Building a Modern Yurt

Learn about building a modern yurt using this helpful design guide, includes simplifying the yurt design, yurt interiors and the significance of the yurt structure.


| March/April 1971



Building a modern yurt: A cluster of modern yurts provide the perfect environmentaly friendly shelter for community businesses.

Building a modern yurt: A cluster of modern yurts provide the perfect environmentaly friendly shelter for community businesses.


Photo by Fotolia/Oksana Perkins

Learn how Bill Coperthwaite developed the plans for building a modern yurt.

A modern version of the age-old yurt is popping up all over the country like some friendly toadstool these days and a fellow named Bill Coperthwaite in Bucks Harbor, Maine is responsible. The following article, by Bill himself, tells how — somewhere between California and Sweden — his contemporary design came about.

The yurt has its origins in the folk wisdom of the ancient nomads of inner Asia. There, the prototype has withstood the fierce cold, the violent winds and the intense heat of the steppes for thousands of years. The traditional yurt, made of light poles and covered with thick felt, was a portable structure which the nomads carried with them in their search for suitable grazing for their herds. It is out of a profound respect for the technical genius of these people that the name yurt was chosen for our contemporary structure.

The nomadic yurt builders appear to be the first people to have used the principle of the tension-band in the support of a dwelling. This advance allowed the roof, or roof-wall, of a structure to be raised above the ground without the use of internal posts or trusswork. This solved a basic architectural problem of eliminating the negative space, space formed by the walls of most tent structures as they meet the ground. The challenge was to have neither negative space, posts nor trusswork blocking the interior of the dwelling. These ancient peoples made an ingenious discovery that, at once, gave to their tent a positive wall angle, a clear inner space, a circular structure to fend off strong winds while permitting less heat loss per unit of volume than other shapes . . . and, still allowed the dwelling to remain portable. The invention was a simple band-made of the hair of yak, camel or goat or wool of the sheep-in the form of several ropes sewn side by side, used to encircle the building at the eaves and take the outward thrust of the roof.

The world has used the tension-band principle for many purposes, chiefly in the construction of lightweight containers (buckets, boxes, barrels and baskets), tubs tankards and silos and — at times — for large masonry domes as in the Levant and ancient Rome. However, only the Central Asian nomad appears to have applied the principle to domestic structures.

Building a Modern Yurt

My experiments with circular structures stem from an early fascination with the economy of surface-to-area ratio that they offer. This interest served no consciously practical purpose until 1962 when I was teaching at the Meeting School in Rindge, New Hampshire. There, a group of four students were excited about math but had taken all of the courses offered so we agreed to work together exploring the geometry of roof structures. During this time I saw an article in the National Geographic Magazine with pictures of Mongolian yurts. Our immediate response, upon seeing the skeletons of the structures, was that the roof could be changed in a significant way to make a new — and for some purposes, improved — roof. We cut poles in the woods and erected the new roof.





Crowd at Seven Springs MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Sept. 15-17, 2017
Seven Springs, PA.

With more than 150 workshops, there is no shortage of informative demonstrations and lectures to educate and entertain you over the weekend.

LEARN MORE