Story and photos by Bill Steiden
Perhaps the best way to describe a yurt, for the uninitiated, is as the halfway point between a tent and a house.
Appropriately, it was invented by people who needed a home but had no permanent dwelling place.
They were Central Asian herders following their animals across arid grasslands to seasonal pastures. Given their need to relocate several times a year, the nomads found traditional building materials impractical. Stone and brick were too heavy and wood was scarce.
Their yaks and goats provided wool, so fabric – felt, a sturdy material made from matted wool that is inherently water resistant – was an obvious choice to keep away the wind and rain. It probably had long been used for simple tents. It was also easy to transport on carts or pack animals. But it took imagination and a touch of genius to form it into a structure that had the comfort and weather resistance of a permanent home, even though it could be disassembled, moved and reassembled whenever necessary.
What the nomads devised was a round structure, with vertical walls supported by a foldable lattice made of wood or even bone known as a kahana. Overhead was a steeply sloped roof, supported by angled beams or bent poles and crowned with a central ring. Bound with cords of animal sinew and covered with thick, taut-stretched felt, the framework provided resistance to rain and snow, yet had an aerodynamic shape that could withstand the fierce winds of the steppes.
It was a big step up from a mere tent, yet sacrificed little of its flexibility. In summer, the felt panels could be raised for ventilation. In winter, the central ring in the roof, uncovered, provided a chimney for a hearth fire. And as the herders moved, they could disassemble and transport their yurts, establishing instant villages wherever they went.
As the owner’s wealth grew, he might acquire sturdy wool carpets to cover the bare ground inside the yurt, and maybe even a door.
In the 1960s, as the West opened to Eastern ideas, Bill Coperthwaite, a teacher in New Hampshire who was seeking to incorporate ancient wisdom into modern living, began doing what free spirits always do: thinking outside the box. He wanted to create a practical round structure that eliminated the hierarchies and boundaries he saw in traditional rectangular architecture.
Seeing an article in National Geographic magazine about Mongolia that featured photos of yurt construction, he worked with his students to create similar structures. He and several of his students went on to achieve that vision, devising modern yurts that became a symbol of countercultural living while at the same time laying the foundation of what has become a thriving industry.
Today’s yurt is likely to have the same lattice frame as its forebears. But instead of sinew and rope, the supporting structure is secured with nuts, bolts and steel cable, making it far stronger. Its covering, while still fabric, is likely to be a water- and windproof synthetic, underlain with a layer of Astro-Foil, a lightweight reflective insulation like the kind devised for spaceships. Most modern yurts also sit on a platform of wood or composite decking, raised above the ground. And that status-symbol door – replete with lock and key — has been joined by plastic windows and in some cases even a skylight in the central ring.
Supported on pilings and given electrical and plumbing connections, a yurt can even be a permanent home — at odds, perhaps, with its original conception, but allowing the owner similar freedom from the much more complicated requirements of building a traditional house.
It was just the sort of alternative Fred and Mary Beth Tanner were seeking. Committed to an eco-friendly lifestyle, they had acquired a rustic lodge built to take maximum advantage of its site in the North Georgia mountains. Yet it didn’t provide quite enough space to satisfy their ambition of running a bed-and-breakfast inn. To add on would spoil the architecture that so perfectly fit the lodge to its surroundings. And it would have been prohibitively expensive. So with the blessing of a country building director who happened to be a yurt fan, the Tanners supplemented the three guest rooms in their Cedar House Inn near Dahlonega with a pair of yurts built deep in the sloping woods behind it.
Each of the kit-built yurts is 16 feet in diameter, for a total of 200 square feet, and has a comfortable, quilt-covered queen-size bed. There is a sitting area, Persian-style rugs on the floor, a microwave oven, small refrigerator and coffee maker and a composting toilet that doesn’t require a plumbing connection. An electric stove provides winter heating and a portable air conditioner can be used on steamy summer nights.
Outside the door of each yurt is a small deck and sitting area, very private in its wooded setting. Yurt guests have separate bathrooms in the main house, each with its own door to the outside.
The Tanners say the cost of a yurt, site preparation and equipment is about $10,000 – a lot less than the cost of building a permanent cabin. And aside from the pilings driven to support the deck, a yurt has relatively little environmental impact. Maintenance is an annual scrub with bleach solution to discourage mildew and remove tree sap from the outer cover. A cover may eventually need replacement, but the yurt’s decking and internal structure should be able to withstand anything short of a disaster.
Fred Tanner says he and his wife have been quite pleased with the yurts . They were a cost-effective choice and they’ve held up well for close to a decade in the rain and snow of the mountains. Most of all, they provide Cedar House with a unique hook that meshes well with the eco-friendly lifestyle the couple shares with their guests, and they help attract the sort of people the Tanners enjoy most – those who want to learn about how to live with, rather than simply on, the land.
Of course, there are some cautions for anyone considering a yurt. Neighbors may not take kindly to the construction of what can be considered temporary housing, and in some places, such structures may run afoul of building codes. And while yurts can run up to 30 feet in diameter and have been combined in some places to form spacious year-round dwellings, the cost of installing all the luxuries of a permanent home would likely rival the cost of building a cabin.
But if you’re looking to establish a relatively inexpensive weekend getaway and crave a reasonable amount of rusticity, a yurt may be your discount ticket to paradise.
Cedar House Inn and Yurts
6463 Highway 19 N
Dahlonega, GA 30533
Accommodations consist of 3 lodge rooms (1 is a suite) and 2 yurts. Rates range from $95-$135 per night depending on time of year, plus a 12% room tax. Full breakfast is included.
Innkeeper Fred Tanner maintains separate Web sites with information about yurts and yurt lodging:
www.yurtlodging.com – A guide to places throughout the country that offer yurt rentals.
www.yurtinformation.com – Questions, answers and general information about building a yurt.
Becky Kemery, author of Yurts: Living in the Round maintains a Web site with information about buying and building yurts: