Life in the Round: Building a Yurt in Montana

After three months of relatively constant travel, life has finally slowed down enough for Sean and I to breathe, ski our local mountain, walk our property with Daisy in tow, and reflect on the next journey we’re about to take. So it’s with great pride that we announce our next adventure: We’re building a yurt!

I’m willing to bet you have some questions. Like, what the heck is a yurt and how did you decide to build one? Well. The answer is two-fold. This story starts at the end of 2012. Sean and I had just begun our journey as Greasecar owners with our 1977 Dodge Travel Queen motorhome that we purchased from our co-owners, Russ and Brittany. We’d gotten a taste of living simply on our drive to Alaska and back. Not only did we utilize a waste product (waste veggie oil) for our motorhome’s fuel and a natural product (Goal Zero solar power) for our electricity, but I think we learned a lot about using less in general. Living in small places, making do with what you have, and using the earth in ways it was intended to be used. (Editor’s Note: I wouldn’t recommend driving to Alaska with 4 people and a dog to figure these things out.)

The second phase of our yurt journey was a trip to Central Asia in December of that year. We visited a small, mountainous country called Kyrgyzstan near the birthplace of yurts (Mongolia) where being a yurt-craftsman is a highly respected, lucrative trade. Families depend on the sale of these structures to support themselves. A yurt — simply defined — is a round structure traditionally used by nomadic tribes in Central Asia. ShelterDesigns.net defines it a bit further: “A yurt consists of a round wall and a roof system that is free standing using a tension ring at the wall and a compression ring where the roof rafters tie together.” Some would call it a glorified tent:

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While in Kyrgyzstan, Sean and I fell in love with the symmetry and balance we found in traditional yurts. As opposed to the jagged, 90-degree angles of a traditional house, we felt more at ease in these structures where energy can travel with easy throughout the space. Keep in mind, these photos are of very traditional yurts — not quite the same structure we’re putting on our land (we’ll get to that in a minute). For now, I love this photo of Sean — it captures true happiness:

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If this family could sell three yurts a year (which they do — sometimes more), they will have enough income to not only survive, but fare extremely well in comparison to families of other trades in the village.

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In a yurt-focused family, everyone gets involved in the construction in various ways. The man of the house likely had the craft passed down to him through generations, and thus he takes on the construction of the exterior parts.

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Here he is coaxing the beams to bend ever-so-slightly to support the curved shape of the dome.

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Our friend, Azamat, is shown here translating with Sean about the whole process.

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The women are involved with creating the critical components of the exterior weather shield and the interior carpets and wall panels.

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These tassels (or “earrings” as they called them) hang in the yurt as a symbol of protection, when coming from one world (outside) to another (inside).

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This woman was showing us the woven mats that she and the other women in the family handmade:

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Here’s a close up of the woven pieces of the mat — can you imagine the depth of precision that goes into pattern-making?

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Outside, I found the device they use to weave the mats:

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So as you can imagine, we first strategized how we were going to get a yurt shipped from Kyrgyzstan so we could help support this family… until we discovered that shipping (and the energy output that goes with making that happen) was an absurd use of energy — just to get a yurt from A to B. So, we started squirreling away money wherever we could to buy a yurt in the states — waiting until the time was right. Once we had our land in Whitefish, we knew the time was coming. Plus, we knew that by investing our savings in a yurt and simplifying our lives, we will be able to rent out our current home to Whitefish visitors — creating additional income for our family. Win-win.

Then a few weeks ago — the time arrived. Sean had gone back and forth, up and down and in-between to determine what sort of “tiny structure” we were going to build on our land — tiny house, yurts, fire towers, tee-pees, etc. After months of research, hemming and hawing, he made it a full 360 degrees and landed back on a yurt… officially. As if the universe had been waiting for us to decide, Sean came across a pre-assembled yurt for sale on YurtForum.com 20 minutes from our home manufactured by Montana’s Shelter Designs. A Montana-made yurt available LOCALLY… and technically, we would be buying second-hand. It was perfect.

Then we met Beth (you can read the Daily Interlake story about HER yurt journey here). Oddly enough, Beth downsized that same year (2012) from her 3800-square foot home in Massachusetts for a 30-foot yurt that she built with the help of friends on property in Kalispell. Beth’s background is in sustainable design and she’s extremely passionate about this 2-year old structure — she is organized, smart and she built the yurt with all the “bells and whistles” that we would have wanted to use ourselves to assure it would be livable through Northwest Montana’s harsh winter months. A few life changes meant she needed to sell the yurt, and we couldn’t imagine a better match for us.

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We’ll show photos of the yurt interior in the coming months, but for now we can tell you some hard facts. The yurt is roughly 700 square feet of living space, plus a loft (300 additional square feet). It’s 1 bedroom (plus sleeping space in the loft) and 1 bathroom, fully wired and plumbed, although we’ll be looking into alternative methods such as solar power, a composting toilet, and rainwater collection. Here are a few photos we snapped on the top of our property, scouting out the location for our yurt with views of Glacier National Park to the east, Whitefish Lake to the northeast and the expanse of the Flathead Valley to the south.

Walking up (and keeping warm with my new favorite skirt, compliments of Skhoop):

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Here is the view captured in the warmer months:

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Sean, stomping a perimeter in the snow:

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Daisy doesn’t really know what a yurt is yet… but she says as long as it’s as warm as her Ruffwear Quinzee jacket, she’s into it:

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This quote I read recently from Melody Beattie sums up our yurt journey to a tee:

“While it’s fun to go on a trip, and trips often coincide with going to new places in our personal lives, we don’t have to load up the car and hit the road to find what we’re looking for. The places of power we seek are within us. Places of comfort, joy, wisdom, silence, healing, peace. The places we visit often reflect those qualities, reinforce them, remind us that they’re there. But the places, the locations we visit, are only mirrors, extensions of ourselves. The healing and magic we seek are not someplace else. They are within each of us.”

Cheers to the next adventure!

5 Comments. Leave new

Asked Daisy if she wants to come for a visit in California? Nana Lou will walk her 3 miles everyday.

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Seeing your yurt in my home state of Montana, with the snow on it, brings back winters in Montana; the crisp air, the pine smells, the crackle of cold weather snow, and huddling over a hot wood stove. Great memories. I got homesick looking at your pictures. Thanks for your blog. I have really been enjoying reading it. Hope you continue the blog for a long time and your pictures are incredible.

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Larry George
July 6, 2015 6:45 pm

your blogs have encouraged me to continue. I have built two burst 26′ and looking to build a 40′ one for our retirement. any thoughts about a loft?

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Thoughts on the loft? We love it – makes it feel like a home with more separate rooms… and for us, the loft is sleeping space for guests, and part storage. We’re totally for it!

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Mollie and Sean,
We are about to purchase land and are having to bring utilities to the property for the yurt. Our biggest concern being bringing water to the property through a well. Just wondering, if you have any insight into alternatives to digging a well. We would still need to plumb the yurt, for showers and sink. Was this a challenging/expensive task? I look forward to hearing back from you!
Thanks,
Devin

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