we could point to indicate that it was the front pillow on the top that had to be 22 cm in diameter.
On the first day we found the right sized wood that we wanted to buy but the owner was not there. We decided to return the next day with the carpenter but the wood pieces were already sold. Later, we were admiring more pieces of wood within the monastery and a monk called us back to his house. He showed us a lovely piece of older monastery wood, but the price was high. We told him that we would come back but felt deflated and weren’t sure if we could find the pieces that we needed within town.
The carpenter went out of town and thought about purchasing a full older house. Again, the price was high and we would have to transport the wood from outside of town. We tried once last time to find older monastery wood and this time we went with Palzang. After a full circle around the monastery we found the jackpot. Beautiful pieces – all the right sizes. We were elated.
Throughout this process, we learned a very important difference in Tibetan and American culture. Don’t ask so many questions. In my perspective, asking questions means that you are interested and that you are wondering about lots of different aspects of whatever you are speaking about. For Tibetans, lots of questions mean questioning their expertise and their reliability. From then on out, we kept reminding ourselves not to ask questions and to trust that who ever we are working with has it under control.