Swallows’ nests Lepel style
[b]International teams of volunteers construct ‘energy efficient’ settlement in Lepel District[/b]The Vitebsk Region’s Lepel District is known far and wide for its Berezina Biosphere Reserve — one of Europe’s largest protected natural territories. Included in the UNESCO programme, there is even a village within the site: Stary Lepel.Over the last decade, Belarusian and German partners have been implementing a curious project in the village, building 26 homes from natural clay, wood chips and reeds. Residents have been found from amongst those resettled from Belarusian towns affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Swallows use almost the same materials to build their nests, which are surprisingly strong, warm and durable. Even the main cultural and medical institutions are being built there using the same technology, funded by the Global Environmental Facility.
The Vitebsk Region’s Lepel District is known far and wide for its Berezina Biosphere Reserve — one of Europe’s largest protected natural territories. Included in the UNESCO programme, there is even a village within the site: Stary Lepel.Over the last decade, Belarusian and German partners have been implementing a curious project in the village, building 26 homes from natural clay, wood chips and reeds. Residents have been found from amongst those resettled from Belarusian towns affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Swallows use almost the same materials to build their nests, which are surprisingly strong, warm and durable. Even the main cultural and medical institutions are being built there using the same technology, funded by the Global Environmental Facility.
The Executive Director of the international charitable public association EcoDom, Yuri Suprinovich, tells us that construction began on the energy efficient houses in the Lepel District back in 2001. The German Heim-statt Tschernobyl e.V. (house instead of Chernobyl) charity gave them the idea of resettling young families from districts contaminated by Chernobyl radiation and, of course, Lepel — with its Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve — is one of the cleanest locations not only in Belarus but in Europe.
Belarusian volunteers selected candidates for relocation, initially intending to build ten eco-homes in Stary Lepel. This grew to twenty and, now, thirty are planned. The relocation programme is proving extremely popular.
Yelena and Ivan Baran, from the Bragin District, moved in to an eco-home in Stary Lepel in 2004, with their three children. Ivan recollects that they agreed to the move in a desire to give the children a new start.
“Settlers had to help in building their homes, alongside volunteers. We didn’t know which homes would belong to who, only drawing lots on completion,” Mr. Baran explains. His wife admits that their home is very warm, adding, “Over winter, one load of firewood and another of peat briquettes can heat six rooms, located over two storeys. Previously, we were surrounded by wasteland and dirt; now, the settlement looks rather contemporary. You can’t distinguish a clay house from brick. Even the village cultural and educational centre has been built using energy efficient technologies. Our youngest daughter, Masha, aged 9, goes there for music and art lessons, which she enjoys. We love our home, as does my sister’s family; she’s moved into a neighbouring house.”
Technology designed for centuries
The secret of the eco-homes is the use of concrete foundations and a strong timber frame, with professional builders joined by future occupants and volunteers. As we might expect, the work teams of Belarusian, German and Italian enthusiasts become very friendly.
A mixture of clay, woodchips and water fills the interior of a timber frame and, when the clay has set, the wooden faзade is removed. It takes around six months for the clay to harden completely, giving superb insulation. Walls are covered with a cane grid inside and two layers of cane fibreboard externally, with the greatest layer of reed cane insulation placed inside the roof: 15cm thick. Finally, walls are plastered.
Mr. Suprinovich emphasises that the construction materials have proven themselves with time. He explains, “Woodchips come from production waste and are available in every district. Clay comes from a local agricultural enterprise and reed canes can be collected from the nearest lake. Their structure has natural insulating properties.”
Interestingly, clay houses may stand for 300-400 years and all the materials used are ultimately bio-degradable and environmentally friendly.
The Lepel District Executive Committee supports the project, paying for the laying of roads, alongside gas and water pipes. Houses are provided free of charge for settlers who join the current thousand residents and the village shares employment with neighbouring Yurkovichi at the contemporary Lepel Dairy Canned Factory. The two villages will also share use of a medical and obstetrics clinic opening in Stary Lepel this autumn. Also constructed using energy saving technology, locals joke that the very walls will aid recovery. The nearest hospital is currently located in the district centre.
A contemporary boiler house, fuelled by wood pellets, is also being set up, including solar panels, funded by the Global Environmental Facility (established in the early 1990s by the UN), in conjunction with the Lepel District Executive Committee and Ecodom public association.
Alexander Levchenko, the national co-ordinator of the Small Grant Programme at the Global Environmental Facility, and the UN representative in Belarus, tells us that 13 further projects are being implemented in the Vitebsk Region, with financial assistance from the Global Environmental Facility. A wind turbine is already operating at Vidzy Lyceum of Farm Production, located in the Braslav District, producing enough electricity to light its own rabbit breeding farm and a repair shop.
The GEF is also supporting funding of Rosinka Sanatorium in the Miory District, which has acquired a solar panel to heat water for washing dishes in the canteen. In total, the organisation has allocated $3m for 86 projects in Belarus — all designed to save energy and be environmentally friendly, improving village life in the best way possible.
By Sergey Golesnik