How To Live in a Yurt
In the summer of 1999 I found myself without a job or home. With a partner, a child, and naive optimism—I decided to build a yurt and embark on homesteading in my native New Hampshire. Twenty years later, I’ve learned most crazy ideas don’t work, but yurts are among the ones that work for me. I now build for folks full-time: primarily year-round yurts for other twenty-somethings starting out on similar paths.
There are many ways to live in a yurt. Some yurt-dwellers commute to real jobs every day. Others escape to the yurt for a few weeks in the summer, or turn to a backyard yurt for a few nights a week. For me, yurt living with four people (two of them quite young) meant day and night, summer and winter. That’s not to say we spent 24 hours a day within the bounds of a 20-foot circle. The yurt became just one of the rooms in our “house”—the others included the barnyard, shop, field, and woods. The yurt was simply the room we knew was always warm, dry, bug-free, and lit at night. They say that the hammer molds the hand: whether the yurt created my way of life or the other way round, I don’t know.
Yurt living and homesteading in general is profoundly place-specific. Despite its origins in central Asia—an area with dry climate and flat unforested steppes—my yurts works relatively well in rural New England. Of course, I modify them in several crucial ways from their dryland antecedents. By comparison, the tipi is virtually impossible to keep warm in winter because the high cone funnels heat out and lets the rain in. Wigwams and earth lodges are a bit rustic even for those of us willing to rough it: though I know those who live in them, they can be a bit dark and cramped. Camper trailers may be lacking in insulation and elegance. A yurt, on the other hand, is nice enough to spend a few years in while creating a forever home, but not so comfy that the house never gets completed!
The first question I’m always asked is, “How do you stay warm in New Hampshire winters?” Answer: In a T-shirt with an airtight woodstove and two to three cords of dry firewood. In a 20-foot yurt, one is never more than seven or so feet from the central stove. By building my own wood-and-polycarbonate central skylights, I am able to have the stove and stovepipe in the center: heating the yurt evenly, creating the feeling of a larger space, and serving as the center of yurt life . . . providing warmth and food for more than half the year. As long as it’s airtight, a lightweight sheet steel stove is better than a more expensive fancy one with lots of thermal mass. Some of the best are the Tempwood stoves (made in Massachusetts but most easily found on Craigslist) and Four Dog stoves in Minnesota. A stove should heat up the yurt quickly when getting home at the end of a cold day. No one wants to wait around for hours shivering in boots and a coat. By burning a slow fire (hence the need for dry firewood: it doesn’t create creosote) and blocking up any drafts, one can be toasty all winter. The first serious snowfall (around Christmas most years around here) adds additional natural insulation. By raking the snow off the roof before it melts, one can create a warm layer of insulation all around the base of the yurt. When the yurt is up to the desired temperature, let the fire slowly purr along day and night. The distinction is that one is heating air—not mass—and there is very little of that in a yurt. Heating a couple thousand of cubic feet of space is entirely different than heating the tens of thousands of cubic feet commonly found in a typical American house. Heat gain radiating from the woodstove becomes key, and R-value (a measure of heat loss due to conduction) becomes relatively less important. As long as heat loss due to convection (i.e. drafts) are sealed up, the heat radiated by the stove keeps one warm. After an April 2007 windstorm took the insulation off my yurt (word to the wise: don’t ignore loose flapping yurt panels for months on end), I spent the next year and half with no insulation. I noticed no difference in keeping the yurt warm.
While there certainly are other types of fuel, I’ve never heard of anyone living through the winter here with anything other than a woodburning stove. Burning it requires no electric apparatus. The carbon that goes up the chimney is re-sequestered within a few years by saplings struggling up in the forest openings created by the trees cut for cordwood. Firewood is free, abundant, and simple. It smells good and feels good to touch. Cutting, splitting, and stacking it are activities I would pay to do if I had to, which may be why my current system has me handling each piece seven times between the forest floor and the firebox. Inevitably, the second question that I am—more hesitantly—asked, is, “Where do you go to the bathroom in a yurt?” For most, the answer is in the humanure outhouse. Here’s a tip: Build the outhouse a little bigger than necessary (say, 6 feet by 8 feet) and let it become attic, garage, and cellar, since the yurt lacks these. For more information on outhouses and composting poop, check out the definitive “Humanure Handbook” by Joe Jenkins.
If heat and bathrooms are easy, the water question is anything but. Creating a system to deliver running hot water any time of day or year is the holy grail of the New England homestead system. Creating one that doesn’t freeze, leak, or get chewed through by beavers (please don’t ask) is even better. My answer is: Don’t create one, create two. In the summer, water stores easily. In the winter it is easily heated on the constantly-burning stove, but it will freeze if left out. I’ve tried dozens of water systems and they all have pros and cons. Hauling buckets by yoke, sled, cart, tractor, car, or hand from springs, ponds, or the neighbor’s bathtub is simple. It does, however, get old (especially when washing cloth diapers by hand). Rainwater catchment systems off the yurt roof can provide lots of water (in summer, of course) for the dirty diaper task, but the water is too full of tree tannins and acid rain to drink or cook with. A garden hose run from a neighbor’s spigot will work half of the year. It can even be hooked up to a sink in the yurt or an outdoor kitchen. Just remember to transition to the winter system before the first hard frost and don’t run the pipe through any beaver ponds.
Water regulations vary state by state. In New Hampshire, if the water is moving on its own accord into the yurt, a septic system and leach field are necessary. For a fuller description, go the the FAQ page and scroll down to “Can I live in a yurt in my state/town?” Beyond the question of wasting fertility (dishwater is full of phosphates that plants love) and giving possible pathogens a vector to spread in a giant tank of potable water, septic systems are very costly (more than the entire yurt). Plus, the look of a big sand mound just to accept the drinking water being polluted with fecal matter seems hardly worth it. Connect a pipe from the bottom of the dry sink, out the bottom of the yurt at the side, and into a patch of weeds or mulch. Don’t include a ‘trap’ anywhere because it will freeze in winter and isn’t necessary. All the important needs—except refrigeration—can be accomplished with a tiny photovoltaic system or a very long extension cord. A low amperage system can be run hundreds of yards with very tiny wire with this useful tidbit: Voltage drop is proportional to distance run. The traditional summer yurt refrigerator is the styrofoam cooler with half-gallon plastic jugs of ice swapped out every other day into the neighbor’s chest freezer. In winter, the fridge is the cool spot on the floor beneath the sink, and the freezer is a snowbank just outside the door. The next step up is a propane fridge. Running a small, energy efficient fridge (powered by solar) requires a medium-sized photovoltaic system.
Most yurt frames are built from sawn wood. When I created my first yurt I couldn’t afford to buy lumber, but had a small axe and access to a woodlot. I set out to craft the rafters and lattice wall from small-diameter saplings, which I continue to do to this day. The wiggly unmilled wood makes each yurt unique. Because the local hardwoods I use are naturally very strong, my yurts don’t have to be reinforced for snow.
In our moist New England climate, a year-round yurt should be set on a wooden platform. This platform does not need to be built on a frost-proof foundation. If there is not too much of a slope, it can be set on blocks, which rest directly on the ground. My favorite way is to build the substructure of carry beams and joists with green rough-sawn Eastern hemlock from a local sawmill. It is natural, renewable, plentiful (therefore inexpensive), super strong, and moderately rot-proof. Kept a foot or so off the ground—and not over a wet area—it will last for decades. Pressure-treated wood is a more conventional way to go. Kiln-dried lumber rots quickly under a yurt.
If one-inch boards are put down two layers thick over joists placed every two feet, the floor will be plenty strong and stiff. Installing a quarter-inch layer of foil-faced bubblewrap type insulation—or even just some 4-mil poly—in between layers will keep out the draft. With regard to insulation, the key is to stop drafts from coming through the floor. Heat rises, so put more energy into insulating above than below. Personally, I like 2×6 tongue-and-groove for strength and airtightness in a single layer, with no insulation whatsoever. One last thing: Don’t build the floor bigger than the circle of the yurt, or the rain will flow right in.
In an ideal world, I’d always build yurts out of natural, local, ethical, nontoxic, low-carbon footprinted, renewable, long-lasting, beautiful, inexpensive, and functional materials. For the cover, functionality means keeping out weather, keeping in heat, resisting UV breakdown, and resisting flame. To get all these qualities is impossible, so I compromise. While slate makes just about the perfect roof, it lacks portability. Canvas is probably the most natural, beautiful, inexpensive yurt material, but it fails most of the other criteria. Even treated to resist UV, mildew, moisture, and flame, canvas will begin to deteriorate after three years if left up year-round. In New England, heavy-duty vinyl is a better option in many ways, and will last 10-30 years depending on the type. Thrifty DIY’ers may cover their yurt with used or unprinted billboard vinyl, which is fairly inexpensive and watertight for roughly five years if not moved in the cold (it cracks) or exposed to sparks (it burns). The final consideration for a cover is breathability. Canvas breathes and so do some woven vinyls, but most laminated fabrics do not. To avoid condensation, don’t pair a non-breathable outer cover with a breathable inner layer. While water regulations tend to be statewide, building codes are usually enforced town-by-town. Codes may cover size restrictions, insulation, roof strength, fire rating, wind loads, and many more areas. Each yurt owner’s experience getting a structure permitted can vary widely. The good news is few municipalities tax temporary portable structures, including yurts. The bad news is that most building inspectors have never even heard of one. Again, see the FAQ page for more advice. For a thorough discussion on yurts and building codes, check out the late Becky Kemery’s site, YurtInfo.org.
After nine years of yurt living I was ready to move into a house. Fitting square furniture into a round space is a geometrical challenge. But, I miss hearing the skeins of geese migrate by starlight. And now that we’re in a house, the coyotes can break in to the chicken coop at night without me hearing a thing.