Build Your Own Yurt

Plans for building a simple, low-cost, modern day version of the age-old Mongolian yurt.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
November/December 1976
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Build your own modern version of the yurt, an ancient Mongolian home design that has stood the test of centuries.

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 This yurt design has its origins in the folk wisdom of ancient Mongolia, where the prototype has—for thousands of years—been found able to withstand the severe cold and violent winds of the steppes. This particular structure has been designed in the belief that a more personal, intimate relationship with our environment is desirable . . . and that people—especially those who wish to live in simplicity—should have the opportunity to play a larger role in creating their own shelter. The yurt's low profile and curved walls help it to blend into the natural environment. This is an attempt to design a dwelling that will not challenge, not dominate, not contend with nature but—rather—exist in harmony with it. The purpose of the design is to reduce to a minimum the skills needed in building a structure . . . yet still produce a beautiful, inexpensive, and permanent shelter.

Nine 54" lengths of 2" galvanized pipe
Nine 6" squares (or rounds) of 1/8" steel plate
Two 45' galvanized steel cables (preferably 3/8", but 1/4" will do)
Four 3/8" (or 1/4") cable clamps
Two 5" double-strap hinges, with screws
One wooden wagon wheel, 40"-46" inside diameter 

Measuring tapes
Circular saw
Rip and crosscut handsaws
5-pound sledgehammer
Carpenter's level
Adjustable wrench
6-foot ladder
Heavy-duty stapler
Strong knife
Paper and Pencils

LUMBER (use dry, seasoned wood only)
20 pieces of 1" x 12" x 54-1/4" white pine for inner wall
20 pieces of 1" x 12" x 54-3/4" white pine for inner wall
46 pieces of 1" x 12" x 64-1/2" white pine for outer wall
18 pieces of 1" x 12" x 12' white pine  for inner roof
18 pieces of 1" x 12" x 12' white pine for outer roof
18 pieces of 1" x 8" x 75" white pine for outer roof
10 pieces of 2" x 6" x 12' spruce or fir for floor timber and skylight blocks
2 pieces of 3/4" x 4' x 8' plywood (CDX) for floor
2 pieces of 1/4" x 4' x 8' plywood (C) for floor frame base
1 piece of 1/2" x 30" x 54" plywood (ACX) for door
(Note: Inner wall, outer wall and inner roof lumber is best if planed on one side only. Outer roof boards will hold better if rough on both sides.)

Skylight: 47-1/2"-48" circumference circle of 1/4" or 7/32" clear safety plate or tempered
Door: 19" X 16" oval of 7/32" clear safety plate or tempered
Windows: 11-1/2" X 16" double-strength glass

Floor: 20 cubic feet, pouring-type
Walls and roof: 260 square feet of four-inch-thick foil backed fiberglass (as long and wide as possible)

3 pounds, 16-penny, galvanized, box-type
7 pounds, 10-penny, galvanized, box-type
15 pounds, 8-penny, galvanized, box-type
7 pounds, 7-penny, galvanized, box-type
2 pounds, 1-3/4" ring nails
shingle nails as required

2 squares (200 square feet) of cedar shingles

A. Foundation

Draw a circle with a radius of 47 inches on the ground (Fig. A) and divide the circumference into 8 as-equal-as-possible sections. At the eight points, and at the center, drive the 2" pipes into the ground (the 47" radius is kept to the outside of the posts) as pilings until the pipes are level at the desired height. The lower the yurt, the better it will blend into the landscape . . . but do allow at least four inches of air space under the building for ventilation. (Other types of foundation can be used. Wooden posts should be anchored below the frost line. Large rocks placed level on the ground will also work, but in frost country will need to be leveled each spring.)

B. Floor

Make a framework of 2 X 6 timbers as shown in Fig. B-1 and carefully nail it together with the 16-penny nails. Spike three of the pieces of rim into each half of the frame first, and then saw the fourth section of rim to fit. You'll need to add filler blocks to round out the frame's rim (Fig. B-1). The pieces can be cut and shaped with a handsaw, power saw, drawknife, or band saw—or hewn with an axe—from 2 X 6 pieces. (If you do use an axe, toenail the roughly cut filler pieces to the rim first, and then hew them to shape. They can be nailed together more securely after the hewing is completed.)

Now cut the four sheets of plywood with a sharp, fine-toothed handsaw held at a low angle (see Fig. B-2). Nail the 1/4" plywood to the frame with ring nails spaced four inches apart, and coat the platform with old motor oil to protect it from dampness. Then turn the assembly over (plywood side down) and place it on top of the posts with the six-inch steel plates between the pilings and the wood itself. Now you can fill the frame level with pouring insulation, and nail on the top layer of heavier plywood with ring nails spaced four inches apart. (If you prefer, two layers of boards—nailed at right angles to each other—can be used instead of plywood for the floor.)

C. Wall

Draw a circle with a radius of 46" centered on the platform. Now divide the platform edge into forty as-equal-as-possible sections, and—using a straight 48"-long stick as a guide (lay one end on the center of the circle, and align the other end with each of the forty marks, one at a time)—extend those outer marks toward the center of the platform so that they intersect the 46"-radius circle.

Now measure across the inside bottom end of each 54-inch-plus wall board, and mark the center of the lower end of every plank. Next mark the top of the boards as shown in Fig. C-2. Then center the inner surfaces of the 54-1/4" boards on alternate marks on the circle (see Fig. C-1) and toenail the planks in place with 10-penny nails.

Now center the twenty 54-3/4" boards over the remaining marks on the floor—position them inside the others, with their outer surfaces on the circle—and nail them to the floor. Move the tops of the 54-3/4" boards inward and outward until the marks on the tops of all the boards line up as shown in Fig. C-2 (accuracy is important here). Then nail all the wall boards together with 7-penny nails spaced every six inches along the boards' edges. (Have someone hold a hammer against the opposite side of the wall boards to dampen vibrations.) Finally, clinch the nails securely (bend the points over against the grain) while a second person holds a hammer firmly against their heads.

D. Tension Band or Cable

The secret of any yurt's strength lies in its tension band . . . a cable which holds the building together by encircling the structure at its eaves. A good type to use is the 3/8" guy wire that utility companies frequently discard . . . local junk dealers often have it. (1/4" cable also works well, but is less commonly used. In any case, be sure the band is galvanized.)

Place a ring nail about one-half inch from the top of each and every board juncture in the wall . . . but leave about 3/8" of the heads out of the wood to support the band (Fig. C-2). Remember to have someone hold a hammer against the inside of the wall boards while you're driving the nails!

Now lay the cable over all but the last eight or ten nails, let the band sag so that it's as slack as possible, and attach and tighten the clamps. Then gently force the band up and over the remaining nails. Great care and respect for materials under tension should be exercised here. The cable should be snug, but not "fiddle tight". If it's too loose, repeat the process, but take the cable off a few more nails before you apply and tighten the clamps. If the band is too tight to slip over the nails, loosen it a little. Then clamp the cable very tightly, remove those last few nails one by one, slip the cable up as you work, and replace the nails in the same holes with the cable now above them. NOTE: Don't squeeze the wall too tightly with the band or the nails around its top will start to pull. At this stage, the wall should feel flexible. The roof will make it rigid.

E. Roof and Compression Band

ROOF: Cut the 1" X 12" X 12' inner roof boards into 18 pieces 62" long, and 18 sections 62-1/2" long. Next saw the 1" X 12" X 12' outer roof boards into 18 pieces 70-1/2" long and 18 pieces 71" long. Then cut all the boards as shown in Fig. E-1, so that you have 36 pieces of each length. (NOTE: In most cases, a 12" board is actually just 11-1/2" wide. If your boards are slightly wider or narrower, keep the 3-1/2" dimension the same and vary the 7-7/8" measurement.) If the boards are planed on one side only, it's important to make the diagonal cut the same direction each time . . . so mark and cut all boards with the planed side up. If you don't, your ceiling will be alternately rough and smooth.

Set the 70-1/2" and 71" boards aside for the time being and divide the top of the standing wall into thirty-six parts. Draw a line across each 62" board 3-1/2 inches from the big end on the smooth side (to indicate overhang). Then—using one 10-penny nail for each board—nail a 62" plank in place on top of the wall boards with one long edge of each 62" plank on a 1/36 mark (see Fig. E-3). As you work, prop the roof members up with poles (2 X 2's work well, but any light support will do) which have nails driven part way in 79" from one end. See Fig. E-2. Extra hands are a help in holding up the props.

Be careful to see that each roofing plank is aimed at the center of the yurt. When all the boards are up, raise or lower the poles as needed to make all the pieces of the roof meet snugly. Now drive two more 10-penny nails into the wide end of each roofing board.

Next nail the 62-1/2" roofing planks in place (centered over the gaps in the first layer), using just one 10-penny nail at the outer edge of each board. When all are snugly fitted at the top (you may have to move a few of those outer "10's" a little), nail the 62-1/2" boards fast at their outer ends. Then, working from inside the yurt, drive a 7-penny nail every six inches along (and up through) the roof boards' lengthwise edges. Have someone hold a sledge against the opposite side to back up your work, and securely clinch the ends of the nails. Keep the props in place until the compression band is installed.

COMPRESSION BAND/SKYLIGHT RIM: If you can find an old wagon wheel to use for a compression band, you'll save yourself a good bit of work. The wheel's inside diameter should measure 40"46" (Fig. E-4). Cut out the spokesand hub, and—with the wheel carefully centered over the skylight opening—screw the rim securely to the inner layer of roofing planks from below. Then add and faster: pieces of pine boards, cut to the curve of the wheel, to the top of the rim until the assembly holds the inner and outer layers of roof-I ing apart a perpendicular distance of 3-1/2" (see Fig. E-5). Now you can remove the props. NOTE: If you can't scare up an old wagon wheel, you can make a compression band/skylight rim by cutting and joining together twelve pieces of two-by-six 11-3/8" long (see Fig. E-6). Nail or screw the sections carefully in place over the top edge of the skylight opening (the pieces must fit together tightly).

F. Outer Wall and Insulation

INSULATION: Four-inch foil-backed fiberglass insulation should be stapled to the outside of the yurt's inner wall before the outer wall is put up. Be sure to position the toil side facing in.

OUTER WALL: Draw a line across each of 22 of the 64-1/2"long wall boards, 3-1/2" from the top on the "worst" side. Now position one of those boards so that its left edge is even with the right edge of the doorway, and so that its 3-1/2" mark shows just above the upper edge of the lower roof boards. Nail the plank securely in place with three 8-penny nails at its top (into the roof members) and three 10-penny nails at the bottom (into the floor). Then proceed to position and nail the rest of the marked boards in the same manner, leaving a &1/2" space between each one (you'll have to look ahead and fudge the distances between the last few . . . checking when you're halfway around the yurt—and making some adjustments then—helps). Take care to get the boards on straight. Have someone stand back to "eyeball" them as you work.

Now nail the remaining 64-1/2"-long outer wall boards in place evenly over the gaps in the first layer-and exactly even with the tops of the first planks. Use 8-penny nails spaced every six inches along the junctures of the boards. The space above the doorway should be filled with short pieces cut to fit the curve of the door (see Section M).

Now install the yurt's second tension band, at the top of the outside wall. (Again, be sure to have the foil facing toward the inside of the yurt. Cut the insulation diagonally to match the lines of the roof boards, and run it up and down the roof.)

G. Upper Roof

Use the 70-1/2" and 71" boards (cut as described in Section E) and follow the same instructions outlined for constructing the lower roof. (Exceptions: no props are needed; overhang should be 4" rather than 3-1/2"; no clinching is required; 8-penny nails should be used instead of "7's"; nail or screw the "peak end" of the roof boards securely to the top of the skylight rim.)

Next, rip the 1 X 8 boards as shown in Fig. G. Wedge one of the pieces into each of the spaces left in the upper roof's surface, and tap them all into place with a hammer. Now nail the boards securely to the roof, and saw off any excess that protrudes from the eaves.

H. Random Thoughts

Boards planed on one side only are 1/8" thicker than "finished" lumber, and—therefore—are both stronger and a good bit easier to nail into . . . particularly when you're putting on the inner roof and outer wall boards. Some folks use all rough, unplaned lumber, butbefore doing this—consider that the resulting interior wall will catch dust and be difficult to clean. A smooth interior is easier to care for . . . especially if floor wax is applied to it.

Open spaces occur where two layers of boards overlap at the top of the wall (Fig. H) and at the lower edge of the outer wall. To plug the gaps, choose wood scraps of sufficient thickness, taper the pieces to fit, and tap them into place. Some will stay put by them; selves, but others—particularly those at the top and bottom of the outside wall—should be fastened with nails.

I. Shingling

Shingling a round roof isn't easy—each shingle must be hand tapered on all sides to fit the conical shape—but the process is fun, and the beauty of the end product makes every bit of extra effort worthwhile. Buy the best cedar shakes you can afford (the roof is the worst place to skimp on costs!) and use a sharp, comfortable knife for the tapering. (if you've never shingled before, try to find an old-timer who can instruct you .. . spending a few hours as an apprentice is an exciting way to learn and a lot easier than patching leaks later on.)

Start shingling at the outer edge of the roof and work upward. Make the first row three shingles thick, and position the shingles so that they overlap the eaves by 3-1/2 inches (see cross-section sketch). Then draw a line 5" above the first row, start the next course (with the tops of the shingles even with the five-inch mark), and so on. As you near the top of the roof, measure 5" intervals down from the peak to even out any errors that may have crept in as you worked up.

J. Windows

This yurt's windows require only a minimum of construction skills and materials. One-quarter inch plate or crystal glass can be safely installed without frames, and is often available at low cost from junk dealers.

A door window is especially nice to have in a yurt, and is relatively easy to install. You can concoct your own design, or follow the traditional oval pattern shown in Fig. M. You can also make a simple wall window. Just remove an inner wall board and saw 15-5/8" off its top end (see Fig. J-1). Then cut a 3/8"-deep notch across the top of the outer face of the remaining section of the wall plank and nail a small strip of wood across the top of the wall opening (to serve as a support for a piece of glass). Lay the pane in place and fasten the notched piece of wood over the glass as shown in Fig. J-2. Add small turn buttons at the sides of the pane, cut a corresponding piece of outer wall board from the yurt to complete the opening, frame it in . . . and you have yourself a sturdy, removable window!

K. Skylight

The central window (or skylight) is the key to any yurt's natural lighting. See Fig. E-5 for construction details. (NOTE: A piece of 3/4" surgical tubing glued to the roof below the skylight makes a fine cushion and seal.)

Ventilation is controlled by opening and closing the skylight and door, Side windows can be screened—and/or a louver cut in the door—for additional airflow. If you live in a warm area where too much summer heat comes in through the skylight, anchor a few large bushy plants securely to the roof on the south side of the opening, for shade. And if further insulation is needed—in either summer or winter—you can make a circular curtain with elastic at the edge (a kind of giant-size shower cap) and hang the device upside down over hooks on the inside of the skylight.

(NOTE: If you use gas or kerosene lamps, be careful not to hang one under the skylight. The heat can crack the glass.)

L. Heating

Any small heater—or hanging fireplace—works well in this building. No matter what you use, however, be sure to leave a six-inch space around the stovepipe at the point where it goes through the wall. (In other words, cut an exit hole which has a diameter equal to that of the stovepipe's diameter . . . plus twelve inches.) Make a protective sheet metal or asbestos thimble to fill the extra space, and feed the pipe through it to the outside. Don't "skip over" this precaution . . . a hot stovepipe can quickly convert any wooden building to ashes.

M. Door

The doorway is made by cutting appropriate openings (see Fig. M for dimensions) in both the inner and outer walls. Make the cuts with a keyhole saw, after each wall's tension band has been secured. Reinforce the areas above the openings with two-inch-wide strips of wood nailed on the inside and out (see Fig. M-1), and fill the gaps between the inner and outer walls (at the sides of the doorway) with spacers cut to fit. Build the door (Fig. M) to overlap the inner wall cavity by 3/4" at all points, and use double-strap hinges to secure it in place (an inward-opening door is usually best, because of the yurt's outward sloping walls). The resulting small, low entryway accents the height and spaciousness of the interior, and minimizes heat loss.

N. Benches and Desk

Benches built around the wall of the yurt make exceptionally good use of available space, and—when equipped with hinged-top "lids" as shown in Fig. N-1—provide convenient storage space as well. Cushions and pillows, of course, add color and comfort.

A desk constructed to match the curve of the yurt's interior wall can be made from just one 4 X 8 sheet of plywood (Fig. N-2) and a few pieces of scrap lumber (for the legs).

O. The Little Yurt: Possible Uses

The Little Yurt serves especially well as a bathhouse/washroom/john combination (Fig. O) . . . in which case it's wise to use rot-resistant wood (such as cedar) for the floor and interior. Any kind of plumbing can be installed. (if you feel that you must use a flush toilet, buy the kind made for mobile homes . . . they waste less water. And remember that a shower isn't as costly as—and takes up less space than—a tub.)

The Little Yurt also works nicely as a study, office, or workroom (a desk built to encircle the interior wall can provide twenty feet of working space!), and makes a fine dining room capable of seating ten to twelve people. Add a thick rug and pad to the building's floor, and you have a guest room with an elegant round bed! Other uses are: children's room, sauna, garden house, field station, retreat . . . or any number of similar possibilities (let your imagination be your guide!).

Yurts can also be grouped together to form a cluster of separate units, or attached at the doorways to make a complete modular home or complex of rooms. If you're thinking of joining several such structures together, though, consider the extra fire hazard presented by wooden buildings located in close proximity to each other . . . and space the yurts accordingly.

The Yurt Foundation

The Yurt Foundation has been set up to provide the technical know-how needed by those who wish to explore lifestyles which are closer to nature and less costly in human, economic, and ecological terms. The Foundation gathers and records traditional knowledge from the world's many cultures and—when possible—blends that knowledge with the technology of modern science to design new solutions (to old problems) that will match man's needs more closely. The results are published in the hope of stimulating more people to expand their search for simpler ways of living.

This plan is not meant to serve as a complete set of instructions, but—rather—is intended as a guide to the most difficult steps involved in building a yurt. If you, perchance, get hung up somewhere along the way, have a swim and try again with a clearer head.

The purchaser of this magazine is entitled to build one Little Yurt for personal use, and may not manufacture or build for profit without permission.

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