Architect Alex Shrestha is the Managing Director of Wonaw and Associates, Kathmandu. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Architecture (Distinction) from the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines. He went on to do his Master of Science in Urban Planning (Distinction) from Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University and finally, Master in Business Administration (EMBA) from Ace Institute of Management, Pokhara University. He has previously worked for Science and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO/ Kathmandu) as the Assistant Program Officer (2000-2002) and as Managing Director of Town House Design (P) Ltd (2007-2011). Prawar Budhathoki caught up with Alex Shrestha in his office at Dhapakhel to talk about his work as an architect and his love for sustainable designs.
Tell us about your educational background and how you got into designing.
I had my early education here in Kathmandu and went to Goethals Memorial School in Kurseong, Darjeeling to finish my schooling. After that I went to Dubai with my family for further studies. I then did my architectural studies from Manila in the Philippines. After my graduation, I went to Singapore and worked for a few years and finally came back to Kathmandu. After coming back I worked with a renowned architect named Tom Crees. While working, I also completed my Masters in Urban Planning and did my MBA along the way.

When did you start Wonaw & Associates and what were some of the challenges you faced?

From my college days I had wanted to do something on my own and open a company and had already picked out a name and all. So after I came back to Nepal, I registered the company way back in 1999. But as with any other young company, starting out was tough. Sometimes we had projects, sometimes we did not and it was also the time of the insurgency and we did what we could to survive. There were times when I had to work with others as well, doing projects with Tom Crees, UNESCO etc. I guess the insurgency period was very difficult, but I was determined and did not give up; it’s easier to blame the system, but I always had the desire to do something here.

What inspired you to pursue architecture and design and to make sure that the design incorporated sustainability?

Since my school days, I had been keen on drawing and I was pretty good at it. Not only designing, I loved the process that involved planning, executing and such. And luckily I had subjects that would help me pursue a career in architecture and design. As far as being sustainable, it for sure did not happen overnight. I had an affinity for nature from a young age. Love being around nature and along the way in my career, I started thinking about problems which could be solved with my expertise. In that sense, I saw the problem of sustainability and I tried to do better using my expertise and if I may say so, it has worked well.

     

What are some challenges you faced while doing your projects where you had to think outside of the box?

Since we also implement and not only focus on designing, there are many challenges that we face here in Nepal. And I definitely cannot pinpoint one single project. But there have been financial challenges, difficulty in procuring materials and also in finding a skilled workforce. There are challenges of infrastructure, terrain, transportation etc. But we need to overcome these and do what we have to do and create an example for generations to come.

How can we change the mentality of people on designing and architecture and incorporate a sustainable way of building?
Like I said before, it is very easy to blame the system and the difficulties, but I feel we just need to do the best we can, given the circumstances. Be it a small or a big project, give your best shot. If everyone puts in work in their own respective field, we can change the mentality and that is how I feel we develop. Since my field is architecture and designing, I try to do my part. I work with a lot of young people since they are the future.

Let’s talk about some of your sustainable projects.
Recently, we finished the Pavilions Himalayas Nepal in Pokhara. It was one of our most ambitious projects. The whole structure is self-sufficient. We made sure we used the land, the surroundings as well as the locals to operate the property. The gas is generated from waste material. It is a different setting altogether and we have won various awards for it. We also have a few projects lined up in the future.

You have also been teaching in various universities.
Yes, I have been teaching for many years at the Engineering College, at Kathmandu University, Tribhuvan University and at Pokhara University. My biggest concern is brain drain, because as soon as our youth finish their schooling, they want to go abroad. The reason I have dedicated my time in Nepal is to inspire young people to stay in the country. I feel it is very important for them to stay. By setting an example I want people to realize that there are opportunities here if you work hard. So I try to create high quality constructions to show them what we can achieve with dedication. We invite interns from here and from India so they can learn from my classes. My desire has always been to stay here and add value to Nepal. I share my experiences with students so that they will get inspired to also stay and do something in the country rather than go abroad. I used to teach regularly but these days I travel a lot and have less time, so I give advice more.

Any last words?
It’s a work in progress. It will happen slowly. We need to put in the work in our respective fields to change the landscape and we will surely get there.