Friday, December 2, 2011

In Ulaanbaatar!

We spent a large portion of our time in UB searching for and purchasing supplies for constructing the greenhouse.  This time was broken up with some professional meetings and casual cultural encounters. 

We knew that glass bottles were plentiful and available for the project, however, we needed many other components for construction.  From the foundation to the roof, we had much to research and collect. This included such basic items as hammers, saws, fasteners, and other building materials. Initially, we needed to determine what supplies were actually available in UB.  In the United States, with a construction project such as ours, we would merely go to Lowe's or Home Depot to procure all that we needed.  Our driver and translator subsequently toured us through some exciting (and sketchy) spots to find and purchase what we could. 

Below is an image showing one of the "markets" in UB.  The market consisted of a series of vendors, each with a display counter showcasing their wares.  Often, many vendors in a market would sell the same item, so we could shop around to final a specific price or model that suited our needs.  In the picture below, some of our team members are examining a hand-held grinder.  We did end up purchasing the grinder along with some grinding discs to cut metal and glass. 

On one of our shopping excursions we visited a metal yard and a lumber yard.   The lumber yard experience was dramatic with enormous piles of sawdust.  Some of the workers walked around the yard barefoot, a little scary to see that around a 2 foot diameter saw blade! The lumber was plentiful and in good condition, but due to the transportation logistics, we decided to purchase lumber at a town closer to the Hasu Shivert work site. We did purchase some metal rods to use as part of the cement foundation (cement was available at the work site). Below are team members displaying a pick-axe and crow-bar that we purchased.

Below is a food vendor outside one of the indoor markets.  I was tempted to try it but was advised not to do so!  The food might have been tasty, but the digestive repercussions could have been disasterous for the remainder of my trip.

Here is a dramatic statue of a seated Ghengis Khan in front of the parliamentary building in S├╝khbaatar Square.  This is the main square in Ulaanbaatar and an awesome expanse of space with government buildings lining its edges.

The square comes alive at night and is reminiscent of other big cities with screaming neon and street lights.

Below is a picture of our group with the nation's parliament building in the background.

The following morning, I went for a morning walk with my friend Greg and found a vegan restaurant.  That was a quite a surprise.  With the Mongolian fare emphasizing meat and dairy, I never thought I'd find this type of cuisine. With my wife being vegan, perhaps this is incentive to have her join me on a return trip!

This day was filled with meetings, shopping, and an evening party-like gathering.  Initially, we met with the Director of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Sitting at the head of the table in the photo below, he introduced us to 2 students (sitting to the left of him) who would be joining us on-site to construct the greenhouse. 

We also had the priviledge of meeting with a government affiliated group doing economic development analysis. We learned about ongoing efforts to gather information about small business development in Mongolia.
A memorable photo with David Martin and Ken Dabkowski of M-CAM in front of the entrance to the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.  David and Ken enabled this trip to happen and facilitated our connecting with the Mongolian people in the many ways that we did. 

Below is another outdoor market where we shopped for additional supplies to build the greenhouse.

We concluded the day with a dinner and party with local dignitaries including a member of Pariliament!

A bottle of Mongolian champagne!

Group picture! A wonderful evening filled with fun and celebration to honor the cultural exchange and collaboration for our ongoing projects including the construction of the greenhouse.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mongolia- Arrival and Ulaanbaatar!

The flight to Mongolia left from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C.  I drove to the airport with Ken.  The other members of the team had their own arrangements, and we were all meeting in Ulaanbaatar (the capital and largest city in Mongolia) on June 4-5.  We met up with R.D. at Dulles and together we flew via Beijing and then on to Ulaanbaatar.  Wow, Mongolia!!

This would be my first time to Asia.  We had a 6 hour layover in Beijing and that was long enough to rest a little (the flight from Dulles was 11 hours) and grab some food.  I was already thoroughly thrilled with the time in Beijing Airport.  It was a huge place, appropriate for the enormous country of China.  I successfully (didn't get sick) experimented with some funky looking frog's leg type dish before we headed to the gate for our flight to Ulaanbaatar.

We arrived late at night and were met by Nergui Dorj and another driver. Below is a photo of the main airport terminal entrance during the day time when other group members arrived. 

Below is the hotel where we stayed for 5 nights. During that time, the rest of our team convened and we met with local officials to discuss the project while gathering construction supplies.

The hotel had open access to its roof. From there we had a 360 degree view showing adjacent settlements, hotels, and office buildings.  Down the street, there was a Buddhist temple which gave us an peek into the Mongolian religious life.

Just outside the hotel, there was a mixture of traditional gers (yurts as we call them) and houses constructed using locally sourced materials.  With our modern and freshly renovated hotel next door, the scene offered a clear illustration of the colliding and evolving cultures and economies in this country.

There were only a few principal and paved thoroughfares in Ulaanbaatar.  These avenues were regularly clogged with cars, and the pavement was often filled potholes and frost heaves.

The next posting will provide more discussion and photos of our time in Ulaanbaatar including images of meetings and the local markets where we gathered construction supplies.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mongolia! Preparation and Planning

After learning of the grant award, many exciting developments ensued.  The funding generated significant momentum about the project; it would cover the majority of the costs of travel, lodging, and supplies. The students from University of Virginia who were the actual grant recipients offered new perspectives and knowledge for developing the project.  The participating students were R.D., Claire, Sarah, Carlin, and Tashi.  All had various skill-sets which would be crucial for successful completion of the project.  Bob Swap, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences was their advisor.  Bob would not be traveling with us. 

The rest of our team from Charlottesville consisted of Ken Dabkowski (our key M-CAM project facilitator mentioned in an earlier posting), Greg Smith, and me.  Greg is a writer and builder and an all-around super nice guy; he's also a great communicator- very direct- which was an awesome virtue to have on the trip.  Greg decided to come almost on a whim, a testament to his sense of adventure.  We agreed on the dates for the trip to be June 4- July 2nd.  Greg and I would be involved for the 1st two weeks of the trip from June 4th - June 17th.  

Because of their role as grantees, the students became primary decision-makers, so there was a certain amount of "letting-go" as we worked collaboratively.  Each participant had their own set of expectations, goals and working style.  Keeping track of these throughout the project became a challenge in and of itself.  We all had a lot to learn about doing development work in a remote location. I soon learned that patience and sensitivity were going to be integral for successful progress in creating a Mongolian greenhouse using recycled glass and other locally sourced materials!

We began to have more regular correspondence with our contacts in Mongolia.  One key contact was Nergui.  I had met her back in October when she was visiting the States.  She is a strong businesswoman who has her hand and head in several different projects.  M-CAM created a business partnership with her and the Mongolian Greenhouse project became a part of that.  Nergui was instrumental in getting our team connected to other folks on the ground.  Not only did we need to determine specifics of the design but we also needed to resolve the trip logistics.  Wow! Mongolia!! 

The team eventually determined the project site to be HASU Shivert Resort in the Arkanghai Provence in Mongolia.  People from M-CAM had visited this site and had some knowledge about the location.   We briefly evaluated a traditional A-frame design for the greenhouse, but eventually decided on completing a ger shaped design.  Below is a rendering completed by Carlin (a student member of our team studying architecture at UVa) and R.D. (a UVa civil engineering graduate student and home builder). 

The design is shown as a "hemi-ger" as we were hoping to build the structure into a hillside to optimize heating and cooling (this turned out to be impractical for the location).  The exact materials for the structure were determined as we began detailed communication with our Mongolian contacts to learn what resources were available both on-site and in the urban areas.  The structure would be a mixture of reclaimed and purchased materials such as wood, cement, rock, bottle walls (see below), glass panels made with melted bottles, and acrylic panels for the roof.  We needed to be ready to improvise with a plethora of construction ideas and techniques.

With this in mind, we completed testing to explore ways of using melted bottles as part of structure.  Below are some pictures showing bottles that were melted intact (versus being crushed), also shown are small clay brick samples.  We briefly experimented with making our own bricks, not knowing what other construction supplies would be available.  The plethora of red clay here in central Virginia made for an easy experiment.  Although the brickmaking experiment was successfull, we abandoned this since we were unsure if any clay would be readily found at the Mongolian worksite.

Working with whole bottles affords a more efficient fabrication process (no crushing, simple molds, and less clean-up of the melted edges).  

We also experimented with melting whole bottles on to a metal chicken wire as a way to form a lattice type structure for attaching to the roof or walls.

Bill Hutchins, an architect in Tacoma Park, Maryland ( gave us a basic briefing on the technique of constructing bottle walls.  Below is a photo of a small bottle wall we created using available clay, straw, and sand as a mortar between whole bottles.  The wall has some bottles planted on top to add a sculptural element!  

As we made decisions and formed our plans, numerous questions surfaced.  It quickly became clear that we would not have answers until we arrived in Mongolia due to a variety of circumstances.  The principle reason was the challenge with communication.  The work-site had no internet access and phone service was intermittant.  Our newly hired translator Baagii was a tremendous help in clarifying important issues such as confirming the presence of electric power at the Hasu Shivert work site and giving us a rough understanding of the availability of other tools and supplies that we could purchase upon arrival.  Baagii is young entrepreneur and engineer living in Ulaanbaatar (the capital and largest city in Mongolia).

Alongside testing, we put together a list of materials and tools that we would need to construct the greenhouse.  A key piece of equipment was the kiln for melting glass.  We evaluated a few options for obtaining the kiln.  After some e-mailing back and forth with Baagii, we realized there would not be any kilns or kiln supplies available in Mongolia.  We explored purchasing the kiln in China, but after some research, we found it would be too expensive.  Ironically, in a country that can make just about anything for a fraction of the price for which it is made here in the States, a studio glass kiln did not come under that category in China!  We also considered obtaining and shipping the necessary supplies to construct the kiln.  This would include insulating materials such as firebrick or fiberboard, heating elements, electric relays, and a kiln controller.  Since I had no experience constructing a kiln from scratch, but rather only minor repair work, we decided to pursue purchasing a kiln from a supplier in the States.  We also explored the option of building a low-tech wood-fired kiln.  Below are photos of a wood-fired test kiln that we dug into a hill outside my studio.  You can see the gray vent pipe sticking out of the ground.  This indeed was a learning process as well.  

This particular design for the "kiln-in-the-hill" did not function adequately for heating glass.  We discovered that we needed ground insulation to prevent the heat from sinking into the earth and we needed some kind of entrance insulation/ blocking to keep the heat from coming the front.  Regardless, it was an interesting and worthwhile experiment.  We decided that this could be a technique with which we could experiment when we arrived at the project site after determining what supplies were available. 

The week before our scheduled departure; the team made a final decision to purchase the kiln from Olympic Kilns ( The team at Olympic was terrific.  They were excited to be a part of the project and have one of their kilns be used in Mongolia!  Below is a photo of the kiln (we had a shorter stand) that we purchased.  Olympic would normally take 1-2 weeks to assemble a kiln; they got it done in 3 days! 

Amazingly, UPS would need only 5 days to deliver the kiln to Ulaanbaatar.  One uncertainly which came to haunt us a bit later was the amount of time for the kiln to clear customs.  Regardless of that, a primary intention of the project was moving forward... that being to reach the goal of melting discarded glass bottles to create window panels for the Mongolian Greenhouse!  I was filled with excitement and anticipation that this germ of an idea presented in my studio many months prior would actually become reality.

The additional preparations for our trip consisted of those anyone might take in traveling to a less developed country.  We all researched and prepared appropriate personal supplies such as work clothing, immunizations, vitamin supplements, cameras, passport, etc.

As the final days of preparation came to a close, I felt a healthy combination of anticipation, nervousness, and joy about the trip.  Regardless of the outcome of the project, I knew that we had already been successful in getting this far, and at the same time, I was ready for more!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Mongolia! Prologue


The motivation for beginning this blog comes from a recent odyssey I had in Mongolia.  Yes, Mongolia!  And it even relates to recycled glass, something I have been working with for several years to create both art and functional designs.  A quick overview of the project can be found here:

With this and subsequent postings, I'll share thoughts, photos, cultural facts and technical info.

This blog will also serve as a log of my latest inspirations, thoughts, and ideas.  I look forward to feedback and just sharing in general.

Back to Mongolia...

The odyssey began in August of 2010 when I received an e-mail from Ken Dabkowski at M-CAM ( and ).  He wanted to come visit my studio as he learned about my work with recycled container glass.  And the next thing I heard related to working with Mongolian bottle glass! What?! Say that again?!  Mongolia is a country that I (and most people) think of as so far away and so off the beaten track.  I never thought in my lifetime that I would be associated with a project in Mongolia.  Ken and his colleague David Pratt (M-CAM managing director) came for a visit to my studio in Afton, Virginia at which time I learned more about the project.  They mentioned that there is a large of amount of waste container glass littering the villages and countryside in Mongolia, so much so, that it may be possible to see from space.  I was amazed and not completely surprised.  Waste glass is problem all over the world, the USA included.  Most of the waste container glass (from beer bottles, mayonaise jars, etc.) ends up either in the landfill or recycled for construction fill.  About 10% ends up getting formed back into containers again. In the case of Mongolia, there's no recycling, and all of it usually ends up in a pile behind someone's ger (yurt) or laying in fragments by the road (like here in the states).

Anyway, back to Ken and David in my studio.... so they started explaining that they would like to explore the possibility of taking the plethora of Mongolian container glass and melt some of it into window panels to build greenhouses in Mongolia.  The reasoning is multifold.  The Mongolia people are interested in extending their growing season, and they would like to explore ways to use their available resources to develop new businesses.  Building greenhouses using readily available discarded materials fit that criteria.  Wow! That sounded cool to me.  I had previously created some artistic window panels, so this seemed possible.  The only issue outstanding was that we did not have any Mongolian glass to even begin testing.  Folks from M-CAM had visited Mongolia as part of some other work they were doing, so it was likely they would be heading back there.

A few weeks later, I hear that M-CAM folks have managed to bring back some samples of Mongolian container glass.  Wow!  This is becoming even more real.

Below are a couple pictures from our initial testing of Mongolian vodka bottle shards (being so close to Russia -and formerly a Russian occupied territory- they inherited a penchant for vodka).

The testing determined whether the glass melted in way similar to container glass found here in the states, and the results were positive.  Wait, the results were positive!!  That means that the project would be moving forward.... forward toward.... doing this in Mongolia??!  Yes!  But we needed some funding.... yes, that important thing called funding.  So to get folks interested, Ken and I designed and built a model of the greenhouse using container glass from around here.  Since the Mongolians are quite fond of their gers (the original yurt shaped structures with which we are familiar), the model would be appropriately constructed in the shape of a ger.  See photos below of the Google sketch-up model along with construction photos and the completed model in glass (we used Corona beer bottles) with a steel infrastructure.


As part of the model construction, we did some testing of the glass melt parameters to look at how different ways of processing the glass could yield potential benefits in the greenhouse design.  You'll notice clearer panels on the one side with opaque glass on most of the structure.  The clear panels would face south where the sun is angled throughout its arc.  Sunlight enters here and then would bounce around the inside of the greenhouse due to the white opaque panels. 

The model proved to be quite helpful in gathering interest in the project.  Ken and David Martin (the CEO of M-CAM) presented this project as part of a larger lecture to a class taught by Professor Bob Swap at the University of Virginia Department of Environmental Sciences.  Bob and some of his undergrads became especially interested in the Mongolian Greenhouse project and applied for a significant grant through the Thomas Jeffereson Public Citizens Foundation.  Wow!! Mongolia!

In March, the group found out that they received funding to the tune of $30,000 from this foundation!  Wow!! Mongolia!  I learned in April that the grant would fund my travel and expenses to implement this grand experiment: constructing a greenhouse using locally sourced materials including melted bottle glass!

The next steps of planning, preparation, and additional testing began..... go to the next posting for more.