The Druk White Lotus School

Architectural Case Study Dated:  April 9, 2014
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At an altitude of 3,500 meters and only accessible for six months of the year, the Leh Valley in Ladakh is about as remote as it gets. Designing and working with the Drukpa Trust, a UK registered charity under the patronage of Dalai Lama to create a place of cultural learning since 1997; the Druk White Lotus Valley in Ladakh is a proud venture of the international design firm Arup Associates.

Ladakh Photograph by Caroline Sohie; img src: Arup Associates

The school opened in 2001 and now has over 650 pupils. This fundamentally sustainable centre has become a focal point of culture and communication for the whole region.

Photograph of Opening Ceremony; img src: Caroline Sohie

Background and Context

Druk White Lotus School Logo  

Involving Arup from the beginning, during the time the master plan, concept, and detailed designs of each phase were being developed. Every year Arup an engineer or architect from the design team was given to reside on the site for 3 or 4 months, act as an ambassador for the Trust, and assist the local constructors and building committee. The project team included British engineers and architects, carpenters from Punjab, Nepalese laborers, many of whom were women.

The school’s aim is to give children from this remote part of India a high-quality, modern education, whilst engaging with local cultures or traditions.

“to create a structure that would celebrate and enhance local values, while at the same time making the most of cutting-edge technology and construction methods from the West”

Inherent to this vision were concerns of importing “no energy”, maximizing solar potential of the desert, supply and treatment of water on site and so on so forth. Following a two year study, was realized modern concrete construction as unsuited for the site where climatic and seismic activities recorded was comparable to that of California.

The first phase was completed under budget and within acceptable local cost meters and efforts was made to further optimize the resources of the Trust.

Modern School, Ancient Traditions

Designed to be built in stages, the plan for the school included teaching courtyards, dining hall and kitchen, computer and science labs, art studios, a medical clinic and accommodation for staff and pupils.

Model of Masterplan; img src: Arup Associates

It is all designed around the circular ‘mandala’ form – an ancient Indian symbol of wholeness and the ultimate model for organization.

Circular 'MANDALA' Form 

Construction Photograph of the Pema Karpo Library; img src: Caroline Sohie  

Model of Pema Karpo Library; img src: Caroline Sohie    

Sustainable Design in a

Berger Silk Luxury Emulsion Scratch-resistant, Bio-resistant Paint
Berger Silk Designzz
Berger Anti Carbonation Coating

In a harsh, high altitude, desert environment where water is scarce, sustainability had to play a major part in the plans for the school from the very start.


An emphasis was placed on using local materials. The granite blocks of the exterior wall are formed and inished from stone found on the site or gathered from the surrounding boulder ield. Soil from the site was used in the roof construction and the mud bricks for the inner walls were hand made in Shey. Nearby monastery plantations grew the willow used in the roof construction.

According to Sonam Angdus, site manager for Druk Lotus, “Everyone agreed on granite walls with a mud core. These are stable and well insulated and they blend in naturally with the surroundings. They are also available locally.” 

Adapting to local conditions, Arup also used ventilated Trombe walls, wool as an insulating layer, and double glazing.

Local Material Resources used for Construction; img src: Christian Richters  

Local Resources; img src: Christian Richters  

Passive Solar Heating

Ladakh has hot summers and very cold winters, so the

Karlsson Wall Clock Lotus Flower Plastic White, Black Hands
Fruit Bowl Lotus
Laxmi on Lotus Antique
solar heating. Even in winters, energy from sunlight is stored and used to heat the school and accommodation.

The classroom buildings are oriented 30 degrees east of true south with an elongated east west axis to ensure early morning warm up. During winters, the trombe walls of ventilated mud brick and granite cavity walls are used to provide evening heating in the dormitories. Solar-assisted latrines have a solar wall that faces directly south for maximum solar gain.

The light from the direct solar gain windows is balanced by north and south facing clerestory windows in the Nursery and Kindergarten Building.

The buildings in the residential area are oriented true north south to maximize solar gain.

Photovoltaic Panels; img src: Caroline Sohie

Super insulation

The roofs are made of local poplar rafters; willow sheathing topped with mud and rock wool and felt insulation. The weather skin is sand and aluminum sheets.


The courtyards between the classroom buildings are subdivided into smaller spaces that are appropriate for teaching during mild sunny days. The buildings and trees provide shade and wind protection to these spaces.

Water use

Cutting-edge systems that pump water from melted snow to the site, both for drinking water and for irrigation are employed. Groundwater is extracted from a 105-foot deep well and pumped by PV power to a 16,000-gallon tank located on higher ground than the buildings it serves. A new well is planned for a location above the storage tank in order to eliminate the need for pumping. When not needed for pumping, the PVs charge batteries that run the school’s computers.

The school’s toilets don’t require water at all, and have state of the art passive technology to eliminate odors and turn waste into compost. Waterless ventilated improved pit (VIP) toilets were thus designed to use solar-assisted stack ventilators to help create odorless compost which is an excellent fertilizer.

Avaliable Drinking Water; img src: Graham Brandon  

Compost Toilets; img src: Arup Associates

Earthquake Resistance

Aftermath of a Mud Slide; img src: Arup Associates

And because the region is at risk of earthquakes and mud slides, the school was built using a timber frame structure with timber robust connections and steel cross-bracing to make sure everyone stays safe. Unsurprisingly, it’s already had to demonstrate its capabilities on more than one occasion!

Structure Construction Detail; img src: Arup Associates

Photograph of Pema Karpo Library; img src: Arup Associates

Timber Construction; img src: Christian Richters

Whole Life Sustainability

Beyond the obvious sustainable features, the school’s design and construction focus on sustaining the cultures, traditions and experiences of the region.

All the building materials for the school are sourced locally, providing important trade for the rural communities.

Construction Photograph; img src: Arup Associates 

Construction Photograph; img src: Arup Associates

Construction Photograph; img src: Christian Richters


For Arup Associates, the project has given the chance to make a difference to a community far-removed from our own lives. 


2009 BCSE Industry Awards, Winner of the Inspiring Design Award, International category
2009 Design for Asia Award, Grand Award
2009 World Architecture News, Shortlisted, Education Category
2005 Sinclair Knight Merz Award for Achievement in development
2003 BCCB Award for International Expertise
2002 World Architecture Awards: Best Green Building; Best Education Building; Best Asian Building


Barker, Don. “Building a School in India,” Architecture Week, 31 July 2002.
Fleming, Jim; Rory McGowan; Dorothee Richter; and Jonathan Rose. “Druk White Lotus School, Ladakh, Northern India,” 
The Arup Journal, 2/2002.

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