Yurts, also known as gers, are a form of shelter used for centuries by Central Asian nomads. These unique structures are lightweight and portable allowing these nomads to dismantle and move with their herds to greener pastures when 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.
Although no one knows exactly when the first yurt was designed and built, 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. Strength is achieved using a combination of tension and compression. 5. Its aerodynamic shape allows wind to easily slip around the structure rather than pushing on it. 6. Their impact on the land is minimal due to their lightweight construction.
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 (Bill) Coperthwaite, who designed an all wooden yurt structure with walls that taper inward at the base. His design reduced the required building skills to a minimum. Bill went on to create many unique designs and teach others yurt building skills.
INNOVATIONS IN MODERN YURTS Some improvements made to the traditional yurt design include 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 provided for a modern, finished looking product, and offered better durability, consistency and lower maintenance in wet climates. The wood components are sanded smooth and hand finished while the fabric covers are carefully stitched together. Examples of innovations incorporated into the yurt included NASA-developed reflective insulation that does not retain moisture like the felt covers of traditional yurts. Structural upgrades were professionally engineered to meet modern structural codes. The marine canvas was replaced by long-life, flame retardant architectural fabrics with welded seams. In the 1980’s an optional wall height offered a taller entrance more typical of western structures than the traditional low entrance of a Central Asian yurt.
MODERN USAGE OF YURTS North Americans love the durability of the modern yurt and the warm feeling of the round interior and wanted to add modern amenities. Unlike the Asian nomads, portability is no longer an issue. Most modern yurts are mounted onto platforms and left in place year round. Kitchens and bathrooms —from basic to luxurious — can be added to the modern yurt. Nowadays, owners also opt for an 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. Many commercial campgrounds, RV parks and government agencies, like state parks, have added yurts to their rental inventory. Oregon alone has nearly 200 yurts in its state parks’ system. According to Nations Business Magazine, yurts are “the biggest money-maker to hit the Oregon State Parks since campgrounds were introduced about 70 years ago.” This versatile structure will undoubtedly continue to change with the passage of time as will its uses and construction materials. Although modern owners seldom move their yurts from one location to another, the yurt has retained its connection with nature and the unique feeling inside that speaks of a simpler more sustainable way of life.
Alan Bair, Pacific Yurts Inc. co-founder. The first company dedicated to manufacturing lattice walled western modern Yurts.