Parts of bucolic Bhaktapur are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area endured major damage in the quake; some 388 locals died. Brick buildings dating as far back as the 12th century crumbled. Rebuilding will take years. But amid homes propped up with metal and wood poles, piles of salvaged bricks and outright rubble heaps, there are structures — ones in the same ancient style as the rest of the town — without a scratch.
What made the difference? A local guide named Rabin Bharati, whose own house was destroyed in the earthquake, says a big part of the answer is cement. The Bhimsen Temple, for example, looks great — which seems improbable, given its 1500s-era construction date. Bharati explains that Bhimsen and several other structures had undergone major restorations in the few years prior to the quake. Workmen had maintained every aspect of the originals, from the dimensions to the brick construction to ornate decorative carvings — with the exception of the clay traditionally used to hold bricks in place. This was replaced with modern cement, which, Bharati says, was able to resist the shearing forces of the temblor.
If simple, that materials change is widespread. A recent report from the Denver-headquartered Build Change, a nonprofit that focuses on earthquake and typhoon resilience, notes many structures in Nepal use “either cement or mud mortar, with styles varying based on location and building age.” Kishore Kumar Jha of the Nepal Engineering Association confirms that, when properly mixed, using cement mortar increases structural soundness.
It is by no means the only way to improve safety. The Build Change report notes that better brickwork, steel reinforcement and other modern techniques helped buildings withstand the quake. Jha cites good construction practices and general maintenance of older buildings. Even in Bhaktapur, where conserving traditional forms meant eschewing some of the strongest safety standards, “they don’t have to go for the reinforced concrete” that defines modern styles, Jha says. Simple shifts made a life-and-death difference — even despite their outward irrelevance to human health.
Architectural improvement can also help avoid memorable trauma for the living. Improved building strength explains the 2015 earthquake’s differences from the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake, which destroyed many more buildings and killed many more people. Bhaktapur resident Sanumaya Kswalapala, who is 89, remembers that earthquake, which occurred when she was eight. With her grandson translating, she explains, “There was much more damage than in this time … when they [her family] come back to the home, minimal houses were [standing], and we were working at taking the dead bodies [out] to the side.”