Passive House Design for Gers in the Ger Districts - A Moonshot Project
In Ulaanbaatar, the crisis level of air pollution in the winter has been an increasingly serious threat for about 10 years - of which 80 % of the pollution is being produced by coal burning stoves in the ger districts (1). Since then, a plethora of ideas, plans, and initiatives have been discussed and occasionally implemented. Whether it be in attempts stemming from government organizations, NGOs, universities, large scale urban planning schemes, or even corporate throes - none have yet to substantially provide (legitimately) measured improved results.
In 2007, the Millenium Challenge Corporation worked with Mongolian government officials embarked on a “full-scale air quality management study, seeking a complete understanding of the sources, concentration levels, and health impacts of pollution - outlining the most cost-effective abatement option for the short, medium, and long term.”(1) As the Mongolian government was not yet certain to prioritize stove removal, particularly given the cost, they decided to switch out existing stoves with a variety of different efficiently burning stoves - which at the time made perfect sense, as the solution aimed to reduce the coal consumption per heating season by 40-50%, ultimately reducing the amount of particulate matter being produced on a daily basis (1). Yet, a few problems came from the Efficient Stoves Project’s implementation; the issue of buyers re-selling the subsidized product to individuals outside of Ulaanbaatar for profit (the subsidy was set so high (85 to 95% of product cost) by the multilateral organizations that households re-sold their stoves in breach of their contracts), the lack of adherence to the instruction manual, a lack of a market/infrastructure for after-sales service and repair, and while per-capita coal burning and while there is a potential for emissions to have gone down - however the continued trend of migration into the city led to an increase in aggregate emissions regardless of the program. (2)
As a result, negative market sentiment developed towards the "efficient" stoves project, prompting a shift towards housing-focused initiatives. Understanding that the air pollution problem came from not only the polluting energy source but from the lack of energy efficient housing, whether it be traditional gers or DIY baishins (conventional homes that families build themselves), these single family homes are generally poorly insulated, ventilated, not air tight, and often containing thermally bridging connections (F1) - essentially creating more inefficient heat loss. Institutions therefore began to tackle other potential urban planning and housing challenges. Organizations such as the Asia Development Bank, the Asia foundation, Geres, GGGI, People in Need, XacBank, Arig Bank, GIZ and the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, the Ger Community Mapping Center, NGOs, and a slew of others have each developed a variety of initiatives related to alternative housing solutions. Whether it be large scale urban development plans (displacing families from homes to apartments) or creating incentives for companies or individuals to develop low-income energy efficient housing (which would eventually be subsidized through the Mongolian Green Credit Fund (F2)) - most organizations are developing housing solutions that ultimately aim for families to move out of their gers into energy efficient homes or conventional apartments.
So why is everyone in Ulaanbaatar choosing to leave behind the ger? Because baishins and apartments are perceived to be better in almost every way.
Over the past 15 years (3), there has been a growing trend of families in the ger districts undertaking the construction of their own homes, seeking out the comfort and practicality of conventional single family homes. My understanding of this growing trend was confirmed by meetings I have had and articles shared with me by local organizations, as well as interviews I conducted throughout my time living in the ger districts in December 2017. Of the small sample of 18 families we interviewed in collaboration with GerHub and EcoTown, my research assistant and I sought to understand how families came to live in the ger districts (see figure 3 for map of families interviewed in EcoTown ger districts), how they felt about living in the ger districts, what their current financial situation was, and what their future housing aspirations are. While only 3 families lived in a baishin, and the rest still lived in gers, almost all families perceived the baishin to be more desirable in a variety of ways (4).
The baishin is perceived to be :
Easier to maintain (because you do not have to air out the felt walls twice a year to prevent mold growth, as you would in a ger)
Cleaner (families believe you don’t have to clean the home as much)
More spacious (as the baishin can be built as a larger home, with a non-fixed shape - compared to a ger)
More private (families can build separate rooms for privacy)
Warmer (because of the hard walls and the removal of the “toono” - which is an open air skylight/oculos at the center of a ger)
Have more daylight (with the ability to have windows inserted in hard walls, instead of simply relying on the toono), and if families can save enough money, they look forward to having plumbing indoors (with an indoor toilet, shower, and sink system, instead of relying on an outhouse.
that requires one to walk to outdoors, which can be a quite nipply walk on a cold winter night).
So why in the world would anyone try to apply the most stringent energy design standards such as passive house to the Mongolian ger - which, though a cherished symbol and a critical part of Mongolia’s national heritage, is perceived as less attractive than a baishin?
First, in considering the conventional housing redevelopment proposals, apartments aren't a silver bullet solution because the option depends on a decades-long transition of ger-area redevelopment that isn't even targeting all areas of the ger district. Furthermore, baishins still present a substantial financial investment that could be difficult for many families to afford, and a "passive ger" could be an option for that middle market.(5)
Second, contrary to popular belief, the ger has experienced many stages of evolution from the simple wigwag to modern mongol ger (figure 4). Evolving over time to be the most suitable mobile home for nomadic herding life, from 3000s BC to 15th century, the ger underwent critical transformation to adapt to new human and technological advances and social changes at each stage(6). Therefore, if there is a current need for the ger to adapt to the sedentary urban context of Ulaanbaatar - why shouldn’t it continue its centuries-long evolution to meet contemporary demands of modern housing amenities and pollution strains, when the technology of the ger has always adapted in the past?
Third, this project aims to provide a holistic clean energy efficient housing package, which will include measured results of the improved housing performance and its impact on reducing air pollution. In comparison to pollution point source initiatives of the past decade - and current piecemeal approaches to ger-district apartment development - applying the passive house standard to the ger requires precise energy consumption benchmarks that the ger has to meet - creating measured accountability that ensures you are in fact developing an energy efficient housing assembly. With the goal of having a baseline measurement of the current ger to compare the passive ger to, GerHub and I installed 4 energy monitoring packages in four 5 khana gers (a standard ger size with a square footage for approximately 27m2) in the ger districts to collect initial metrics regarding the ger’s current energy performance (including the ger’s heating cycles, its heat loss, each ger’s coal consumption, combustion and air quality assessment) (Figure 5 above maps out the gers with the current data monitoring equipment). In turn, once the passive ger is built, we will be able to demonstrate a measured comparison of how the passive ger is performing in relation to a traditional 5 khana ger - creating a 1-to-1 comparison of what the final overall gains of the passive ger are.
Fourth, considering that currently Mongolia doesn’t even have requirements in their building code for buildings that are less than 2 stories high(3), there is an opportunity to empower low-income communities and enable them to leapfrog into their desired future living environment by providing them with a housing solution that not only no longer burns coal, but has the potential to produce energy and be self sufficient through non-polluting sources. In addition, if the ger is not only energy efficient but contains the modern amenities families are looking for (such as proper plumbing and ventilation, separate rooms, easy heating systems, low heating requirements, etc.), maybe families would appreciate having the opportunity to stay in their traditional housing system, vs. having to adapt to “a hard four-walled box”(4). While initiatives such as the efficient stove project were focused on improving the coal combustion efficiency, maybe we can offer a housing solution that improves their overall quality of life by significant leaps of improvements in multiple areas at once - providing a chance to empower low-income families to be self-sufficient in energy producing gers vs. dependent on energy polluting gers.
Lastly, there will continue to be an influx of families migrating from the countryside, or other cities in Mongolia, to Ulaanbaatar - even if UB claims to have implemented a ban on migration to the city in 2017. And as the government indicates a paradigm shift towards coal, planning to ban the transport of coal into UB by 2019, and banning coal combustion overall by 2020, there will need to be solutions like clean energy efficient housing assemblies to fill the housing gap(5). The project therefore doesn’t seek to propose a single utopian value as to how all energy efficient homes should be constructed in Ulaanbaatar, it is simply trying to prioritize one approach to energy efficient sustainable design, by addressing one sector of the housing market.
To conclude, I want to clarify it is important to see this project through an inventors lens - because “your grandest ideas are crude to begin with, so you must be willing to build a prototype in order to figure out what you don’t understand”(7). As a Fulbright Research Fellow and a partner of GerHub, I am in a unique position where I do not have to fit within a pre-existing institution’s marketing or financial agenda and can instead provide critical thought in problem solving versus competing against a trend. We have the rare opportunity to test ideas regarding daunting social and technical housing challenges by collaborating with local organizations and individuals to create and test a moonshot project - not prescribing to an ideal future housing Ulaanbaatar should subscribe to, but modeling through science and locally developed technologies in order to arrive at practical solutions that indicate in what directions we could aspire to go in.
F1) “Thermal bridges are localized areas with higher thermal conductivity than their neighboring areas. The rate of heat flow through a thermal bridge depends on a number of factors:
• The temperature difference between the heat source and heat “sink”
• The thermal conductivity of the materials passing through the insulation layer
• The cross sectional area of the thermal bridge
• How easily heat can get into and out of the thermal bridge, which, in turn, depends on:
− The relative area and surface conductivity of the surfaces of the thermal bridge facing the source of heat and those facing the heat sink
− The lateral heat flow paths in the assembly that can bring heat to and from the thermal bridge
It is simple to say that “heat flow takes the easiest path,” but it is sometimes very difficult to analyze what those three-dimensional paths are, how much heat flows through them, and what actually happens when you block one path. In fact, this analysis was almost impossible before the availability of 2D and 3D computer models. The recognition of how significant thermal bridges can be – and what the best ways to mitigate them are – has grown in direct relation to the availability of such tools. Still, one needs to understand the basic principles of heat ow through thermal bridges in order to effectively mitigate them.”
F1 - SOURCE: “Design Guide: Solutions to Prevent Thermal Bridging.”Https://Www.schoeck.co.uk/En-Gb/Home, Schock Isokorb, June 2014, www.schoeck.co.uk/en-gb/home.
F2) The "Green Climate Fund" is a financing mechanism established by 194 countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to fund climate change mitigation activities, and as of 2015, the Fund has a $ 10 billion fund .
F2 - SOURCE: http://mba.mn/gcf-mgcf-funding-news-mn/
1)Amarsaikhan, D. et al. (2014). A Study on Air Pollution in Ulaanbaatar City, Mongolia. Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection, 2, 123-128. http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/gep.2014.22017
2)“Mongolia - Energy and Environment Project 2012-2013, Stove Subsidies Component.” Microdata World Bank, Millennium Challenge Corporation - MCC -, 1 June 2015, microdata.worldbank.org/index.php/catalog/2287/accesspolicy.
3) Meeting with Munkhbayar Buyan - Building Scientist and professor at the Department of Environmental Engineering, Mongolian University of Science and Technology.
4) Insights collected from the ger districts with Batzorig and Myself.
5) Greg Zegas, XacBank
6) Robinson, Carl. Mongolia: Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky. Odyssey Books, 2010.
7) Bret Weinstein