A brief insightful chat with Robert Barnes

We had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Robert Barnes, a practicing British architect and senior lecturer at The CASS school of Architecture, London. He was in Kathmandu with his students on a two week visit, conducting academic research centered on transitional and informal settlements within the valley. He dropped by at our office to visit his ex-student; Phuntsok Tsering, who is currently working at THD and was kind enough to stay a little while longer to bond with the other staff members as well. His knowledge of Phuntsok working at an outsourcing company raised a well-built curiosity, as it would, which led to a round table discussion encompassing everything to do with off shoring. It was kind of him to share some valuable insights on what keeps outsourcing afloat and how it is received throughout UK. We also had the opportunity to get the scoops on the British academic/live architecture projects that are on-going in and around Kathmandu Metropolitan City and how well it has worked out for them in contrast and in context to their previous venture in India.


Outsourcing and breaking the prejudice

No time was spent when the discussion plunged into a lighter yet anxious subject that we as an outsourcing company yearned to know, concerning the outsourcing industry that has bloomed in Asian countries like ours in connection to the western world.
The architecture practice as we know in general is contextual and grounded towards the codes and regulations governing a particular country/region they are from. Each of these practices is commonly handled by people who are more or less familiar with the entire framework and therefore do not require the need to familiarize themselves with the formalities every so often. Such arrangement means it somehow lessens the concern of encountering mistakes within the drawings or having to deal with too many follow ups. This has been a typical scenario of hiring drafts person in any company and also one of the main reasons why companies abroad feel uncomfortable when it comes to outsourcing. As Robert Barnes acknowledged, people still hold on to this prejudice because they are skeptical about sharing their work offshore where these establishments may not understand their procedures or most importantly lack communication skills.


However, such may not be the case anymore as he later admitted, particularly after he was presented with the array of works done by Town House Design. He was fairly impressed with the extent to which THD had hands on information and the scale of experience related to UK architectural projects. However, he explained that his major concern would be the communication ability, the clarity with which the information need to be transferred and how many takes it would require for the project to be properly understood by the people on the other side of the spectrum. But it so happens, outsourcing isn’t a newbie to the world of architecture as this global trend has been around for quite a long time. THD in particular has proven a success with seven years of experience providing clients overseas with architectural drafting and detailing services backed up with proper communication system and most importantly sound knowledge on the National building codes and regulations of that particular country.


Research, implications and success

THD was pre-informed of the academic research that was going on in the capital by the students of CASS school of architecture (a unit focused on architecture of rapid change and scarce resources) led by Prof. Maurice Mitchell, senior lecturer Robert Barnes and Dr Bo Tang. Hence, our obvious second choice of the talk was to delve a bit more on the activities they have been doing so far and what their research actually entails.
The studio deals with examining the physical and cultural influences on the built environment where resources are scarce and where both culture and technology are in a state of rapid change.


The students have been investigating informal settlements near river fronts in the capital; also known in local tongue as ‘Sukumbasi areas’ where the residents are on high risk of being evicted anytime without prior warning by the government body or private owners who might decide to develop or sell the land to private investors. They are currently focusing around areas like Balaju, Balkhu, Central ghats, Shanti Nagar and Jadibuti. As this is their first visit to Kathmandu Valley, their attempt has been to build connections with the locals, community leaders and social groups that can support the cause of their project and assist them in paving a way for their future visits.

We started by touching on the topic of why they switched to Nepal after having established themselves in India over the last 10 years. One of the reasons, as he explained, had to do with the bureaucracy because of time the project consumed while tackling their involvements as well as interventions.

He talked on the matter of climate study as well and their effects on the thermal design as opposed to the climate they had experienced in India which, as he described was very benign, nonetheless holding its own benefits when it came to designing buildings. The climatic difference here came as a good advantage to them allowing the opportunity for the students to practically inspect the effect of temperature fluctuation in a thermal design basis.
On that differential note, he also pressed on some of the issues that he discovered in Kathmandu City which were more or less similar to that of issues that they as a team had to deal with in many places in India. Pollution was one such common issue that they noticed was prevalent in the river fronts and all about. However, he explained, “it’s a different system here in terms of waste management. We didn’t have waste pickers operating the way that they did in India. It seems to work better in here.” We, as honest spectators of the ongoing embellishments for SAARC fair in the country, thought well to point out that they might have arrived at the best of times with the preparation of SAARC summit at its peaks.

Upon being asked about the success in terms of improving the conditions of the settlements they research on, Mr. Robert Barnes elaborated, on the success of few of their projects in India.



Kachhpura, a small village in Agra was declared the first rural open defecation-free village of India after the successful building of 135 toilets through the combined effort of the students of CASS school of Architecture, CURE (Indian NGO) and most importantly the inhabitants of Kachhpura.


Dewats     http://www.thecass.com/projects/projects/current1/agra

This was followed by yet another achievement with the construction of the first Decentralized Waste water Treatment System (DEWATS) installed in Agra. Such a feat not only improved the hygiene aspects of the area but it had deeper impact on the health and social well-being.

In addition, they have coordinated and managed other live projects which included quarry classrooms in Navi Mumbai and the construction of a new primary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone.






Robert Barnes said in admission that these sorts of projects do not sound very marvelous and aren’t very news-worthy but it actually makes a massive difference to a lot of people. When the fundamental infrastructure such as basic sanitation, water supply, etc. is the bench mark in the development of a city, then we can be rest-assured that the other prominent aspects of architecture will fall into place in due course as they are very much well connected.

Photograph by Reynold Li

Photograph by Reynold Li

Riverfront talks 

Talking furthermore, the discussion arced on the project that is currently operating at the moment along the river banks initiated by the government. The Bagmati River flowing through the valley has been a constant focus of concern because of the intensity of pollution and the growing population of squatter settlements inhabiting its banks. The fact that the river has retreated further back from its embankments has caused a considerable span of land to form in between, now inhabited by informal settlements. To address the issue of reducing the pollution, the government have decided to develop these lands as an accessible transportation commodity to improve the infrastructure of the city and cleanse the river from its daily dump. They are building a motor accessible roadway along the river front carrying the sewer network underneath it that will intercept all other sewage lines with direct connection to the river. Robert Barnes recalled a similar case that can be retraced back to London in 1858 during the time known as The Great Stink. Joseph Bazalgette, a 19th-century civil engineer created a sewer network for central London along the embankment of river Thames. His achievement was instrumental in mitigating the epidemic of cholera and also the start of cleansing of River Thames.


Promise of tomorrow through right connections

The project that they have initiated in Nepal is bound for many sessions, repeating every once a year with the assurance that it will yield fruitful in both academic aspect as well as in improving the conditions of these settlements. Mr. Robert Barnes believe the secret to the success of these project is right connections to the right people as they are constantly looking for volunteers who are willing to help out in their endeavor. On that note, the discussion concluded in a brighter light as THD was delighted to partake in joining hands with the research team, be it in assisting them with guidance required around the city areas of Kathmandu Valley or as it were, even making the right connections.



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