Weaving Sustainability Into the Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law Library

Weaving Sustainability Into the Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law Library


In 2015, the Karuna Foundation, an organization focused on addressing issues related to climate change in the Himalayas, presented Holst with a unique opportunity to participate in the design and construction of Bhutan's first law school: the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Law School. Founded that same year, the school would allow the future leaders of Bhutan to train in their home country rather than studying in India or Australia, then coming home without yet having learned Bhutanese law. Besides a chance to create a beautiful campus, it was an opportunity to influence the trajectory of the Bhutanese construction industry by introducing more energy efficient technologies and techniques.

Bhutan is a small country with a small population sandwiched between China and India. They align themselves closely with India who has invested heavily in Bhutanese infrastructure projects. Bhutan is rich in hydroelectric potential, and India has been assisting in the construction of many power-generation facilities. As a result, electricity is very inexpensive in Bhutan. While they are lauded as a carbon-negative country because of their clean energy and extensive forest cover, the building stock in Bhutan is very energy inefficient. Traditional architecture is constructed of local materials, including stone, timber, and rammed earth. These techniques are still very common, and new buildings using centuries old technology can be seen under construction throughout the country. The introduction of reinforced concrete construction and Bhutan's rapid urbanization have significantly changed things in the past few decades. Many new structures, especially multi-family and commercial structures, are built with a concrete frame and infilled with masonry, then coated with stucco to create a monolithic appearance. Insulation is uncommon, as are energy-efficient windows and air-sealing of the building envelope.

Therein lay an opportunity. By helping the Bhutanese to build more energy-efficient, comfortable buildings, particularly at a law school where the future leaders of the country are likely to matriculate, the difference between a drafty, cold, inefficient building and a comfortable, energy-efficient building may be noticed and appreciated. Those new lawmakers can reflect on this when considering policy and begin spreading energy-efficiency via regulation. Moreover, the workforce, both local and migrant, managers and laborers, will have learned what it takes to achieve these goals and can carry those skills onto future work.

Campus technical advisory role

At the point Holst joined the project, the overall campus design was well underway. Developed by local architects Karma Wangchuk and Tashi Penjor, the campus took the form of a dzong, a traditional fortress with both monastic and administrative functions found throughout the country. This form included a ring of occupied structures that formed the "fortress" walls enclosing several buildings and courtyards. Typically, the heart of the dzong is a temple structure, known as the utse, which is usually taller than the rest of the buildings and visible from outside the dzong. As it was on the proposed design of the law school, there was a ring of administrative, classroom and housing structures arrayed around a central administrative structure. Two large structures were placed to the side of this ring; the dining hall and the library. The library was to be designed by Holst assisted by several high-performance building experts: Dan Whitmore of RDH Building Science, Sam Hagerman of Hammer and Hand, Prudence Ferreira from PHIUS, and Thorsten Chlupp, the team’s on-site technical advisor.

Together this team was to advise Wangchuk and Penjor on how to merge traditional aesthetics with modern insulation and air-sealing techniques for what was known as "PHASE I" and to design the Library. Hewing closely to tradition was especially critical because of the association of the school to the Bhutanese royal family. Named for the beloved Fourth King of Bhutan who abdicated the throne in 2006 in favor of his son, and presided over by his daughter, the President of Bhutan National Legal Institute, Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechen Wangchuck, the law school has significant ties to the royal family. As such, traditional architectural forms would be critical to signify the cultural significance of the campus.

The first step in this process was to understand what could be accomplished with the skills and materials commonly available in the area. Our goal was to minimize the novelty of what we were attempting to do. This would help reduce cost and difficulty of implementing our strategies, as well as lower the bar of adoption for future projects. The Karuna Foundation knew that the opportunity to affect real change lay outside the bounds of this one project, and that if the techniques developed and implemented in the law school were too dissimilar or difficult from what was typical in Bhutan, there was no hope of them catching on elsewhere.

After extensive conversation with the team, we landed on a strategy that appeared to strike a balance between all the competing issues. It preserved the modern construction of the structure with a masonry infill. With careful attention paid to the grouting between components, this assembly is surprisingly air tight. That structure and enclosure was then covered with an insulated jacket made of 100mm semi-rigid mineral wool. A second masonry wall would be constructed in front of that, which would give the massive, battered-wall look to the assembly.

Using WUFI Passive, the team determined that this strategy, coupled with efficient heating and ventilation systems, would enable the Library to cut its anticipated energy use by more than half than it would be using typical construction.

Library Design Role

As stated earlier, traditional forms were required because of the significance of this campus to the country and its ties to the royal family. The library is fairly traditional in form, if not execution. An elevated wooden mass (containing the double-height reading room) supported by a massive base of battered walls, with a roof hovering above the entire composition. The roofs of Bhutan are one of the most distinctive and consistent architectural expressions. The roof is supported by a wooden structure that sits on the building below, but the space between the roof and the building is entirely open to the air. Functionally this space was (and often still is) used to dry agricultural products, and in the winter, it would often be piled with straw to insulate the spaces below. Our insulation strategy was more permanent, but the open-air aspect is adhered to.

The interior layout of the library took inspiration from circulation patterns of dzongs. Because they were fundamentally fortresses with several functions contained within, there were elements of defense built into the path of travel. While entrances are obvious, most often they are elevated around the surrounding landscape. Once through the entry, it is common for the path into the central portion of the dzong to be somewhat circuitous, which would give defenders more opportunity to arrest the progress of intruders. Obviously, we wanted the library to be more inviting than a fortress, but the security needs of a library do necessitate some level of visual and physical control over the entry sequence. Once through the main door, users turn right or left to pass a library control point. All the while the central stair is visible. This stair is a focal point and organizing element connecting all three floors of the library and features a "mosaic" wall composed of thousands of wood blocks, arranged to evoke the notion of an intricate textile pattern.


The primary campus broke ground in 2017, and the library followed in 2018. The pace of construction in Bhutan tends to be slower than what we're accustomed to in the US, and unfortunately for everyone, the COVID-19 pandemic struck partway through. This presented the team in Bhutan with a very difficult problem. The Bhutanese construction industry is reliant on both migrant workers and materials from India. Bhutan, with its limited medical resources, took their lock-down very seriously. Crossing the border came with long delays and lengthy quarantine periods. It was difficult to get workers, who didn't have the resources to cope with a long, unpaid lockdown, to come to Bhutan, especially when it was unknown how and when they could get back home. Even as the restrictions began to be lifted, the challenges with shipping and material availability felt here in the US were also impacting Bhutan. This resulted in significant delays that tripled the originally anticipated schedule.

However, amidst the stress and strain caused by the pandemic, the library construction continued and experienced triumphs. Most notable was an outstanding air leakage test result of 0.61 Air Changes Per Hour, which nearly meets the standard set by Passive House. Such a result was hardly conceivable at the beginning of this effort (we had set a goal of 1.0 ACH: 40% more leaky) and is a testament to the diligence and commitment of countless individuals on the ground in Bhutan working to make it possible.


The library was completed just in time for Jigme Singye Wangchuck Law School’s first graduation ceremony in November 2022.

It was an absolute privilege to have had the experience of working with the people of Bhutan and make a small contribution to their built environment. We hope that contribution plays a part in altering the trajectory of their building industry in a more sustainable direction without sacrificing the architectural history and tradition that helps make their country such a beautiful place.

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