How to Make a Yurt

Interested in learning how to make a yurt?  Read on:

When Pam first encountered the world of yurts it was entwined with a discovery about herself and her life's direction. She had ventured north in 1992 from her home outside Boston to a women's retreat, called Greenfire, in mid-coast Maine, to renew her spirit and inspire her photography. There she was introduced to their pre-prandial custom of the mediation circle as well as the yurt accommodations that were available for guests.

She fell in love with the rugged waterside of Tennant's Harbor and the spiritual beauty of the yurt architecture. Though the two would not coalesce for some time, the image of the circle, representing wholeness, became a power motivator for Pam and her family.

So the search began for a small house that she and her husband and two children could enjoy in the warmer months of the year. It became evident very quickly that like many other places on the eastern seaboard, the real estate prices were climbing steadily and they would have to move swiftly to claim their stake on the coast.

Though Pam yearned for a place on the water, the costs outran her budget and she started looking inland. While in residence at a workshop at Greenfire in the spring of 2003 she came upon a property too good to believe. The seven and a half acre site was only 400 yards from the cliffs looking out to sea. There was a small two-bedroom cabin that would suffice and a 125-gallon kerosene tank to provide heating. She called her husband immediately and told him that he'd have to trust her, but that she was going to buy the property that day before it slipped through their hands. Going on blind faith, he agreed and Pam moved forward to purchase the new home.

Now the next part of this story is how there came to be a yurt on this land. It's a bit of serendipity spiced with bad luck turned to good, and I believe a whole lot of spiritual awareness that allowed the family to see the sun rising in the morning, rather than sinking their dreams.

There was a theft. The kerosene heater was stolen during the dead of winter in 2004 and the pipe to the tank was left open, allowing its entire 125 gallons to leak onto the carpeted first floor, into the basement and onto the ground below. The cabin was destroyed and the site tainted by the toxic spill. The Maine Dept. of Environmental Protection was eventually brought in to do an extensive clean up of the site, but the insurance money was paltry since the cabin itself was of little value.

But here's the forest through the trees part, being able to see the silver lining and all that. Rather than be defeated by the unfortunate turn of events, Pam and her family insisted upon viewing the situation as an opportunity and a gift. They started to research their options after concluding that traditional wood frame construction would be too expensive. So their attention turned to prefabs, a growing and maturing alternative, that would allow them to build in pieces as the budget permitted, and would save them 10-20% over conventional building methods.

Their investigations took them all the way to Oregon to a growing company called Oregon Yurtworks who since 1982 have been creating what they believe is a perfectly shaped home - the round house. Yurts are a long time traditional dwelling of nomadic Mongols and Turks. Their major components are a collapsible, wooden lattice framework for the walls, wooden roof poles, a central wooden tension "smoke" ring, a large piece of felt for the siding, tension ropes, a wooden door, and a white cloth covering. Each of these pieces would be easily disassembled for transport and recreated in the next new home site. In accordance with the Mongolian and Turkish world-view, the yurt is always set up with the opening facing southward. While their popularity in the Western world is unclear, some speculate that the association with the circular shape with symbolic circles may be a factor.

Oregon Yurtworks, though based on the west coast, builds and ships homes all over the country, up to forty or fifty each year. The breadth of styles, says owner Morgan Reiter, is "client driven, which is the most satisfying aspect of the business." Each modular home is custom built, with hours spent on the phone or over email, fine-tuning the architectural plans, and making certain the house works well with the site. Pam's house was a fairly popular design, a "yurt with wings" with a central round room and ancillary rooms extending off the sides.

Building in the Round

Springtime in Maine of 2005 brought the suitable weather needed to begin construction. The site presented many challenges however which effected the foundation, and its connection to the modular units of the yurt. Consultations between the foundation contractor and Oregon Yurtworks ensured that the 24 panels of the yurt would attach at the 15° angles needed to guarantee the circular shape of the house. Insulated concrete forms from the Standard ICF Corp. in Oronoco, MN, called a Modified Flat Wall system were the perfect base of this unconventional building since they could be arranged in the exact outline of the home. Since the site challenges had prevented a standard concrete poured foundation this solution was an exceptional relief to the crew and enabled a strong and solid base.

With the site work completed, the long haul of trucking the yurt modules across country began. Back home Pam and family were busy coordinating two week's worth of volunteers, their housing, their sustenance and their activities. Pam sent out a host of emails in the spring to gather her troops, originally asking that volunteers commit themselves for at least one week, but later adjusting her request in order to get enough hands on deck for the duration of the construction. There were some that came just to help feed the crowds. In the end they had between 12-14 people each day working in some capacity or another; from six-year-old Chay to hammer-swinging teenagers, adults, friends, relatives, they all pitched in for a true community event.

July 11 - 7AM - "The universe was smiling on us" says Pam of that morning. The people had arrived, all the pieces of the yurt had arrived, unscathed, and the sun was shining. It was a flurry of activity, led by the Oregon Yurtworks team leader Morgan Reiter.

Day One - the whole floor goes in - a douglas fir plywood floor with insulation already attached.

Day Two - All the wall panels go up. Each of the 24 modular panels is set in place. Jonas, their very skilled carpenter manager, directed the mostly unskilled volunteer force in the intricacies of the operation. Through his masterful organizational abilities he engineered the group in the raising of the supporting pedestal that would hold up the ceiling until the central "smoke" ring, which in this case would be a skylight, was put in place.

Day Three - Ceiling beams

Day Four - More beams

Day Five - The boom truck arrives to lift each of the roof panels into place. The sky light installation follows.

Week Two - Everything is sealed in, attached, insulation is stuffed into the gaps, and trim boards are put in place - all the prefabricated pieces are connected and a house is born. By Thursday of that week, the entire structure had been completed. There was much celebration and general fatigue, but spirits remained high enough for an impromptu concert in the center of the circle.

It was supposed to take the full two weeks, but instead was done by day nine. This was due in large part to the extraordinary preciseness of the modular units, and the exceptional organizational skills of both the contractors and Pam and her family. Everything had been coordinated ahead of time. Everything had been built, at least in part, ahead of time. The construction stage was the puzzle at the end of the process that had all the pieces prepped to fit neatly together. And so they did.

The shell is completed now, but the interior has a long way to go. As Pam puts it "it'll be some time" before the family budget will allow for all the interior finishing to occur. The plans are in place when they are ready to move forward which will make the final stages easier. Until then, they will be camping out during the more temperate months, and dreaming of summer as winter sets in.

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