Date: 21 Nov 1998 17:52:30 -0600
From: (email address removed)(matts a myhrman)
Subject: Re: Burning SB building in Mongolia
Just a comment from Judy Knox...
This whole situation reminds me of when my troublesome teenage son got in
trouble at school, and my resistance to defending some of the unfair
aspects he was being blamed for because there were some parts of his
behavior that were indefensible it would look as though I was just
blindly defending him. So I didn't stand up for him when it would have
been right and fair that I do so.
The Mongolia fire is like that. I've resisted sending this comment for
the very same reasons.
At one level, we need to look at how to insulate ceilings with fireproof
materials that are affordable, environmental and available- whether straw
or other. We also need to honestly and objectively look at what went
wrong here and what we can learn from it.
But to blame straw-bale construction, and to allow a destructive attack
on the good people who have been doing such great work in trying to
develop this technology in Mongolia is truly absurd, way off the mark,
and just plain unjust.
Faulty wiring causes fires in all kinds of buildings. All kinds of
buildings burn for many reasons...tragically so. It seems we ought to be
looking at how to wire homes safely, particularly-since it is our field
of concern- how to be very careful in wiring straw-bale homes. In that
light, Kelly's questions are all appropriate. (I, myself, have long
stated my preference in our workshops for keeping wiring in sight, within
conduit...the hell with appearance...this comes from my experience with
mice gnawed wiring in my old frame home in New England that almost ended
in a tragedy...I re-wired it with all conduit on the exterior wall
surfaces where I could keep an eye on it. I know this is radical by most
people's perspective and experience, but it worked well for my comfort
level...of course, it wouldn't work if conduit isn't available in
But I believe, in addition to a helpful list of concrete suggestions, a
response to the larger issue of trying to throw the baby out with the
bathwater, a a defense of the people involved, needs to be made to UNDP.
How might we best do that?
On Tue, 10 Nov 1998 22:16:01 -0800 "Lerner, Helmuth, McCandless"
>Below is a report by Scott Christiansen on a fire that destroyed a
>SB clinic in Mongolia. Faulty wiring and straw in the ceiling seem to
>main issues. Low quality workmanship and low quality materials are a
>life in Mongolia that we acknowledge while we train workers to higher
>standards. It's painful to bring our hard knocks to the table, but I
>can generate some good solutions that will allow the UNDP
>project to go forward.
>This is a VERY serious issue, with UNDP considering dropping all
>projects and possible criminal charges, fines for ADRA, or jail for
>personnel (as those responsible for inspecting the buildings...) Scott
>needs all the support and input he can get both personally and
>professionally. I will forward all technical input to UNDP via Scott.
>Thanks in advance. Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.
>In addition to ADRA's fire proofing options (see Scott's report
>other alternatives are:
>1. spraying the bales down with a borax solution before they are
>this really enough fire proofing??),
>2. plastering both sides of the ceiling insulation bales (a bit heavy)
>3. installing all the electrical in conduit (I'm waiting to hear from
>conduit is available in Mongolia - it wasn't available last year when
>4. insulation of light straw clay is also an option, though it doesn't
>much insulation value. Has anyone used light straw-clay as ceiling
>OK, folks wow me with your low-tech, inexpensive, fool-proof solutions
>non-flammable ceiling insulation.
>Report on the Fire in Bagkhangai
>By Scott Christiansen, Director, ADRA/Mongolia
>10 November 1998
>On November 4 1998, at sometime preceding eight oiclock in the
>evening, a fire
>was started in the attic of new clinic building in the Bagkhangai
>Ulaan Baatar. The clinic building had been built using the straw-bale
>super-insulating technique. The building had been built over the
>dedicated for use only about two months previously. On the morning of
>November, a survey team arrived in Bagkhangai to assess the damage.
>staff were part of this survey team, including Scott Christiansen,
>Director, Adam Obradovic, Straw-bale projects Coordinator, and
>straw-bale construction expert. When the team arrived at the site,
>had been out for about 18 hours. In the time between the
>fire and the arrival of the team, considerable scavenging had taken
>along with it considerable traffic had been through the building,
>the effort of determining the cause of damage.
>The cause of the fire is not known as of the writing of this report.
>is, of course, a tragic loss. But it is also a learning opportunity
>coming as it does rather early in the number of buildings expected to
>full advantage should be taken of this learning opportunity. Here is
>know so far:
>1) The building burned as it was expected to. That may seem like a
>statement, but from the start it was expected that if a building
>somehow burn, it would be a very slow, smouldering fire that would not
>threat to the people in the building. This proved to be the case in
>Bagkhangai. According to the (somewhat contradictory) eyewitness
>fire was first noticed at about 7 pm on the fourth of November. The
>evidence was smoke inside the building. Alarmed, the staff removed
>people in the building. As there was still only smoke evident, they
>in and proceeded to remove all the equipment and furniture. They even
>the photo-voltaic panel from the building. The fire proceeded to
>then slowly smoulder for 18 hours until it was extinguished.
>2) Only the unsheathed straw burned. The internal and external walls
>building were virtually untouched by the fire. Though they were in
>totally destroyed, it was not from fire but from firemen who were
>the challenge of fighting a smouldering fire. Inside the clinic, the
>the walls is not peeling from heat exposure, nor is it even blackened.
>plastic iCanadai stickers on the doors are still intact and unmelted.
>straw that burned was the straw-bales in the ceiling insulation.
>the straw in the ceiling, the building performed exactly as expected
>of fire resistance and safety. The plaster coating of straw for fire
>resistance and fire-proofing was totally vindicated. Because the
>straw in the
>ceiling was the only weak link in an otherwise sound building, this
>will be the focus of design change discussions later in this report.
>perhaps germane to comment here that the nursing staff of the clinic
>particularly grieved by the fire because the building was ibeautiful,
>and so warm!i
>3) The buildings need to be fool-proof. The first reports of the fire
>totally inaccurate and only a first-hand inspection of the site proved
>Still, the misinformation may ultimately prove helpful; it was early
>that the person in charge of the stove had altered the chimney of the
>building. Had he done so, it may have displaced or removed the some
>fire-proofing measures that were in place at the time of construction.
>Ultimately, ADRA was not able to confirm or dispel the notion that the
>had been tampered with, though it seemed that the chimney and all itis
>mechanisms were in place. But the question was still raised: What
>when future users make modifications to these buildings, such as
>electrical modifications? Electrical work, notorious even in the best
>buildings in Mongolia, will definitely be a hazard if future users
>make their own unskilled changes to the electrical systems. Thus,
>changes should be made now with the assumption that the normal
>hazardous electrical and heating systems usually found in Mongolia
>well be employed in the future.
>4) The worst should be expected. As a corollary to the above, it
>expected that, with the combination of unsafe materials and low
>skill, the worst possible event will always take place in Mongolia.
>be noted here that the building in question was built by an apparently
>and professional construction company, that the building was inspected
>11 or 12 times by ADRA (we lost count), and that the building was
>inspected by City Fire and Building Department officials as part of
>construction process that the construction contractor was responsible
>building was a fourth-generation design that had a great deal of
>thinking behind it. The design came from a straw-bale architect with
>international reputation. And yet the building failed. Therefore,
>buildings must be re-designed not merely for maximum cost/safety
>but with the expectation in mind that the construction environment
>accidents extremely likely. To do so will minimize any chance of
>While a fire of some origin destroyed the building, it may be safe to
>that if there had been no straw in the ceiling, there would have been
>significant fire event. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is to
>the straw from the ceiling. Were this to be done, the best, if not
>to replace it with would be fiberglass. At this time the ADRA
>experts are conducting a cost-analysis on this option. Fiberglass
>benefit of not only being an inflammable material, but it can also
>prevent fires where it coats flammable (such as wood) surfaces. When
>started designing straw-bale buildings in Mongolia, fiberglass was not
>available. There was also a philosophical bias toward using straw
>possible because of the positive environmental impacts. Taking a
>view, fiberglass in the ceiling instead of straw now makes sense. At
>time, ADRA is reviewing the following design change options:
>1) Replace the straw in the ceiling with fiberglass.
>2) Reduce the size of the truss system and place trusses slightly
>together so the span will allow gypsum board to be screwed directly to
>3) Place fiberglass directly on gypsum board to a depth of 15 cm (R-20
>4) Coat exposed bale-tops in walls with a mud slip before finishing
>5) Make stove exhaust exit the building through a brick chimney.
>6) Provide further insulation to wiring where it comes in contact with
>Other design changes may be advanced following discussions with
>experts around the world. ADRA suggests that any design changes
>into future buildings also be retrofitted onto existing buildings if
>The man who is in charge of keeping the stove lit and various other
>the clinic has been arrested and is in jail at this writing. The
>arrest was not given but it was presumed to be either for suspicion of
>negligence or suspicion of arson. The remote possibility of arson
>negate most of the conclusions and design changes suggested in this
>but only serves to confirm that buildings in Mongolia are under a
>threats and should be constructed in a very conservative way with
>preventive measures applied.
>One World Design, International Design and Consulting
>925 Avis Drive
>El Cerrito, CA 94530
>510.528.3765 Fax 510.528.8763
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