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How to Build a Tipi With Multiple Levels

Learn how one family built their own tipi with three floors, including building costs and specifics of the tipi construction.

| May/June 1982

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    With three stories, the McCoys' tipi is far from ordinary.
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    The McCoys live comfortably in their three-story tipi.
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    Diagram of how the McCoys raised their tipi.

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We've come to call our dwelling Kon Tipi because — as was Thor Heyerdahl's famous raft Kon Tiki — it's been an adventure both to build and to live in. Furthermore, since our construction costs totaled less than $1,500 and freed us from the treadmills of rent and mortgage, the unusual home is sure to help us ride out the rough waters of current and future economic storms.

Michael and I are convinced that anyone with modest building skills could duplicate our tipi, too (Mike is pretty handy with tools, but he took care of the entire job — with some help from me and our wonderful neighbors  — in a scant two months). And a stubborn scrounger could certainly reduce the cost of constructing a similar house by employing used insulation and salvaged lumber.

Tipi Coverings

A traditional American Indian tipi, as most of you surely know, has both an outer cover and a liner. In such a dwelling the inner wall extends from ground level to about six feet high, and is secured to the inside of the poles creating an air space. We chose, however, to extend the liner all the way to the top, and to place both it and the cover outside the pole framework with insulation sandwiched between the two walls.

On the average, tipis run from 18 to 20 feet in diameter. Kon Tipi, on the other hand, is a full 30 feet across and rises 30 feet to the point where its poles meet. In order to cover the structure twice (once for the outer wall and once for the lining), we had to purchase some 300 yards of 54-inch-wide fabric. After considering the advantages of various types of material, we settled on nylon reinforced vinyl because it has an outdoor life of about 20 years, is waterproof, meets California's fire-resistance standards, won't rot or mildew and is less expensive than treated canvas. (Untreated canvas doesn't hold up well in moist climes and the treatment process is costly if you pay someone else to do it, yet involves caustic chemicals that would influence many do-it-yourselfers to shy away from tackling the job.)

We bought our fabric from the Duracote Corporation. At that time, our 200 yards of 10-ounce, white Dura-Tuff 4932 cost $2.65 per yard, while the 100 yards of a similar 6-ounce material (which, with the leftover heavier fabric, formed the liner) was priced at $2.07 per yard.

With the material purchased, we set to the task of assembling our tipi's skins. After cutting and numbering each length for the outer cover, we glued the longest (68-foot) strip over the second (66-foot) length, using Bostik 7130 adhesive. It's very important to shingle each consecutive upper (long) section of fabric over the lower (shorter) piece that follows it, so that water will run over, and not into, the seams.

5/3/2013 7:57:09 AM

The more I do research on tipi living, construction, and price, the more I want to do it. I would love more photos from this contrustion!

5/3/2013 7:56:53 AM

The more I do research on tipi living, construction, and price, the more I want to do it. I would love more photos from this contrustion!

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