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How Yurts Work

Yurt Structure
The parts of a modern yurt
The parts of a modern yurt

The yurt has an ingenious structure. It can be broken down into a few lightweight pieces for easy transport, but when assembled, it can stand up to the roughest winds. A yurt even withstood a tornado in Japan that damaged the surrounding houses [source: Kemery].

The walls of a yurt are made out of wood such as hazel or willow, and consist of a few latticed pieces that unfold like an accordion. These are assembled and pinned to form a circle, leaving room for a door frame. It's akin to assembling a circular baby gate. The domed or conical roof of the yurt has a circle at the crown with rafters radiating down to meet the walls. There's usually a hole at the top for a stove's chimney or, in more modern yurts, a skylight.

All of this is tied together around the outside with a tension band that provides the yurt with its immense strength. When compression comes down on the roof in the form of rain or snow, the tension band responds by pulling in and up on the rafters. The shape of the structure also makes it extremely wind-resistant because the wind can flow around it, rather than getting caught on walls and corners.

Once the structure is assembled, the walls are covered with fabric. Mongolians have traditionally relied on the wool of their sheep to make felt coverings. In the winter, they use many sheets of the felt for warmth, and they strip off the layers as it gets warmer. Drawbacks to the homemade fabric, though, include its weight and its water absorbency, so today, yurt manufacturers use canvas or vinyl for the wall coverings. Yurt manufacturers can also assist with the foundation for a yurt, as many modern users build a platform for the yurt. In Mongolia, the nomads may just place heavy rugs and mats on the ground.

When finished, the yurt is not very tall. If you're over 6 feet (1.8 meters), you may be bending over a bit, though modern yurt makers may be able to lengthen the walls as an added feature. This low roof makes the space easier to heat in the winter though, and the circular shape means that less space is exposed to the elements.

Because the yurt doesn't require internal support, all of the internal space may be used. A yurt with an 18-foot (5.5-meter) diameter yields about 263 square feet (24.4 square meters), while square footage jumps to 730 square feet (67.8 square meters) when the yurt's diameter is 30 feet (9.1 meters) [source: Wolfe]. A 30-foot yurt is on the large side of the yurt spectrum, but if you want more room, you could also group several yurts together.

Tiny differences exist in yurts all over the world. Even in Central Asia, Mongolian gers differ from Turkic ones, which use bent poles long enough to serve as both the walls and the roof. When the yurt came to North America, yurt manufacturers started using different fabrics for the walls and aircraft cables for the tension band.

What's it like inside a traditional yurt? Turn the page to take a trip to Mongolia.