A heaven on earth, Ladakh is known for its stunning landscapes, various hues, and the chilling winters. As we travel on the roads of Ladakh, we see huge mountains and wavy roads and far off somewhere after a long journey, a tiny settlement, tucked quietly in the mountains – blended with the hues of the mountains, yet perfectly distinguishable. These settlements and their architecture changes the landscape entirely and completes the beauty of Ladakh. To preserve this beauty of the landscape and also the comfort of inhabitants living in this cold region, the following things need to be considered.

1. Solar Gain

The winters in Ladakh can get as worse as -40°C. Even though being a cold region, the sun favors this region for more than 320 days annually. Fortunately, Ladakh has strong solar radiation even in the winter. To receive maximum benefits from the warm sun even in the winters, strategies such as passive solar gain are applied. Traditionally, fossil fuels were used to keep the interior spaces warm. But as this poses a large amount of threat to the health and the environment, the other techniques are more commonly used.

One such technique is the construction of the ‘Trombe wall’, a double-layered wall. The outer layer is of darkened glass, that absorbs heat quickly, and the inner masonry wall which has vents to circulate the warm air. The cavity in between traps the solar heat in the day and transmits it into the interiors during the night.

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Working of a Trombe wall ©www.solaripedia.com

2. Materials

Ladakh is a region where traditions are preserved to a great extent. This is also seen through the use of local materials which both complements the landscape as well as serve the purpose of keeping the interior space warm during the low temperatures. Earth (sun-dried mud bricks), and timber made from poplar wood are the primary building materials which are obtained locally and have high insulating properties. Mud bricks and mud plaster store heat in the day and radiate it during the cold nights. Stones are also used for greater stability of the structure. These local materials cause a lesser impact on the environment.

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Mud plaster on walls and timber for windows and doors ©www.tripsavvy.com

3. Topography

The structures are usually built on the slopes rather than on plains which have various benefits. The structures, according to the mountains, face north-south direction. The south façade gains maximum solar heat whereas the north, or the mountainside safeguards the structures from the harsh winds. Building on slopes also helps to avoid shadows due to other structures.

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Openings on south side and opposite to slope ©Passive Solar Architecture in Ladakh-Book PDF

4. Landslides and Earthquake

Landslides can be caused due to erosion, prolonged and heavy rainfall as well as due to earthquakes. Ladakh is prone to earthquakes as it falls in zone IV which is the damage risk zone. Timber frames are braced against the wall, which resists seismic load during an earthquake. It is a necessity to incorporate earthquake-resistant materials in all building types like residential, schools, prayer halls, etc.

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Provision of Seismic Design Safety, in Druk White Lotus School ©www.solaripedia.com

5. Rains and Floods

Ladakh comes under the rain shadow area of the Himalayan range, which is why it does not receive too much rainfall like other parts of India. But due to climate change in recent years, it recorded high precipitation in 2010 in the region of Leh, which led to flooding. Many structures collapsed and people lost their lives. The major reason for this was the use of traditional building material – mud, which, when met with water loses its binding properties. SCEB, or Stabilized compressed earth blocks, made by mixing earth and cement and compressed under pressure, can be used to resist floodwater and the building from collapsing.

6. High velocity of winds and Extreme Temperatures

Ladakh experiences high wind speed which may go up to 50-60 km per hour. The temperature in winters are freezing and can drop to -40 degree Celsius. Apart from the solar gain techniques, the orientation of the structures is done considering the mountainside which blocks the winds. The windows and doors are also kept relatively smaller and fewer in numbers so that lesser wind enters the spaces.

7. Snowfall

The distinctive feature in the architecture of Ladakh is the flat roof. Having a gradual slope, the roof helps to get rid of the accumulation of snow. In most structures it is covered with hay for additional insulation in the floors below, whereas in some structures a parapet wall is built making it a habitable terrace floor that is covered with mud, overlooking the valley below. These flat roofs are traditionally designed for a dry climate like Ladakh.

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Flat roofs covered with hay ©www.flickr.com

8. Spatial planning

The structures go up to three-story which allows maximum rooms to gain sunshine. Also, the thick walls in the bottom allow for greater stability on the slopes. The rooms which are the most used are positioned on the south side for heat whereas the lesser-used rooms like storage and toilets are planned on the opposite sides. In the residential structures, the ground floor is kept for the cattle which allow for heat transfer from the cattle to the upper floors, and also for collecting human waste from the toilet room on the floor above. The room sizes of most structures are kept small (as small as 3x4m), so that the heat remains trapped in rooms. The upper floors are used as living, dining, prayer halls, etc.

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Section of residential block showing spatial distribution ©Learning in Leh, Report
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Section of residential block showing spatial distribution ©Learning in Leh, Report

9. Electricity and Water supply

Being a remote location, this region faces frequent power back outs. Few areas receive power from local hydropower plants, whereas the decentralized solar power helps in other areas, both of which are highly insufficient. Many structures have now installed solar panels thus making it independent of other sources for electricity.

Also, water supply is scarce in this region due to the reason that the snow-melted water which is distributed to the reservoirs, freezes in winter. Additionally, the trend of flushing cisterns in these areas uses up more water, creating a water shortage for many residents. 

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Solar panels in Druk White Lotus School ©www.dwls.org

10. Preservation of cultural techniques and local art

Ladakh is said to be the most well-preserved Tibetan city in the world which reflects the historic Tibetan architecture. The use of local materials and wood carvings on beams, column bases, doors, windows, furniture also reflect traditional Tibetan art and architecture. But in recent years, people have been skilled in construction with concrete and so are using it extensively and neglecting the use of traditional building materials. This material, apart from causing threats to the well-preserved nature, also, does not create proper insulation for the buildings.

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Wood carvings, Alchi monastery ©www.audleytravel.com/india

The people of Ladakh have a tremendous amount of respect for nature. So it becomes important to preserve their respect for nature, the built environment, and beauty of the structures that are so well merged with the landscape, hence keeping the tradition of the Ladakh going on.

Author

Pranjali is a passionate artist and an architect who loves to blend her designs with nature. She designs meticulously and is always exploring the impact of architectural spaces on user's mind and body. You will find her lost in travelling, daydreams, books, and also on mountain trails.

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