Yurt Living on the Rio Grande

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Piers, posts and floor joists make up the platform for the yurt.
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The construction crew had to get rid of an early snow as they worked on the yurt platform.
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This open landscape, once empty, became home to a unique yurt buit from the ground up by the author.
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The yurt is basically a reinforced tent with a lattice wall and central post.
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The roof of the yurt is a high-tech poly-vinyl laminate that is fire retardent and has a 15-year warranty.
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The center support of a yurt makes it possible to build as many windows as you like—which is great for Lisa, because she loves the view!
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After roof lining and insulation is in place, the roof cover goes on.
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Among the treasures inside of this yurt is an old-fashioned Maytag Wringer Washer.
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Here are more specifics on the construction and layout of this yurt.
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A rough layout of the property site where Lisa built her yurt and other structures.

My half acre is on a high desert mesa in northern New Mexico, 21 miles from the nearest “real” town. It sits above a shallow arroyo on the east side of a soft slope, where sparse sagebrush, thin native grass, black pockmarked volcanic rock and minuscule wildflowers dot the landscape. From my yurt, I have a breathtaking view of a 100-mile stretch of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just below the Colorado border. The Rio Grande Gorge snakes between my mesa and the peaks. The earth under my feet is a powdery mix of adobe and sand; I am told I can seed it into a rough pasture by using a variety of tough drought-resistant native grasses and getting rid of the sagebrush.

Every morning I watch the sun creep slowly over the peaks, burning off the chill of night. At sunset, a golden fight etches the sagebrush in high relief, as lengthening shadows envelop the mountains in pinks and then purples, earning them the name “The Blood of Christ Mountains.” When night falls, there are no artificial lights to dim the millions of stars; Orion is right overhead. I understand now why the Native Americans thought the night sky to be a giant bowl. Sometimes as I bump home on my dirt road during the full moon, I turn off my headlights and ghost across the mesa, scaring up jackrabbits along the way.

Why I Chose Yurt Living

I remember how much time I spent racking my brain about how I could get onto this land once I owned it. I looked at every imaginable kind of housing option–from straw-bale to earthship to conventional stick-frame–but I would not have gotten so much as a roof on one of these structures with the money I had. I imagine I could have built something over a period of 10 years, but I did not want a mortgage and I wanted to move in within a year. Considering my circumstances, a yurt seemed the only choice.

One of the most inexpensive, quick to-build, modest and sturdy structures a body can use for shelter, a yurt is the most comfortable way that you can be close to nature and at the same time build a meaningful relationship with your land. Inside my yurt, I can be warm and cozy and protected from the elements while I listen to the beating wings of migrating sandhill cranes passing overhead.

Acquiring and Improving the Land

I found my half acre of paradise through an ad in the classified section of my local paper. It said: “Quarter acres of land for sale: $250.” I couldn’t believe land could be so inexpensive, so I called. The woman who answered gave me the description of the land for sale and told me she had bought it at the last tax auction in order to sell it for profit. I checked the deeds in the county court house and learned she was indeed the only owner on record. I had no idea what a “unit,” “block” or “lot number” was, but I was determined to find out. I went to the county planning department, where for under $10 I purchased a topographic map of the 100-square-mile area and a Xerox of the actual subdivision survey map. I also purchased a USGS topographic map of the same area for around $15.

As it turned out, my property was a minuscule 60′ x 180′ spec on the lower left quadrant. There’s an awful lot of desert out there, but by identifying hills, dirt roads and old highway signs, I got an idea of where it was. I spent day after day inching my way down two-lane ruts and up flood-scoured arroyos with whatever unlucky friend I could snag, looking for invisible 34-year-old wooden surveyor’s stakes. Unsuccessful, I bought the land anyway because I liked the view. it took three and a half years before I actually stood on what I carefully measured and determined was my little strip of mesa.

I was lucky. My property was not at the bottom of an arroyo or in the middle of a flash flood water course or, worse yet, next to anybody who had already built. If I had used any sense, I would have pinpointed my lot before the purchase, but I was green, eager and ignorant.

My land was part of a land scam perpetrated by a corporation that “gave” away building lots as door prizes at the Seattle World’s Fair–you know, the one featured in that old Elvis Presley movie. The developers were later brought up on charges of fraud, but the state never really pursued the matter. Meanwhile, thousands of people now owned a piece of New Mexico that they’d never seen, and many of them let the taxes lapse after 20 or so years. In turn, the state auctioned off these pieces to the highest cash bidder, who, as the purchaser, owned the land if no one showed up to reclaim it and pay the back taxes within 90 days of the sale. My land is not title insurable because of this scandal, but with the state as the original seller I feel secure in my ownership. I can’t take out a mortgage with a bank, which is fine with me since I plan to stay. Oddly enough, my home is insurable.

From the tax rolls, I acquired the names of the people who owned land next to mine, and I wrote to each of them with a purchase offer. Luckily, I was able to buy the next quarter acre on my long southern border for the not so exorbitant price of $500. Little by little I am adding on.

I have a rough (and I mean three-mile-per-hour-in-4-wheel-drive-low-gear-and don’t-stop-for-anything-in-the-wet-season rough) dirt track to my house. It makes every day an adventure and keeps out the joyriders. I own two trucks just in case one doesn’t start, since I have to get to work five days a week just like everyone else (I manage an old-fashioned mercantile). I was forced to buy the right-of-way to the first half mile of road running from the highway to my property, as it lies on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Out here you either pay your mechanic for the parts that rattle loose or you pay to improve the road. The BLM right-of-way application fee is stiff: I paid $375. This money goes to pay a team of biologists and archaeologists to determine whether there are any endangered species along, or ancient ruins under, the roadway. If you pass these inspections, you sign an agreement detailing the criteria for building and maintaining the road and the time in which you have to do it. You must then pay, in advance, a five-year easement fee of $186 in order to use the road you are paying to build. Remember, this is the federal government, with its convoluted regulations. All told, my half mile of road will cost an estimated $15,000 to $17,000 and will take up to (but no more than) 10 years to finish.

This is neither a pleasant nor inexpensive undertaking, but the right-of-way does attach to my deed for 30 years, at which time it will be reviewed and, I hope, renewed, making my land much more valuable. If your dreams take you toward a similar situation, I suggest you try to avoid this expense any way you can. it can be an exercise in frustration explaining to any neighbor why you did this and why you would like them to pony up cash every year for the road you built and they use.

I sold everything I had of any value to finance my home. I indentured myself to a private school for two years with a prepaid contract. I also lived for three years in the storeroom of my business, without running water, a kitchen or bathroom. I even gave up on television, movies and shopping. This was in my friends’ and family’s eyes pretty extreme, but I learned to read again, bathe in a basin and mend clothes. I still haven’t caught up on movies or trends, but I did learn about photo-voltaics, gray water systems, DC pumps, outhouses, construction and chickens. Most of all, I learned how excessive my previous lifestyle had been and how much money and time I had wasted. I was also lucky enough to have friends who in the eleventh hour loaned me small amounts of money to help me finish when I had underestimated the cost of construction.

Building the Yurt

I drew my own set of plans with the help of a county planner, then successfully obtained a residential building permit. I hired a backhoe to scrape in an 800-foot driveway, clear the site, dig the hole for the cistern, build an 80-foot rock retaining wall using the rocks on site, dig the outhouse, and dump 150 tons of pit run (a rock and earth mixture) in preparation for construction. Total cost: $1,550.

The first building we erected was the outhouse, so there was privacy for myself and the crew as well as sanitation. The outhouse was as expensive as a compost toilet, but it has a 20-year life expectancy and did not take up valuable room in my 450-square-foot yurt. The design is very upscale, with inflow and outflow vents to the vault that help to eliminate odor. I insulated the interior with used plastic bags and paneled it with incense cedar. It has hand-forged wrought iron fixtures and a picture window for my viewing pleasure.

The Yurt Platform

Though some people view yurts as a temporary abode, I want mine to be my permanent home. In 15 or 20 years I will have to replace my yurt’s skin, but I outfitted the platform area to be permanent. I also customized my yurt, which I ordered from Advance Canvas, to incorporate a few special options that will help to stabilize it over the long haul.

It took one to two men, working three to four days per week, two and a half months to complete the yurt’s platform. My 24-foot-diameter yurt sits on 12″ sonotubes–columnar cardboard forms filled with 3,000 psi cement–set two feet below grade with rebar grids. Pressure treated 4″ x 4″s sit in post cups and support level 4″ x 8″ beams. The 2″ x 6″ joists are set 16″ on center, except under the kitchen and bathroom where they are 8″ on center.

R19 fiberglass batt is covered by #15 felt under the 3/4″ tongue-and-groove CDX plywood floor. We presanded the plywood and applied a coat of Varathane before installation. After two additional coats of Varathane, we sanded the floor once more, then brushed on a final coat. The whole platform was banded around the perimeter with 3/8″ exterior plywood extending 3″ above the floor and down to the bottom of the joists. Underneath we blocked in the entire edge with sections of 2″ x 6″s.

We gave the band board two coats of exterior latex paint. I needed an air lock insulation underneath, so I placed a ring of straw bales just inside the edge of the platform. Then we stapled heavy black construction-grade plastic to the band board and buried it in an 8″-deep trench using crusher fines. We cut bark-covered slab wood and screwed it to the band board on top of the plastic and buried its bottom in another 8″ of crusher fines. Before applying the slabs, we dipped the lower ends in roofing asphalt to prevent rot. The upper ends were treated with two coats of boiled linseed oil and turpentine and a final coat of Varathane. We’ll see how this weathers. I have a feeling I will need to reapply the linseed oil mixture about every other year or so.

Finally, we grouted a pad of Saltillo tile in place on the floor where the woodstove sits, and on the front of the platform we put in a sturdy set of steps and a small landing. The steps also received two liberal coats of boiled linseed oil on top and underneath. We finished one day before the yurt arrived.

Two men, plus the rafters installed evenly around the hub, held the five-foot-diameter, 12-sided polygon “ring” at the top of the yurt. From the ring’s center opening–or “eye of heaven”–we rolled out the roof lining, the insulation, and finally the roof cover. We installed the wall lining and premade panels of insulation, tying them to the top cable, then rolled the outer skin around. The crew emphasized that we needed to take great care to make sure all the window openings matched up. We tucked in the windows of the outer wall and excess insulation/lining on either side of the door and clamped them tight. The upper wall was crocheted to the roof using preinstalled nylon loops hidden under the darker roof valence. Then each rafter was fixed in place by a 2 x 4 stud, which bolted to the floor and to special T-braces on the rafters. These extra supports gave my roof a 40-pounds-per-square-foot snow-load capacity and enabled it to withstand gusts of wind up to 80 mph. Finally, we placed the Plexiglas dome over the center opening of the roof. The crew disassembled the scaffolding and took it out through the front door. My dome can be lifted six inches to allow warm air to circulate in and out.

Since I have only 450 square feet, I chose to leave the interior space as open as possible. I built one frame wall perpendicular to the front door to center axis, in front of which is mounted the kitchen sink and counters. The small wedge-shaped space behind forms the utility closet and shower/dressing room.

Outfitting the Yurt

I chose the systems and appliances for my house not by what was the latest in technology, but by what worked and could possibly do double duty.

My stove is a 1927 Home Comfort wood-fired unit. I chose to use a renewable resource appliance not only to provide heat and cook food but also to someday provide extra hot water. This stove turned out to be a tricky choice, as the chimney must pass through the canvas roof. We had to put special braces in between two rafters spaced four feet apart, instead of 18 inches apart like the rest. This seriously compromised the integrity of my roof. To compensate, we inserted a false, slightly raised rafter to return the roof’s full function and create a snow wedge to help eliminate buildup at the chimney. To separate the stove from the heat sensitive Pro-Tec wall, I had installed a large, heavy three-layer pad constructed of tile, durorock (cement board) and plywood. It took five men to lift it and set it in place. The chimney was outrageously expensive–$900 for the stainless-steel triple wall, roof box, flashing, cap, bracing and slip collar chimney. The outer chimney was braced against the wind to two 16′ pressure treated 4″x4″s set in cement. With each section screwed together and well braced, the chimney is strong and flexible and able to withstand high winds. The roof of the yurt is a high-tech poly-vinyl laminate that is fire retardant and has a 15-year warranty.

I have a 1949 Servel propane refrigerator ($450). Your gas company does not like these older models as they produce carbon monoxide (they’re actually outlawed). Even so, I find a CO detector and an 8″ vent in the wall behind the flame alleviates any problems. If you’re lucky enough to find an old Servel, guard it with your life, but don’t brag about it to your local gas man.

Since I have a large 250-gallon propane tank ($227 installed and filled–yes, a concession to OPEC), I chose to use a conventional LPG 40-gallon water heater. The new on-demand type are great, but the venting for a yurt is an expensive pain and I find the heat generated by my traditional unit keeps the pressure tank, pipes and pump from freezing. Plus, the $200 price tag soothed my technological conscience.

My water is stored in a 2,500-gallon, above-ground plastic cistern ($1,600) and is fed to the yurt through an in-line particle filter by a 12-volt Shurflo DC pump ($200). The pump is noisy even though it is mounted on a rubber “tire” pad, but as it only goes on when the water is running, I forgive the racket. A Sears 36-gallon captive air tank ($169) pressurizes the system to 40 psi and my pump runs directly off four, six-volt golf cart batteries ($200). In the future the batteries will be charged by four 40-watt morphous crystal solar panels, as soon as I get $1,000 together to pay for their purchase and installation. For now, they’re charged by the 3,500-watt gasoline powered generator ($729) that provided the power to build the platform, along with a deep-cycle battery charger ($150). I keep track of the charge inside the house using a $29 volt meter.

I am currently working on a water catchment system for the roof of the yurt. Meanwhile, every building has a barrel. Three thousand gallons lasts three to four months and costs $175 to have delivered. I am purchasing an in-line Katadyn water filter ($275) from Lehman’s, so that, no matter what, every gallon is potable.

I was creative with my sink and shower. The kitchen sink is a big, cast-iron, enameled 1930s double drain board wonder (is it possible to love a sink?) that I got for $90 with new faucets. The shower is made out of a 3-foot galvanized stock watering tank, with a drain punched in the bottom and a canvas curtain held up around it by a cage of plumbing pipe–a bargain at $80, compared to $300 for a conventional cheapo fiberglass stall. A rubber bath mat helps lessen the tub’s chill on my feet.

My pride and joy is my 1949 Maytag Wringer Washer. This $75 electric beauty uses only 35 gallons for five sparkling clean loads and doesn’t wear out my duds as fast as a conventional washer. The sun dries and bleaches my wash and imparts a fragrance no dryer sheet can match.

I have a 3″-above-the-ground drain from both sink and shower. It is encased in a box of 1″ x 12″ lumber stuffed with R19 insulation and running at a steep angle. It exits under the house on the upper south side. The pipe is exposed outside and is painted black. It never clogs, even at 3 degrees F. This summer I will plant herbs in the 20’x 20′ section of ground below the outlet to soak up all that free water. I’ve heard about an easily constructed five-gallon bucket filter that goes beneath the kitchen sink. It is supposed to filter out particles, fats and gunk before the water goes to the garden. I’ll be curious to see how it works and what its flow rate is.

I currently light the house with a $127 kerosene Aladdin table lamp, which has a flame burning brighter than two $18.95, 60-watt Dietz Blizzard lamps, and a cheapo $5 kerosene lamp. I’d like another couple of Aladdins, but that’s down the line.

Everything functions pretty well. I am installing a small, 15,000 BTU vented propane heater with a mechanical thermostat that I’ll set at 45 to 50 degrees before winter sets in. Frozen pipes and stoking the stove every two or three hours all night long are a drag and hard on the budget.

Summer cooking is outdoors or on a two-burner propane unit.

Luxury of luxuries, I do have a woodfired hot tub made out of a “Scuba” stove ($539) and a 6′ stock watering tank ($180). It is at once primitive and civilized.

I have a three-watt cell phone for emergencies and a battery-operated CD player/radio to keep up on the latest weather news.

I have a cat and two dogs, and although they’re not appliances, they do perform services. The cat is for mice and snakes, the Great Dane for an in-house alarm, and the new Great Pyrenees to guard the property and future stock. Plus, you cannot beat their loyalty, love and companionship.

This spring, there’ll be 36 chickens for eggs, meat and barter (the most valuable currency in rural areas). I plan to build a cinder block building around the water tank, inside its hole. It will serve as cold storage and water catchment as soon as an insulated roof is added. The large volume of water will keep everything at a constant temperature through summer and winter.

Altogether I spent $33,000–about an average down payment these days–and I was in my home in four months. As you can see, I have many projects planned, which will take time and money, but at least I don’t pay rent and my utilities and insurance run less than $2,000 a year. I’ve never been more challenged on a daily basis, nor have I learned more. This is heaven, or at least my little piece of it.

Yurt History: The Home That Built an Empire

Yurts have been in continuous use by the Mongolian people and their ancestors for 2,500 years. Genghis Khan took advantage of the rapid assembly and break-down properties of the yurt to keep his army of 200,000 horsemen on the move in the early years of the 13th century. In 20 years, the Khan spread his dominion from the Sea of Japan to the Dnieper River above the Black Sea–the most extensive land empire in history. 

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