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The Role of the Site

There is in most architectural endeavors a fascination with the structure.  And well there should be.  Fine architecture elevates the soul, opens the mind, and awakens the senses.  Lao-Tzu is quoted as saying, “The reality of the building does not consist in the roof and walls, but in the space within to be lived in.” Yurts epitomize his observation.  However, architecture also can become an idol that evokes a consuming focus.  These phenomena are wonderfully evidences in the passion that possesses those who encounter yurts, and especially who go on to construct their own.  Like all idolizing, there is an accompanying curse.

Of the myriad curses that can occur from an all-consuming focus on the architecture is overlooking the stage on which the site resides.  Many have observed the role buildings play as enlarged works of sculpture set forth for the viewer’s enjoyment (or, perhaps, worship).  Architects are not unaware of this trend, nor do they pretend that their works can be a surrogate for themselves.  That is, that they vicariously are the object of worship as their creation is praised.  For the architect, as for the viewer, what can result is a focus on the object, and an overlooking of the stage.

Not all succumb.  Tao Ho observed:

 Good architecture is like a piece of beautifully composed music crystallized in space that elevates our spirits beyond the limitation of time.”

Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the architect who most effectively revealed the power of site and structure orchestrated as one, carried Ho’s idea further, pontificating that “no house should ever be on a hill, or on anything. It should be of the hill. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other.”

Both designers were transcending the structure as visually and functionally sufficient independent of its surroundings.  As the idea of a man being of greater importance than, and independent from, his wife is grounded in arrogance and myopia, so too is the perception that a yurt can achieve its potential free from and in dominance over its partner, the surrounding environment. 

Yurts, I’ve come to believe, have a special temptation in this regard.  The portability, the ease and speed of siting/construction, and the inherent beauty of their form makes it far too easy to suddenly “install” one.  In fact, most manufacturers will tout these facts as benefits (and certainly never as threats).  Moreover, we as consumers are quick to internalize this way of thinking; a yurt is beautiful, ergo it will remain beautiful anywhere.  Notice, however, that yurts are, unlike other structures, bound (no pun intended) by structural requirements and design principles that negotiate with physics and tradition to produce an essentially unchanging form.  More simply, yurts pretty much look the same.

In contrast, the works of a genius like Wright, though certainly identifiable by their lines, colors, materials, etc., vary greatly.  They also can be, if the designer so chooses, chameleon-like in how they blend with their surroundings.  Spending a summer as an intern at Fallingwater, Wright’s masterwork of residential form, convinced me of the capacity of buildings to do so.  Decks floated above waterfall, walkways arced through rhododendron, and trellises seemed to step aside in deference to maples.  A yurt, with its singular footprint and basically inviolable roofline, essentially has no means by which to meld with the site.  Oh, yes, it is true that an array of colors are available.  And, true, windows and doors can vary.  But at the end of the day the impotence of these devices to genuinely create a marriage between site and structure is sense, if not consciously confessed.  What then to do?

As a lover of great sculpture (particularly when placed in the out-of-doors) I don’t deny the power of stark forms set up for viewing and admiration.  In fact, putting up a yurt was probably a bit of a love affair in the keeping with the adulterous use of the term.  A yurt meant an escape, a tryst, from the traditional boxed residence in town.  Vacation homes and similar getaway spots have, I think, always been about such departures from everyday constraints.  And, as with some relational affairs, a few structural fantasies also result in wild-eyed severing of ties, followed by passionate pursuits of a new life with the object of desire.  Most though, instead of seeing a yurt as the permanent partner to “shack up with/in”, are satisfied to merely enjoy it on the side. 

Joking aside, a yurt for our family represented what the gentry of renaissance Italy came to call villeggiatura. Villeggiatura, a residence in the country, is derived from villeggiare, to stay in the country.  We sought a catalyst to embed us within the beauty of a dramatic and picturesque landscape.  In hindsight, the yurt became the means to the end.  The temptation however can be that the means becomes the focus.  As an architect can lose sight of their client’s needs, so the owner-architect of a yurt can forget that the structure came about out of a desire for connection with a place.

If you are reading this you have already been through the experience of choosing, siting and constructing a yurt.  Or else you are contemplating the process (why else you’d be reading this is beyond me).  Ask yourself, then, in hindsight or with foresight, this:  what do/did you want from the place in which your yurt would/did rest?  Michael Pollan (www.michaelpollan.com), author of Second Nature and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote an engaging book about his journey to building his own escape.  A Place of My Own tells of his encounter with self and site as he sought to create a writing studio at his Connecticut home.  Pollan, a writer and new father, saw his own needs for escape.  So, too, did we.  What he found, somewhat unexpectedly, was what I already knew; the site is as important as the structure.

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Selecting a Yurt

If you’re reading this post you’re likely either pondering a yurt, or are a dealer and happened upon Yurtopia to see what someone said about your product. I am writing for the prior folks, but appreciate greatly the latter as well.

Potential yurt owners are apt to fall into more categories than I know. Our experience was from the standpoint of 1) not having time to build a yurt, and 2) not having the money to purchase a high dollar new one. Hence we went about searching for a used one. What follows are the lessons we learned. Search and read enough on the web and in printed resources and you could well learn most of what is said here. However this may serve to compile some of that in a concise way.

Becky Kemery (www.yurtinfo.org) is the nexus for much of what is readily available on yurts. That you probably know. From her resources, the sundry yurt dealers’ web sites, and the few blogs out there you can glean a lot of info. We also learned a great deal by first helping close friends construct and raise their 27’ Colorado Yurt Co. model. That is an invaluable experience, yet one most folks will not have the luxury (if you can call so much work luxury) of carrying out. What we learned told us the yurt size we thought ideal, construction issues, siting considerations, and features’ worth.

Size

Size selection should keep in mind the exponential gains in square footage (sf) gained with increasing diameter of yurts. For instance, a 3’ diameter increase beyond our friends’ 27’ translated into a sf jump of just shy of 30%. This translates into substantial changes in cost per sf. Ex: Rainier Yurt’s Raven when plugged into an Excel sheet shows a base price 16’ model costs $29/sf, whereas their 30’ is only $14/sf.

A 24’ is large enough for our family of five to enjoy. We have stayed in that size at Winchester Lake State Park, ID. However, add a cadre of family or friends and it can get tight. A woodstove further eats into that volume, as do beds sufficient for such a group. Similarly, we plan to use the structure in winter. As anyone in northern climes has learned, winter means a need for more “stuff”. Skis, boots, dripping bibs and the rest eat into space. Thus we learned the ideal was a 27’ or even 30’ design.

Brand

My experience was the yurt retailers fall into a few distinct subgroups. Segmenting them can help with making your choice. First, and not ones we ended up considering, are importers. These companies bring in products from abroad, and they are by-and-large traditional constructions (i.e., felt insulated models from Asia). Beautiful in form and construction, they are also not customizable, very large, or particularly easy to modify or replace components.

Next are the producers of modern “fabric” yurts. These range from major, “high volume” companies (e.g., Pacific Yurts) to smaller outfits (e.g., Blue Ridge Yurts). The benefits of both can be debated, but the primary differences that we found were:

  • Cost
  • Experience
  • Quality
  • Replaceable components into the future

Surprisingly, cost and design varied but little across these two groups.  As such, it seemed logical to go with the more established companies. Kemerly’s web site is an good source for their links, and for comments on folks’ experiences with each [though frankly there isn’t that much traffic or posting on it, so expect to do your own research beyond yurtinfo.org]. As a designer, I was most impressed with the subtle beauty of Rainier’s products, in particular for the elegant compression ring they make. Others have similar small touches that may attract you.

New vs. Used

Put simply, you won’t find many used yurts. The ones you will find are going to require you to drive to pick them up (if not take them down). www.Craigslist.com is probably the best source, along with the Classified section of yurtinfo.org, as well as community/regional web classifieds (e.g., www.ksl.com). But expect the sharks to move in quickly, and for used postings to not last long. Also, expect that certain states will see more ads (esp. California, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, upper New England, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state).

Despite their scarcity, I persisted in searching out used ones. I ended up having the best luck with Googling “yurt Craigslist”. This brought hits from across the country [NOTE: I have yet to figure out how to do a nationwide or statewide search of Craigslist]. YMMV

The other considerations we learned for buying used was degradation of the fabric.  Most companies offer either 8yr or 15yr warranted fabrics. So the covering can have been degraded from solar wear more or less depending upon years it was up, fabric type, amount of direct sun, annual days with cloud cover, elevation (i.e., UV levels), solar orientation of the site, latitude, and snow cover. New yurts tend to not have these concerns.

Used yurts often come with “extras”. For instance, they may be getting rid of the deck (if you want to dismantle it), a composting toilet, or rainwater collection system. All that can figure up to a lot of cost savings. Figure $1200 for a new composter, and $2-5k for the deck/platform.

The customizability of a new yurt is also a major advantage. Extra windows (all that light is worth the extra cost), snow load kits and the rest assure you’ll have what you want. Much of that can’t feasibly be changed later on if you buy used.

Specific Design Considerations

Color, fabric weight, window count and snow/wind load are, in my opinion, major design points. Color is primarily an issue of genius loci, or the spirit of the place you seek, but it also has bearing on cost and fabric durability. For our site, it was additionally an issue for camouflaging the structure. Fabric weight would appear to be a no brainer if you have substantial solar impacts; go with the heavier fabric options. More windows, again, are a cheap means to assure the light, airy feel that are so much of the feel of a yurt, and they also address the off-the-grid considerations of light sourcing. Finally, do your homework on climatic demands at your specific site.

These issues are natural for those in my profession of landscape architecture, but for most people the subtle factors of microclimate and site are not common discussions. The major yurt manufacturers do a good job of address snow loads. Wind considerations are less well addressed. Your responsibility is to be the expert for your site. Wind speed. Wind directions. Snow load and snow consistency. Storm patterns. You will do well to consider all of that. Don’t be like the folks who live out a major failure (e.g., roof collapse) because you didn’t do your homework. Moreover, when in doubt, “go big”; some minor changes can make a major difference.