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Something to Hold Onto

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Michael Bricker was in his second year in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin when a friend in the Peace Corps emailed him for help.

"I know you’re really busy, but I’m living out in this village in Mongolia and my neighbor wants to build a new house that’s warmer and functions better," his high school friend, Jake Knight, wrote. He explained that winter temperatures in Yeroo averaged 20 below zero, that villagers used lumber both for construction and heating, and they were bulldozing acres of ancient forest at a rate of 12,000 trees per year.

"You’re in architecture school and you know more about this than I do. If you can help, let me know." "Everything is hypothetical in school," Bricker says. "Everything is a representation of what you might do. You never have time to get down to how you might actually build it."

Which is exactly why Knight’s project appealed to Bricker. At Wabash, he’d constructed artistic installations to get people thinking about everything from racism to corporate branding to the War in Iraq. During his senior year he designed and helped to build the set for theater professor Jim Fisher’s production of The Illusion.

"I can’t help but get a chill when people bring my drawings to life," Bricker says of the experience.

So after two years of drawing and making models of theoretical projects, Bricker was ready to get his hands dirty and build something people could really use.

But he needed funding, he needed a design, and he needed a partner with practical experience in project management.

He turned to his UT-Austin classmate, Ami Mehta. She had come to UT fresh from designing and building a rural schoolhouse in India.

Ami was intrigued and the two worked with Knight via email to develop a strategy for the project. They were awarded a grant from UT to pay the $2,000 per person airfare to Mongolia. Then they submitted two research proposals for credit toward their degrees, and flew out that summer to a country they knew practically nothing about.

In 1206, the empire of Chinggis Khan united more than 100,000 people under the great Mongol nation, which at its peak stretched from Hungary to Korea—the largest land empire the world has ever seen. Khan ruled from a traveling camp called an ordu (root of the English word horde) that was made up of gers, remarkably utilitarian, mobile, and flexible round canvas-covered dwellings shaped to withstand the howling winds of the steppes.

In 2006, Mongolia celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Mongol nation with nearly half of its populations still living in gers.

"It’s as if you were to come into rural and suburban America and see people living in tepees," Bricker says. Though cultural influences from the Ming Dynasty to Stalin have left their mark, the country has no contemporary architectural identity—a discrepancy that inspired Bricker and Mehta’s scholarly projects.

"We met with the Union of Mongolian Architects and toured the capital, Ulaanbaator, with the group’s secretary," Bricker recalls. Among the strangest buildings they saw were high rises that appeared from the outside to be made of steel and glass like modern skyscrapers, but were actually made of brick.

"They then covered them with reflective glass so that they look modern," Bricker explains. "In Ulaabaator, it’s all about appearing to be modern."

A fascinating notion in theory. But Bricker would find it had practical consequences, even in the small village of Yeroo, where he, Mehta, and Jake were hoping to replace the drafty log cabins common in such villages with environmentally and culturally "Mongolian" homes that would stay warm in the winter.

Bricker and Mehta had decided to design a straw-bale house with a trussed roof. The new house could be built for $2,000, would be exponentially more energy efficient than log cabins, and would reduce the damage to the surrounding forests. It would also be culturally recognizable, uniquely "Mongolian."

And that’s where the trouble started.

"We spent two days designing an inventive new store for a local shopkeeper, but at the end of a frustrating conversation she pulled out a picture of a western building and said, ‘I want it to look like this. Just draw this.’ She wanted her building to appear Western, American."

Fortunately, Knight knew a local teacher interested in Bricker and Mehta’s suggestions—a house that stayed cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The straw bale design was a hit with her, and although Bricker and Ami had to leave before construction could begin, the team put together a step-by-step manual so the house could be built.

During that time, Bricker set up shop in the community center and talked with locals about the benefits of straw bale construction. Soon he and the team were asked to advise those building the roof for the village’s new kindergarten.

Their recommendation—a simple roofing truss like those used in most American homes—made little sense to the village’s builders. Bricker was getting frustrated. His time in Yeroo had produced nothing but research.

Nothing has been built, Bricker thought toward the end of his stay as he kicked through the small lumber pile the team had gathered at their site for the straw bale house.

"I just started moving things around," Bricker recalls. "I laid out the lumber and measured the pieces and discovered that we had enough to build a truss ourselves. I roused Jake, and in a matter of three hours we completed a nine-meter long, 1.6-meter deep truss."

The next day they convinced the kindergarten building project manager to see their work.

"We put the two ends of the truss up on blocks, Jake held one side, and I stood in the middle. Her eyes widened, and I knew that we were making sense now."

Bricker and Mehta returned to the U.S. that summer, leaving behind the manual for building the straw bale house and the sample of the truss to be used for it. A similar truss was eventually used for the village’s kindergarten.

Even though little was built, Bricker calls the trip a success. He cites the building of the truss as the breakthrough moment.

"I’m amazed by the network we created, linking UT-Austin, the Peace Corps, the United Nations Development Program, and the Union of Mongolian Architects at a very local level," he says. "Most importantly, though, I think it’s an essential part of an education that you see that connection between paper and reality. It strikes me that the best way to provoke change in this not-so-different world is to make it yourself. Not in a clichÈd, it’s-a-small-world-seize-the-day sort of way, but in the form of something real that can be seen and held onto."