An energy efficient house in Ulaanbaatar

Down a narrow dirt lane off a chaotic intersection in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, lives a man many people would regard as eccentric. He is Froit VanderHarst, originally from the Netherlands, but he has lived in Mongolia for 12 years now. I found out about him through a student of mine who interviewed him for a Mongolian television news program during her winter internship. It took me a while to take him up on his offer to get a tour of his house because he doesn’t make appointments more than 36 hours in advance, and as a solo parent, my schedule can be hectic, so by the time the 36-hour window would roll around, my schedule would be full.

But I finally made it there, and it proved to be a thought-provoking morning. I was lucky enough to be able to hang out there for several hours, meeting his step-daughter Ochko and her family as well. I think I learned more about Ulaanbaatar in that one morning than I have in the previous six months, enough for several posts. This one will focus on Froit’s house, which is clearly a source of great satisfaction for him; his home improvements have been a major project of his for years. I’ll write more on our conversation about the city and its future in my next post.

I knew the visit would be interesting because Froit and I had already had several exchanges online. He’d also popped up on some of my Facebook posts to offer his extensive insights on Ulaanbaatar. He is the kind of person who knows a lot about a lot, and who really thinks. These are my favorite kind of people, so I was looking forward to meeting him. I knew he would offer a critique of the kind of development that major organizations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and Unicef have been pushing in Ulaanbaatar, especially to fix the air pollution problem here.

I was due to arrive at 10 am-ish, but I got to the area a bit early to explore a little. It was a part of town I’d been wanting to get to (near the Gandan Monastery, which we have yet to visit). So I rode the No. 2 bus across town on Peace Avenue to the stop near the Baruun-4 intersection. The windows were totally steamed up, and at 9 am the bus was standing room only, but I counted the stops in my head until I thought I was in the right place. When I got off the bus and oriented myself, I found that I was exactly where I thought I would be—a minor miracle, since buses are so stop-and-go here that I often lose count of the actual stops. I was right in front of the Ramada Ulaanbaatar Citycenter Hotel. I had some extra time, though not enough to walk up to the Gandan Monastery, so I walked a block past where I wanted to be to check out the Grand Plaza shopping center with the amusingly named Salamander Supermarket and Sod Classic Shop (at least that’s what it looks like, though it’s possible the supermarket and Salamander were two different stores). Then it was time for me to find Froit’s place.

Froit lives on the edge of one of what are called the “ger districts” here in Ulaanbaatar. The ger districts are “informal settlements” (some of which have been here for a long time) that have grown up around Ulaanbaatar’s city center as people migrate to the city to live. They are so-named because many of the people there live in ger, Mongolian yurts, rather than permanent houses. Over half the population of Ulaanbaatar live in these areas, which are not connected to the city’s infrastructure or services. Waste disposal, heating, and sanitation happen on an individual basis, with disastrous results. The heating stoves from the ger districts generate about 80% of the city’s lethal winter air pollution, and the lack of sanitation causes major health problems as well. I was curious to learn Froit’s perspectives on these issues as a long-term resident.

I knew street addresses here can be pretty dodgy to nonexistent, so I had studied the location on a map he had sent me. I had also seen from the news video of the interview my student had participated in, as well as another video, what his gate looked like. I walked up the street towards the Gandan Monastery, past an active temple in a large white ger, to the first road leading off to the right. Around a corner, just past a shiny modern glass building, the paved road narrows and turns to dirt. In the end, I had no trouble finding Tuul-1-16 with the wooden “Euroyurts” sign next to the wreath-adorned gray metal door.

Froit’s street

You see, Froit is a yurt maker. His company makes yurts/ger for both the Mongolian and European markets. However, as I had learned, he also has built one of the few highly energy efficient homes in Ulaanbaatar, which he hopes will serve as a model to improve life in the ger districts and reduce Ulaanbaatar’s deadly air pollution. I had texted him that I was on my way, and he’d replied that there would be a few other people there. Well, that was fine, because I am trying to meet people who are working on issues like energy efficiency and helping the ger districts.

As it turned out, there were two black SUVs full of other people. As I walked past his door to take a look at more of the neighborhood, one of the SUVs drove past, and I had a feeling these were the other people who would be there. I headed back to his gate, so see another SUV parked outside, blocking the narrow street. Froit himself came out and began to direct the operation to get the two vehicles inside his yard so that they wouldn’t be blocking traffic. People had already poured out of them, and it turned out there were going to be eight or nine of us.

The black SUVs gave me a flashback to Ethiopia, where folks from NGOs and international organizations would ride around in white SUVs, mainly Toyota Land Cruisers (Toyota must make a fair amount from the international aid and development crowd). There was a joke that people always knew the humanitarians were coming because they could see the white Land Cruisers in the distance. Here, the cars were not white and not Toyotas (one was a Mitsubishi, and I didn’t catch the make of the other one), but they had the same feel. They came from two different organizations, one of them the French-based Geres, and the other a group from a local university’s program in energy efficiency. There were two Austrian student researchers, but the rest of the group was Mongolian, and, interestingly, mostly women. They were, as they explained, working on helping people living in the ger districts improve their homes.

We all piled into Froit’s kitchen, while he and his wife Bolora handed around cups of ginger and honey tea, which definitely hit the spot on this sunny but still-cold morning. Then he launched into a history of the house, and how he came to retrofit it for energy efficiency. It was a fascinating account, part personal history, part technical details, part prescription for improving Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts. Froit’s house has been getting more media attention lately, and he’s been telling his story to a lot of people, but you get the feeling that it comes out slightly differently every time because he packs so much into it. Bolora also contributed, throwing in details about the construction process and her perspective on their project, as well as explaining the heat exchange in Mongolian.

The couple’s goal is to try to make the house as energy efficient as possible. Froit explained that it’s almost impossible to achieve a truly “passive house” (one that relies on the sun, internal heat sources, and heat recovery) in a retrofit of an existing house like his. Also, since Ulaanbaatar has electricity, you might as well use it. He had bought the house in 2006; it was made of balk, with clay on the inside walls (“not even cement”) and siding on the outside, but like most houses in the ger districts, had no insulation and was terribly inefficient. There was nothing sealing the gaps between the balk, either. “I can’t believe we lived like that for ten years,” Bolora chimed in.

Froit explained how a fire upstairs six years later, damaging a lot of the house, prompted the retrofit. He and Bolora already had the yurt-making business and were operating two workshops, one outside the city building the wooden frames, and one in the city sewing the tents. They decided to rebuild the upstairs as a sewing workshop. A layer of ash between the two floors (which had been thrown on the roof when it was a one-story structure, a Mongolian custom) is what saved the first floor of the house, though the soaking it got from the fire department probably helped as well. They could still live in the downstairs while they rebuilt the upstairs.

The house today

They started with the windows upstairs, because “windows are cheaper than walls.” They also insulated the roof. And, because the house was built on a slope and had a crawlspace underneath instead of a concrete slab, they were able to insulate the floor as well. Froit’s focus in energy efficiency is airproofing and insulation: making houses that don’t leak, so that they don’t need as much energy for heat. He explained how insulation is key, and a lot of homes (and of course gers) lack insulation. The focus of the big organizations like the World Bank have been on other fixes, like energy-efficient stoves and less polluting fuels (a lot of people burn raw coal). But no matter how efficient your stove is, if your home is poorly insulated and leaky, it’s going to take too much fuel to heat it, especially in a frigid climate like Mongolia.

The upstairs workshop

Airproofing is an important step—ideally, it should be the first step in a retrofit, but it is very difficult to completely airproof an already existing home. They used a house wrap that is basicaly waterproof paper, so there are no condensation problems. For most of the insulation, they chose cellulose made from paper; he opened up a small pouch of the material on his kitchen table. The fibers looked almost like cotton straight off the plant, but were made locally from mostly post-consumer recycled paper fiber, with a very different texture. Froit pointed out that without increasing the amount of paper brought into Mongolia (20 kilos/person/year), you could insulate 5,000 houses per year, which would go a long way towards improving life in the ger districts.

Cellulose insulation

He also told us about the one certified Passive House in Mongolia, which was built a few hundred kilometers outside Ulaanbaatar, in Mandalgovi. It should have been built here, he said, where people could see it, but they had money for the project out there, so that is where it was built. It has 70 cm of cellulose insulation, which is what would be enough for a passive house in Mongolia. Froit used 30 cm insulation for his house but wishes for more: “One rule of insulation is that after you do the insulation you are always sorry you didn’t do more.” Since cellulose costs “next to nothing” and can be made from existing materials (recycled paper), it would seem to be an ideal material for insulating homes in the ger districts. But, as he pointed out several times, certified passive construction is not the future in Ulaanbaatar since there isn’t the drive for it, and since there is electricity available. Instead, people should aim for high energy efficiency through insulation and airproofing.

One of the problems with airproofing, though, is how to get fresh air inside the house, especially when it’s 40 below outside. He showed us the air exchangers, one downstairs and one upstairs, that he had built to solve the problem, which allow air drawn in from the outside to be heated by air going out from the inside. He monitors the carbon dioxide level in the house to make sure it doesn’t go too high, though with eight or nine extra people breathing in the kitchen, it was surely a bit higher than you’d like.

He also explained that they aren’t finished with the house yet. They have more plans for continued improvements, especially fixing the interior wall downstairs that conducts cold up from below the house. He also wants to hide the pipes that channel the air in and out: “I don’t want to live in a submarine.” I got the feeling that if I returned to the house in six months, there would be many new features to learn about. It’s continuous work, as they get ideas for ways to make the house more efficient and better to live in.

One of the solar heaters in the upstairs workshop

Froit’s explanation of his modifications to the house were peppered with commentary on the situation in Ulaanbaatar, especially concerning energy, but also other things. “Every year the district promises us heating, sewer, and water services. ‘We’ve had an election! This year things will change!’ But it never happens. And it would be very expensive for the homeowners to get hooked up.” Houses need to be modified for radiators, flush toilets, and so on, and homeowners would bear this expense. Currently his house has electricity (though many houses in the ger districts don’t yet), but there is no indoor plumbing, and it would mean a lot of reconstruction to install it.

With characteristic bluntness, Froit said, “Electricity prices should be higher. If they did it, the end result will be that people in apartments will be paying more for energy. That is just.” The poor people living in the ger districts wouldn’t need to suffer, though. They should get cheap loans to help them insulate their houses, and discounts or coupons for electricity. There is now the option of renewable energy from windfarms that have gone online from Mongolia, but this energy costs more. Also, foreign investment in renewables has been hampered by the government. The newest wind farm has been providing energy for months, but it isn’t getting paid yet because it hasn’t been given the final approval by the government. Foreign investors don’t like this arrangement, for obvious reasons.

Froit also pointed out that there are as many as 40,000 ger in the ger districts. While houses pose unique challenges in being retrofitted for efficiency, and the big question for them is can they be fixed or should they be torn down to start from scratch, ger are all the same. This is an advantage, because once you design efficiency fixes for ger, they can be mass-produced. He’s been working on a prototype heat exchange for ger, but the problem is condensation from the outgoing air causing condensation (ice), which damages the ger’s integrity. This brought his explanation around to his plans for the future: doors.

Prototype exchange for a ger

One of the biggest problems with ger (and houses) is the doors. Often doors are metal and conduct too much heat. Metal is cold, the worst material, and doubling the doors is not a solution: “Two bad doors don’t make one good door.” Upstairs in the workshop, he showed us his prototype passive door, which happened to be the door to the outside stairs (the stairs are outdoors because they would take up too much space if they were inside the house). He was in the process of finishing the door and still needed to add more seals and then test it for air tightness, but his excitement over the project was palpable.

Froit’s door

“The ger business is over – there’s no more wood supply. The future is in doors.” His goal is to make an affordable version of his model door, made from panel rather than solid wood, which could be mass produced for the ger districts. This would help a lot with efficiency because the doors are often the biggest problem. Overall, ger district housing needs to be mass produced, and ideally prefabricated, so that they could be made in one place and then set up quickly with cranes. “Our city needs small, very fast, mass produced houses.”  

Froit’s final message was to reiterate the importance of energy efficient homes as a viable solution to some of the ger districts’ problems. “It would be great if people in the ger districts picked up on the message of insulation and airproofing – people can do it themselves, but they have to be taught the techniques.” It makes more sense as a first step than efficient stoves or “clean” coal alternatives, because until you can keep the heat where it belongs—inside your house—you can’t take the next step and, as Froit and Bolora have done, get rid of your stove entirely.

This is the truly remarkable thing about their house. They were able to get rid of their stove entirely in January, which, in a city where it can reach lows in the 30s below zero or more, is a tremendous leap of faith. But the house is warm enough without it because of the airproofing, insulation, high-quality triple-pane windows, and the heat exchange. Sitting in the kitchen at 10:00 in the morning, I was much more comfortable in their house than in my overheated apartment. Froit said it still gets a bit chilly early in the morning, and they put a small artificial fire where the stove used to be that can be used to generate some heat, but their energy use is much less than it was. The best part is that they have clean air inside their home, and no ash from the stove. The incoming air is well-filtered. “It makes us think twice about going outside!”

The fireplace

Clean indoor air would be another huge improvement for ger district homes, one which replacing stoves with more efficient ones using cleaner fuel still doesn’t provide. As Froit is quick to point out, these more conventional solutions for Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution problem won’t work. Most of the international organizations involved are still doing studies, with some partial pilot project implementation, and the air quality in Ulaanbaatar has only been getting worse. Better insulation, air proofing, and Froit’s passive door would go a long way to bringing breathable air and blue skies back to this city, even in the coldest winter.

4 thoughts on “An energy efficient house in Ulaanbaatar

  1. How exciting for you to be able to spend hours immersed with people actually working on solutions! Fantastic!

    I wonder if Sod in the name of the shop is related to the Irish – e.g. pub names like The Ould Sod.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marie! Thanks for commenting! Froit is an interesting guy. It seems that these ideas are not being picked up by many, much less the big orgs. The Asian Development Bank issued another report that mentioned none of these things. The problems here are so great, and these orgs just do studies and reports, and things just get worse. So the overall tone of the day was sobering. I need to talk with people from the ADB, but I suspect why Froit’s ideas aren’t popular with them. They don’t fit the “prevailing wisdom” – what these orgs are prepared to do. It’s very frustrating. It seems like improving insulation wouldn’t be very expensive, and would really be the way to go, but what the recommendations always seem to be are either relocating people to apartments in the city center (which use more resources) or fuel efficient stoves, which doesn’t solve the leaking problem.

      In Mongolian, sod means “genius.” Sod Classic Shop is a clothing store. There’s also a company called Sod Mongol Group that owns gas stations, among other things. I think they think highly of themselves?


  2. Another frustrating thing is that I learned about these types of construction (insulation, heat pumps, better windows) in college 35 years ago and the ideas weren’t really new then. Now that we are getting closer to the carrying capacity of the planet, maybe they will finally get a serious look.

    Liked by 1 person

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