Thursday, June 27, 2013

Our transition to yurt living: Recession proof housing for the 21st century

A slightly different version of this article by Alice Eckles has been published in the most recent issue of Back Home Magazine

Our transition to yurt living: Recession proof housing for the 21st century

A yurt is basically a glorified tent. Why move into a yurt with no running water, except water you have to run and go get, and no electricity to boot? Is it even possible to live year round in a yurt in a state like Vermont without freezing? Yes it is possible! We have been living in our twenty foot round yurt for two years, and though we were a little worried about making the leap from our in town apartment we have found that permanent “camping” is rewarding and not as difficult as we had imagined.

We purchased land where we plan to build our house and we wanted to stop paying rent right away. We also didn’t want to have to drive out to the house site to work on the land. Another big reason to move out onto the land and into a yurt right away: The B.P. oil spill had just happened and we, my life’s companion and I, wanted to radically change our lifestyle so that we personally would contribute much less to the environmental degradation of the planet, by not heating with fossil fuels, downsizing to one vehicle, not using a refrigerator, having a composting toilet and generally reducing our expenses as much as possible.

We bought a yurt kit from Pacific Yurts, constructed a platform for it, and managed to get it set up, and install the woodstove just as the first snowflakes were beginning to fall – with a little help from our friends. It’s a good idea to keep a list of people you can call on at key points, such as unloading the large and heavy crates from the truck when your yurt is delivered, putting on the roof, and installing the wood stove. Our woodstove is a medium sized hearthstone, with a window so we have firelight at night. A yurt is not hard to heat in the winter, with Pacific Yurt’s custom features for cold and windy locations including insulation liners ( a reflective bubble wrap type of insulation developed by NASA) and a snow and wind kit (for added structural strength). We use about three cords of wood per winter. To keep the mice from sharing our nice warm yurt, we tucked raw wool in around the edges of the platform. This serves as extra insulation and the mice just don’t like wool and seem repelled by it. I learned about this when I was learning about felting, the process of making cloth from wool.

The people at Pacific Yurts are very nice and helpful! We were not able to set up our yurt as soon as we would have liked after it was delivered to our land, and in the meantime a chipmunk got in there and ate a hole in our roof. Imagine our horror when we discovered the hole as we tried to finish setting up the yurt in November with no other shelter in the works. We called up Pacific Yurts and they were able to help us quickly to resolve the problem by using some extra roofing material included in the kit to make a patch and telling us what kind of glue to use to make it stick permanently. We haven't had any problems with this fix or with the yurt generally in these past two years.

Another critical item to set up before moving in was our composting toilet. We had been reading the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins and built a three-bin system for composting outside. Inside the yurt we made a bathroom using louvered doors and a bookshelf for walls and a curtain for the door. The actual “toilet” we found at an auction. It is a wooden armchair with a lidded hole in the seat. We installed a bucket under the hole for our bucket-system-composting-throne. Covering deposits with a scoopful of sawdust (our biofilter of choice) keeps the yurt smelling nice and our deposits composting into nutrient rich soil.

Making a yurt into a home takes some serious consideration. There is only so much stuff you can fit into a yurt. We have learned from this process what we truly need in a home. We have a storage container on the land for everything that we don’t use everyday. Before moving to the land we began shedding cumbersome possessions. Everything that had an electric plug at the end of it was now useless to us and so we sold such things at a tag sale. The storage container is like our “store”. Instead of living with our supplies, and providing a temperature-controlled environment for our extra stuff we go to our “store” when we need something. In this way we are able to live with less living space, use less firewood, and enjoy uncluttered simplicity at home. Our yurt has facilities for sleeping, cooking, eating, bathroom, getting dressed and reading. That is the sum of our circle, our living in a nutshell. Few items unrelated to those six activities reside in the yurt. We do have houseplants; we cut down on the number but were not able to part with them all. It is so nice to have these air-freshening green companions cheering the yurt, but it does require that we get a yurt-sitter to keep the plants from freezing if we decide go away for a spell in the winter.

We found many old fashioned furnishings to suit our scaled down life at auctions, in hardware stores, on or on the curbside: a baker’s cabinet, a commode, wash basin and pitcher, dishwashing basins, a wash basin for bathing, and some apple crates. We built a loft for our bed (using part of the shipping crate the yurt came on) and we use the space underneath for storage. This area of the yurt under the loft is more isolated from the woodstove, and we take advantage of the coolness by using it as our “cellar”.

We have a drilled well with a hand pump and everyday we go up the hill and pump a couple of five gallon buckets of water to use for washing, drinking, and cooking. We cook on the woodstove during winter and heat water for washing on it as well. Since everything is manual rather than automatic, cooking and heating water take time and we could not keep regular jobs with this and everything else we have to do from snow shoveling paths to bringing in wood, carrying in water, and maintaining our humanure system. To live this slow lifestyle without the convenience of running water, electricity and the gadgets that come with it you need to be self-employed, under employed, and able to live simply: it takes creative problem solving, time, and work.

We live a bike ride from town (six miles) which is good because our garden is not extensive yet and we are able to go to town often for food, to do laundry, use the computers at the library, and run other errands without driving too much. Of course our way of doing things shifts with the season. Instead of a refrigerator we have a cooler, the kind people use when going to the beach. In the winter at night we keep the cooler inside, and move it outside during the day to keep it cold but not freezing. In the summer we use a neighbor’s refrigerator for recharging a freezer pack daily. In the spring we have to adjust to the new realities of summer and in the fall we have to adjust to the new realities of winter. We live close to nature. The yurt is acoustically transparent. We hear the owls, coyotes, rain and stormy winds at night. We go to bed when it gets dark and wake up when the birds start singing and the sun rises.

What seemed daunting and impossible at fist is now our new normal, our comfortable slow and happy life. Sometimes the work is still daunting but the deep satisfaction that comes with living in a way that more closely reflects our values is worth the effort. Joy within difficulty is a simple truth of our life now. We are not eager to move out of the yurt, but it would be nice to have a house for guests. After we build our cordwood home the yurt will make a nice guesthouse. Living in a yurt as primitively as we do makes us realize how much we need each other to live the simple life. It would be too much work alone, and some joys must be shared.


  1. What a terrific account of an unusual, challenging, and powerful experience.
    How's the cordwood one doing?

    1. We have started building our honey house (for processing honey and storing beekeeping equipment, etc.) and will begin work on the cordwood house next summer if all goes as planned...

  2. I know this is an oldy, but as someone planning to leave the big city and head to our family land with a yurt this is truly inspiring.

    Thank you :)

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