THE PROJECT : What does it mean to live in a textile home?
What does it mean to have a material understanding of our built environment – to holistically grasp the ways in which our formal and social geographies create the building blocks of our homes? Here is the question that inspired to origins of my architectural career.
This year I have embarked on a Fulbright research project that seeks to study the Mongolian ger - a housing typology which has molded over time by long standing cultural traditions, stemming from particular geographic and social influences. This flexible fabric housing enclosure is unlike many civilizations’ traditionally rigid architectural iconographies however - for its adaptable and modular housing configuration has functioned hand-in-hand with the demands of nomadic life since the 3rd century BC (See Fig. 1, drawings of two-wheeled vehicles on birch-bark containers of the Xiongnu show covered vehicles with a structure mounted on the wheels and yoke apparatus) (1).
Today, however, with globalization and the massive urban influx of Mongolians to the capital of Ulaanbaatar, the once sustainable textile home is no longer suited to the sedentary life style of the urban community; specifically in a context where winter temperatures often drop below - 40 degrees Celsius, and families living in gers surrounding Ulaanbaatar are burning coal and other found objects to heat their homes.
The research seeks to develop an understanding of the Mongolian ger by developing a comparative case study of the housing typology between the clustered, often polluted, sedentary, and contemporary urban environment of the ger districts in the Mongolian Capital, Ulaanbaatar, and the longstanding nomadic traditions still practiced in the wide and windy plains of the rural steppe. Furthermore, in an attempt to combat the pollution problem, I will co-teach an architecture course in the spring, at Ulaanbaatar’s Institute of Engineering and Technology. Throughout this time, we will teach our students about design thinking, sustainable design methods, and basic building science practices using local materials in order to enable the students to apply these principles to the Mongolian ger and enable individual households in the ger districts to consume less energy and produce significantly less pollution. As a result, this project could hold future potential by empowering the ger district communities to apply accessible sustainable design solutions to their urban based gers.
Although there is a large body of work that has already been conducted on Mongolian gers, I feel personally drawn to this research question as the foundation of my architectural practice began with a sustainable textile house. As an undergraduate studying architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), in the summer of 2012, I decided to participate in the 2014 European Solar Decathlon, with a team of students from RISD, Brown University, and the University of Applied Sciences in Erfurt, Germany. Our international team combined inter-disciplinary skills to exceed the requirements of the competition - designing, fundraising, and building the world’s first modular textile passive home, known as Techstyle Haus (Fig. 2). Over the next 2 years, our collaborative efforts developing Techstyle Haus enabled me to explore my personal interest in sustainable textile architecture - experiencing the full breadth of an architectural project through the material lens of textiles, affording me the opportunity to gain a materialized understanding of what is means to build a home (Fig. 3-7).
The “sustainable” elements of the project however proved to not be truly renewable. In practicing our western sustainable construction methods, and not addressing an urban based social context, we watched our attempts at a future form of sustainable construction unravel. The innovative construction methods revealed many inefficiencies, as the high-performance textile enclosure produced too much material and non-recyclable waste, through the products’ cradle to grave lifecycle; while the highly engineered materials and the unique application of these products resulted in an extremely high housing cost. While the house was undoubtedly beautiful (Fig. 8), the culmination of these aspects ultimately made the project inaccessible, lacking in tangible future socio-economic prospects.
So here I am, 3 years later at it again, trying to understand what it really means to live in a textile home from one of the most renowned textile dwelling societies, the nomads of the eastern Eurasian steppes.
Miller, Bryan K. “Vehicles of the Steppe Elite: Chariots and Carts in Xiongnu Tombs.” The Silkroad Foundation, 2012, pp. 29–38., file:///Users/kdm_sg_mac/Downloads/Miller%202012%20Vehicles%20of%20the%20Steppe%20Elite%20SilkRoad_10_2012%20.pdf.