Yurts: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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So you have looked at modern yurts, and are convinced that you would love to live in such a structure. The salesman tells you all of the great things about the yurt (there are many), and you are more enthused than ever. The price tag is presented, and you learn that yurts cost anywhere from one tenth to one fifth of a similarly sized bungalow. You are told that a yurt can be assembled within a couple of days. So, knowing that you will be mortgage-free the instant that the home is erected, and you will be living in this space-age creation (that was first constructed several thousand years ago in the Slavic and Mongolian regions), you jump at the chance to go minimal with this unique idea. But, there’s a lot more to be considered before you buy!

While yurts do hold great appeal, and while yurt living has a lot of advantages, there are myriad drawbacks, impediments and disadvantages to consider, as well as significant design and sizing options, depending on your region and geography.

Before we look at design considerations, reflect on a few of the more obscure issues that become very significant once you have moved in. In our locale, for instance, we commune with nature in a very intimate way, with black bear, deer, raccoons and skunks, wolves and coyotes, weasel, mice, squirrels, an army of insects, garter snakes, birds and so on. This interaction with nature is, for the most part, enjoyable.

However, when the bear gets up close and personal, you don’t want to be cooking inside a flexible wall yurt, with plastic windows. A solid wall yurt, raised off the ground is a must.

When the skunks, weasels and squirrels take up residence under the building, there goes the neighbourhood. Consequently, an effective mesh screen and lattice barrier is vital to keep the predators and vermin away. Sure, the weasel will eradicate the mice, but that leaves the problem of a noxious weasel! Skunks are fairly easily relocated, since they do not care to be in close proximity to us. It is reciprocal. Squirrels offer greater resistance and, like raccoons, can wreak havoc on the tarpaulins. Our yurt integrates so well into its surroundings that a raccoon family has torn holes in the roof tarpaulin, merely by climbing onto it. Squirrels leave only pin-sized holes, but more of them.

Birds are much more difficult to deal with. Their use of the yurt roof tarpaulin for target practice is a mere annoyance, but their clamouring across that same roof scratches the fabric as much as any squirrel.

Wolves are a great experience, while coyotes, after you have been away from the yurt for a week or so, do not hesitate to move in, burrowing little caves under shelters.

Insects, like mice, pose a major problem. No yurt should have carpeting inside, because of the risk of ant, tick and spider infestations. As tightly as you seal the walls and flooring, insects find entrances. With flexible wall yurts, mice are a major issue. This problem is eliminated with well-built solid wall designs.

Overall, though, the advantage of being in close contact with nature in your yurt outweighs the problems that such contact poses, if you prepare for these intruders and guests. Because of the tent-like assembly, you are intimate with the outside world, hearing almost every sound. As well, by using design and colour options (camouflage, etc.) for your tarps, the yurt may blend discretely into its environment.

The basic yurt design lends itself to several drawbacks.

Flexible wall yurts, for instance, have walls that are less than two inches thick. Even with the space-age bubble and foil insulation employed, you will experience more rapid heating and cooling variations inside this building. However, a solid wall yurt can be constructed of conventional studding, and insulated to higher levels using fibreglass matt insulation as well as bubble and foil or Styrofoam foil combinations. On the other hand, a yurt, because of its circular design and open concept, heats and cools much more effectively than a similarly sized bungalow. For example, our 600 square-foot yurt can be heated during minus 25 temperatures with a small radiant propane heater (4-6,000 BTUs), and a 20 pound tank will last nearly a week. A 600 square foot house would require triple that amount of fuel and still have cold and hot zones.

It is impossible to use standard glass windows in a flexible wall yurt. Consequently, the norm is to install single-sheet heavy plastic windows, which transmit a great deal of the heat or cooling between interior and exterior. A solid wall yurt, on the other hand, can accommodate standard window units (smaller sizes). Doors pose similar issues, and, more so, because most yurt vertical walls are 6′ 6″ to 7′ – less than standard door frame height.

Other infrastructure poses challenges, too. All wiring must be routed through conduit, as it is installed on the outside of the walls framing, rather than through it. An option is to use low voltage wiring and inverters throughout the building. Plumbing, too, is installed in plain view. Of course, this method of installation is much easier and quicker.

Due to the open design of these homes, privacy is impacted, and closet space is at a premium. Creative layouts can offset these concerns.

Other considerations include safe heating systems. Open flame is very risky in fabric yurts. With solid wall designs, flame retarding materials and fire-rated wall boards can be installed. Yurts may be purchased with mounting for chimney egress, but pay close attention to sparks that may burn through the roof tarpaulin!

Other problems that may arise include condensation issues in cold weather, when warm, moist air rises and contacts the thinly insulated ceiling materials, condensing and falling inside the building. If tarpaulins (particularly roof tarpaulins) are not skin-tight, wind causes the tarp to billow which, in turn, packs down any matte insulation used and reduces that R-value. While the wind effect against a yurt is minimized because of the round design, this means that there are no leeward sides or areas next to the yurt, where you can huddle against the cool breeze. That also allows smoke and loose sparks to migrate around the building during the winter.

Yurts, almost always, do not meet zoning demands of any urban jurisdiction, and, therefore, do not qualify for permits. If you are building in remote locations, this will not be an issue, and some solid-wall designs, indeed, can obtain engineer certification. Proper design and construction practices should be employed regardless of whether the building meets code.

Most of us choose yurts as our living option because of its simplicity and eco-friendliness. Simplicity equates to Spartan, and Spartan means less luxury. The yurt is simple. That, in turn, should eliminate the expectation of opulence. If you want opulence, stay in the city! The yurt offers a wonderful escape and alternative to conventional housing, but be prepared for the drawbacks, as well as the advantages.

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