How to Build a Tipi With Multiple Levels

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With three stories, the McCoys' tipi is far from ordinary.

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.

When it came to the actual gluing, we simply snapped a blue chalk line one inch from, and parallel to, one edge of each of the to-be-joined strips, then ran lines of glue along the chalked fabric. After brushing the adhesive out so that it covered the areas from the edges of the two sheets of material to the marked lines, we pressed the joints together, smoothed them with a roller, and wiped any excess glue away with clean rags. In all, it took us about 12 hours to assemble the outer wall.

Since we had quickly tired of the fumes produced by the glue (and because needle holes, which might have admitted moisture through the outer wall, weren’t a concern in the inner covering), we decided to sew the liner together. The task required another 12 hours of work, using a double needle that produced two parallel seams about 1/4 inch apart. The only real problem we encountered was the tendency of the fabric to pucker, which made it necessary to hold the material securely, both in front of and behind the needle, as we stitched.

Tipi Poles and Construction

After the vinyl was assembled, folded and stored, I pretty much turned Kon Tipi over to Michael. I also had to finish off two more months of city work before sailing into country life full time. Mike established a camp on our 20 rural acres and got right to the task of selecting and cutting poles. He chose, blessed, chopped, dragged, and peeled some 16 oaks, each about 35 feet in length and 4 to 6 inches at the base (after peeling). Once the poles were prepared, their lower ends were treated with wood preservative.

It was short work, then, to clear and level the 30-foot, circular homesite, after which Michael approached the intimidating task of actually raising the monstrous tripod that would form the core of the pole assembly. The job involved tying three trees together, at a point 30 feet from their bases, with one end of a strong 40-foot rope. Then he spread the butts of the poles apart, placing two together at one point on the perimeter of the prepared site, and the other (single) pole — also on the edge of the circle — roughly 25 feet away.

With that done, Michael braced the bases of the logs in place with stakes temporarily propped up the joint (where the three poles met) with a 10-foot length of 2-by-4, tied the free end of the rope to our truck and pulled the framework high enough to allow him to grasp the base of one of the paired poles and swing it around the perimeter until the tripod stood on its own. He went on to place each log butt in its final spot by dropping a plumb line from the point at which they crossed to mark dead center of the 30-foot circle, and positioning each post exactly 15 feet from the center and equidistant from the two others. It was then a relatively simple matter to add the rest of the uprights and — climbing a ladder to do so — tie their tips to the tripod’s joint. 

A Multilevel Tipi

In order to make the best use of the space that would be enclosed by Kon Tipi’s fabric walls, we decided to make it a three-story home. Michael began the second floor by choosing two sturdy poles that were directly opposite (that is, 30 feet from) each other at their bases. He then measured the distance between the uprights at a height of 6 feet 8 inch (it came to 22 feet), located a pair of 2-by-10’s of that dimension, and nailed one of the planks to each side of the pair of poles. Parallel beams, getting progressively shorter as they approached the edges of the tipi, were added next. (These boards were used singly . . . only the initial span was doubled.)

Mike completed the framework by fastening 2-by-8 crossmembers to the joists at approximately 3-foot intervals. (Because of the shape of the tipi, these measurements had to be varied somewhat from one position to another.) He planked the floor with rough-cut 1-by-8-inch oak boards . . . leaving one quarter-section without flooring or crossbeams, to enhance ventilation, increase the dwelling’s feeling of openness, and provide access for the stovepipe and stairway.

The third floor is simply a smaller version of the second and our roof — which is positioned about 18 inches below the point where the posts cross — consists of 2-by-4 rafters and plywood cut to fit snugly around the poles. Now you might be wondering how we incorporated upright supports beneath our second and third floors and the roof, and you could well be surprised to learn that there are none! In fact, the only vertical walls in our dwelling are the ones that enclose the 5-by-8-foot bathroom (two bulkheads handle that job . . . both of which were framed with 2-by-4 studs and sheathed with oak boards).

The first floor is composed of sand, covered — in sequence — with heavy black plastic and loose oak planks. We left a 5-by-5 foot area bare, except for the sand and some large flat rocks, to provide a safe location for our woodstove. Of course, the ground floor could have been raised up on joists and even insulated, but we were pressed for both time and money. We can always go on to do a fancier job as our circumstances permit. 

Putting the Covering on a Tipi

While hanging the cover and liner on Kon Tipi, it was difficult not to imagine that we were unfurling the canvas on some ancient seagoing vessel. The huge expanse of fabric was really a sight to behold (and a real handful when the wind caught it). We began the job by tying a strong rope to the center of the liner’s straight edge and then raised the fabric, by means of a pulley attached to one of the poles. By standing on the roof, Michael was able to tack the liner to the framework at his feet, using lathe and roofing nails.

After smoothing the inner wall evenly around the tipi, we stapled rows of fiberglass insulation — through the liner — to the poles, starting from the bottom. Mike spent a full day getting that job done and hauling up the outside wall, but he had to work fast because an unexpected downpour would have done real damage had it hit before the waterproof outer wrap was in place. (To handle the run-off from future rains, we dug a drainage trench on the high side of the tipi and used the dirt removed while doing so to bury the bottom edges of the vinyl.)

Creating Ports and Portals in the Tipi

Most folks don’t think of windows and doors when imagining tipi life, but we’d been able to salvage a number of panes and screens at no cost and were willing to experiment. As it turned out, cutting the openings for our ports and entryway involved more by-guess-and-by-gosh figuring than did any other task we encountered.

To build the front door/window combination, for example, Michael first selected three poles on the east side of the tipi. He then cut through the vinyl and insulation, along the line of the middle pole, starting at a point 7 feet up and moving down to the ground. With that done, Mike sliced a horizontal gash, at the 7-foot mark, running from the first pole to the third. This “T” cut allowed him to fold back the vinyl and insulation.

Next, the entryway was framed in with 2-by-4s: First, 7-foot uprights were fastened to the bases of the three poles, followed by horizontal — or roof-line — planks, which were secured to the tipi poles at points 7 feet from the ground. Michael claimed that the job was sort of like constructing a dormer on a simple slanted roof, except for the fact that the tipi’s curve made it a little more “interesting.”

With the frames in place, Mike hinged the window to its upper border so that it could be pulled in and hooked to the entry ceiling on warm days. The door was set to open inward, the spaces below and beside the window were filled in with planks and insulation, the entry’s 1/2-inch plywood roof was topped off with roofing paper, white roll roofing, and tar and the vinyl flaps were stapled to the frame. The whole job turned out to be easy enough to inspire Michael to go on and build dormer windows on each floor plus a 5-by-10-foot greenhouse (which provides us with additional light, solar heat, and — of course — a way to assure ourselves a continual harvest of vegetables).

The Satisfaction of Building a Home

As you’d imagine, part of the satisfaction of building Kon Tipi came from knowing that our entire home was constructed for less money than most homebuilders would have to fork over while just putting in a foundation! Here’s the final breakdown of our actual expenses:  

Vinyl cover and lining: $737

Freight charges: $43

Glue and solvent: $15

Lumber for floors, joists and frames: $371

Fiberglass insulation, 1,400 sq. ft.: $190

Roofing: $37

4-mil black plastic: $10

Greenhouse glass: $24

Oak poles: Free

Screens, windows and doors: Free

Sand and rocks: Free

Total: $1,421

We’ve been more comfortable in our “home in the round” than either Michael or I ever thought possible, too. And it’s wonderful to know that, whatever future we may dream of and set sail toward in the years to come, Kon Tipi will help make “getting there” an adventure!