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yurt living british columbia

Yurt Living in British Columbia: Meet the Homeowner

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Jan 15, 2019

For over three thousand years, the yurt has been one of the most common types of housing alternatives in Central Asia. From Mongolia to Kazakhstan, yurt living offered a number of benefits to a mostly nomadic population that needed a sturdy and reliable structure that offered protection from the elements while also being easy to dismantle and carry with them. Herodotus, a Greek historian, actually mentioned a structure similar to a yurt when detailing the livelihoods of the Scythians who were a nomadic nation that’s lived in Central Asia from as far back as 600 BC.

While we might not consider our modern-day civilization to be nomadic, the fact of the matter is that Americans move an average of 11.2 times over their lifetimes. Having to go through the hassle and stress of selling and buying a home, or dealing with the sometimes exorbitant price of rent is one of the least appreciated aspects of moving to a new place. While tiny homes and ADUs offer more affordable and sustainable alternatives for people who move often and don’t necessarily want to take on a $300,000 mortgage, the ability to take apart your home, pack it into your car, and move across the country is something that is uniquely specific to the yurt.

Rise recently sat down to talk with Mark Su who is currently living in a yurt that he purchased, assembled, and finished. While we previously had featured a tiny home on wheels that Mark had built on his own for $24,000, driving a tiny home into his new homestead in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia in the months leading up to winter was going to be a problem. His yurt, which historically was carried compactly on the backs of camels or yaks as nomadic civilizations wandered across the steppes of Central Asia, made it easy to carry his house with him across Canada and quickly set up a durable, sustainable home that keeps him warm even during the cold mountain winter.

What is a Yurt? 

Mark tells us that “a yurt is a portable round structure that consists of mostly lightweight materials with the use of lattice, rope, and a circular shape for structural strength.” While the frame for yurts was traditionally made from wood or bamboo, yurts that are designed today include ribs, poles, and rafters made from a wide range of materials, including steam-bent wood, fiberglass, and Douglas fir latticed frames.

yurt bathroom
Photo Credit: Mark Su

The roof structure is designed to be self-sustaining, though additional posts can be added for extra strength. After a couple of snowstorms in the mountains, Mark was somewhat worried about the extra weight on the self-sustained roof structure of his yurt.

“One thing to consider when putting a yurt in the snowy mountain region is the snow load,” Mark tells us. “Here where I am in the Kootenay Mountains at 900 meters (2,952 feet) above sea level, we get around seven feet of wet snow by the end of winter. I have heard of yurts collapsing due to snow load, hence I have reinforced the roof structure with additional poles and 2x6 rafters.”

In most yurts, the top of the wall remains firm through a tension band that balances out the force of the roofing structure.  For natural lighting, yurts also include a type of skylight in the dome of the circular structure. The small dome in Mark’s yurt allows light to flood into the round structure.  “My favorite aspects of living in the yurt,” according to Mark, “is how spacious it is inside along with the nature skylight from the dome.”

yurt living room
Photo Credit: Mark Su

The Benefits of a Yurt

When Mark was planning his move across Canada, the portability of his future home was one of the main considerations. “I decided on the yurt because of its ease and quickness of erecting,” he says. Once he transported his compact yurt across the country, it only took him approximately 3 weeks of working by himself to prep the site, put up the thirty-foot yurt, and completely finish the interior, including interior hot water.

Yurts are also an extremely inexpensive housing option. Mark spent $7,500 CAD ($5,650 USD) on the yurt itself, and a total of $18,000 CAD ($13,500 USD) including transportation, the extra lumber to reinforce the roof and finish the interior, and other materials to transform the yurt into a livable structure.

For people looking for a way to autonomously build their own home without having to deal with building codes that can sometimes constrain sustainable and alternative housing strategies, yurts will oftentimes not require any sort of building permit. If you decide to build a yurt on a permanent platform, that foundation might require a permit, though the yurt itself can be self-built. This makes the yurt a great alternative for people with extra space in their backyard who are looking to add an inexpensive extra room that could potentially be rented out. Currently, there are hundreds of yurts available for rent on Airbnb.

yurt bathroom wide
Photo Credit: Mark Su

In terms of sustainability, yurts also require far less lumber and other building materials to construct, thus reducing their overall ecological footprint. Their relatively small size also radically reduces the heating and cooling requirements. To stay warm in the winter, Mark tells us: “I have an efficient wood stove rated for 1500 square feet of interior space. The yurt itself is only about 700 square feet. I find that it is just enough to heat it comfortably. I would like to incorporate a rocket mass heater for next winter.”

Mark also added a thick layer of insulation to increase the thermal performance of his yurt. “I purchased a traditional Mongolian yurt with one layer of insulation. The wool felt insulation is about one inch thick. I did add Reflectix on the roof and wrapped space blankets on the walls, which helps to keep the heat in. The main heat lost I noticed is through the skylight dome, so I covered half of it with Reflectix.” With his wood stove as his only source of heating, Mark is expecting to only use around four full cords of softwood to heat his yurt in the Kootenay Mountains this winter.

While the idea of living in a Mongolian yurt might seem like a glorified camping (glamping) experience, Mark has also completely finished the interior of his yurt, including indoor plumbing, hot water, and a full kitchen.

“The property has an all-season creek which I gravity feed to an IBC tote in the yurt,” Mark explains. “I use a 12-volt pump to pressurize that water and a tankless gas fire water heater to have running hot water in the yurt. I also have a full bathroom with a tub and vanity sink that I salvaged.” For the bathroom, Mark uses a dry bucket compost a simple DIY type of composting toilet. All of the greywater from his shower and dishes is piped directly to an outdoor pit where it is safely incorporated into the soil.

“I do not plan on living in a yurt long term,” Mark admits. “It is a transitional home as I decide what type of building I want to construct on the property, whether it be an earthship, cordwood house or a hobbit house.” While he makes that decision, his Mongolian yurt has offered him a beautiful, sustainable, and affordable way to move to his new piece of land.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-07-22T12:47:08+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.