For the nomadic people of Mongolia, home is where the herd is.
And home is typically a traditional dwelling called a ger. The Mongolian gers, also known as yurts (derived from the Turkic word meaning “dwelling place”), are wood-framed tentlike structures wrapped in wool felt that have housed nomads for millennia.
The minimalist design, which features a central wood ring at the ceiling, a series of poles extending from the rings, and a circular wooden lattice as the wall structure, has been hailed as an architectural wonder for its ability to withstand the elements. While the structures are sturdy, they are also easy to assemble, take down and transport.
And yurts are not just for herders. A substantial portion of Mongolian residents — nomads and non-nomads alike — live in gers, and several companies in the United States now manufacture and sell structures based on yurt engineering.
Modern varieties of yurts sold in the United States feature a variety of materials for framing, insulation and the exterior canvas, in a range of sizes. The yurt-based structures sold here can be temporary, semi-permanent or permanent, and local building codes may vary in the interpretation and requirements for the structures.
Yurts may not be for everyone, but they do offer an ancient solution to the modern problem of affordable housing and a way for occupants to get closer to nature.
Erin Everett, publisher of New Life Journal, spent about six years living with her husband in a yurt-like structure on land they own in Madison County, N.C.
The couple saved money during their yurt years to build a more conventional home on the property, and they moved into their new home in June. The yurt, Everett said, has its pros and cons.
“It’s definitely something for someone who has an interest in living close to nature and back to the land or living a bit more primitively, if you already have an interest in that,” she said.
“It’s a good way to save money, an excellent way to do without paying rent. The temperature extremes are definitely an issue. The main challenge: in the winter it was cold and in the summer it was hot. It was really challenging to control the temperature.”
To improve the comfort level, the couple constructed the 20-foot-diameter yurt atop a deck, and below the deck were other rooms, including a kitchen and bathroom, and a wood stove that they used to heat the structure. The interior has about 314 square feet of space.
“When the wind blew you could definitely hear it,” Everett said. “You could hear the bugs outside, and when it’s storming you’re awake. It’s interesting because it really connects you to natural cycles and really connects you to the outside world. It really is back-to-the-land living.”
While the structure really brought home the elements, Everett said it was also stable and sturdy. “We never had to worry about snow on top of the yurt. We never felt like the yurt was going to blow over.”
Everett said they purchased the structure used, and they plan to continue to use it as an exercise or yoga room. Their yurt features a range of synthetic materials, and they made some modifications to the structure during their time living in it, adding additional insulation, for example. The structure is now 11 years old, and the canvas is starting to show wear and tear, she said. “We’ve treated it at least once with non-toxic waterproofing sealant. We’re thinking if we’re going to keep it much longer we will probably invest in a new canvas for it.”
The experience allowed her to better appreciate the comforts of a modern house, she said. “It was kind of like heaven,” she said, when she moved out of the yurt. “If we had just moved from a (conventional) house to a house it would be just a totally different experience.” But she realizes, too, “The yurt is partially responsible for us being able to afford the house.”
After writing about her yurt experiences in the journal that she publishes, Everett was bombarded with e-mail messages. Many of the people who wrote are interested in alternative living, she said. “They are either tired of the corporate world or they want to live more simply. Our particular area of Asheville has kind of ‘bohemianized’ over the past seven or eight years. This area is very interested in yurts.”
It might be challenging to raise a family in a yurt structure, Everett said, though it can be a solid form of affordable housing for people. “It’s almost an unheard-of thing in this country to have a place to live that’s this affordable. It’s very challenging for people to do that now. And this is an option that a lot of people wouldn’t consider.”
Modern yurt-like structures can be equipped with kitchens and bathrooms, she said — her yurt had a floor outlet for electricity. Yurt structures are used as shelter at some retreat centers, she noted.
Peter Belt, owner of Red Sky Shelters in Asheville, N.C., said he started building tipis in Colorado and evolved the traditional yurt design into a Yome – a hybrid structure that combines elements of yurts and geodesic domes. “We took the Mongolian structure and changed it a lot. Ours differs in that we use a lot less wood. Our central ring is smaller than would be the traditional yurt,” he said.
Typically those interested in purchasing the yurt-like structures own land and want a semi-permanent dwelling on that property, he said. “Usually it’s when they’re building a house or thinking about building,” he said. There are a range of other uses for the structures though, he said, such as housing on farms or a backyard room for teen-agers.
“We’ve seen steady growth. I don’t know if it has to do with more interest or more people are hearing about us. Five or six years ago you would talk to somebody at a grocery store and they’d have no idea (about yurts). I would tell people I make tents because I didn’t think they knew what a yurt is. It seems like more and more people know,” Belt also said.
He ships most of his Yomes to the West Coast, and his structures range in size from 12 feet to 19 feet in diameter. The structures can be difficult to keep warm, he said, as they lack thermal mass. “In a lot of cases it’s more challenging to keep them cool in hot situations,” though he added that his company is working on new designs that allow greater ventilation.
Michele Swartz-Ireland, a sales representative for Rainier Yurts, a division of Rainier Industries Ltd. in Seattle, said her company sells yurts ranging from 16 feet to 30 feet in diameter, and ranging in price from $5,000 to $13,880.
Most of the interest in yurts, aside from parks, camps and resorts, is from people who own land and want a vacation home, she said. “It’s so cost-prohibitive to build a typical structure that they look at these yurts,” she said. “Some people live in it year-round. Mostly it’s a getaway.” Other possible uses range from art studio to home office or spa enclosure.
Oregon Yurtworks, based in Eugene, Ore., specializes in heavy-duty, custom-built, round homes based on yurt principals. The roof features a large central compression ring — common to yurts — that is 4 feet to 6 feet in diameter and capped with a skylight. The structures range from 19 feet to 70 feet in diameter, said Star Ches, a project manager for the company, and the components are prefabricated so they can be transported to remote locations. Buyers commonly purchase the structures as primary homes or vacation homes, she said.
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