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Urban development

The world’s coldest capital

by Ruth Erlbeck, Ralph Trosse
The Mongolian climates are extreme: the summers are short and the winters long and cold. About half of the population dwells in cities. For their survival, and to ensure economic growth, a secured energy supply is indispensable. The Integrated Urban Development programme, which is supported by the GTZ on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), has implemented the thermo-technical renovation of the first prefabricated building in Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator. [ By Ruth Erlbeck and Ralph Trosse ]

In Ulan Bator roughly 250,000 people (20 % of the urban population) live in prefabricated apartment blocks. Between the 1960s and 1990s, more than 500 of these buildings had been “given as presents” to the country from its socialist brother, the Soviet Union. This winter for the second time, the apartments inside the prefabricated building no. 8 in the Chingeltei district are heated. In the other blocks, people are still freezing.

“Before the renovation, it was unbearably draughty,” one of the homeowners says. From the poorly isolated windows, there was a constant draught of cold air, first causing layers of ice followed by fungus on the walls, all of this at a high-energy expenditure. Since the renovation, up to 40 % of the heating energy can be saved and after the introduction of consumption-oriented heating tariffs, even 60 % and more are possible. For this energy-efficient renovation project, Mongolian building contractors and engineers were trained and homeowners were integrated into the entire process. The project was supported by the municipal administration.

High CO2-savings are possible

Refitting the buildings is also noteworthy for climate protection reasons: renovation of all prefabricated blocks would save approximately 700,000 tons of CO2 per year. These figures were a wake-up call for politicians and donors. Already this year, more of these buildings are to be thermo-technically refitted.

The Asian Development Bank and the Reconstruction Credit Institute KfW are planning feasibility studies and a CDM (Clean Development Mechanism). The GTZ supported Integrated Urban Development programme is offering – together with local and international producers of construction material as well as vocational school teachers – courses in thermal insulation systems, drywall construction, heating, sanitary and electrical installation. Consequently, Mongolia will be able to trade with CO2 certificates, thus activating additional funds for restoration works.

Environmentally compatible city

Special attention is also given to another project. The ECO CITY is located 13 km from the city centre of Ulan Bator. On an area of 72.5 hectares, German and Mongolian architects, engineers and urbanists are building an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable “green city of short distances”. It is embedded in the yurt neighbourhood and special focus is given to the vegetation and water balance. There are already two show houses with solar collectors. A black water recycling system based on membrane technology will be reprocessing almost half of the water (45 %) thus ensuring environmentally compatible disposal.

Energy security and less environmental pollution are to improve the quality of life, e.g. through:
– South alignment of the buildings (for production of passive solar energy),
– Energy efficient composite thermal insulation systems, with decentralised heating energy and hot water preparation through solar thermal energy (solar collectors) as well as
– Decentralised wastewater management (black water recycling for grey water usage in toilets, washing machines and irrigation).

The “sock test”

Resilience and durability of construction material and technology under such extreme conditions as in Mongolia have to be tested first. However, the example of the two show houses proves that solar thermal energy actually works in the coldest capital of the world. Several Mongolians, bank representatives, professors along with their students, foreign organisations and even the ex-president have already visited the solar thermal houses. During the winter season, the “sock test” is particularly popular: with an outside temperature of -20°C, visitors walk through the premises without their shoes – and without getting cold feet.

The demand for ECO houses is accordingly high. Currently, the country with the world’s highest “delta T factor” – 60 degrees difference between inside (+20°C) and outside (-40°C) temperatures – is discussing standards, renewable technologies and energy saving projects. Meanwhile, a Mongolian building contractor is constructing further residential units under GTZ guidance.

Part of a governmental programme

Within five years, the ECO CITY will accommodate 2,500 homes, shops, kindergartens, schools and recreation centres – all this being part of a Mongolian governmental programme with the purpose of building 100,000 residential units for low and middle-income families. € 400 million are invested in the project. At the same time, the opportunity of capacity building is being exploited: approximately 1000 unemployed adolescents, assistants and future skilled workers are receiving advanced qualification in strategic areas of the building sector.

The costs of well-isolated, energy-efficient buildings are up to 40 % higher than in “traditional” buildings. However, the running costs are substantially lower. Given a planned mass production as well as anticyclical prefabrication of the building components, it may be assumed that the costs can be reduced even further.

This project also shows that Mongolia is going through a process of rethinking. For the first time, Mongolian governmental programmes and the building industry are utilising “green building technology.”