What’s a Yurt?

Two posts from my sister on Whatsapp from Ulaanbataar in Mongolia really got me thinking.

She had shown me a photo of the yurt belonging to the building manager for her apartment block before.  He and his family live in their ger or yurt alongside the apartment building.  But he had been away for his summer holidays and was re-erecting his ger on the same spot as last year.

The photo at 12:17pm shows the floor down and the frame erected.  By 1:58pm, the entire structure had been completed.

Yurts have provided accommodation across Asia as far as Turkey for thousands of years.  In Mongolia they are called gers, which means “home”.

Mongolia has an extreme climate — from as low as -40°C to as high as +40°C… and these gers provide a comfortable environment throughout that temperature range.

So… I just had to learn more about Yurts!  I’m not convinced that bricks or blocks & mortar are necessary the best building materials… and concrete is certainly not a green building material.  Apart from tourist and every day accommodation, are they a possible alternative to SA’s sprawling shanty towns?  When one starts reading about yurts, the passion and enthusiasm that people have for them stands out.

Yurts have become popular around the world and are “the most popular special accommodation type on Airbnb”, according to Airbnb, which declared “2014 as the Year of the Yurt”.

Mongolia’s capital experienced a boom after the Russians moved out and The Guardian wrote about Ulaanbataar’s Yurt Tent City:   “Public officials may struggle to coax the ger dwellers to swap their felt and canvas for bricks and mortar. Mongolians’ attachment to their gers is both practical – they are warm in winter and cool in summer – and emotional.”

But the yurts you’re likely to rent on AirBnB, or elsewhere in the West, will be a far cry from what you’ll find in Mongolia.  You can expect windows, a huge, opening rooflight and internal bathrooms.

Rose River Farm

Rose River Farm, Virginia, USA. A modern interpretation of a 100 sq metre yurt.
Rose River Farm, Virginia, USA. A modern interpretation of a 100 sq metre yurt.

Here are some more conventional yurts, and this video also explains what makes them so special”

Or, for a high-tech, luxury yurt that remains true traditional yurt princles and is undeniably “green”, there’s Canadian yurt-maker, Yurta.

And a typical Mongolian ger…

Tourists can stay in one of these yurts and experience farm life. The only thing that makes them a little less authentic is the concrete base!
Tourists can stay in one of these Mongolian yurts and experience farm life. The only thing that makes them a little less than authentic is the concrete base!

There is a yurt manufacturer in Cape Town, and a yurt you can stay in on the Van der Stel Pass between Villiersdorp and Bot River… and we hope to bring you more about that later.

Traditional yurts are made of canvas with a lining of wool felt.  The traditional structure is a latticework of thin poles or bamboo (as shown in the very first photo).  One North American yurt-builder used fire-resistant bubble wrap for insulation to preserve the translucence of the covering (cost R240 for a whole yurt!) and found it worked well for temperatures as low as -5°C.

What are their advantages?

  • Portability.
  • Insulation from cold and heat which beats bricks and mortar.
  • A breathing structure, which makes it healthier.
  • It’s the cheapest structure you can possibly build!
  • Yurt owners have an emotional attachment to their yurts and there is a very active, global community of yurt owners.
  • No building plans required!

Architectural Digest has described the yurt as “an architectural wonder of the world”.  This is because the shape of the yurt, in combination with its lightweight members being in both tension and compression, results in a structure that is highly efficient in maximizing strength and space, while also minimizing use of materials. This makes the yurt the ultimate mobile home.

In fact, this is the purpose for which the yurt was originally designed. Being permanent homes, they need to be structurally sound.  Being mobile, they also need to be easily dismantled and compactly packed-up so that they can be transported (usually on camels or yaks) and quickly reassembled at another site.  Remarkably, a traditional yurt could be completely rebuilt in about 2 hours.  The yurt’s original name is actually derived from a Turkic word referring to the imprint left in the ground by a moved yurt.

A yurt’s structural integrity is due to the combination of compression and tension working in conjunction to form a freestanding structure with a long roof span that lacks interior rafter supports – hence it is more spacious.  Compression and tension are achieved by the interplay between the yurt’s centre ring, rafters, and main cable. The rafters meet at the centre ring (or “compression ring”) located at the top and centre of the yurt. The ring holds the rafters in a state of compression, as the weight of the rafters produces inward and downward pressure. From the centre ring, the rafters radiate out and down at a thirty-degree angle toward the trellis wall at the yurt’s perimeter.  This creates a natural outward pressure against the wall. A cable or band (traditionally made of rope or woven cloth) at the top of the wall is preset to match the circumference of the perimeter wall in order to integrate the wall and roof structure and thereby hold the rafters in tension against the outward pressure.

The structural integrity of the yurt’s clever framework allows lightweight materials to be used for the roof, the walls, the dome and the door, all of which enclose and protect the yurt framework.

Come back to watch our adventures in building a yurt!



One response to “What’s a Yurt?”

  1. Hallo. Where can i buy a yurt to live in permanently. I own land in the rural KZN. I do not want to build a house i rather want to live in a yurt. How can i do this. Where can i buy one?

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