Yurt living is a trendy thing, not quite on a par with tiny house living, but a fascinating option that people explore mostly because it is unusual.
Usually you hear one side though, when you study it out. There are two sides to it, and one of them has serious issues for some kinds of situations.
I have seriously studied out many kinds of housing, looking for options that are not common, in the hopes of finding something extraordinary. I do have a tendency to get kind of romantic about some options, and a yurt is certainly one that appeals to that side of me. But in studying it out, a picture emerged that is not commonly talked about, so I decided to write down what I learned.
Yurts are a traditional dwelling on the steppes of Mongolia, and have been adapted in similar ways to other nomadic peoples. Mongolia can be a pretty harsh environment, and because of that, people have the mistaken idea that a yurt is a good housing option for severe weather conditions.
A traditional yurt has no covering on the center of the roof. It was left open to let the smoke of the fire out - they now use a stove with a chimney but still often leave that area open for ventilation. When it is closed, there are still air gaps around it. So it is a drafty thing no matter what.
The outside was traditionally covered with animal hides (they now use tent canvas) - very waterproof, very durable, but quite heavy. Modern yurts use a lightweight synthetic tent fabric - waterproof, easier to pack, but not nearly as durable as animal hides. Mongolian yurts also usually (but not always) have a single piece top and side covering, instead of them being two separate pieces, which reduces potential for wind damage. The sides are bound on with ropes, around the outside, very tightly, with either two or three bands of cordage, to keep the side walls firmly in place so they don't billow in the wind. This further reduces potentials for both damage, and drafts.
Inside wall coverings were either felted wool, or quilts with felted wool inside them. Very good insulation, but so thin that you really don't get a huge insulation factor from them - more than modern alternatives, but still not all that great. Traditional use was either on top of the frame, under the outer covering, or fastened to the walls on the inside, depending on tradition and the type of covering. They are more standardized now, and the quilts have gone the way of many historic skills.
Mongolia is between about 3000 and 8000 ft elevation. Wind is common on the steppes (which are not at the highest elevations), but not as strong as in Wyoming, because most of the country is at lower elevations. Higher up, you'd have to site your yurt in a sheltered location.
Areas where yurts are used do NOT have a lot of deep snow. The snow blows around some, though not as much as in Wyoming, and it does not pile up extremely deep. The yurt did not have to stand up to heavy loads of deep or wet snow.
They were traditionally lived in by a people who dressed WARM, and spend the majority of their days out of doors, who became well acclimatized to the cold each winter.
This is a primative home. It is NOT a modern day temperature controlled environment! It is VERY basic, and at best, is an insulated tent.
Contemporary Yurts now run the gamut from the new Mongolian Yurt (made of standardized materials, not inspired craftsmanship), to a minimized American version (no felted liners), to wood sided, and a collection of polygonal shaped or round buildings made of various materials going by the name of Yurt even though they share little with the traditional yurt other than being made of the least possible materials. If you make it round, and call it a yurt, you can get away with ignoring construction standards!
A contemporary yurt may be a basic yurt where there is no plumbing, no electricity, no built-in furnishings. Or it may be a finished house, with either cloth or wood walls, a full modern kitchen and a full bath and laundry. They run the gamut.
This is what we learn when we really study the yurt, as a housing option.
1. Cost. It isn't less expensive for what you get - in fact it can be MORE expensive. The price you pay for the yurt is the shell only. Walls, and a roof. Some companies include a floor - but you usually have to pay more for that. You'll pay $20 k and up for one that includes a floor, interior wall covering, and more than one window. For the same price, you can get a really LARGE shed that includes more living space, and a sturdier structure.
If all you want is a tent, then you can do ok with a basic yurt shell, and no modern amenities. If that is all you have in mind, you'll still be spending $6k or more for that tent, no floor, and you'll have to put it up yourself.
If you want to expand and add a second floor loft, you'll be increasing the price tremendously, because a typical yurt frame has no supports for a second floor. You'll have to add quite a bit of additional structure to support it - because it does not have rigid walls, you need sturdier support beams than you do for a lofted shed, and beams cost far more than wall studs.
It all comes down to value for the dollar. All in all, a yurt, finished out into a real home, will cost you about $100 per square foot, the same as any other dwelling. If you skip the built in kitchen and bathroom, it goes down from there.
2. Financing is ALL on YOU. Yurts are strictly cash sales. If you are not able to get a personal unsecured loan for the price of the structure. For people without $20 to $40k on hand, a yurt just isn't going to be a reasonable option at all. If you get one big enough to live in, and actually put it on a floor, with even basic insulation in the walls, you are already in for $15 to $20k, often much more. If you need heavy duty insulation, a floor kit, a wind and snow kit, or alpine reinforcing, you can easily double that amount, and that is without adding any additional windows, doors, or upgrading any of the base materials to more durable options.
Nobody finances yurts. The only way they'll do so is with a personal loan, and rates tend to be pretty high for that kind of loan, especially if you are credit challenged.
For people who qualify for a home loan, a round house build is going to be a better option, or just keep looking for the right quirky deal that a bank WILL finance.
3. They don't generally come with insulation, so the price you are quoted won't include it. It is available from some companies for an additional fee. It may be nothing more than reflective plastic, or you may find traditional wool felt if you look hard (costly), or a reflective bubble insulation.
Sometimes the insulation is pre-cut and fitted. Often it is not. Don't assume.
If you move into a rigid roof (metal roof) you have more insulation options, you can cut your own foam insulation and permanently install.
- Reflective plastic can add about 5-10 degrees f protection against cold or heat.
- Reflective bubble insulation can add between 10 and 15 degrees f protection.
- Wool felt can add about 15 to 20 degrees f protection if there is no wind, less in the wind.
- Quilted covering with wool felt inside can give you 20 to 25 degrees protection f if there is no wind, less in wind.
Cloth is always going to let air through. Plastic will always let heat out, especially when there is a wind blowing. These are unalterable facts. So wind is the real enemy of heat retention.
Yurts weren't designed for really foul weather. While they were developed for people living on the steppes in Mongolia, and were lived in year round (still are), they are much like a log cabin. I keep hearing from people that if they are lived in on the steppes of Mongolia all year, they must be warm enough. But entire generations of people lived in log cabins (and lesser dwellings), which are drafty, uninsulated, and cramped. A log cabin takes a LOT of fuel to heat in the winter if it is not insulated and improved with interior wall covering. It was a different time, with different standards, and those people who lived in them did not expect to live in 70 degree even comfort all year around.
Make no mistake, without spending quite a bit for heat or cooling, a yurt is COLD COLD COLD in the winter, and HOT HOT HOT in the summer, and is most suited to temperate climates without a lot of wind or humidity. It CAN be heated, but it takes quite a bit of heat if temps get really low, and when the wind blows. I could not find any actual costs regarding the heating, only that electric was not recommended due to the high cost, and that heat was a real concern for those who lived in them. They said you can stay warm, but it takes a lot of firewood, or propane, or whatever you are using.
The prevailing consensus on heating a yurt seems to be that it takes a lot of heat to warm the space, but the space inside can be warmed by a single fireplace or heater. It needs to be operating continuously to keep the space heated though, because there simply is no mass to retain heat, and a significant heat loss through the walls and roof. I've heard owners cite anywhere from 3-10 cords of wood per winter, and locations ranging from Arizona to Washington state, to Pennsylvania.
I did find references to them being unbearably hot in the summer, even with some air conditioning. Since they are designed to warm through the roof in the winter, they do that in the summer also. Layers of insulation slow that down, and a white covering will reduce solar heating. Best to avoid dark coverings, I'm thinking.
4. Humidity and Mold. A traditional yurt has a vented ring at the top, quite large. Various yurt designs convert that to ventilation that is more or less effective, depending on the method they use.
Traditionally the yurt is much like a summer camping tent with light wood lattice walls and light wood framed roof. The structure is well ventilated because there are so many places for drafts to blow in.
Once you start enclosing it more and more, ventilation becomes an issue, to keep moisture from building up on the walls and ceiling - it may occur between your insulation and outer lining, where you do not discover it until it is a serious problem. If it does, mold may be a problem. Again, the type of yurt, and the method of insulating may be really critical in some climates, especially those with high humidity, so if this is an issue for you, check it out, and investigate reviews of the brand you are looking at, from people who are in the area where you are building.
5. Portability. The original yurt is moderately portable. Less portable than a tent (a tent is easier to take down) or an RV (which can be moved without disassembly). More portable than a house. But HOW portable it is depends on exactly how you have built it, because the thing that makes them portable is that they were built to be easily disassembled.
Trendy yurts now are a long way from the traditional Mongolian nomadic yurt. Theirs had no permanent floor, and had two layers of covering on the walls, just the outer covering, and the inner felted or quilted insulating covering (one of which could be removed for summer). They had no second floor, no stairs, no built-in kitchen, no bathroom, and no indoor plumbing. They were, to our way of thinking, just camping.
The roof and walls were designed to be easily disassembled and collapsed. If you have reinforced them to make them more robust, you lose that advantage.
If you have constructed a house out of a yurt, even if it has fabric walls, it may be no more portable than any other structure. Once you add a floor, the process of moving it is complicated tremendously. Once you've added a real bathroom and kitchen, moving it becomes VERY problematic. And a second story has to be built in a way that will pretty much remove all possibilities of disassembly for moving it.
Portability equals temporary in the minds of zoners, permitters, appraisers, inspectors, and banks. So reducing portability, after you own it, may be a GOOD thing, in the long run.
6. Wind. We can presume that the steppes of Mongolia are windy in their season, they just have that kind of landscape, and SOME (but not all) of the winter landscapes show low snow drift indicative of strong winds. It appears they are not as windy as Medicine Bow Wyoming (the most consistently windy place in the world, according to one source), because there is often accumulated snow WITHOUT drifts. I do know that having LIVED in Medicine Bow, I would not choose a yurt as a dwelling, not even for camping where wind is a persistent visitor!
Tent fabric walls and roof don't stop wind. They barely slow it down. Wind will just shove the cold right through them. While the round shape does deflect some of the wind, it does not deflect it all, and it robs heat from every side of the yurt as it passes. One manufacturer suggested that you might build a storm shelter, and dismantle your yurt before a storm rolls in, and take shelter in the storm shelter instead. I'm thinking if you have to do that for a wind storm, maybe you should just make a bigger shelter and live there instead!
Lattice walls flex. Tiedowns may not be enough to stop that from happening. The yurt would be crooked within an hour of exposure to persistent hard winds. Many yurt designs don't actually fasten together, they just kind of sit one on top of another, tied here and there but not much, and rely on the outer covering to hold it all together. Some interlock a bit, and a few have actual fasteners. In windy areas, fasteners would be vital.
Fabric layers, no matter how well anchored, will pull apart at the seams. Persistent wind will just grab an edge, and worry it until it either rolls back, or tears. It will happen in a matter of days under hard winds. If you have a little bit of loose canvas, then you'd better repair it sooner rather than later, because a little thing can cause you to lose a lot more, or even lose the whole cover.
If you live where wind is perpetual, cross the yurt off your list. It just isn't going to hold up, even with extra anchoring.
If you live where there are regular storms with high winds, cross it off your list. The yurt is too lightweight, and too fragile to hold up even with additional reinforcement.
If you live where there are occasional windy storms, you may be able to get by, if you have reinforced the walls, and anchored all around with tiedowns both on the base, and the roof. Inspect the outside for irregularities before a storm, and make sure everything is anchored snug and tight if you want to have the best chance of handling periodic strong winds.
If a yurt is your ownly option, where there is wind, then site it in a sheltered area. This is how the designers of the yurt managed to keep them together, though I'd imagine if you asked them about wind, they'd laugh and have some real stories to tell.
7. Snow. Lightweight structures do not take snow well. The advantage here is that you can just take a pole or a broom, and knock the snow off the roof from the INSIDE if you have a fabric roof with no solid underlayment. If your roof is solid, you'll have to do it from outside. This is no joke, apparently the collapse of the house due to snow load is a spectacularly destructive event.
Reinforced wall beams will help bear snow loads better, but you may also need sturdier rafters in your roof, depending on just how much snow we are talking about. Wet snow is also far heavier, and builds to a point of overload much faster.
Don't make the mistake of leaving snow on the roof for insulation. While it can provide some additional insulation, another blanket of snow in the night may prove too much, and if rain falls instead of snow, it will get heavy REALLY fast, as snow will absorb quite a lot of rain before it melts enough to wash off the roof.
At least one company does offer an add-on package for snow and wind, but pretty much any yurt can be reinforced to handle heavy snow a little better. It is an additional cost though, and reduces portability if that is an issue.
8. Durability. I don't know how long a hide and felt yurt lasted. I'm thinking the women spent a lot of time stitching seams on those walls and roofs. With animal hides, the hides last pretty much forever, but the seams wear pretty rapidly. Tent fabric just isn't as durable as animal hides, and has some issues that hides never did.
Tent fabric tends to tear right beside the seams, so it is very difficult to repair. You can patch it, but it has to be done by stitching the patching on, nothing seems to stick well enough to patch a tear on a tightly stretched tent fabric wall or roof. Once it starts to tear, it doesn't want to stop tearing, so even if you patch it, you can pretty well figure its days are numbered.
The windows may be screen, clear plastic, or glass. The screen and plastic windows will tear, and they tend to do that right beside seams, the same as the cover. Screen, once torn, is very difficult to repair or patch, but it can be done - looks messy though. Most companies sell replacement parts, but with sewn in screening or clear plastic insets, once they tear, it will look messy until you replace the entire cover.
Word out and about is that the exterior roof and wall covering needs replacing every 8-15 years, depending on your climate and the type of covering. Sun and wind will both degrade the fabric more rapidly. Cost is between $1k and $3k for each (side covering, and roof covering), depending on yurt size.
Now you may hear that you can have a local tent and awning maker repair the yurt cover. You probably can. But for them to do sewing repairs, you'll have to take the roof or walls off your house and take them in to someone, to have them repair them. Not a good idea!
If you purchase a new one, it WOULD be a good idea to have the old one repaired for a spare, if it is repairable.
9. Resale Value. A yurt is REALLY difficult to sell on land. The thing is, if you've improved it with permanent improvements, it costs as much as any other home, but is not WORTH as much at the market.
Yurts put on the market with property typically stay there longer than comparably priced frame homes, even shed homes, and only sell at a reduced price. They often do not add any value at all to the property itself, appraisers just laugh at them.
Nobody finances used yurts, or a property with a yurt on it unless they finance only the property. This is a HUGE hit if you have invested very much into the thing. People just don't pay cash for anything that is more than about $10k in price, and even that is a stretch.
Used yurts in very good condition (almost new), sold to move off the property they are on, sell for 1/2 to 2/3 the price of new, and down from there - the older they are, the lower the price. They are still slow to sell if they are priced more than $5 to $10 grand, and if you have household fixtures in place in it, you'll rarely get anywhere near full value out of them even if you sell them separately.
Those yurts that do sell typically are ones that are easy to tear down and move, and that are priced low. Very much structural enhancement, or permanent fixtures inside, and you'll find it impossible to sell it to anyone who wants to move it, and you won't be able to sell it on the land where it sits either.
One way to sell it, if you own the property outright, is to carry the financing yourself. People who will be most likely to buy are those with poor credit, and little to no money for a down payment. It is just the reality. They are those who will also be hardest on the yurt, and least likely to keep it in good repair. If your down payment is too high, you are right back where you would be trying to just sell the yurt separately. More than about $5k and people just won't do it. You pretty much have to overcharge for the land, and carry a contract for deed, so if they bail, you take everything back. It can work, but it is problematic, and only works if you are reasonable about what people WILL actually follow through with.
10. Zoning. Not many places will let you put in a yurt and call it a house. Varies widely place to place, but you better ask some questions before you assume. Those that do let you will generally only accept a wood or metal structure that is on a foundation - in other words, a real house that just happens to resemble a yurt.
A traditional yurt is a temporary structure, and as such may be ignored, or treated as a mobile home.
11. The Build. As with everything, you either hire it done, or you do it yourself. Somewhere on YouTube there is a video of a family putting up a yurt - they had a group of people helping them (just looked - there are a bunch, all kinds of yurts, but could not find the one I saw before). There ARE some tricky bits, and some really awkward bits to work out. A really large yurt can require a pretty good sized team to complete it.
This is the one advantage that people list over and over though. It is much simpler to assemble than a frame built structure. A shed kit with pre assembled panels is just as easy, and just as quick, but other than that, pretty much everything else is harder. As I said, there ARE some tricky bits with a yurt. But you can get a shelter in place fairly quickly if you have some friends or family who can help you.
If you build it yourself, it can cost less than a cabin built by someone else for the same square footage. If you hire someone to built it, it can cost MORE than a cabin of the same size.
12. Windows, and Rain. Who knew? Rain presents its own challenges in a yurt. The windows are generally two or three layers - clear plastic (sometimes absent), screen, and a storm flap that rolls up, and zips down on the sides. When glass windows are inset, they may be put in with a roll up storm flap on the outside.
A yurt is designed to be watertight. Traditional yurts have NO windows, just a single door. Many newer yurts are designed to be watertight when the window flaps are closed. It is a different story if they are open when the rains descend.
Some yurt designs channel the water right into the house through the windows if the flaps are open. Since the flaps are outside, you have to go out to roll them down and zip them closed.
In a permanent installation, where you've sacrificed mobility for stability, the window problems can be permanently fixed in a number of ways, but water tightness around the windows and doors is always an issue.
Options for addressing this vary from company to company, and with individual ingenuity.
- Someone does make a gutter for yurts. They also make a roof cover that has a fabric dam around the edge, for water collection.
- Pacific Yurts uses a diverter - just a raised shallow upside down V structure - over the doors, so rain channels to either side. Unfortunately, it channels the rain right into a standard window placement on one side!
- If you have screen doors, you don't have to use the screened windows as much, and this can reduce some of the hassle of drenching summer rains, as long as your doors are not suffering the same issue (some do).
- Awnings can divert the rain away from the windows, but they are not terrible sturdy, so this is probably not an option in windy locations.
- You could probably build a diverter out of flashing or even corrugated plastic, buy tucking it up under the top cover and bending it outward - 8-10" of overhang should push the water out enough to keep it from pulling back into the window. Again, difficult to keep in place in windy locations.
This would be more of an issue in hot climates with monsoons, or where there is constant rain, than it would be in other areas, but even here in the alpine desert it would strike us three to five times per year.
The yurt is one of those things that when you hear about it, you think that maybe just maybe there is a more cost effective option than a frame built house, or shed house, or tiny house, or cob, or whatever the latest trend is, at least to get started. But like all of those, when you really investigate it, you find that it is no more affordable, because the things that are not included in the price are just as expensive as they would be if you were putting them into anything else, and the base price for the shell is the same as the base price for everything else!
What you have, when you are done, is a structure that has cost you the same per square foot as a frame built home, but which has liabilities that a frame built home doesn't have.
It may be a reasonable option for a guest cabin that does not need a kitchen or bath, or for someone who has no plans for a contemporary kitchen or indoor plumbing, but otherwise the promise falls way too short in so many ways!
I would consider a yurt under very specific circumstances.
1. A guest cabin. It would work well for that, especially if the use were seasonal. But only if it does not require plumbing.
2. A temporary residence, if I had the funds for both the yurt, and the final structure. I don't think I'd want to live in it for more than a couple of years, because I would not want to invest in plumbing or much wiring or permanent improvements for a yurt.
3. A seasonal residence, in a situation where I did not mind living in a dry cabin for the duration of the stay.
4. If I could work out a way to morph a yurt into a permanent residence. This would be best done with one that starts out with a metal roof, but would always include finishing with a solid roof, solid walls, and eventually a foundation. Some of that is easy, some of it isn't.
Consider carefully, because there are aspects to this that are a hard thing to run into after you've sank your house money into something that won't ever quite BE the same as investing that same money into a permanent structure.