The traditional yurt is one of the great examples of vernacular architecture. Developed over 3000 years ago by central Asian nomads, this tent-like building consists of a canvas skin draped over a lattice wall structure and radial roof rafters. A compression ring at the peak leaves a ventilating oculus, allowing dwellers to heat the interior with an open fire. Aside from the doorway, the wall is a continuous unit that folds up like a drying rack.
One may build a yurt with locally available materials, using any wood or bamboo for the skeleton and substituting felt or actual animal hides for the walls. The building’s round shape encloses a large volume with a minimum of material, and uses heat efficiently. But the most impressive thing about the yurt is its portability – a key concern for hunter-gatherers following the herds. A 20-foot diameter yurt encloses over 300 square feet of living space, yet it assembles in just a couple hours and collapses just as quickly with a cumulative weight of maybe 400 pounds… perfectly manageable for your horse or yak. Not bad for a space in which you can cook, work, and sleep with full protection from the steppe’s unforgiving climate.
Recently, yurts have taken western cultures by storm as an alternative living space. Whereas the traditional yurt rests on bare earth, with thick rugs for insulation and comfort, the modern yurt often gets installed on a concrete foundation. A range of sizes and materials is available, and window openings improve natural light at the expense of strength and simple assembly. Some yurt manufacturers even forsake the collapsible structure, offering rigid prefab walls and roofs that mimic the traditional yurt in shape only.
There’s definitely a hipness factor at work here, but I don’t see the appeal of building a permanent yurt. The form just isn’t designed for permanence, and lacks thick insulation, plumbing, and daylighting. With such a thin skin, maintenance needs are relatively high. Moreover, it’s REALLY hard to furnish a round space. Any money you save on the economical structure, you can easily lose in custom cabinetry and wasted square footage. So unless you’re a nomad, you’ll probably be happier building a style designed to stay put. That said, if you seek a seasonal camp or a temporary shelter for overflow guests, a yurt might be just the thing.
Thanks to Robin Jaeger!