Why a yurt?

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Why a yurt?

It is a really good question–one I asked myself quite a few times last year while I was cursing at my sewing machine, or drawknifing the 110th pole in the winter in the tool shed. Why build a house out of sticks, when you could build one out of cheap, square lumber with ease and minimal challenge?

The yurt idea came to us as we were looking for land. We learned quickly that you pay dearly for houses. A parcel with even a totally crap, moldy house costs more than the same-sized parcel with no house. While obvious, this fact didn’t become apparent until we really started looking. We knew that to run the type of farm we want to run we needed as much acreage as possible. We’re also living on a pretty tight budget. We grow and forage most of our food and get free health care from government, which is great. We pour every last scrap of cash we bring in into our farm, not our lifestyle. Which meant no house. We didn’t even entertain the thought of properties that included houses, and didn’t tour them. We were after vacant land or old farms for as cheap as we could get them.

We also knew we couldn’t live in a tent forever. We had done it for months at New Forest Farm. We totally beat up our tent and were super disorganized all the time. A dwelling with a kitchen, bed and clothing storage is pretty essential to a successful marriage, so we decided we ought to build something temporary that we could move onto the new land while we got set up there. Short of cash, we knew it will take years to build our own house. But we have to live somewhere.

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Why not have a dwelling ready to go? We could avoid having to spend money on a crappy trailer full of mouse poop and make something from scratch instead. We wanted something we could build while we were renting and haul to our new property when we found it. At the time, we had no idea where that might be. It could have been Tennessee, or Vermont, or Texas. We figured we should be prepared. Also, I needed to have a project so I didn’t drive Peter totally nuts. He was working hard on establishing a grazing plan at the Shepards’ and we didn’t own a lot of fencing infrastructure at the time. The two of us unwinding and rewinding Polywire together all day every day was not going to make us a happier couple. We needed to diversify tasks.

I got really into the idea of tiny houses for a while–those adorable little shacks on trailers you see on Pinterest all the time. Mobile, so no taxes and no building permits. Sweet! After some research I realized that I’d need a heavy duty trailer to build it on, which would cost at least $2K, and a $7K pickup to pull it (which we didn’t have at the time). This all didn’t include the cost of lumber and finishings, and I realized there was no way I wanted to pay so much for something I knew would be only temporary.

After more research, we decided a yurt sounded more suitable. We could fold it up and put it in our station wagon! Even better, we could make it out of wood harvested from the degraded woodlands we were surrounded by. Free building materials, with the added bonus of sustainable woodland management and using waste wood from hedgerow coppices. I did some google image searches and was impressed. Beautiful and cheap. Sounded perfect.

So, I took on a new project. I’d never even been in a yurt, but I figured why not just figure it out as I went along? I got Paul King’s book, The Complete Yurt Handbook, as my guide. He gives pretty good instructions for building yurts from both roundwood and dimensional lumber. Building something blindly, with no idea of how it’s going to turn out, is really stressful. There’s no way to really set up a yurt to test it out before you have all the pieces ready to go, so I was operating by intuition much of the time.

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I remember one day having a minor freak-out with my dad, worrying about the geometry of the center crown I was working on. The rafters have to be just the right length relative to the center crown relative to the height and length of the walls in order for the entire thing to stand up. I was worried, and fussing over it in his garage where I was borrowing his jigsaw.

My dad, who thought I was a bit crazy for even doing what I was doing, told me to chill out. “Mo,” he said, “it’s just a damn yurt.”

Fair enough. He was right. It’s just a pile of sticks, held together with string and a prayer. I’m not going to sell it, I’m not going to live in it for too long (at least, I don’t think so…). Why stress? Thinking of it as a damn yurt actually saved my sanity and helped me deal with the difficulties of working with round, twisty materials. The Shepards’ pole shed is unheated, so it meant I peeled and built much of the yurt inside the tool shed, the 200 sq. ft. shed we lived in at the Shepards’.  So Peter, two dogs and I lived, along with the 100 or so yurt poles and my tools for the winter. Not easy, but we did it. It took over a year, with lots of starting over and scrapping saplings that didn’t work.

I’m happy to say we completed our goal.  We bought land in February. In March I was still using the Shepards’ electricity to run my sewing machine as I desperately finished the canvas I’d been sewing all winter. I finished just as the snow left the ground. It’s May now and our dwelling is finally up: beautiful and functional, just as a little house should be. It cost about $1200 in materials. We spent another $250 on the deck, after using mostly salvaged and recycled lumber that came with the old barn we bought. That’s pretty cheap as far as dwellings go.

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We threw it in the back of the pickup and hauled it up the hill last weekend. Miraculously, the thing stands up. I can’t tell you how joyous it is to wake up and see the trees I love so dearly through the center crown, to hear the birds while snuggled in my own treehouse nest. But for its beauty, the work is labor-intensive, repetitive and tedious. So, why make a yurt?….. Why make art?

I now live in a dwelling I crafted by hand out of trees that grew around me, built in the tops of trees that soothe me every day. I live a pretty stressful and labor-intensive life, but the stress is eased by the beauty and the peace of my new home. Can we put a value on that? What is the value of waking to surround-sound bird song? Of watching the trees out your window leaf out in the spring? Of walking home on a path lined with wildflowers? I’m not even going to try to tell you.

I’ll post later with the details on how we did it so you can determine for yourself.

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  • Jon ,

    Mo,

    First and foremost, congratulations to You and Peter! It must feel amazing to have the beginnings of a home on your new farm. Wish we were close enough to help plant some saplings or clear invasives.

    Your yurt adventures remind me of one of my favorite books/journals. Though I have drifted from working with my own hands, it still resonates with me. I apologize for the male specific pronouns of the time.

    “I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes. It is a way of life with us now. The emphasis is on teamwork. I believe this trend bears much of the blame for the loss of pride in one’s work, the kind of pride the old craftsmen felt when he started a job and finished it and stood back and admired it. How does a man on an assembly line feel in the final product that rolls out at the other end?” Dick Proenneke, One Man’s Wilderness

    Best of luck to You and Peter.
    Go Well
    Jon

    • Courtney Joy ,

      Mo, this is totally amazing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your adventures. I bet waking up in that thing is a dream!