Wednesday, 2 February 2011

On Yurts

The last two nights I have mostly been sleeping in a yurt. No, scratch that. The last two nights I have entirely been sleeping in a yurt - it is much too cold to leave a foot stuck out for the sake of a meme.

Outside, that is. Inside the yurt it is quite startlingly warm - certainly much warmer than I would be at home. A small centrally located woodstove heats the space exceedingly effectively. My second night in the yurt was, coincidentally but rather fortunately, the windiest night for a year - and one of the wettest. In the depths of this cold, wet, violently windy night in early February, the yurt was cool. But not colder than I should have been at home, not draughty, and (apart from a slight anxiety about a tree actually falling on it) not insecure.

This yurt is from Yurts Direct, and is, I believe. authentically imported from Mongolia. It's about 6 metres in diameter - frankly spacious and generously propeortioned; it is in itself a work of art. The curtain which lines the wall has a damask weave with a crysanthemum pattern, in fabric somewhere between ivory and gold. The poles of the roof - some eighty-one of them - together with the roof crown and the two posts which support it, are of a burnt orange colour apparently individually hand painted, and yet with a regular repeating pattern, as are the doors. The doors comprise two inner doors and a single outer door, all housed in a substantial and rigid wooden frame, with windows in the inner doors and on either side of the door opening.

A curious thing is that while there is a cord to tie the outer door open, there appears to be no mechanism for latching them shut, short of leaning something heavy against them. And this matters, since it's been extremely windy both nights. Which raises another issue - there's remarkably little sound insulation. While only occasional gusts rattle the crown cover, the noise of the wind in nearby trees is loud.

At the eaves the roof is certainly less than 1500mm from the floor; at the crown ring, about 2300, and at the top of the crown perhaps 2500. What this means in practice is that I can't stand upright within one metre of the wall, but in practice this doesn't matter since the space against the wall is naturally used for seating and storage, leaving the main area of the floor free.

Although the only fenstration is the (small) glass panels in the door and the transparent sections of the crown cover, they let in a surprising amount of light in daylight - and from my bed at night I could see stars.

The floor of this yurt is made of (apparently) chipboard flooring panels, which are supported off the ground on sturdy wooden joists laid on pillars of concrete breeze blocks. The floor is not part of the package you get from Yurts Direct, but is something you have to construct for yourself.

This yurt cost £4,000, and similar yurts are available now for £4,495 (Yurts Direct describe it as a 'size 5'). Quality yurts made in Britain by (e.g.) Woodland Yurts cost about the same or slightly more. That isn't an unreasonable price - there's quite a lot of work, and a fair bit of material, in one of these.

As low cost housing for rural Scotland, how does it stack? This yurt is, I think, generous and elegant living space for one, and adequate but a bit tight for two. Indeed, a single person would get away with a smaller one. It doesn't, of course, have anything like a bathroom, which would horrify the planners. It is adequately warm with the burner lit, and clearly adequately wateerproof - this yurt, which has been up all winter, shows no signs of water staining anywhere, despite the relatively low pitch of the roof.

Most of the materials could be sourced locally in rural Scotland. The frame is wooden. The insulation is wool felt - and let's face it, we're not short of wool. The outer covering is canvas, which could be flax (in this case it isn't, but it could be). In terms of durability, the frame, with reasonable maintenance, is likely to be good indefinitely - certainly for a lifetime. Also, individual components of the frame can be individually replaced with little impact on the surrounding structure.

The canvas covering is likely to have to be periodically replaced, perhaps every ten years. The layers of felt will also need periodic replacement. Apparently it is a good thing to dismantle and overhaul a yurt at least annually, and I can clearly see the sense in this.

The major problem with a yurt in Scotland is of course damp. If the stove is not regularly lit, moulds and mildew attack the canvas and felt. This shouldn't be a problem in a yurt that's permanently inhabited, provided there is a reasonable supply of firewood. There's obviously a risk of fire; a yurt which I have seen which caught fire burned to little more than a ring of ashes. In a yurt made predominently of natural materials there should not be a great problem with toxic fumes, and, being all one space, there isn't a complicated route to find to the exit. So whether the risk to life of fire in a yurt is greater or less than the risk in a conventional structure I couldn't say. However, it's certain that in the event of a fire very little of what is in the yurt could be saved.

I don't know what happens to wool felt in the long term. People I've spoken to talk about infestations of mites or insects - probably something like the chitin-eating silverfish - and this sounds somewhat unpleasant. But inorganic felts - fibreglass, for example - also present problems, not least long term environmental problems in disposal.

The stove in the yurt I stayed in is a locally made one, not of very high quality, but it stayed in both nights even with my inept management. Good stoves suitable to use in a yurt are, obviously, available.

In summary, I was sleeping in the yurt to test-drive it - to get a feel for whether it would be a temporary dwelling I could survive in until I get planning permission for my permanent dwelling. And the answer, simply, is that it is. But - and it's a big but - it's not cheap. The combined cost of the yurt and the platform it sits on and a suitable stove add up to a fair proportion of my available building budget. On the other hand if you turn the equation on its head and say the yurt is the permanent structure - and it is comfortable enough that one could do that - then suddenly it does not look expensive at all, but on the contrary very cheap.
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