Building a King’s vision for the future of Bhutan

Commissioned by the King of Bhutan, an ambitious academy is under construction on a mountaintop in the Himalayas that will introduce new educational methodology for the country. Its construction is bringing in multiple new building technologies that support Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness development policy.

By Jacob Mooney

The Wood-Mizer LT70 sawmill on site to produce 28,000 cubic metres of timber

Bhutan’s remote location nestled into the towering Himalayas has enabled the small country to focus on preserving its resources and cultural identity while the rest of the world races to keep up with each other in terms of development, influence, and Gross National Product.

In contrast, Bhutan has made the choice to create policy by evaluating the effects on overall happiness of their people, instead of simply based on GPD-type indexes.

In 1972, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan, conceived and enacted Bhutan’s development philosophy that is known as Gross National Happiness – GNH for short.

The Royal Academy Project is just one of the policy’s many practical applications currently underway in Bhutan. It is an initiative of His Majesty the King. Karma Thinley, the project director, very generously granted me a tour of the construction site located in the village of Pangbisa overlooking the Paro valley.

“What we are trying to do is to introduce a new system of education in Bhutan. We are building it in isolation from the rest of the public school system. Then seven to 10 years down the line when we have a new curriculum, new methodology, and a new system of running and operating a school, we will introduce that into the whole public school system in Bhutan.”

The whole project is estimated to take eight years before full completion, but already a small schoolhouse, canteen, and dormitory is set up for the 60 students currently enrolled. According to the school’s website, “The Academy School will have about 700 Bhutanese students from classes 7-12. Approximately 60% of the student body will be meritorious Bhutanese students from economically vulnerable backgrounds. These students will be fully supported through His Majesty’s Gyalpoi Tozay scholarship programme.”

The final project – a massive Dzong at the centre of the academy

Logs are harvested, sawn and the timber installed on site

The school will go for a traditional design, which means lots of timber in its construction. The main centre structure will be a massive Dzong, a traditional Bhutanese fortress. There will also be facilities such as housing for students and faculty, athletic grounds and gymnasiums, outdoor amphitheatres, and multi-purpose halls and spaces.

Great lengths are being taken to preserve the existing site’s ecology as much as possible. The main campus is almost from 2,600 metres above sea level; at the highest point, the campus almost touches 3,000 metres.

The project is estimated to require 28,000 cubic metres of wood – the equivalent of 400 average-sized fully wooden homes. With the amount of timber required at a construction site an hour’s drive up a winding mountain road, Mr Thinley and the other project leaders had a challenge ahead of them – how to procure that much timber in an economically-friendly and eco-friendly way, and ensure flexibility to keep the project on schedule.

They started by buying their own sawmill and installing it on-site – at first a small swingblade sawmill, but they soon realised would be insufficient for their needs, particularly because of the amount of sawdust wasted by the swingblade milling process. They then decided on a Wood-Mizer LT70 sawmill.

“We find a difference of almost 15 – 20 per cent, in terms of waste reduction, when using a Wood-Mizer,” Mr Thinley shared. “And when we did a calculation on the costs of the waste of timber, we found that approximately one-third of the total timber requirement for the project, just from the waste alone, we can recover the cost of by investing in the Wood-Mizer.”

The LT70 sawmill has been in place for close to a year now, and is running non-stop to stockpile needed timber, as workers excavate and prepare foundations.

“If you go to a sawmill, we can only buy timber,” Mr. Thinley said. “But here we are buying in logs, and we are sawing whatever components we need – flooring, etc. And we have a wood fabrication unit where we can utilise the offcuts. What is normally considered as waste can be utilised. So we find at the end of the day, we get more than we invested, in terms of our return.”

The sawmill is allowing them to experiment with another new building technology that holds great promise – glulam. The sawmill is producing timbers which then are glued and pressed into larger, stronger beams under the direction of Swiss engineers.

“We are also trying to work on other technologies like mud block,” Mr. Thinley said. “Mud is a local resource, so if we can use that even as a building material, anything from mud.

“Going back to the basics, but improving.” 


This article was first published in the Sept issue of Panels & Furniture Asia