An elderly lady in Shevchenkove had been sleeping in her bathtub for two months, because the bathroom was the only warm place in her home, whose windows were all broken.
Cambridge University Ph.D. student Harry Blakiston Houston met her last winter when he travelled to Ukraine with a small team of engineers. And while there are millions of broken windows all over Ukraine, it was in her house that he installed the first one of his newly-invented windows.
“We were able to get her back to some kind of normality after the windows went in. The house was immediately warmer and lighter – she was able to rearrange everything and actually live in her home again. That was the start of it – the signal we needed, to go, ‘Right, ok, we’re on to something here’.”
Most emergency solutions such as plywood, plastic wrap or single layers of PVC don’t insulate well, don’t let light through, and can be difficult to install. Harry invented a four-layered window built with readily available materials – polyethylene, PVC piping, pipe insulation and duct tape that is simple to build and install.
The windows insulate better than double glazed windows, let light through, cost $15 per window, are shatterproof, and can be built at home in 15 minutes from basic materials. When it is no longer needed, its components can be recycled.
It was when he was queuing for the Queen’s Lying-in-State that Harry first heard about the need, from a friend who had been working in Ukraine. “We were chatting in the queue and he told me about the issue of the windows, and how people were living in freezing homes because their windows had been blown out by bombs and bullets”.
Back in Cambridge, he started working on a window design. “I asked contacts on the ground to send me photos of the sort of solutions they were using. People were doing what they could, but a lot of the solutions were rudimentary, single layer – some people were using hemp sacks. It was whatever they could get their hands on that would act as a windbreak, and often that left the houses cold and dark.”
Harry was aiming for frugal simplicity. “Our windows needed to be inexpensive, let light in, keep cold out, and be simple for local people to install themselves,” he said. “They are built from some of the most abundant building materials on the planet. Plus, we’re using stabilised polyethylene, which doesn’t degrade under sunlight. All of the window parts can be recycled and used for something else in a few years’ time. There’s pretty much no wastage.”
The Insulate Ukraine team, which includes people from the communities being supported, has now installed hundreds of windows in localities across Ukraine, including the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine, where the local government has asked for help installing 6,000 windows.
The project aims to create hubs across Ukraine that can replace any shattered window within 24 hours, and is currently working with The Big Hoof in Izyum, Ukraine Children in Nikopol, The Robin Hood Project in Lyman and Vezha in Kherson. In Izyum and Nikopol, the work is now largely being carried out by local people.
Harry hopes the project’s work will serve as a template. “We’ve come up with a solution that makes a real difference. We’re essentially empowering Ukrainians because we’re giving them a way to solve this problem for themselves. All we have to do is show them how to build the windows and help them to get hold of the materials.”
People say they are spending less on fuel to stay warm. Dasha’s flat had an air temperature of 0°C before Harry replaced her windows. “It is difficult to comprehend the emotional lift one would feel when a stranger turns up and makes one feel physically warmer and cared for,” he wrote. “As Dasha showed us out, she thanked us, wiping away tears from her eyes.”
Insulate Ukraine estimates that materials for 4,000 of its windows can be fitted into a single truck, versus around 30 equivalent glass windows.
“Our goal is to Insulate Ukraine,” Harry says. “We see a Ukraine in which a shattered window doesn’t mean one has to sleep in their bathtub to stay warm.”
Ukraine wants its people back – but first it needs glass for broken windows. Guardian, Aug. 20. 2023
Keeping out the cold. University of Cambridge
The Cambridge engineer keeping Ukraine warm, one window at a time. Varsity, Apr. 20, 2023
Insulate Ukraine: UK student’s 15-minute fix for broken windows. Guardian, Apr. 28, 2023
Insulate Ukraine website
Cover image and all photos by Insulate Ukraine