An Open Letter to Kevin McCloud: Go to Nepal

Dear Kevin

Yesterday Nepal was hit by the second magnitude 7 earthquake in a month. Buildings and livelihoods have been destroyed, lives have been lost under debris. I know your background is in lighting and theatre, but if there is one thing we all know that you know a thing or two about, then that it is buildings.

The Grand Designs programme which you write and present focuses on European luxury building projects, so you may not have thought that your programme was relevant to developing Nepal. I imagine that you may have spent a few minutes wondering if the buildings were appropriately designed to survive an Earthquake. Equally I imagine that you are as likely as anyone else to have watched the TV coverage with a heavy heart, perhaps donated a few pounds, and moved on with your life, and so you should. That is fine.

I am a believer in win-win outcomes, they are the only ethical sustainable course, so be clear that what I am about to suggest could and perhaps should be done for a profit, or to further your own public image, or to feel proud. Good. I suggest you do it, make a profit, and feel proud of it. If you wish to do it and give your fees to the DEC, then that is also fine by me. That is your call. Pragmatically, you might also remember that those things that can be done profitably are more likely to be done. I would like this to be done. I cannot abide waste.

Nepal clearly faces a problem of buildings falling down in earthquakes. I do not know if their buildings were any more or less likely to fall down. There is perhaps some good TV to be made discussing that, but I know nothing about it. I do know, because I have watched endless episodes of Grand Designs and because I have been to Nepal myself that important buildings, in iconic areas of Nepal do one thing very badly indeed:

They make terrible use of thermal mass.

That they are inefficient in this way may be of no interest at all in the course of the next few weeks, as rescues are made and the population faces economic disaster and shortages, but the suffering that Nepal faces will last much longer than that. In fact, before the earthquake in iconic areas such as the Everest Trekking Path, Nepal already suffered from specific shortages that your knowledge and contacts can address: a shortage of wood.

According to presentations in museums in Namche Bazaar, deforestation in the Himalayas is such a problem that rules exist limiting the felling of trees, ensuring only wood that has fallen naturally is available for use as fuel. Meanwhile, trains of donkeys ship gas along the Trekking Path, presumably from Lukla or further afield where it can be shipped by road. Rows of yaks carry dung to be burned in private homes, away from the noses of tourists. Much of this manual effort can be eliminated, freeing those resources for more productive uses.

And how is all this fuel used? In hostel after hostel it is placed into iron stoves in the centre of a room and allowed to radiate out to stone walls lined with plywood. The fuel heats air, clothing, furniture and plywood, not thermal mass. Instead the thermal mass is exposed to freezing outside air. Even the smoke is vented out through roofs.

A typical hostel between Lukla and Lobuche is a primitive affair. Basic shared toilets and no hot showers. Our trip ended in illness, and the reputation these hostels have as being beyond basic surely puts many a traveler off from visiting in the first place. The problem is, I am told, not just the lack of water but also freezing pipes. Between these concerns it is not economical to have ensuites in hostels beyond Dengboche. If a change in building design enabled pipes to stay warm in winter then it would hugely improve the standard of hostel beyond that point.

That may sound like western ignorance – how could a hot shower or ensuite toilet help post-disaster Nepal? As well as representing an improvement in insulation and efficiency such luxuries would bring in the kind of older or more sensitive trekker who appreciates the extra convenience or hygiene of such an arrangement, expanding the market for a key natural resource of Nepal. I have met several retired people who have been to Nepal, in fact there were 20 in our hostel in Namche but they visited different areas, where luxury lodges exist. These older people are wealthier and willing to spend money so expanding this market improves the balance of payments for Nepal.

So, Kevin, can you make private bathrooms work above 4,000m, deep in the Himalayas? Can you free up the trains of donkeys plying the trail to more productive uses? Can you make fallen wood go further? Finding out would make great TV and would make a great place even more accessible and profitable for everyone involved, including those that deserve it the most.

Simon Gibbs


  1. Wow, Simon. I’ve never heard of this guy, but if your letter doesn’t interest him he’s lacking in both the upper- and the mid-storeys. And you managed to avoid the usual tearful importuning.

    Thanks for posting it.



  2. By the way, yes, I realize your title specifies “An OPEN Letter.” So the obvious question is, where else have you sent it?



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