What do Oregon campers and ancient Mongolians have in common? A love of yurts.
A yurt is a circular lattice-walled tent. They've been used throughout history by nomads in Central Asia. Evidence of fourth century B.C. yurts has been discovered, and the oldest complete yurt was found in a 13th century Mongolian grave [source: King]. The structures were well-suited for the nomadic lifestyle because only a few oxen were required to carry a family's entire home. But the structure was also easy to heat in the cold Mongolian winters where temperatures might reach 50 degrees below Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit) [source: King].
Oregon is nowhere near as cold, but campers still appreciate a yurt during that temporary nomadic period known as a vacation. When state parks in Oregon were faced with a budget crisis, in part due to a lack of people camping in the off-season, a parks manager decided to install yurts. Campsites around the country copied him mostly because the structures take less work and provide more comfort than a tent, particularly for young families or older people. Beyond camping, though, many people are using yurts for permanent homes, offices and schools.
While other countries have discovered the appeal of yurts only recently, many Mongolians continue to live in the structures their ancestors developed, which they know by the word ger, which means home. The term "yurt" is derived from the Russian term for the dwelling, and just as the Russians gave this structure a new name, other cultures have adapted the Mongolians' home for their own needs.
In this article, we'll look at the yurt's humble beginnings in Mongolia and the luxury yurts that exist today, as well as the reasons why the makeshift homes appeal to so many people. On the next page, we'll investigate the structural elements that keep a yurt standing against the strongest winds yet allow a person to take it down in less than an hour.
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.
For centuries, Mongolian herders have been on the move, looking for fresh grass for their sheep, goats and camels. They needed a structure that could accommodate their nomadic lifestyle, as well as the desert heat and the freezing nights of Mongolia. The ger met both of these needs. In addition to portability, the ger was easy to both heat and cool. The felt that made up the walls of the structure gave these people their name -- nomad was a word for felt [source: Kemery].
Though the yurt may seem like a simple circular tent, everything about it had significance to the ancient Mongolians who perfected it. They were immensely concerned with maintaining balance and honoring the connection between all things. The ger was a symbol for the entire universe and of the occupant's place within it. The roof was like the sky, and the opening at the top of each ger was the sun and a portal to the world above. The fireplace in the center of each ger represented the portal to the world below.
The furnishings within a ger have always been arranged the same way. In the center is a hearth or a stove, which represents the five basic elements of Earth: Earth, wood, fire, metal and water. Since most Mongolians are Buddhist, an altar or a shrine would be at the north end of the ger, directly opposite the south-facing door. The ger's inhabitants sleep with their heads in the direction of the altar unless they are Muslim, in which case their heads point south, to Mecca.
The eastern and western sides of the ger are the domains of the women and men, respectively. Men's bedding would be to the west of the altar, and around this side the men's tools are kept. The women are on the other side with their domestic goods, such as cooking utensils and sewing equipment. Male and female visitors to a ger stay on their designated sides, while servants, poor visitors and animals would be seated near the entrance.
Many Mongolians, even those living in towns, continue to live in gers. There are many variations in design across Asia, including a wall-less ger, which more resembles a teepee, and a six-story ger. But gers have changed in interesting ways since they made the jump to other countries. On the next page we'll find out about the variety of options available today.
From Camping Yurts to Luxury Yurts: The Yurt Today
Yurts started appearing in North America in the 1960s. On the East Coast, a Harvard student named Bill Coperthwaite was inspired by photos of gers in National Geographic and used his dissertation as an opportunity to build the structures. On the West Coast, a group known as the Hoedads was living in the Oregon forests planting trees and realized that the structure suited their lifestyle. Bill Coperthwaite went on to start the Yurt Foundation, and those that worked with him and with the Hoedads started the first yurt manufacturing companies in North America.
Yurt sales are growing about 10 percent each year; the early adopting West Coast and Pacific Northwest lead the way, with the East Coast and even the Midwest starting to grow as well [source: Schoettle]. One manufacturer estimates that about 10,000 yurts are in use throughout North America [source: Darlin].
As we mentioned in the introduction, the yurt has made some high-profile appearances on campgrounds. The trend started in Oregon, when parks manager Craig Tutor saw yurts displayed at the Oregon State Fair and bought them for state parks. They provide some of the comfort of a cabin, but are much cheaper to maintain. When surveyed by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in 2003, yurt users said the structure made camping much better, due to amenities like heat, a dry shelter and convenience [source: Bingham].
Yurts don't always turn a major profit, but park officials report that they do get more people interested in camping. Oregon parks currently charge $27-$30 per night for a basic yurt that sleeps five, and $45-$66 for a deluxe yurt that sleeps seven [source: Oregon Parks and Recreation]. Studies have shown that campers won't pay more than $50 a night unless some luxury features like fireplaces or hot tubs are involved [source: Lohse].
Luxury features upgraded the humble sheep herder's tent into a structure that can be used as a home, an office, a school or even a sauna room and gym. While yurts may start at about $4,000 from most manufacturers, the sky's the limit in terms of what may be the final cost, as users install gutter systems, electricity, plumbing, French doors and ceiling fans. Several yurts can be linked to create more space, and they can be partitioned so that there's more than one room, though you'll have to give up the modern day conception of square corners.
Yurts are now almost all over the world, so whether you're planning a trip to Costa Rica or Europe, staying in a yurt might be an option. Australia, New Zealand and Japan are some of the countries that import traditional yurts from Mongolia. At certain festivals and events in Britain, you might see the Sushi Yurt, a traveling restaurant that serves Japanese cuisine. The Scottish Storytelling Yurt also travels around and may be rented with a storyteller.
Skiers in Idaho and Utah can stay in yurts, and those in Park City, Utah, might choose to take a sleigh ride to the Viking Dinner Yurt. At 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) above sea level, the Viking Dinner Yurt provides fine meals and was even ranked as one of the most romantic places to propose in America by the "Today" show [source: Park City Yurts].
Why are so many people falling in love with the yurt? We'll look at some reasons on the next page.
Benefits of Yurt Living
Yurts were beneficial to Mongolian nomads because of their portability. The nomads just needed a horse or two to carry their homes away, and smaller yurts may still easily fit in a car or a truck for that weekend camping trip. Setup and take down is easy as well, even for someone with no experience. It could take as little as half an hour, though a few hours is more likely. While you could complete the process on your own, it is easier with a helping hand or two. It's even easy to move once already erected, should you decide that a patch of ground a few yards down would be a better spot.
The yurt has a proven record of withstanding the elements; just in Mongolia, it has endured rain, snow, wind and extreme heat. Because of its low height and circular structure, it's easy to heat with just a fire in the stove and a few extra layers of insulation. Some of today's models even come with extra insulation for colder climates. When it's warm, the layers can be rolled back so that a breeze can enter, and lighter reed mats may be used to ensure privacy.
Even when faced with the toughest elements, the yurt is durable. Some of the pine frames used to build Turkish yurts last 50-70 years [source: King]. One manufacturer guarantees the canvas for 15 years, longer than the average shingled roof [source: Hughes].
The yurt's success in campgrounds speaks to one of its benefits: the ability to be close to nature -- but not too close! In a yurt, you can enjoy the sounds of the rain and the wind but stay safe and dry. You can hear nearby animals and see the stars at night, but you're afforded adequate protection and comfort.
Not only does a yurt bring you close to nature, the structure is friendly to the environment. The materials of a traditional yurt are all recyclable, and because no permanent foundation is used, there's no lasting impact to the ground when a yurt is moved.
The structure is also safe. You can get doors that lock, and even if someone pulls up the canvas sheeting, it would be hard to get through the latticed wood. That also keeps the wild animals out, should you be sharing space with them. Yurts are also fairly inconspicuous. Since the structure is not much taller than 6 feet (almost 2 meters), it can be placed within some tall shrubs or trees for privacy.
Yurts can be fairly inexpensive for a structural dwelling, although the add-on features obviously drive up the cost. It's also possible to build your own yurt if you possess carpentry and sewing skills; a simple Internet search brings up many instructional guides. Another way that you may save might come down to taxes. Because the yurt is not a permanent structure, it may not be taxed when placed on a property as a house would [source: Wolfe].
On the flip side, however, it may be difficult to finding financing or get a loan for a yurt. One yurt manufacturer tells his clients never to use the term "yurt" when dealing with a bank because of it's unconventionality, but to emphasize that it was designed by an architect [source: Tedeschi]. It may also be tricky to place your yurt according to building codes. Check with local planning departments for the rules in your area.
Last, you can't deny that there's a fun factor to yurts. One downside to staying in one may be that everyone comes over to talk about it.
For more on yurts and other dwellings, see the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Bingham, Larry. "Yakking about yurts." The Oregonian. Nov. 16, 2007. (June 16, 2008)http://www.oregonlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2007/11/yakking_about_yurts.html
- "Camping Lite." Oregon Parks and Recreation Department; State Parks. (June 16, 2008)http://www.oregon.gov/OPRD/PARKS/cabins.shtml
- Darlin, Damon. "Living in the Round." New York Times. Sept. 10, 2006. (June 16, 2008)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE6DD1731F933A2575AC0A9609C8B63&scp=11&sq=yurt&st=nyt
- "Frequently Asked Questions." Pacific Yurts. (June 16, 2008)http://www.yurts.com/what/faq.aspx
- Grossman, Lev. "Home is Where the Yurt Is." Time. April 22, 2002. (June 16, 2008)http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1002305,00.html
- Hughes, Amy. "Yurt Time Has Come." This Old House. September 2005.
- Kemery, Becky. "Yurt FAQ's." Yurtinfo.org (June 16, 2008)http://www.yurtinfo.org/faq.php
- Kemery, Becky. "Yurtstory: the history of yurts ancient and modern." Yurtinfo.org. (June 16, 2008)http://www.yurtinfo.org/yurtstory.php
- King, P.R. "Build Your Own Yurt: A complete guide to making a Mongolian Ger." Woodland Yurts. 1997. (June 16, 2008)http://www.woodlandyurts.co.uk/Yurt_Facts/Build_your_own_yurt.pdf
- Koselka, Rita. "From Yurt to Yurt." Forbes. Sept. 13, 1993.
- Kuehn, Dan Frank. "Mongolian Cloud Houses: How to Make a Yurt and Live Comfortably." Shelter Publications. 2006.
- Lohse, Deborah. "Come to the parks for the redwoods, stay in the…yurts?" The Argus. Feb. 18, 2008.
- Mrkonjic, Katarina. "Autonomous Lightweight Houses: Learning from Yurts." Conference on Passive and Low Energy Architecture. Sept. 6-8, 2006. (June 16, 2008)http://www.unige.ch/cuepe/html/plea2006/Vol2/PLEA2006_PAPER886.pdf
- Park City Yurts. (June 18, 2008)http://www.thevikingyurt.com/
- Schoettle, Anthony. "Yurt biz owners think it's hip to be round." Indianapolis Business Journal. June 11, 2007.
- Scottish Storytelling Yurt. (June 18, 2008)http://www.scottishstorytellingyurt.co.uk/
- Sushi Yurt. (June 18, 2008)http://www.sushiyurt.co.uk/
- Tedeschi, Bob. "Finding Loans for Yurts or Prefabs." New York Times. Nov. 26, 2006. (June 16, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/realestate/26mort.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
- Wolfe, Claire. "Yurt magic…building an enchanting instant house." Backwoods Home Magazine. July/August 2002. (June 16, 2008)http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/wolfe76.html