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Civil engineering students lead effort to rebuild Nepal

March 15, 2016 - By Kim Delker

Millions around the world offered sympathy, prayers, and even money after hearing about the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,000 people and devastated thousands of homes and businesses. But some were compelled to do even more.

Two University of New Mexico civil engineering graduate students — doctoral student Lauren Jaramillo and master’s student Jennifer Van Osdel— are leading a university-wide group called UNM4Nepal that has a goal to help the country rebuild some of the many thousands of homes and businesses that were destroyed.

UNM4Nepal is a nonprofit group made up of students, faculty, and interested community members at UNM whose mission is to develop humanitarian engineering projects that both rebuild the country and provide the affected residents of Nepal with the knowledge and training for them to be able to complete rebuilding projects themselves.

Jaramillo and Van Osdel were among a group from UNM that visited Nepal for three weeks in December over the holiday break. Instead of just fundraising to rebuild the country, they started thinking about how they could have an impact as civil engineers.

“We were already part of a research group that was focused on looking at socioeconomics and impacts of climate change on socioeconomics in the Himalayas,” Jaramillo said. “And the university already had a strong interest in Nepal and the region because we have a large Nepalese community at UNM, with a lot of professors and students from that country.”

So putting their expertise to work to help the Nepalese rebuild their nation was a natural extension of that.

The group decided as its first project to build a women’s community center in Bahunipati, a village of roughly 5,000 people in the hardest-hit district of Nepal. This community lost the majority of its homes, as well as their rural health clinic. Another reason this area was a focus for the project was that there was a previously-established relationship through the UNM economics department and the Women’s Empowerment Project.

The group of around a dozen students and UNM faculty will leave for Nepal in early May to begin the project.

The project involves a unique concept — not exactly constructing a building, but rather presenting designs and showing community members how to construct it themselves using local labor and resources.

Van Osdel said before beginning the design plans, it was important to establish a relationship with the village, which was facilitated by Alok Bohara, a UNM economics professor who is from Nepal.

“We’re hoping to really continue that bridge between UNM and Nepal,” said Van Osdel.

They said that several UNM students from Nepal were in the country during the earthquake and immediately afterward, so they provided valuable insights to the group.

Partners in the project include UNM’s Nepal Study Center, the Pratiman-Neema Memorial Foundation, Dhulikhel Hospital, and Construction Management Technologies, Ltd.

During UNM’s spring break in mid-March, the group is building a prototype of the building design in the Centennial Engineering Center courtyard. The prototype lets them figure out how difficult the full-scale design will be so there will be less guessing in the field.

To keep the project on track, a special-topics graduate course in civil engineering was developed last fall called “Building Resilient Communities,” which focuses on all aspects of what is known as resilient design.

“We incorporated resilience theory in our design process, which involves a more holistic approach,” Jaramillo said. “It takes into account the political, the climate, the culture, the whole picture of region, before we went through the design process. And what’s great about it is that this concept is something that can be implemented anywhere. It’s taking more of a holistic approach to improve the resilience of whatever you’re building.”

While Jaramillo and Van Osdel have been busy the last several months publicizing the project and raising funds for it, the class has been focusing on the fine details of the building process, including determining the optimal materials for the structure.

The design is for a 1,550-square-foot modular building that can be combined together to make a large building or built separately for smaller structures. Since Nepal is a very poor country with few resources, the team in May will instruct local teams on how to build these themselves.

“Our design looks at affordability, constructability, and suitableness of materials,” Jaramillo said. “The thought behind this is that the layperson can build this. You don’t need high-skilled labor. And these will be able to be replicated with a lot of labor but low cost.”

Jaramillo and Van Osdel said that the women’s resource center probably won’t be fully constructed before they leave Nepal this summer, but their goal is to make sure the locals have the knowledge and materials they need to complete it and many more structures.

“This will mean that families can build these one at a time as money permits,” Van Osdel said.

For Jaramillo and Van Osdel, this project has been an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Van Osdel, who is from Minnesota, had previously traveled to India for 10 weeks, so had some familiarity with international travel, but she said the Nepal experience has been unique and beneficial to her.

“For me this is a really great thing to see if this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “I could potentially gear it toward civil engineering. But whatever I decide to do, I’m looking forward to talking to future employers about what I learned from the experience.”

Jaramillo, a Tijeras, New Mexico, native, lived in California to earn her master’s degree at Stanford, but didn’t have much international travel experience before getting involved in the Nepal efforts.

“When we did our research trip to Nepal, it was eye-opening, it was life-changing, to see another culture,” she said. “The world felt so much bigger than the world you live everyday. This process has been a life journey for both of us. I’ve grown in my engineering skillset and communication skills, and have learned how to advocate for something. I think that it’s been a huge growth process. What I hope is that it’s mutually beneficial for a lot of people.”

So far, UNM4Nepal has raised around $13,500 toward their $20,000 goal for the trip. The group is hosting a fund-raiser to support their efforts. Night4Nepla will be held from 6-9 p.m. April 2 at UNM. For more information, go to