For thousands of years, Mongolians have been living in gers – portable structures made of timber, felt and canvas. They are highly evolved designed objects: their circular form is structurally stable and deflects the cold wind; the timber lattice and component parts make it easy to disassemble, move and reassemble in a matter of hours without any tools or fixings. It is a perfect house for the nomads. Yet when this house forms the basic unit of inhabitation for the city, fixed in place, restricted within a plot and bounded by a fence and replicated hundreds of thousands of times it becomes hugely problematic.
This is the dilemma facing Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. Over 70% of its population live in sprawling settlements comprised of gers and poorly built detached houses. These districts have no running water or sewage systems. In the extreme winter, with temperatures reaching -40 degrees Celsius, coal is the main source of heat, resulting in debilitating air pollution that is one of the worst in the world.
Because the majority of residents own their land, large scale development requires huge investments towards compensation and infrastructure. Current plans are reliant on loans from the Asian Development Bank that will ultimately have to be paid back, stretching the stabilization of Mongolia’s already volatile and uncertain economy. Even if realised, these plans will not impact the fringe districts of the city, where 35,000new migrants settle each year.
For these reasons, a more agile urban strategy that can ameliorate the pressing problems of the ger districts effectively and quickly is urgently required. This project tackles the problem from the basic unit of habitation - the one thing that the majority of residents own - the ger itself. By developing urbanisation from the smallest unit of habitation, the intent is to demonstrate an innovative approach to ger district development.
The Ger Plug-In fuses the traditional structure of a ger with typical timber house construction. A new truss suspends the ger from above, allowing the centrally placed columns to be removed and the stove to relocate within the thermal mass of a brick wall. This liberates the ger as a free-space providing the family with more options for how they wish to live. The project improves the environmental performance of the household testing low-tech, off-grid systems providing a septic treatment system and WC; water tank and shower; underfloor heating; an electric boiler and a passive solar trombe wall made of black PVC pipes filled with sand. Together these systems act to provide much needed basic infrastructure to the ger and reduce coal consumption. After a one year testing period, we can note that: from October to December 2017, when the external temperature was between -9.9°C and -19.8°C, the Plug-In was 2.48°C warmer than a traditional ger. The average daily temperature fluctuation in the Plug-In was 4.1°C compared to 10.2°C in a traditional ger. The thermal stability of the Plug-In, due to its additional thermal mass, meant that during a period of inoccupation when the temperatures ranged from -12.5°C to -23.4°C, it took five days for all parts of the interior to reach negative temperatures. During the winter, the residents used an estimated 93% less coal than their previous year living in a ger, an estimated 0.266 tonnes compared to an average of 3.8tonnes, a coal reduction of 3.534 tonnes. If each of the 104,000 ger households was replaced by a Plug-In this would result in an estimated saving of 27,664 tonnes of coal per year. Instead of having to walk 30 minutes to collect water every day the couple have access to a 1 ton water tank which is filled by a truck once every 10-14 days. The access to water means that they do not have to go to the bathhouse; they are able to take three showers a week in winter, and every day in summer, as well as sharing the shower with other families in the district.
The Plug-In is 53 sqm and costs approximately $10,000 USD – about the same cost of a basic house. Over time, the ger can be completely removed and the family can add additional rooms. This harnesses the incremental and self-build culture that exists in the ger districts, allowing families to adapt as they see fit. The linear wall of the prototype aligns and replaces the existing fence boundary allowing neighbours to also plug-in, fostering the ability to share resources and systems. The potential is to instigate a cooperative model for infrastructural provision. Through a gradual build-up of trust and a recognition of mutual benefit it may be possible to incrementally build up the infrastructure within a district so that it can operate as a decentralised local network.'
This move has the potential to significantly alter the urban morphology of the districts. By dismantling the ger’s autonomy through attaching it to an edge, the Plug-in becomes part of a boundary condition and thereby forced to negotiate with its external environment whether that’s an adjacent plot, the street or a residual public space. This negotiation of the edge and how it relates to its context signifies the ger’s transformation from a nomadic typology to the Plug-In as an urban typology with the capacity to grow and construct a new urban fabric.
Rather than accepting generic forms of brick houses, so typical in developing regions, the project creates a new typology of affordable housing for Mongolia that is rooted in tradition yet positioned strategically for the future. Over time, the unique Mongolian ger is not lost, but becomes the active agent of Ulaanbaatar’s urban transformation.
Joshua Bolchover and John Lin set up Rural Urban Framework (RUF) as a design and research lab at the University of Hong Kong. Over the past 10 years RUF has focused on sites impacted by the dynamics between urban and rural transformation. Currently RUF has been working in two very contradictory contexts: the impact of urbanisation in rural China, and the impact of rural nomads settling in the city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The projects include schools, community centers, hospitals, village houses, bridges, and incremental planning strategies. As a result of this active engagement, RUF has been able to research the links between social, economic, political processes and the physical transformation of each village. The projects integrate local and traditional construction practices with contemporary technologies.