Arc’teryx’s Solution for a Pollution Crisis in Mongolia

Developing a simple insulation concept could help improve Ulaanbaatar's air quality

Presented in partnership with Arc'teryx

Arc’teryx products are highly respected for their thoughtful features, trustworthiness, and incredible performance—even in the harshest of conditions. Beyond producing garments for adventure-ready folks to wear, Arc’teryx is also committed to developing materials, and using them in realms beyond apparel. A team of designers, they’re also innovators, makers, outdoor-lovers, and problem-solvers. It makes sense then, that Arc’teryx‘s design team was thrilled to receive an invitation from UNICEF’s Office of Innovation to visit Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia with the goal of sharing “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.”

Ulaanbaatar wasn’t chosen randomly. It’s the coldest capital city in the world—where mid-winter temperatures can drop to -40 degrees—and it’s also a place where 1.5 million residents rely on coal to cook and keep warm. Not only less efficient than other options, this coal is contributing to the city’s immense pollution—which is affecting the residents to a great extent.

“The companies, and those that have the ability to design, need to be able to apply themselves and their skills and the knowledge that they have accrued to anything and everything that’s preventing us from taking this planet forward,” Pat Fitzsimmons, of Arc’teryx’s Advanced R&D team, says. “You have to address the humanity behind the request. You have to look into that person’s eyes because that’s where the question is coming from. Then what you do is you turn yourself inward to focus on the tiny bit of the problem you’ve been allotted. As a corporation, we have to give back. You can’t just take.”

His enthusiasm for finding ways to combat complex problems is shared by all of his coworkers, and when senior design developer Nathalie Marchand reached out to him about helping her to develop a door, he added “make a door for Nathalie” to his to-do list. Little did he realize he was joining Marchand and material developer Romy Paterson on Arc’teryx’s 21st Century Ger project.

Marchand’s idea was inspired by her childhood spent at her grandmother’s house, where a fabric “snake” was pushed against the door jam to block drafts. Fitzsimmons reassured her that the concept was simple, but brilliant, and he constructed a mock door for Marchand to experiment with while they weren’t in Mongolia or Canada (at the UNICEF offices) and the project really came to life. “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 zero to 100 in a minute, he was so excited. It was amazing,” she says.

Along with the flexible tube of fabric (sourced in Mongolia), Marchand also crafted an insulated curtain for extra warmth. “It had to be quiet,” she says, “Because everyone sleeps in the same room, so if you wake up in the middle of the night and have to go outside, you want it to be silent.” She tested the friction throughout the day, opening and closing her test curtain some 50 times a daily.

While a few translation issues arose when having prototypes sewn in Mongolia, deadlines approached, and uncertainty surfaced regarding the solution’s simplicity. But eventually, the concept was applied to 11 gers and they were set to be tested during the long winter between 2018 and 2019. With the adaptations, the gers saw a 55% reduction in energy consumption, making the goal of getting the local air’s 963 parts per million (ppm) air quality index reading down to something more like Vancouver‘s (15 ppm).

“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? …It just doesn’t get better than that,” Fitzsimmons concludes.

Head over to Arc’teryx to see this Mongolia episode, and more in their The Way of The Problem Solvers series.

Images courtesy of Arc’teryx