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Arc'teryx lends their understanding of insulation and extreme conditions to a global collaborative effort in Mongolia.

Inspired by problem-solvers in our midst and beyond, Arc’teryx designers accept an invitation from UNICEF’s Office of Innovation to head to Mongolia, to the coldest capital city in the world, to lend their understanding of insulation and extreme conditions to a global collaborative effort to make the ger, a type of shelter utilized by half a million urban residents, more thermally efficient. The problem: tackling the child health crisis caused by coal-fired air pollution from a terrific number of heat-leaking gers. The solution? Close the gaps that let good ideas fall by the wayside and let the cold air in.

It was just an email, like any other email that comes into the machine shop at Arc’teryx where the tinkering team of Pat, Bill and Chris wizard up solutions, customize tools and make whatever needs to be made for Arc’teryx designers to do their work. Pat Fitzsimmons happened to be sitting in the “Open Emails” chair that day when he fielded a request from senior design developer Nathalie Marchand to help make a door.

Fitzsimmons is a hands-on problem-solver. You need a door? He’ll run down to RONA, pick up a door, cut it in half, MacGyver it to the specs you need. And that’s what he thought he was saying yes to when he added “door for Nathalie” to his action list that day. He had no idea he was about to step onto a global team tackling child health 8,186 km away in the most polluted capital city in the world.

Mid-winter in Ulaanbaatar, temperatures plunge to -40°C, and in response, the 1.5 million residents burn coal by the ton to keep warm.

The air in Ulaanbaatar was not always like this. But when Mongolia transitioned from Soviet control to a free market democracy in 1990, massive waves of urban migration began, tripling the size of the city; 8,000 new households are still arriving each year. As the new population pitch their yurts, the traditional round felt tent dwelling the Mongolians call ger, haphazardly up and down the hillsides of the city’s outskirts, their collective cooking and heating with unrefined coal stoves ramps up the city’s air pollution to shocking levels.

The amount of carcinogenic fine particulate matter (PM2.5, meaning particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less) has gone off-the-charts, and with it, acute respiratory infections (bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia), preterm births, and spontaneous abortions. This 2.5 particulate matter in the air is small enough not only to enter the bloodstream but also cross the blood-brain barrier, and has reached concentration levels (millionths of a gram per cubic metre) more than 12 times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) standards.

In short: Breathing toxic air is damaging brain tissue and impairing cognitive development in babies and children. When it’s not killing them.

In 2015, 435 children under the age of five in Ulaanbaatar died from pneumonia.

In February 2018, UNICEF and the National Centre for Public Health sounded the alarm with a report, Mongolia’s Air Pollution Crisis: A Call to Action to Protect Children’s Health. Because, while everyone knew about the pollution, no one had connected the dots to child and maternal health. The issue of the day was suddenly a sleeping time-bomb – the hidden financial costs and lasting health and neurological impacts on children was going to cost Mongolia its future.

It’s a massive problem with no easy solution, and that’s just the kind of challenge that Tanya Accone rolls up her sleeves for.

“I’m an almost irrational optimist,” says Tanya Accone, Senior Advisor on Innovation for UNICEF’s Office of Innovation.

She has to be. Her role means confronting, daily, in detail, the world’s most intractable problems.

The Office of Innovation is a recent branch of the 70 year United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – an agile collaboration that applies start-up thinking and technology and leverages UNICEF’s deep web of connections and relationships on the ground in 243 countries to generate innovative and scalable solutions for children.

“We need to become disruptive and try things that are radically different,” says Accone, and in Mongolia, that meant trying to literally change the atmosphere.

While Ulaanbattar’s pollution has been attributed to the city’s 4 coal power plants, 3200 low pressure steam boilers, and 505,000 cars and buses, at least half is caused by the inefficient attempts of the continually growing number of households in the ger district to stay warm through the winter.

UNICEF’s plan was to task a global team of experts to “redesign” the ger to make it more thermally efficient – something they could roll out, not just in Ulaanbaatar, but across Mongolia and beyond, to Kazahkstan and Tajikistan – other places where urbanization and air pollution were spreading.

But first, Accone had to pull together a team of problem-solvers.

And that’s how Arc’teryx got a call from UNICEF Canada. “We are beginning a design project involving insulation in a hostile environment. We’re hoping you can help.”

When Senior Design Developer Nathalie Marchand sat down in the room in Ulaanbaatar in March 2018, alongside colleague Romy Paterson, Material Developer, as the Arc’teryx dream team on the “21stCentury Ger” project, she was so intimidated she could hardly speak.

The global think-tank that the Office of Innovation had pulled together included genius-types from Stanford University, the architecture firm Kieran Timberlake, the Center for Environmental Building and Design at the University of Pennsylvania, GerHub and a host of UNICEF representatives.

Marchand went to fashion design school, before joining the circus at 21, where she worked for ten years as head of wardrobe for Canada’s legendary Cirque de Soleil. At Arc’teryx, she’s a guru. But when she walked into that gathering, she was a long way out of her comfort zone and completely without armour – no sewing machine, no track record, no PhD. “I felt extremely dumb,” says the tri-lingual Marchand. “They were all academics. I was super intimidated.”

She’d had three weeks to do the most basic youtube research before landing in Ulaanbaatar. “I have been camping in a tent before. That’s about as much as I knew about the ger.”

Marchand’s don’t-know mind is her superpower, though. “My main strength in my job is just to ask the questions: what do you need, what you do want, what’s working, what’s not working. There were a lot of PhDs in that room who knew quite a bit. But what we thought we knew about Mongolia, and the real Mongolia, are quite different. We were sitting in a meeting talking about what is comfortable and suddenly we realized we have no idea what is comfortable in a ger. We think 20 degrees is a comfortable temperature inside in the winter. When I actually visited a ger, I could have been sitting in my bathing suit. It was so hot.”

As she asked questions, it became apparent that her and Paterson’s fabric knowledge wasn’t going to help. Gore-tex is not available or affordable to Mongolians. Felt is. It’s a perfectly adapted insulation for the conditions. As the think-tank members divided up the different aspects of the ger that might be re-engineered according to their expertise, the door remained.

“I went there knowing nothing and I left knowing only that I wanted to work on the project. I wanted to help people who might not have the resources we do. I had the chance to use my knowledge to change someone’s life.”

Marchand put her hand up to take home the door.

There was no chance Canada Customs was going to let her ship a wood door home. So Marchand spent an extra week in Mongolia, using personal vacation time to journey out onto the steppe with a local guide, staying with families in their gers, playing cards, drinking vodka, and eating more dumplings than she hopes to ever again. She took dozens of photos of the gaps that formed between the doors and the sill plates, the gaps around the edges of the felt tent – all the leaky openings that formed with daily wear and tear that allow the bitterness of winter to finger its way in.

She needed to conceive a way to close the air gap. With the average salary in Mongolia at 966,000 tugruk, roughly $CAD520, it had to be cheap, easy to install, and easy to make.

Marchand had a flash of insight, remembering her five-year-old self visiting her grandmother in Quebec, where the winter temperatures hover around -20°C. She remembered the “snake” that her grandmother would kick along the door jamb, a long fabric tube filled with sand to block the draft.

After she returned to the Arc’teryx North Vancouver design headquarters, Pat Fitzsimmons answered her call for help, injecting something else to the project, something she hadn’t realized she needed: enthusiasm, a voice to counter the one in her head that said this solution is too simple; this problem is too big; this process is too unwieldy; how can you be sure that the Mongolians will accept this; who do you think you are?

“When you work alone on a project and only have yourself to talk to, you get to a point where you feel like you’ve gone around so many times. When Pat came along, he went from 0 to 100 in a minute, he was so excited. It was amazing.”

Fitzsimmons reassured her that the simplicity of the snake was just right. Then he built her a door that she set between her cutting table and her sewing machine. Fitzsimmons didn’t think of it as a door. “It was a portal. You walk from 2019 into three thousand years ago, into this tiny enclave of beliefs, this building that reflects spiritually who the Mongolians are, as a people and as a nation.”

Marchand then also designed an insulated curtain, made from accordioned cardboard and covered with reflective fabric, that could be pulled across the door at night like a shower curtain, to add an extra layer of insulation.

“It had to be quiet, because everyone sleeps in the same room so if you wake up in middle of the night and have to go outside, you want it to be silent. You want to be able to use it with only one hand.” Every time she moved from her table to her sewing machine, she had to open the door and slide wide the curtain – testing the friction of operating it fifty times a day.

The refined specs of her door insulation package were emailed to UNICEF’s Mongolian office to be reproduced by a team from local materials. Eleven gers were going to be tested through the winter of 2018-19 – six uninhabited gers at a test site out of the city would be outfitted with all the different interventions, so each variable could be measured and monitored. Five family gers in the ger district would also be part of the testing.

On paper, it looked as if Marchand had solved the door insulation gap. Now someone just had to translate it into real life.

8,186 kilometres away in Ulaanbaatar, in October, Munkh-Orgil (“Mo”) Lkhagva went looking for a seamstress.

An adaptable and personable 38 year old, Lkhagva had taught himself English from a good dictionary and had been hired by UNICEF’s local partner, Gerhub, to turn piles of drawings into the six test gers, ready for data-collecting to start in November.

It was an ambitious timeline, that didn’t exactly accommodate the realities of life – or the heinous traffic – in Mongolia. “I’ve never sewn anything in my life,” said Lkhagva. “I’m just able to understand English.” He posted ads on the Mongolian equivalent of craigslist, and visited a local sewing school, before the professor, a tiny fierce woman told him pointedly that none of her students would have the skills to do what he needed, but that she could probably help. He visited her tiny studio, a poorly ventilated room with peeling linoleum, bedecked with old fashion magazine cut-outs showcasing Soviet flair, an ancient sewing machine as the centrepiece. He showed her the drawings. She seemed to understand.

As far as Marchand could tell, it was working. “Mo was fantastic. He took pictures of everything that was available. If we said we needed a hook, next day he would go to their equivalent of Home Depot and take pictures of all the available hooks and say this is what’s out there.”

No one could know that the seamstress had got it wrong, until Marchand and Fitzsimmons arrived back in Ulaanbaatar in January for the second think-tank gathering and to check on the installation of their door insulation package. It seemed less an issue of the designs not having made sense to her, as that there was a Canadian at the other end of it. What could a Canadian possibly know about a Mongolian institution?

They gathered up the useless pieces and went looking for another sewing machine.

The air quality index read 963 parts per million (ppm) in January 2019. It had been 15 ppm in North Vancouver when Fitzsimmons left home. (Anything above 100 ppm is considered dangerous.) “Until you’re standing in the middle of it,” Fitzsimmons said of the problem he’d just spent six months obsessing about, “you can’t understand how atrocious it is.”

He wanted to hate it. “Everywhere you go, it smells like burnt stuff. The smoke is terrible. There are so many problems. I wanted to be full of darkness towards the whole pollution thing — you have to be angry to fix something. But my God! The country! The people! The beautiful sky!” He fell in rhapsodic love.

They’d come up with the best start they could conceive. All they needed now was a workshop to actually build their snakes and curtains. Happily, one of the think-tank invitees, an inventor, yurt-builder and Dutch emigrant, Froit Vanderharst took them under his wing. They ducked out of the formal sessions and raced to the open air market in Ulaanbaatar for supplies, time slipping away.

Sweating and exhilarated at having found such a like-minded fellow problem-solver. Stripped down to shirt sleeves despite sub-zero temperatures, they banged out prototypes, Marchand labouring over the sewing machine. They couldn’t wait for the prototypes to be installed, to show them to locals, hear what people thought.

By early June 2019, the University of Pennsylvania had made headway with the thousands of data points they’d collected over the winter.

The comprehensive package of better insulation, including the door’s curtain and snake, resulted in a 55% reduction in energy consumption.

Tanya Accone, UNICEF Mongolia Deputy Representative Speciose Hakizimana and their team, were unequivocal about the results: “That is a game-changer.”

Suddenly, clean air is within grasp.

“The magnitude of the problem and its impact on children and pregnant women is huge. But in combination with electric heating and cooking, the data suggests it should be possible to completely phase out the use of coal heating gers,” wrote Hakizimana on behalf of the UNICEF Mongolia team in late June, 2019. Expectations are as high as the stakes, and with more partners coming on board, including the Swiss government, the Dutch government, the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation, and the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, the pressure on everyone involved is immense. But there’s an air of optimism around the expanding office.

This winter, the project relocates to the second-most polluted city in Mongolia, Bayankhongor, 640km east of Ulaanbaatar, where the governor is extremely motivated to make a dent on air pollution in his urbanizing city, and is collaborating with UNICEF to meet a target of clean air by 2022. By rolling out energy-saving prototypes in many of the 7000 ger and brick houses (baishin) of this smaller city of just 9600 households, the team will be able to really prove their case of what works and what doesn’t.

“We brought together industry experts in design, technology, outdoor, architecture, and academics,” reflected Hakizamana. “All the partners contributed immensely in building prototypes, data monitoring, and creating energy and structure solutions. We’re seeing the benefits of this great collaboration already. Now we will combine these with local knowledge and solutions, and help move households from coal to clean energy solutions.”

“Everywhere I look, here at Arc’teryx, I’m building on other people’s work,” mused Fitzsimmons. “We’ve had some incredible people through here that have done amazing things and I get to work with the results of their work, but I don’t know their names. Imagine if the legacy of this project is a population of people who are healthier, free of this thing they’re struggling with, with a real good shot at a fine future, and that comes about through something that my friend Nathalie and I had a part in creating? A chance to make a difference in history for all those people? Holy crap. It just doesn’t get better than that.”

Watch the full length episode of, “Unicef: Closing the Gap” here!

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