How To Build a (Semi) Solid Wall Yurt

The handbook, "How To Build A Yurt (solid wall design) is now available at or at www.robertflee.books.php. To purchase this handbook from Amazon or Smashwords, visit or and search for the title under the author's name, Robert F. Lee. The semi-rigid walled yurt described in this booklet can be constructed in less than 40 hours and assembled or disassembled on site in under three hours, by one person!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Manitoba Winter in Our Yurt

It’s only November 23, and we’ve seen Mother Nature at her worst!
When we decided to build our yurt in the bush lands of Manitoba, we were thrilled to be able to “commune with nature.” So far, it’s been a pretty one-sided conversation!
Throughout the spring and early summer, record rainfalls prevented us from building our road – 2/3 mile winding through thick woodlands and meadow. The autumn saw another deluge, with over 100 mm of rainfall in one week.
A wonderfully warm October lulled us into complacency: we’d be able to stay in the yurt until at least December 1, even with only a bush trail on which to drive our Prius to our home.
The beginning of November, Mother Nature began to flex her muscle. Wind gusts of over 100 kph (60-65 mph) hit, but the yurt stood, unflinching. Just to be on the safe side, we purchased tire chains for the car, and stocked up on three 20-pound tanks of propane for the yurt.
Then, a cold snap – Minus 18C (0F) – forewarned us of things to come. On November 18, 20 centimetres of snow (8 inches), followed by 60-70 kph winds (40 mph) drove us out of the yurt for a couple of days. The first night back, the thermometer hit -20C, and another 7 cm of snow. For two days, we shovelled a roadway 950 yards long, and were able to drive in.
Ha! We beat Mother Nature! Not bad for a 59-year-old and his 51-year-old wife.
What fools we were. Sunday night, the wind chill hit -22C, with a new low of -24 during the early part of the next day. Today, we received another 2-4 cm. of snow. That’s not bad, compared to what is coming tomorrow. Fifteen centimetres is predicted, with high winds and cold temperatures to follow. Next week, another snow storm is on the way.
This area receives an average of 110-120cm from November 1 to the following April 30 in a typical year. We will have received 45 cm. by November 24, with a possibility of 60 centimetres by November 30. It’s time to pack it in.
The yurt, though, can certainly handle the winter. A full snow load of 30 centimetres hasn’t caused the roof to even flinch. Inside the yurt, we didn’t feel the slightest breeze when the sixty-five mph winds hit. At -24C, the yurt remained so warm that we had to turn off our main heat, relying on a 13,500 BTU propane furnace for our only heat.
A couple have problems have emerged, though.
Because of the lighter insulation in the domed roof, and the fact that the heat rises and pools there when we turn off the fans, we have experienced a lot of condensation falling from the foil-backed bubble insulation that lines the inside of the roof.
Around the inside perimeter of the yurt, where walls meet the floor, moisture and some frost have accumulated. We resolved this by placing one-inch rigid foam insulation under the outer tarpaulin layer, extending it 6 inches below the wall. This provides a wind barrier, as well as insulation.
And, our composting toilet system isn’t letting the waste fall readily into the accumulator. That problem, we discovered, was caused because we used too little water to wash the solids through. We’ll take care of that next spring, when we return.
For now, Mother Nature wins. I’m not ready for weekly battles with a shovel against a foot of snow, so we’ll start our yurt experience again, when the weather permits.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Yurt Totem Poles Stand for Family & Friends

We have a pole in the centre of our yurt. More correctly, we have two poles. Before you judge too harshly, these poles are neither dancing poles, nor firemen’s poles. They are prospective totem poles.
If moving from a middle-class home in suburbia to a Mongolian tent in the backwoods of Manitoba was not sufficiently unusual, we have incorporated a more clearly defined oddity in the living area of our yurt. Two spruce poles, crowned by a cross-member pole and crowned with a spiral of collar ties for the free-span truss boards, form our tribute to the iconic Pacific First Nations artefacts.
Granted, our future totems are significantly smaller than the mammoth totems along the Pacific Northwest coast. At an average diameter of 8 inches, they are paltry in size. They were also redundant in the yurt structure, as the roof assembly had sufficient strength without the addition of the centre posts and collar ties.
These totem poles, though, have a much more social purpose. On a counter adjacent to the poles we have an assortment of carving chisels and shaping knives. At our official “yurt-warming” party, scheduled for later this year, we will launch the first “community carving” in Manitoba (or so we believe). Guests will be invited to choose a spot, select their tools, and carve the gargoyle, icon, angel or creation of their choice – no limits. Of course, space is limited, as is time. Accordingly, future guests will be invited to add their own touches to existing carved artworks, or create their own in new space on the poles. Required is individual accountability: each carver will be asked to carve his/her initials in that masterpiece. In this manner, we will have a record of our guests’ visits, an insight into their creative sides, and the most original artwork available.
Cave and rock paintings, innukshuk statues and totems were all communications tools as well as expressions of individualism in our early Canadian culture. It is our intent to continue that tradition, in our little corner (or circle) of the country, and give vent to our friends’ creativity. Want to contribute your own ideas? How about sending us a drawing, photo or sketch of the icon that you would like to see gracing the totems in our yurt. We will be posting photos of the progress on these unique structures, beginning early next year. Let us, and our friends, bring your artistry to life!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Yurt Structural Supports

Although yurts are considerably lighter than conventional houses, there still is considerable weight to the materials, and the proper support structures need to be in place.
Many yurts are built as elevated structures, either in total or in part, since many are built in locations with considerable slopes. There is a tendency to construct these units on simple 4*4 stilts, with little regard to lateral rigidity. Additionally, when yurts are built on platforms or raised decks, they alter the wind flow in, around and under the building. This practice also exacerbates drainage and snow build-up issues, as moisture tends to flow more freely under the building.
The primary consideration should be to structural integrity. Merely walking on a platform or deck that is held up by 4*4 posts causes the building to vibrate. Like the harmonic effect of a bridge structure swaying in the wind (or a child’s swing being propelled on larger and larger arcs), this rhythmic motion can increase in intensity, causing the supports to break loose over time. Cross supports should be used, in addition to ties to hold the structure caps tightly to joists or beams. Ensure that you have placed a sufficient number of stilts along the length and breadth of the platform, to prevent sag.
Wind flow can be a very serious concern for yurt design. A moderate wind, funnelled beneath the yurt, may billow, like the air beneath a parachute canopy. This air flow has a detrimental effect on heating & cooling, as well. Yurts are designed to allow for easy air flow around and over the structure, and were never designed to allow for air flow beneath.
The third concern is moisture redirection. Allowing snow load to build up under your yurt will result in high moisture content in the spring, and the contingent possible decay or mould formation on the underside of the structure. Allowing water and snow melt to drain freely under the platform, as well, will contribute to the undermining of the earthen base on which deck posts rest. This, in turn, decreases structural integrity. You should install a water redirection system on the upper edge of the yurt platform, and redirecting barriers in a lead position on each deck support leg. This will minimize the risk of water erosion.
Just because yurts are considered as an “alternative” to conventional housing does not imply that improper or inadequate construction techniques should be employed. Care in design, construction and maintenance of your yurt supporting network is a critical to building integrity as it is in conventional housing.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Yurt Exterior Skins

Our yurt is designed with two exterior tarpaulin skins. The inner layer is a commercially available tarpaulin skin, intended to provide a secondary protection against rainfall, and a buffer to reduce the amount of friction of edges of the structure against the heavy-duty uv-protected tarpaulin.
The tarpaulins were purchased from Cover-Tech (New Brunswick, Canada), who provided the lowest price quote for a 12 ounce tarpaulin.
The two pieces were custom made, with the wall tarpaulin being 94 feet long and 7’6” high. The extra length will be used to lap over the doorway when we are away for long periods of time. The height exceed the height of the wall structure by six inches, to allow for overlap at the top of the wall framing (under the roof tarp) and excess length at the bottom to allow for water runoff and reduce inflow of cold air in winter. The roof tarp, too, was ordered at 30 feet in diameter, while the yurt was built to 28 feet. The extra foot around the perimeter provides enough material for us to create a partial awning over the windows, to deflect rain and snow.
A small problem occurred with the roof tarp that was easily remedied. The roofline angle (slope) was calculated at 30 degrees. However, after seaming, the tarpaulin was sewn at a 33 degree angle, and our rafter cuts were out by 2 degrees. As well, while the tarp is manufactured as a circle (cone), the yurt actually consists of 44 straight-edge sections. This resulted in a loose fit of the tarp. Normally, this would be a severe problem, as the flutter of the tarp in moderate winds would exacerbate the degrading of the tarpaulin. However, our roof vent design allowed us to snug the tarp over the vent frame, and use only one tuck of material around the entire cone area.
Once the roof tarp was hoisted into place using pulleys and ropes, the wall tarp was erected, and the top edge snugged under the lower edge of the roof tarp. Using a series of ratchet tie-downs attached together, we tightened the straps around both the upper and lower perimeter of the wall tarps, holding the roof top securely against the wall tarp. To ensure that the roof tarp did not free itself from the tie-downs, polyester rope was threaded through the tarp eyelets, and the ratchet tie-downs fed through the rope loops.
Lastly, we cut three-sided openings in the wall tarp for the windows and doorway (the fourth upper side was left uncut), retaining the material to use as a roll-down sunshade.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Yurt Wall & Roof Preparation

Once the walls of our yurt and the roof rafters were in place, there was a strong urge to apply the tarpaulins, just so we could see the “finished” product. However, several preliminary steps were required, to ensure that the treated fabric would last, that the building was wind- and rain-proof, and that the structural integrity was intact.
Hurricane ties were installed on the outer end of each rafter, in addition to the two screws holding the rafter ends in place. Although wind resistance is minimized with the circular design, screws are insufficient to provide the strength needed, as screws have a tendency to shear. In fact, in most jurisdictions, screws are not acceptable, according to the Building Code, for framing.
Hurricane ties were also installed on the roof ring end of the rafters, as a secondary support for the six-inch bolts securing each inner rafter end.
To reduce lateral sway, crossties were installed, earlier, at approximately the midway point of each rafter (see prior blog posts).
Where screws extruded from each plate joining the two-foot wall segments, the ends of the screws were treated with latex caulk, to reduce rub friction against the inner layer of tarpaulin.
At the top edge of the roof ring, we fastened a rubber edging, to prevent rubbing of the tarpaulin against the sharp edge of the ring. We used a rubber molding from an old automobile windshield, fastened with roofing nails to the ring.
Lastly, an inner layer of tarpaulin was secured around the perimeter and on the roof of the yurt. These tarpaulins provide an additional rain and barrier, but, more importantly, act as a buffer between the final, outer tarpaulin layer and the framing. The tarps cost less than $90 each, and should extend the life of the outer tarpaulin by 3-5 years (a cost saving of more than $1,600).
Just as in conventional buildings, caulk was applied around the windows and door, and drip mold & j-channel framed the openings.
One additional feature that we incorporated into the design was a roof-top vent system, to improve air flow. This vent was constructed (see picture) of osb, and oriented in a north/south direction, so that the vent windows can be opened on either (or both) end(s) to maximize ventilation.
In our next post, we will discuss finishing touches and exterior tarpaulin application. The following article will provide information on interior finishing stages. The last three articles will provide information on setting up our solar, wind & biomass energy systems, as well as our grey water recovery systems.
Should you desire a complete material list, contact me at

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Assembling the Yurt Walls

There is the easy way to build a yurt: seek out a quality supplier of yurt kits, select your options &size, and then make your purchase. There is a more difficult way to build a yurt: tour the yurt demonstrations of a variety of suppliers and build based on those model units. Then there is the road less travelled: design & build your own. This is the option my wife and I have chosen.
Conventional, commercial yurt walls are constructed using lattice wrapped with pvc tarpaulin material. A thin aircraft cable is interlaced in the top openings of the latticework, and tightened using a turnbuckle. This structure holds the walls inward in a circle, while the weight of the rafters resting on the cable pushes the walls outward. Stasis, strength and stability thus are achieved.
Our wall structure begins with a 2*3 framework installed around the inside perimeter of a 24” by 84” piece of 7/16” thick oriented strand board. Since our yurt is twenty-eight feet in diameter, with a circumference of approximately eighty-eight feet, 44 sections are needed. Each section meets the next at an eight degree angle, requiring that one of the two vertical 2” by 3” studs is cut with an eight degree taper.
To lay out the bottom plate, forty-four 2-foot lengths of 2 by 3 are cut in a slight “vee” shape, at an eight degree angle, as well. Each wall segment will meet the next at the point of the “vee,” with a one-foot extension extending into the adjacent section base. By fastening the wall to these bottom plate segments, a solid circular frame is created.
As each section is placed standing adjoining the next, a top plate, identical to the bottom plate segment, is secured along the top 2” by 3” horizontal piece of the wall.
After making sure that all wall segments are vertically plumb, metal joining plates are fastened to join the segments at the top and bottom of each wall segment.
Next, windows and the main door are framed in place, in the same manner as a conventional wall and door or window buck are installed.
For our yurt, we purchased the 7’6” high by 94’ long tarpaulin from a New Brunswick supplier. The fabric intentionally was ordered longer than the actual circumference of the yurt, to allow for gathering and darts around the doors and windows.
Prior to installing the tarpaulin around the perimeter, window and door edges are caulked and sealed. Along the bottom of the wall segments, a strip of Velcro is fastened. The tarpaulin will extend one inch below the bottom of the wall, so that water will run off and away from the floor. After wrapping the tarp around the yurt walls and temporarily holding it in place, six 15-foot long ratchet tie-downs are connected and tightened along the upper perimeter of the walls, permanently fixing the wall tarp into place.
Walls are now complete.
The next article will describe how to construct the roof rafters and install the assembly onto the yurt.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Weather Wrecks Yurt Plans

Designing, constructing and living in my yurt was supposed to free me from more mundane housing concerns, cut costs, and make life more simple. Ha!
Since beginning construction on my own yurt design, I have been slapped with an important lesson: Nature rules. In our region – a normally dry, stable area in western Canada, late spring should be an ideal time to build. But record rainfall has flooded three of four western provinces, and, in our case, washed out access roads, and so severely restricted access that I have been forced to bring building supplies strapped to my back! We, fortunately, have had two days when we were able to work a supply truck across a neighbouring farm field. So, construction, severely delayed, still has moved forward.
Today, we are working on erecting the wall shells, with the roof rafters scheduled for tomorrow. Today, we will be working in thunderstorms, while tomorrow we will be working in humid, sticky heat.
Throughout this preliminary period, I have picked a total of 396 wood ticks off my legs, arms, back, scalp, etc. It is a record of which I am perversely proud! But, with the tick count cropping, the flood waters receding and the humidity & heat rising, a new nemesis has crashed the party: mosquitoes.
In the mid 1990s, Pioneer Quest tracked a year in the lives of 2 modern pioneer couples, who were required to build a cabin, break the land, and live precisely as pioneers in the area did in the 1800s. Those couples were inundated with natural disasters that year: excessive rainfall, exceptional summer heat, wicked mosquitoes and high snowfall & cold temperatures in the winter. It looks like we are on track to enjoy that same wonderful blast of nature. So must for minimalism!
Later this week, I will be providing details on the yurt design we have chosen, and the source of supplies. As construction progresses, I will provide photos and details, so that you can follow in our footsteps. Bring an umbrella and lots of mosquito repellent!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Regulations Stand in Way of Yurt Independence

Attempting to try to live life a little differently from the “norm” is a lot like trying to outrun Usain Bolt while he is running the 100 yard dash and you are doing the hurdles. It is more than a challenge; it is a nightmare.
Lucky for us, when we began to plan the building of our yurt, we were aware of the myriad of building code, zoning and environmental issues that we had to overcome.
First, the building code. Although the universal building code is intended to provide a consistent standard of construction across Canada (and the USA), each jurisdiction is empowered to tinker with its specifics. In cities, of course, there is a need for consistency, to protect neighbours, to ensure fire risks are minimized and to protect future occupants of a home or building. Yet, each geographical area has its own challenges, so supplementary regulations are enacted. To a lesser degree, in rural settings, these standards are upheld.
However, the plethora of farm buildings that are constructed to meet unique needs – hay barns, cattle calving pens, machine sheds, etc. are hardly likely to become homes for families, so standards for outbuildings are less stringent. Many rural authorities turn a blind eye to poorly constructed shelters and outbuildings.
Nonetheless, innovative structures such as straw houses, bermed buildings and alternative design concepts are rejected by community planners. In fact, such a simple variation on a basement such as construction with pressure-treated lumber instead of concrete requires an engineer’s stamp of approval.
Many authorities also require adherence (justifiably so!) to environmental regulations. Waste disposal is just one of these concerns. However, even the height of a wind turbine is regulated. Over a specific height will require an environmental site assessment, a permit, and appropriate lighting to warn off low-flying aircraft. This regulation is enforced, even in extremely remote environments, where many of the trees or geographical features exceed the height requirements for permitting.
We have made several concessions to our local authorities regarding construction standards. However, our design may still violate legal requirements. For instance, our interior walls are not fire-rated to the minimum one hour. It’s hard to fire-rate a tarpaulin structure for that period! We have no holding tank. Not much need when we anaerobically digest our effluent, and use composting toilets. We do not have concrete piles to anchor our structure. It is overkill to anchor a structure that weighs about the same as a half-ton truck. Our bedroom does not have a regulation-sized escape window. On the other hand, our bedroom has no walls, and the rest of the yurt has four windows and a door. We have no electrical network that is inspected. Truth is, we have only a 12-volt power system with an inverter for some minor appliances, but a home does need wiring and plumbing, according to the building code.
So, we do not have a home. Our yurt is a “temporary” structure, like a workshop or barn, not intended to live within. At least, that is how our municipality sees it. I look forward to spending my retirement years living in my barn, thank you!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Yurt Energy Reduction

One of the goals for which we aimed with our decision to move to a yurt was to reduce our energy consumption.
Yurts, being round, offer reduced heating costs per square foot of floor space because the air is able to circulate readily. Conversely, cooling is more effective due to the open design. This element of the yurt layout, of course, helps to cut energy consumption.
Our heating system is an outdoor wood furnace (in contemporary language, a “biomass converter”), which supplies heat to the greenhouses, workshop and yurt. The furnace design has been modified to enable us to do most of our cooking on top of the unit, to eliminate the need for an indoor electric or propane range. Supplementary cooking will be done in a toaster oven.
Rather than use a 240V well pump and pressure system to provide water, we will be using a modified 2-cycle engine-driven water pump to pump water from the well to overhead cistern units above the kitchen sink and bathroom area. Separate 20-liter sprayer tanks will be used to provide water spray necessary for hand washing, compost toilet cleaning and dish spraying. The shower head is a “rain shower” head, fed by gravity-driven water from the overhead cistern. Water is heated by the outdoor wood furnace and solar heat.
We have given away our refrigerator, along with our electric stove. The refrigerator, although energy efficient, was far larger than what two people required. In its place, we have purchased a 90-watt bar fridge (with small freezer compartment), and a half-sized, 60-watt bar fridge. The small unit will be used only when we absolutely require it (less than 25% of the time).
Our major concern was our lighting. Although individual lighting consumes relatively small amounts of energy, a person tends to neglect to turn off lights, to use too much lighting, or to use lighting that is too bright for the task at hand.
To charge my laptop, I plug it into a power inverter plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter.
By laying a white light-duty panelling over the interior walls, we reduce the need for lighting. Four 18’ x 48” mirrors are placed around the perimeter to reflect light, as well. We “traded in our three halogen floor lamps (250 watts each) for three $25 credits on energy efficient lights (thanks to our local electric company!). Now, our entire lighting consists of a 5-arm floor lamp with 13-watt CFLs, 20 solar lights marking our exterior entrance and walkway, one 20-watt Xenon puck light over the entrance inside the yurt, and four plug-in LED light packs, producing as much light, each, as a 150 watt incandescent bulb, but drawing a total of 4 watts of energy for all of them.
Our only other energy costs are costs to charge our cellular telephone (we have eliminated the landline), and our energy-efficient LCD television (used a maximum of 1 hour per day).
Total energy consumption is projected to be the equivalent of $4.00 per month (we use solar power, so there is no grid cost), compared to an average of $60 per month in our former home.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Yurt Design Considerations

To design my yurt and decide whether to purchase a ready-made kit or build from scratch, I first have to decide on the appropriate size. Do I build a yurt the same size as a normal house, do I build the same size as a typical apartment, or do I build a yurt sized like a tent?
Because my wife and I will be the only people living in this Mongolian tent, we decided to scale our unit like that of an apartment, rather than a house. For a one-bedroom apartment, average sizes run from 460 sq. Ft. To 600 sq. Ft., while a typical house will be at least double that size for a 1- or 2-bederoom residence.
But there are other considerations in making the decision on size. In a house or apartment, hallway space takes up about 5-10% of a typical home. In a yurt, there are no hallways. In an average house, as much as 15% of the space is consumed by unusable corners, clear space around entranceways and stairways. Again, there are no corners, no stairs and minimal need for entranceways, since the yurt will have a “great room” design. So, if you want the equivalent of a 2-bedroom apartment for space, reduce your yurt size by 25%. That brings a 2-bedroom unit down to around 600 sq. Ft.
Because yurts have no interior support walls, and a framework considerably lighter than a conventional house, clear spans need to be considered. Most North American yurt suppliers offer maximum sizes up to 30-32 feet in diameter. This size, it appears, is the maximum area to ensure solid structural design.
We have decided on a 28 foot diameter (605 sq ft) structure, since we anticipate little need for a large second bedroom, and we wish to enjoy maximum space for many indoor activities during the cold winter months.
There are a half-dozen quality yurt suppliers in Canada and the USA, with \Colorado Yurts and Yurtco being , in our view, the premier suppliers. On a 30-foot unit, prices begin at $7,800, with costs rising to more than $18,000 once additional features such as extra insulation, domes, roof supports, long-life fabric, upgraded windows, etc. are added in.
While this is significantly less than the cost of a new home of a comparable size ($32,000 -80,000), it is a price that can be significantly reduced if you construct your own yurt. In fact, the design which we settled upon can be constructed for well under $6,000!
In the next blog, I will discuss the preliminary factors you need to consider before choosing a design or location, including zoning & building codes, water supply, location, terrain and intended use.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Building a Yurt: The Pioneering Process

It is hard to envision “success” as moving from an upscale home in the suburbs to a tent in the wilderness of central Manitoba, yet that is precisely how my wife and I define “arriving.”
Thirty-five years ago, and again 25 years ago, I walked away from a new home, my entire bank accounts & savings, and every piece of furniture, voluntarily, as part of divorce settlements. Twenty years ago, I built, with my partner, a $5 million business in less than two years, starting with a $45,000 per year personal services operation. Two years later, I sold my half of the company to my partner for $17,500 – 1/50th of the value. Ten years ago, I discarded a lakefront home and middle class house in the city in favour of a 64 square foot shack in the bush – a move I considered to be progress.
The principle that guided each of these so-called irrational decisions is one I learned early in life. What you own is less important than what you feel. In each case, I felt freedom, and owned piece of mind.
In June, at my wife’s suggestion, we will build our own yurt on an 80-acre plot of meadow and bush, in north central Manitoba. We will be debt free, free to travel, and unburdened by daily pressures. We will also be living in a glorified tent, in a climate that can cough up minus 45 degree winter days regularly.
For the past several months, we have evaluated a half dozen very reputable suppliers of yurts, from Colorado Yurt, to Yurtco, to BC Yurt. In the end, though, we felt that we needed a structure custom-designed for our environment. It will be built at a significant reduction in costs, with only a modest sacrifice in quality. But it will be ours, and it will be our home for the next several decades.
One of the critical considerations in designing, or buying, a yurt is the recognition that, for the most part, yurts will not meet building codes for permanent residences in most cities. They have fire rating issues, plumbing & electrical impediments, and structural discrepancies related to building codes. Yet, they are well-constructed, safe and comfortable homes for those who prefer to “live off the grid.”
Indeed, we will be living off the grid. No outside hydro, gas or water supply. But we will need minimal electrical power, will be relying on solar, wind, geothermal and biomass heating and lighting systems that we designed. We will rely on our market garden for 80% of our food, with another 20% coming from barter.
This is a journey for us that we want to share with others. We invite you to follow us each week as we plan, prepare and build our yurt. We invite you to share our lives as we spend our first year in our new home. Join us on our pioneer journey!