As my husband and I crest the top of the hill, our eyes meet a strange scene–nestled in the small Appalachian valley, a garden of raised beds filled with vegetables and flowers spreads out before us. Behind the garden rests a large, wood-sided, passive solar house with a new tin roof. To the right and in front of the house, with basil and winter squash growing almost to its door, rests a spaceship. The clear dome at the 11-foot apex of its rounded top sparkles in the sun. Its circular, aerodynamic body seems prepared for a silent liftoff. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see a spaceship in the backwoods of Madison County, North Carolina. After all, the New Agers who have taken over nearby Asheville write books on the alien activity in the area. However, despite the first impression this dome-shaped structure creates, it's a visitor not from another planet. From another time.
The design of the yurt in Pete Malett’s yard has been called “an architectural wonder.”. The yurt (gher is the proper Mongolian name) has been the traditional home of nomadic peoples in Siberia and Mongolia for centuries. These tentlike houses, formed from yak hair felt, grasses and wood, can still be seen dotting the high steppes and tundra of those areas today. A modern version of the ancient design was created and introduced to the western world by the “father of yurts,”. David Coperthwaite. Several varieties are being manufactured and sold by companies across the United States. This yurt is made in the modern way. Its roof and six-foot walls are vulcanized canvas instead of yak felt, its “eye of heaven”. (the round hole in the center of the domed roof) is covered with a convex acrylite skylight that opens and closes on hinges. It even comes equipped with screen windows that can be covered with clear vinyl or closed entirely with canvas flaps. It's a small wooden door. And this yurt is ours.
When we'd begun our search for a house to buy ten months before, Adam and I looked at our options from all angles. At first, we felt exasperated. With the naivite of young first-time home buyers, we felt rich with our $10,000 savings. We soon discovered that the housing market in our area was steep and highly competitive. The first cabin we fell in love with sold to a Florida couple for a vacation house the day we saw it. The costs of housing in this popular area started high. They'd risen roughly 30% in two years. We could barely afford a shack on a postage stamp. That shack would come complete with an outsized mortgage, introducing us to what we saw as a lifetime debt trap. Freedom and room to grow were our visions of home ownership. We looked at our priorities and realized that the bells and whistles were considerably less important than staying out of debt. So, we searched out and found a used yurt and laid down the few thousand dollars purchase price with only a little hesitation. After all, the fabric-covered structure is only twenty feet in diameter, with a total floor space of 314 square feet.
One of the yurt’s many attributes is its portability, as its history as a nomadic abode attests. Mallett, the yurt’s former owner, was kind enough to help us disassemble the structure. It took the three of us a day to take it down, to transport it and unload it at its new temporary location behind the house my husband and I rented at the time. The disassembled yurt itself, including the floor, fit neatly into the back of Pete’s pickup. The next day, we took down the yurt’s foundation. Take-down, transport and unloading of the timbers, boards and cinderblocks took us half a day and another full truckload. We stored the yurt on wooden pallets under two tarps until the next weekend.
Assembly was more of a job than disassembly, especially for novices. Since the yurt wasn't new, we didn’t have instructions to go by other than our memory of the steps involved in taking it down and a couple of phone calls to Pete for last-minute tips. The most difficult part was erecting the post and beam foundation and mounting the jigsaw-puzzle plywood floor onto it. After the struggle of leveling the floor and fitting its components together perfectly, we were ready. The various components of the roof and walls waited for us, neatly rolled and folded on the pallets.
We recruited four of our friends to join us for a good, old-fashioned yurt raisin’. The six of us assembled the small structure in an afternoon. The main elements of the yurt, other than the floor and foundation structure, are the expandable lattice wall (called a khana), roof beams, door, Reflectix[R] insulation for the roof and walls, canvas wall covering, inner roof fabric, vulcanized canvas roof covering, roof center ring, metal stove flashing. The acrylite dome skylight for the apex of the roof. After we slid the skylight up the roof and into its place crowning our achievement, we stepped back for a look at our finished project. There it stood–its light brown, rounded shape looked like it belonged there in the corner of our yard, under the tall pine tree. We were tired. Entirely amazed that we'd built a house in a few hours.
About a year later, we took the yurt down again to reassemble it on our new piece of land north of Asheville. We’ve been living in it for the four years since then and have enjoyed yurt living. Other yurt owners are quick to sing the praises of their housing choice. Patricia Allison has found her yurt to be a delightful alternative to conventional homes and the debt that goes with them. “Instant, cheap, environmentally-clean housing,”. She states with confidence. ‘I'd be perfectly happy living in (my yurt) for the rest of my life. I just don’t think it’s going to last the rest of my life.”. Allison is a permaculture teacher in her fifties who lives and works at an intentional community in Black Mountain, North Carolina. To her, living in a yurt exemplifies her personal ideals of living lightly on the earth in low-impact, environmentally-friendly housing. In her enthusiasm to live in a completely eco-friendly structure, she chose untreated 100% cotton canvas for her walls and roof. that's one decision she regrets. Treated canvas or vinyl would've withstood the moldy environment of the North Carolina mountains with ease. Her yurt’s canvas is suffering some mildew damage. Even with that one flaw, Patricia thoroughly enjoys her 16-foot diameter dome-shaped home. She gives community tours to members of her classes. She always shows off her yurt with pride.
Jessica Godino prefers her canvas home because of the unique, calming atmosphere of its circular shape and abundance of natural light. “I love the feel of it in here. It’s really bright and the space is so enjoyable.”. She indicates the triangular window above her bed. “Even the shapes, like the windows …. It’s just very pleasing. You’re really close to the outside. You can hear all the sounds of the animals in the forest. At the same time, you’re very protected.”. Godino and her partner, Brett Gustavson, both in their twenties, purchased a 14 foot diameter canvas dome a year ago and set it up on rented land. This structure is like a yurt, with the addition of the angled walls of a geo-dome. “For less than $2500, we've a house! You can’t build anything for less than that, so, I think for us, it was the most economical option. We don’t want to live in it forever. We’re hoping to start building our house in about a year. Even when we've a house, the dome will be an extra room we can use for a kitchen or an office or whatever we want.”. Instead of paying rent for a house in town, a $600 to $800 monthly investment, Godino and Gustavson have been able to save money to buy land. At the time of the interview, they planned to move to their new land in the spring and to use their dome as temporary living space as they built a house.
“We definitely lack some amenities,”. Said Godino, “but I don’t really like living in town, in conventional houses. I don’t miss that.”. The couple has electricity. A phone in their dome. They heat it comfortably with a small wood stove. A nearby 12 by 6 foot trailer houses their kitchen. They use a rustic outhouse. Their electricity comes from a nearby utility building, but, since most yurts are used for temporary or semipermanent housing, a temporary pole works just as well for people living on otherwise bare land. Such set-ups provide yurt owners with power for amenities like cooking stoves, computers and water heaters.
Others choose to invest in a solar electric system, making their structures some of the most sustainable modern structures on the planet. Many yurt owners install kitchens and bathrooms in their yurts, complete with indoor plumbing. Since yurts can have a variety of foundations (concrete slab, post and beam, deck), plumbing can be installed easily. Yurts stand up well to heavy wind, rain. Snow (just ask their Mongol creators). With the proper precautions taken, they can be safe and simple to electrify and heat.
I asked Bo Norris, co-owner of Borealis Yurts of Gray, Maine, if his customers had ever tried to get their yurts inspected as a permanent home. “We're very honest with our customers that yurts aren't code structures,”. He told me. “However, they're considered temporary structures. 99.9 percent of the time, people have had no problems.”. Homes classified as temporary structures don't need to meet the stringent electrical and heating codes of most building safety offices. Mark Case, a plan reviewer for the Buncombe County, North Carolina Department of Building Safety, agreed with Norris. “What you’re describing sounds like a temporary structure to me. Such a structure couldn’t be classified as a permanent residential unit.”. He went on to list specific state code requirements, mainly regarding insulation and heating, that proved his point.
The preferred heating method for yurts has always been fire. Most modern yurts are heated with wood stoves, vented either out a wall or through the skylight in the center of the roof, depending on the design. they're well-ventilated through the windows and the center roof skylight, which can be opened or closed. Yurts can be insulated with Reflectix[R] insulation on the walls and roof. Fiberglass or some other insulation beneath the floor. (Reflectix[R] looks like bubble wrap sandwiched between two layers of aluminum foil.) Not only does insulation help hold heat in the winter months. It blocks out the uncomfortable sunlight that can blaze through the yurt’s canvas walls in the heat of summer. Over the past four years of living in our yurt, my husband and I took out the Reflectix[R] in the roof and added Miraflex[R] (formaldehyde-free fiberglass encased in polyethylene) and blue board rigid foam insulation. The higher R-value in the roof has made the difference between chilly winter nights and comfy ones.
Yurts come in a range of sizes and prices to satisfy nearly anyone’s lifestyle. Red Sky Shelters in Asheville, North Carolina offers their simple domes for between $1,000 and $3,000 for bare-bones packages. (redskyshelters.com) Their sizes range from tiny 12 foot diameter domes to 19 footers. Pacific Yurts, an Oregon company with 20 years experience in the yurt-making business, offers sizes up to 30 feet in diameter (706 square feet). Basic prices from $4000 to nearly $9000. (yurts.com) To try a yurt on for size, you can go on retreat in one. Check out Nature’s Home in Jackson County, NC–yurtadventures.com–or Cedar House Inn and Yurts in north Georgia–georgiamountaininn.com.
Although it’s true that they probably won't outlast most houses, people have been living in modern yurts for over fifteen years. They can be a wise investment in semipermanent housing. After buying our yurt, Adam and I purchased used kitchen appliances and a used wood stove. We built a small structure with a kitchen and bathroom. We ended up with around 600 square feet (including the yurt), electricity, heat. Plumbing for around $20,000. I’ll bet you didn’t know New Life Journal’s headquarters used to be a yurt! After buying our yurt, we were able to move out to our land relatively quickly, enabling us to eliminate the burden of rental costs while we saved up for our permanent house, which will begin construction in a month or so.
The large debt that's assumed to be a natural part of home ownership in this country can be greatly reduced or eliminated with planning, hard work. The willingness to rough it for a few years. Adam and I look forward to the space and permanence a “real”. House will provide for us.
However, we'll always remember fondly our years in the yurt. We’re reaping the benefits of the financial stability we gained by really living within our means and choosing not to jump into a large mortgage when we could've. Because we’ve had years to pay off our land and our initial investment, the debt we incur to build our new house will be minimal. The yurt can enjoy its retirement as our guesthouse. When the time was right, we took a good look at our priorities and decided to be open to a lesson from ancient times on how to live simply and lightly on the earth.
Erin Everett is the Editor and Publisher of New Life Journal. She and her husband have been living in their yurt for over four years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org