Rachel Nisbet: As an architect, how did you come to focus on creating of low-tech structures, which are able to collect and store snow and ice?
Conradin Clavuot: When my architecture class at the University of Lichtenstein discovered Sonam Wangchuck’s Ladakian Ice Stupas, this was an important step in conceiving how we might initiate creative, meaningful, socioenvironmental architectural projects in our own water-stressed regions. That in creating ice stupas, natural processes can exclusively shape their growth, and that local populations can benefit from such a simple water storage method opens up an exciting field of holistic, aesthetic and technical inquiry.
In Switzerland, I sought out individuals seeking to address problems of freshwater supply, who might want to collaborate in piloting an ice stupa project. After encountering the glaciologist Dr Felix Keller, we began a Swiss ice stupa project to preserve the rapidly melting Morteratsch Glacier. This project led to our founding Ice Stupa International, and opened up the possibility of our developing radical ways to transform local, sustainable development practices.
RN: I understand that your childhood was spend in the Graubunden. Did growing up in this beautiful, Swiss mountain region influence your decision to focus on holistic, sustainability projects?
CC: As a boy, I spent a lot of time on our alpine pastures, observing the changing weather, the night skies, the wild and domestic animals, and the collaborative labour of the farming community tending these meadows and their herds, who had a profound understanding of the seasonal patterns that shaped their surroundings. This, together with the joy experiencing the pastures’ smells and sounds, made a deep impression on me. Perhaps I was inspired to study architecture, simply because leaning back on a warm wooden wall is very relaxing!
As an architect, I work with the practical, interdisciplinary applications of physics. My interest in integrated, sustainable projects has grown during my career; it is wisdom for future generations.
RN: Why is it so important to you to find low-tech, simple solutions to water shortage problems? I ask, as this is very much IRHA’s approach as well.
When addressing the issue of water storage, we do not need further technical solutions, requiring additional power. Natural processes can be harnessed to store water; by working with natural materials and processes, we avoid consuming grey energy (the energy associated with a manmade product) and creating more waste. The simpler a system is, the more easily everyone can use it; if we make structures from natural materials, manufacturing spare parts becomes redundant. Finally, without much additional, specialist knowledge, it is possible to create architectural structures that have joyful, dynamic or living qualities.
RN: we value intercultural exchange within IRHA’s projects. As well as sharing our expertise in rainwater harvesting, when working with communities in countries including Senegal, Nepal and Bolivia, we are also interested in learning about place-specific agricultural practices. Potentially, we can adapt and apply one community’s practices in another location. Accordingly, it is inspiring to learn of your trip to Ladakh, to meet Sonam Wangchuk and observe the artificial glaciers or ice stupas he created with the assistance of local communities. How have you used ice stupas’ water storage capacities to meet the water requirements of inhabitants of the Swiss Alps?
CC: In Switzerland, snowmelt typically supplies freshwater until June, and issues of water storage and supply are typically only of concern in the dry, autumnal months. However, one emerging water-scarcity issue is that our high alpine valleys have recently begun experiencing dry weather in May. So farmers have begun pumping water out of mountain streams to irrigate the alpine meadows upon which they pasture their cattle. Clearly, lowering the volume of water in alpine streams in the spring stresses aquatic fauna and flora. Creating many big ice stupas could provide an alternative way of harvesting and supplying water to irrigate alpine meadows in this context, alleviating the need to divert alpine streams for this purpose.
In Switzerland, the biggest water storage challenges associated with climate change are faced by mountain huts, most of which are run by the Swiss Alpine Club (CAS); by mountain restaurants, and by the alpine economy in general. In Swiss mountain environments, glaciers play a key role in water storage. However, the pronounced glacial retreat experienced in the past two decades has led to fountains and wells to start running dry.
To address the pressing issue of water scarcity in the high Alps, we have begun a test project at the CAS Lischana Hut in the Lower Engadine. It employs many methods to restore a supply of freshwater water for this building. Ice stupas are one option. However, there are many other ways to farm snow using low-tech methods, stocking it to supply huts with meltwater throughout the summer season. One possibility is to erect architectural structures that redirect the prevailing winds, depositing snow in proximity to the Lischana Hut in the winter, which can gradually melt to supply freshwater throughout the summer season. Another possibility is to trigger artificial avalanches to move snow to a desired location, where it can be stored to supply freshwater during the summer. A further option is to create shadow artificially, enabling larger snow deposits to accumulate within the catchment and to remain within it through the summer months. We want to supply the Lischana Hut with freshwater through a combination of the above methods; however, the broader aim of this test project is to retain precipitation within this alpine catchment, as snow, ice and permafrost. By retaining snow and ice here over the summer, we aim to prevent the ailing Lischana glacier from melting away.
RN: Do you think that ice stupas, wind deflectors or snow gathering walls could potentially become common features in alpine resorts?
CC: Many of these architectural elements have existed in mountain environments for a long time. It would be a good idea to use them when creating artificial snow in ski resorts. This would reduce the need to drain water from artificial lakes to produce snow, and reduce the need to use extremely high-energy consuming artificial snow blowers in mountain regions.
RN: If glacial runoff is diminishing, due to the loss of ice mass in the Swiss Alps, is this also having an impact on the region’s fauna and flora? Thanks to the Heidi story, Switzerland is famous for its alpine meadows after all! Can snow and ice harvesting help safeguard this biome?
CC: Glaciers act as the principal water reservoir in the high Alps. In winter, snow falls. The accumulation of snow enables these mountain regions to store water, preventing water shortages being experienced by local farmers, flora and fauna until the early summer months. In the Swiss high mountains, there is no possibility of groundwater storage. The mountain topography and the subsurface geology make this impossible. Consequently, glacial meltwaters and seasonably variable precipitation have to supply water needs in the Alps. In summertime, we already have water supply problems in many parts of the Swiss Alps, due to changing weather patterns. This affects traditional alpine activities, with farmers experiencing a much shorter season when they can pasture their animals on alpine meadows. Lower summer precipitation levels, such as we experienced during 2018, lead the alpine grasses to wilt and die; the cattle lack drinking water too. If this trend continues, the cattle will be forced to descend from the high pastures to the lower alpine valleys much earlier in the season. This means they will be pastured in areas that are traditionally mown to build up hay supplies in the summer, which they later feed upon during the winter months. Clearly, if alpine cattle must eat their winter hay supplies in August, farming cows in this environment becomes unsustainable.
Our snow and ice harvesting projects seek to conserve local, high mountain water resources, so water can be used in the right place, at the right time. In the Swiss mountains, the water needs of humans and the fauna and flora that sustain them are considerable. Accordingly, in recent years, our focus has been to conserve the biggest glacier in the Bernina mountain region: the Morteratsch glacier. We are working on a big, zero energy project to grow this glacier, so it begins to accumulate a greater volume of snow, as compared to the volume of meltwater it loses during the course of the summer months. From both cultural and a socio-economic perspectives, this is a hugely important project for the inhabitants of the Bernina Alps, as this is the third biggest glacier in the region and it is rapidly shrinking at present. By focusing on growing this glacier, we are tackling the issue of water scarcity at regional, hydrological scale.
In contrast, the Lischana Hut project focuses on one consequence of alpine water shortages: due to the retreat of mountain glaciers, mountain refuges and restaurants can run out of water by the autumn. Responding to this problem, we aim to develop a range of snow harvesting tools, to provide tailored, place-based solutions to water scarcity in the future.
RN: the images of the ice stupas you have created in the Upper Engadin are wonderful. As an architect, how important is the aesthetic dimension of the ice stupa projects with which you have been involved?
CC: Aesthetics are a by-product. What is important to me is that people use natural resources to the best ends, experimenting with how they function. Use water to cultivate crops, protect aquatic fauna and flora and provide drinking water for human communities, just as we are doing today through our test projects!
The different ice forms that arise from our ice stupas are wonderful, however. They are co-created by people. We can guide natural processes, to an extent, making fantastic structures we know are temporary.
With 300 schoolchildren from the Upper Engadin and Puschlav, we built a climbing-frame like structure from hooped willow shoots out on the ice. Everyone enjoyed being outside, and was excited to see what ice forms would appear in the ice cave where we worked. It was so much fun to guide the children’s visits as they returned to see what structures had actually materialised, and to witness the day-to-day transforms of the ice. The children became caught up in the joy of being alive to the changing ice forms.
Today, we know that
very large ice stupas cannot be used, practically, in the Swiss Alps.
Consequently, our current International Ice Stupa projects focus on optimising
the simple technologies that we identified and used during our ice stupa
experiments. This includes fine-tuning the zero power sprinklers we developed;
improving the techniques we used build ice structures as quickly as possible;
defining the ideal ice volume such that ice stupas last as long as possible
before they melt. This does not mean we will not be creating more ice stupas,
however. They are aesthetically appealing objects, which can be used to raise
public awareness about water scarcity in the Alps, and the value of good water
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