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Evolution of the yurt

Editor's Message: If you like the outdoors and enjoy being close to nature on vacation, you have probably seen or stayed in a yurt. These amazing structures are not only comfortable to stay in, they are also very versatile. Earth911 just reported that recycled yurts (yurts made from mostly recycled materials) can withstand Alaskan winters. So what are yurts? Get a load down on its origin and evolution.

What are Yurts?

Art12_YurtMongoliaYurts, also known as gers, are a form of shelter that have been used by Central Asian nomads for centuries. These unique structures were lightweight and portable enough to allow these nomads to dismantle and move with their herds whenever greener pastures were necessary. Saplings were lashed together to create a circular lattice wall structure. Other saplings fastened into a central wood ring were lashed to the top of the lattice to create a conical roof structure. Layers of felted mats, made from wool and animal hair, were used to cover the structure's framework and provide protection from the severe winds and cold. Few layers would be used during summer weather, while more layers were added when temperatures dropped.

Photo courtesy of Odds Photography

Nobody knows exactly when the first yurt was designed and built, but these ingenious structures have endured for millennia for several reasons.

  1. They require few materials to create a maximum amount of covered space. A very efficient surface to volume ratio.
  2. Their lightweight and portable nature allows for easy relocation.
  3. The circular shape allows air to flow easily throughout the interior space and conical roof helps to funnel excess heat out.
  4. The strength achieved using a combination of tension and compression components is impressive.
  5. Its aerodynamic shape allows wind to easily slip around the structure rather than pushing on it.
  6. Due to their lightweight nature they impact the land minimally.

Introduction of Yurts to the West

The Western population was exposed to these fascinating structures when a 1962 article by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas appeared in National Geographic Magazine. The article inspired people in the United States to design and build their own versions of the yurt.

One of the most notable of these early western yurt builders is William Coperthwaite, who designed an all wooden yurt structure with walls that taper inward at the base. His design reduced the building skills needed to a minimum. Bill went on to create many unique designs and teach others yurt building skills.

In the 1970's Alan Bair, a recent college graduate, was working on Oregon reforestation projects and thought often about the National Geographic article where he'd read about yurts in Mongolia. He and some friends built their own yurts to live in while on these projects, catching the interest of a writer. The yurts and builders were featured in a news article, which resulted in calls and letters from people requesting help to build their own.

Although some people in the United States had been making a few yurts here and there for themselves, Bair had discovered a market for simple, affordable structures and knew that the versatile structure could fulfill a wide variety of needs. He also realized that the traditional yurt design needed some upgrades for modern users and wet Western climates.  Along with two partners, Bair founded a company dedicated to manufacturing modern lattice wall yurts, Pacific Yurts Inc. of Cottage Grove, Oregon.  This modernization of yurts spurs the growth of what has become the yurt industry today.

Innovations in Modern Yurts

Some improvements that were made to the traditional yurt design include the use of structurally graded dimension lumber, steel cable for a tension band, marine grade canvas for the exterior, riveted lattice and the addition of an acrylic skylight over the central wood ring. These improvements not only provided for a modern, finished looking product, but offered better durability, consistency and lower maintenance in wet climates. The wood components were sanded smooth and hand finished while the fabric covers were carefully stitched together.

Early customers were attracted by the yurt's comfort, affordability and ease of installation. With new options, innovations and public awareness, the yurt market grew to include many outdoor recreation applications. Yurt uses seemed to be limited only by the imagination.

Examples of innovations incorporated into the yurt design included NASA-developed reflective insulation (that didn't retain moisture like the felt covers of traditional yurts), structural upgrades that were professionally engineered to meet modern structural codes and the marine canvas was replaced by long-life, flame retardant architectural fabrics with welded seams. Optional wall height that offered an entrance more typical of western structures than the traditional low entrance of a Central Asian yurt also became available.  

Modern Usage of Yurts

Art12_Yurt30FeetInteriorTo many customers the appeal of this modern yurt was much more than structural or convenience-related... it was a work of art and a simpler way of life. Living in a round space provided them with a feeling of serenity, well-being and a sense of connection with the practical wisdom of ancient peoples across vast expanses of time and distance. People simply enjoyed the interior space of the yurt and the feeling it creates of being close to nature, yet cozy and protected from the elements.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Yurts


Art12_YurtCustomInteriorAs is typical with western society, people loved the durability of the modern yurt and the warm feeling of the round interior space but wanted to add modern amenities. After all, they weren't necessarily dismantling their yurts and moving them to find greener pastures. Their yurts were mounted onto platforms and left in place year round. Basic kitchens and bathrooms were added into yurts, sometimes evolving into plush kitchens complete with granite countertops and full bathrooms with tiled walk-in showers.

Nowadays, customers can also find efficient Low-E thermal glass window mounted into a structurally engineered curved frame. The design allows for a permanent installation, but can also be removed if the yurt was to be disassembled and moved to a new site.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Yurts  


Art12_YurtUmpquaBesides individual recreation use, many commercial campgrounds and RV parks as well as government agencies, like state parks, discovered the public appeal and revenue potential of yurt rentals. In Oregon alone, there are nearly 200 yurts in the state parks' system. According to Nations Business magazine, yurts are "the biggest money-maker to hit the Oregon State Parks since campgrounds were introduced at them about 70 years ago."

Photo courtesy of Pacific Yurts


This versatile structure will undoubtedly continue to change with the passage of time as will its uses and the materials it is comprised of. Although the yurt has evolved and the majority of modern users no longer move them from one location to another on a regular basis, it has retained its connectedness with nature and the unique feeling inside that speaks of a simpler more sustainable way of life.

Pacific Yurts Inc. of Cottage Grove, Oregon is dedicated to the manufacturing of quality yurts. Visit http://www.yurts.com/ to find out more about the company and its products.