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Living in the round

Life in a yurt


By Jerri Cook

Countryside Staff



Many homesteaders who want to live sustainably on their own land get discouraged when they learn they can afford the land, but not the house. Some have come up with innovative ways to overcome the housing issue. Readers have shared their adventures in cob, cordwood, sub-terrainian, and a myriad of alternative building options. Another option, often overlooked, is the yurt.

Yurts were the dwellings of choice for nomads in Central Asia. Covered in felt made from the nomad’s flock and supported with lattice on the outside, yurts have thicker walls than tents and are remarkably durable, not to mention affordable. For do-it-yourselfers like JoAnn Skywatcher, a yurt just made sense.

Interior view of a Pacific Yurt model home
Interior view of a Pacific Yurt model home

“We had no building experience. All we had was 40 acres, a small trailer, a one-year-old, and a baby on the way,” explains JoAnn. “But we were determined to build a yurt.” That was in the mid-seventies. JoAnn has been living in her yurt in Northern California ever since. “I delivered my daughter at home in the yurt. It was a wonderful experience.” Her life, like anyone’s, has taken a few twists and turns over the years, but the yurt has remained constant.

Traditionally, yurts are made from wood and felt, and made to be mobile. JoAnn’s yurt, however, was built to be stationary. The walls and roof are actually individual trapezoid-shaped wooden panels. “It was a mathematical challenge,” she admits. “But we had a lot of help from our friends and neighbors.”

One friend in particular, David Raitt, musician and area yurt guru, provided the most guidance. “He was great,” says JoAnn. “We’d run into a problem, go ask him what we should do, and he helped us every time. We couldn’t have done it without his involvement.”

Back in the 1970s, yurts were relatively unheard of in the United States, and if you wanted to live in one, you were on your own. Alan Bair not only wanted to live in a yurt, he wanted to help other people do the same. Thirty-four years later, the Pacific Yurt Company is the largest in the United States. “Our yurts are engineered and designed to be as structurally sound as a traditional home, yet they are portable and can fit into the back of a pickup or trailer. They can be erected in a day or two depending on the size, even less time for the smaller ones. They can be insulated and work in any environment. We sell our yurts worldwide, from the Caribbean and South America where it’s very hot to the North Slope of Alaska where it’s very cold. They cost a fraction of traditional housing, and if you ever want to move them, you can. There are many advantages to these architectural wonders, as they’ve been called by Architectural Digest.

JoAnn Skywatcher's handmade yurt
JoAnn Skywatcher’s handmade yurt

“We sell to U.S. military. Yellowstone National Park has two of our yurts for visitors. On the North Slope our yurts are used for housing for extreme skiers. We have over 200 yurts in Oregon state parks. Most of the States in the U.S. have one of our yurts in their parks. We have yurts in Northern Michigan at Bohemian Mountain. Our yurts are also popular with the eco-tourism industry. People find all sorts of interesting uses for them. They use them for temporary shelter, studios, vacation homes, and permanent homes. One friend of ours put his on stilts and had a garage on the lower level. They are extremely versatile, unlike traditional buildings. There’s something special about living in the round, and people like the fact that they can be moved, leaving no environmental damage. We have engineered blueprints and calculations, and in most cases you can get a permit to erect a yurt with little or no problem.”

Today’s yurts are truly a blend of ancient history and technology. Modern yurts are made from architectural fabric, the same fabric that the roof of the airport in Denver, Colorado, is made of. No matter how large the structure, architectural fabric has no seams, making it incredibly durable. The seams are electronically welded, leaving no trace of the joint, just a giant piece of technologically advanced, environmentally friendly fabric. “Fabrics have entered the industry as a high-tech, durable building material,” says Bair. “We’ll see much more of them in the future. They come in an array of different colors, and blend in well in any setting.”

Alan agrees with JoAnn; building a yurt from scratch would require a finely honed mathematical mind. But that doesn’t mean a kit is a hands-off proposition. “Even with one of our kits, there’s plenty to do yourself without reinventing the wheel,” Bair explains. “Our yurts use a post and pier foundation that you can either build yourself or hire out locally. We provide all the plans. Yurts can be rustic or elegant. It’s up to you. People add French doors, extra windows, our sun arch, interior wall partitions, sleeping lofts, bathrooms, custom kitchens, you name it. Some people connect multiple yurts together for larger living spaces and privacy. We’ve been in business over three decades and have refined the process, but there’s still some work to it.”

Exploded view of a yurt

But is a yurt really practical in a cold climate? Alan says yes. “Yurts can be adapted to any climate with the right planning. You can heat with electricity or any other source, but the heat source must be sized properly. You’d want to get the metal flashing if you wanted to heat with a woodstove. We also offer insulation made from the same technology that NASA uses for space flight. It’s been used in the shuttle program for years, and we were the first to adapt it to yurts. It works by reflecting heat away from the outside and back into the interior. Our insulated yurts are perfect for northern climates.”

The Pacific Yurt Company sells yurts ranging in price from $4,400 for the smallest to $9,800 for the largest. This price doesn’t include the platform, but Bair recommends a platform to extend the life of the architectural fabric. “It’s not necessary to have a platform, but we recommend it to keep the yurt up off the ground.” Options add to the cost.

Once again, all that is old is new again. If you’re thinking you’d like to buy a piece of land, but are concerned about the price and time it takes to build a house, a yurt might be the answer. For more information visit the Pacific Yurt Company’s website, www.yurts.com, (see their ad on page 19). To learn more about JoAnn’s excellent adventure visit her website, www.joann-skywatcher.artistwebsites.com






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COUNTRYSIDE is the truly original country magazine (established 1917) serving that branch of the Voluntary Simplicity movement seeking greater self-reliance (homesteading), with emphasis on home food production. This includes gardening, small-scale livestock, cooking, food preservation, resource conservation, recycling, frugality, money management, alternative energy, old-time skills, home business, and
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  Toil, feel, think, hope; you will be sure to dream enough before you die without arranging for it.

  — J. Sterling
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