20 July 2023
Seven months after Russia first invaded Ukraine, The New York Times profiled an increasingly pressing issue in the country: “One Big Problem For Ukraine is Clear: Glass.”
As winter approached in one of the world’s coldest countries, millions of Ukrainians faced the prospect of enduring a brutal winter in bombed-out buildings that would offer little protection from it.
Replacing millions of shattered windows was an urgent, complicated task. The demand for glass had caused prices to skyrocket and supplies to dwindle. The ongoing fighting made importing and installing glass much harder. And as bombs kept falling, glass kept shattering—a bomb’s shockwaves can blow out windows hundreds of feet away.
Many makeshift solutions weren’t appealing. “Plywood may cover a hole in the wall, but it leaves the inside space dark, which can be depressing,” the Times wrote. “And the scraps of tablecloths or plastic film that a lot of people are using—one man said he had nothing better than the Ukrainian version of Saran Wrap to cover his windows—might let in sunlight. But they don’t seal well and leave people curled up at night under three blankets, dreading winter.”
It’s a problem that, at first glance, Harry Blakiston Houston didn’t seem destined to help solve. An engineering student at Cambridge University, Houston “hadn’t been anywhere near Ukraine” before the war started, he says. Nor does he speak Ukrainian (though he is learning). Yet around the time The New York Times article appeared in September 2022, Houston began testing practical, cost-effective solutions to replace Ukraine’s shattered windows—and, by doing so, help Ukrainians stay warm.
By January 2023 (the coldest month in Ukraine, when the mean temperature is -3.3°C, or 25.9°F), Houston’s commitment to solving the problem was such that he had dropped out of his PhD at Cambridge and started a nonprofit, Insulate Ukraine, focused on installing windows.
Houston’s solution uses widely-available, inexpensive materials, including “triple-glazed” polyethylene, PVC piping, and duct tape. Unlike plywood, it lets in light. And unlike glass, it doesn’t shatter.
To date, Insulate Ukraine has installed windows in homes across six towns, and has taught Ukrainian police officers, firefighters and residents how they can build and install these windows themselves. In a recent conversation with Brunswick’s Eugenia Leproni, Houston talked about the nonprofit’s “franchise model,” the economic benefits that flow from it, and the surprisingly low cost of replacing an entire town’s windows.
Hours after they spoke, Houston returned to Ukraine.
Why did you leave your PhD to start Insulate Ukraine?
I would say that my choices were made out of necessity. When we first started out, it was tinkering in the evenings on the side of the PhD. Once we started to put these windows into homes in Ukraine and saw them working, then there began to be a moral obligation to continue this work. People are kept warmer because of what that we’re doing. If we’re not doing it, who is going to? Who is going to pick up this project and run with it in the same way and at the same pace? I think to an extent, you can think of the reason I left the PhD as there being two types of doors. There are those that you can walk through only once, and those that you can walk through at a later period of time. Insulate Ukraine is the former—we have one opportunity to do this project, and that opportunity is now. The PhD is the latter kind of opportunity. Because of that, my decision made sense from both the moral and the practical angle.
When did the project start and when did it become necessary to put the PhD to one side?
We started iterating on ideas in September 2022 by finding out as much as we could about the problem and coming up with a set of constraints that we needed to solve. That took about a fortnight, and then we just went through a set of different solutions, some really bad ones, some slightly better ones, until we got to what we have now, which is a good solution given the constraints that we were focused on. I would say the point that it became necessary to put the PhD to one side was when we set out to run a pilot in Izyum in January. Since then, we’ve been looking to put the remaining processes in place and to get the funding to scale it.
Insulate Ukraine works as a franchise model. Do you also have a team of volunteers who are from the UK and work on the ground?
There are one or two other people working from the UK, but they’re not really out in Ukraine so much. With our franchise model, we don’t work with volunteers very much. It’s not really a volunteer initiative and there’s a couple of reasons for that. What happens is that we pay $3.50 to Ukrainians in the areas that we’re working in to install the windows. The materials cost about $11 to $12, so that brings the cost per window up to about $15.
But what it does, really importantly, is that it begins to bring economic life back into areas that have faced financial destitution. These are areas where there is no work, there is no money, and people are desperate. And what’s really special about Insulate Ukraine is that we have a way to begin bringing money in for people who need it, who are willing to work for it, and who through their work are going to help to resolve a humanitarian crisis in their local area. The other thing that this franchise model does is it makes it much more scalable. It means that if we want to go and set it up in another city, we can essentially do it in two weeks. We have a real ability to push for things like quality, and we have a lot more control over what we can ask people to do than if it was a volunteer initiative.
How do you get in touch with people on the ground who are installing the windows?
We work with a salesperson, someone who essentially finds people who need windows, and two supervisors. They tend to be people who had management roles at companies and ideally have some construction experience. They then hire local window builders, who are allocated houses to go and visit each day. They turn up with the materials, build the windows there, and do the installation. At the moment, the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge is taking a lot of interest in this process, which is known as distributed manufacturing. It is manufacturing which happens at the point of use—window builders turn up with raw materials, not with an existing product, and build the product on site.
Is the raw material imported?
No. The availability of materials was one of the early constraints when we were designing solutions. It’s very difficult and expensive to get your hands on glass in Ukraine. The materials that we’re using are highly available in Ukraine: polyethylene, duct tape, pipe insulation and PVC pipes. We’re ordering the materials at scale to reduce costs and we’re purchasing in Ukraine from Ukrainian suppliers, so that as much of the money is going into Ukraine as possible.
What is your vision for Insulate Ukraine in the longer term? You mentioned that you’re currently in the fundraising phase.
The long-term vision within Ukraine is to have an organization that can replace any window that is shattered within 24 hours. Essentially, I would like to see a Ukraine where individuals are not having to go cold because of the oppressive acts of another nation. And I think we can achieve that with not that much money. People have also already asked for us to start working outside of Ukraine in places like Yemen and Jordan. At the moment, the entirety of our focus has to be on Ukraine, until we’re at the point where we can take a step back and know that the operation in Ukraine is fully running.
The one thing left to do is fundraising. We have essentially got a system that works and that can scale. But the limiting fact is how we finance that, how we actually bring the money in to pay for these windows at a large scale. At the moment we have a few target cities, but we’re looking to implement this project throughout the liberated areas of Ukraine. The estimates are that 10 million windows have been shattered by this conflict. I suspect we’ll probably be able to help around half of those, or a third of those. We’re looking for donations from philanthropic individuals or from companies. And those are donations on a village, town, or city scale—a village roughly costs £5,000 to £10,000 ($6,300–$12,750), a town is around £50,000 to £100,000 and then a city is up to £500,000 to £1 million. We have been approaching companies, showing them that if they give us a donation they can get quite a lot out of it. Everything, including the locality, is rigorously recorded—we can come back to those companies with good documentation of the work that has been done on the ground using their money, so that a company can say, “We insulated Izyum, here are the results.”
Eugenia Leproni is an Executive with Brunswick based in London.