Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Yurt Plans, Part 1: The Structure

Now to get into the details of the yurt. First, some vital stats:

Diameter: 24'
Area: ~450 square(round?) feet
Wall height: 5' 8"
Peak ceiling height: 10' 2"
Volume: 3259.9 cubic feet (I can't fathom how this would be useful info, but oh well)

After a lot of thought, I set 2 main design goals for the yurt:
  • It needs to be as inexpensive as possible(notice I did not say "cheap")
  • It needs to be as sustainable and low-impact as possible
Fortunately, those two things happen to intersect in several ways, the most obvious being recycling. Thus, my yurt will be made of reused, recycled or recovered materials whenever possible.

Here's the design so far:

Who reads alt text, anyway?

The yurt will be built on a wooden deck of standard construction, but of reclaimed wood. I intend to get this from demolition sites, but other sources may reveal themselves...

The lattice-like wall sections(the khana) will be made from the rough edges trimmed off boards during milling. These are typically ground up and sold as animal bedding or simply thrown away.This is a plentiful resource available across the States.

The rafters(uni) will be made from standard 2x4's. I hope to get these at the same time as the deck material.

The center compression ring(tono) that the rafters fit into will be made from scrap lumber scrounged from construction sites.

Insulation will be concrete blankets. These are used by construction companies in cold climates to keep concrete from freezing after a pour(this would ruin the concrete). Most companies throw these out as they get tattered and worn by heavy use. They have an r-value of anywhere from 3-8, and should be sufficient if doubled up. These are readily available in northern US states. If you can't find them where you live, you may not need insulation! :)

The outer weatherproofing will be discarded billboards. Billboards are made of a very strong fiber reinforced vinyl that should be perfect for this. They're also designed to be UV resistant and last many years exposed to the elements. Again, billboards should be plentiful and easy to obtain.

Finally, I will also line the inside of the yurt with a natural fabric of some sort, the purpose of which is twofold. First, it should take care of any condensation issues I have; second, concrete blankets are ugly. I would rather look at a nice, natural fabric than a tattered black tarp

Next time: the electrical system!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Coming Full Circle, or: To Build a Yurt

In my composition class, we were required to write an essay describing a pivotal point in our lives. Following is the account of my decision to live off grid in a yurt:

My dog greeted me enthusiastically as I dragged myself through the front door of my house sore, dirty, and physically and mentally beaten. I paid her no attention. I flipped on the computer, grabbed a beer, and plopped down to shoot some zombies. I then paused for a moment to consider my life. My wife had left me for her now girlfriend. I was working a job that, while lucrative and challenging was unfulfilling and slowly destroying my body. Sure, I was going to school to become an engineer and finally do something that I liked, but that was far off and I had no way to pay for it. My plan to work while my wife went to school and then switch off when she graduated had a flaw or two in it now. I was stuck in a lease for a two bedroom house that was far too big, full of too much furniture and unnecessary possessions. I was living the wasteful, foreign energy dependent life that I had always been so vocal against. I was floating through life, simply existing, with no direction. My life was bloated and fat. Something had to change.

I needed a miracle diet for my life. So I contemplated my options. I considered moving to Alaska and repairing airplanes, moving to a big city and getting lost in the crowd, and moving to the mountains and being a hermit. There were problems with all of these, though. I despise repairing aircraft, I can't stand big cities or crowds, and I actually like most people. I realized that I couldn't simply run away. Anywhere I moved, my problems would remain.

This needed to be a lifestyle change, a slimming down of sorts- a going back to the basics. I didn't need that much space. I didn't need all those possessions. I thought perhaps I could get a small apartment or roommates. I then remembered that I hate apartments and am far too independent for roommates. I needed somewhere cheap, somewhere small, that I could have my workshop to build projects while I was in school. I suddenly remembered my best friend Fuzzy, a short bearded man who more than a little resembles Gimli from The Lord of The Rings. We were at the Sustainable Living Fair shortly after my divorce, wishing we could afford to live sustainably. "Hey, you could live in a yurt!," he told me, "Nothing holding you back now."

Why would I want to live in a portable Mongolian hut? The thought was both jarring and absurd. Where did that come from? I glared accusingly at my beer, half empty, and checked the alcohol content. I considered other things, and each time, I came back to the yurt. Each time it made even more sense. A yurt is small, but round, so there is no wasted space in corners. Well insulated and built to withstand Siberian winters, it would be more than cozy in the winter. It would be a perfect test bed for my chemical-free wind power system that I was developing. I could get wireless internet service and stay connected. Not only would this be a cheap way to live while going to college, but it could also be entirely sustainable! I had already done the research. I already had the skills to build it. I was going to live off grid in a yurt! I then got a grip on myself. This was insanity. I tried to convince myself that the idea was purely a knee-jerk reaction to the divorce. Finally, I dispelled the notion, drank the rest of my beer, and shot my zombies.

In spite of this, I found myself daydreaming more and more about the yurt over the next several weeks. Each time I thought of it, I jumped one more obstacle, solved one more problem. Eventually, I had a fully-formed and workable plan. The idea had persisted long enough that I knew that it could not simply be a knee-jerk reaction. I had to tell someone, to see if I was crazy or if it really was a good idea. So I ran it by my dog, Cider. She listened intently, one ear perked up and head cocked to the side, while I spelled out my plan. She paused for a moment when I was done, then ran out of the room and brought back her tennis ball as if ready to move in that instant. The rest of my friends were not as easy. I got reactions ranging from enthusiastic agreement and offers of help to quizzical silence, as if they were waiting for the punchline. All eventually came around and supported and assisted me as I worked out problems, drafted plans, and researched building and health codes.

It is now four months ETY(Estimated Time to Yurt) and counting. I get home from work, still tired, but no longer beaten. I still grab a beer but this time settle down with a building code book, Walden, or a tongue-in-cheek volume about composting gastric byproducts. I reach down to pet Cider, patiently waiting with tennis ball in mouth, and reflect on the changes of the last few months. From an outside point of view, my situation has actually gotten worse. I have even less money, only a part-time job that's even worse that the last, and yet somehow I feel at peace. No longer do I drift through life aimlessly and unaware. I'm focused, driven, and conscious of how I affect my world. I look forward to my next busy day, whether I'm going to school, working, or scrounging for materials. I view each day not as simply another day, but as a potentially better one. I now have a plan, and am going to be all right.

The next several posts will detail my plans for the yurt, system by sytem. I'll start with the main structure, then move on to the internal bits(electrical, plumbing, etc.). Till next time...

Monday, February 16, 2009


Hello, world! Welcome to my first ever blog post. I've started this blog to chronicle my progress while I build and live in an off-grid yurt. The yurt is a portable dwelling consisting of a circular wooden structure typically covered in felt. Here's a picture of a traditional Mongolian design:

My yurt will be made with more readily available materials(I don't have an entire flock of sheep on hand to make a yurt cover, for example), but I'll get into that later.

I hope, over the course of the next several years, to provide a viable alternative to the traditional Western idea of a home. One that is as comfortable and convenient as tradition dictates, yet places less strain on its surrounding environment, and is much less dependent on fossil fuels.

I believe that we as human beings possess the intelligence and ability to either destroy or preserve the earth we live on. I also believe that, as creatures with a limited life span, we cannot own the earth. Sure, we may stake our claim and hold it close, but the simple fact is that when we're long gone that piece of earth will still be there. We're all just stewards, when it comes down to it. And for my part, I think that it is our solemn responsibility to be good stewards.

Part of that is planning for those who will take over when we're gone. It is irresponsible and an example of bad stewardship to base an entire civilization upon a finite fuel source(fossil fuels). Whether we're running out now, or will in a couple hundred years, it does not matter. The simple fact is that we will run out, and when we do, we need to be prepared as a matter of necessity. I understand that the technology simply does not exist to fully transition today. Or tomorrow. Or in a decade. That's why(in part) I am doing this.

It is possible to live sustainably in today's culture without being wealthy. It is possible to greatly reduce your need on fossil fuels without being a hermit, or crazy. These are the things that I intend to demonstrate over the next few years. I hope that you, dear reader, will follow along and share in my triumphs(and failures) over the next several years.