Many, many years ago-centuries ago, in fact-there lived a people with oak colored skin and almond eyes, herders on horseback and camel who followed sheep and goats and yak across ancient grasslands at the top of the world. Theirs was a land of bitter extremes, wind-swept steppes bounded by jagged peaks, long winters cold beyond imagining that melted into short green grassy summers when the herds multiplied and there was milk and meat in abundance.
Long before the time of Christ, before Buddha and Mohammed, these tribes held a belief in the sacredness of all things and the need to keep a balance-balance between the world of people and the world of nature, and with the worlds above and below. Everything they did reflected this belief.
Trees were scarce, so the herders drew from their animals to create shelter. They layered sheep's wool, sprinkled it with water and worked it into felted mats. Roof struts made from saplings were slipped into a central wooden ring, then tied to the top of circular lattice walls and covered with the felted mats. The herders tied the felt to the roof and walls with ropes and belts made from animal hair. In the winter extra mats were added for warmth; in the summer fewer layers were used. Sections could be rolled up or even completely removed in hot weather to allow for airflow through the shelter. The original word for "nomad" came from a word for felt, making the nomads "felt people". These felt people called their circular, lattice-walled shelters "home," or ger (rhymes with "air"). For them the ger symbolized the center of the universe. It was a shelter that enabled them to live sustainably in the harshest of climates, to move with their herds, to live in tribal communities and raise their families century upon century in a manner that was simple yet comfortable and in balance with the world around them.Mongolian and Turkic Designs
We don't know exactly where the ger originated. The Buryat Mongols of Siberia claim their land as the birthplace of the Mongol tribes and also of the ger. Wherever it began, use of the ger spread with the conquests and empire of Genghis Khan in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Turkic nomads west of Mongolia call their ger by the name eu, oy or uy (meaning "dwelling", or "home"). These nomads include numerous tribes inhabiting the steppe-lands from Iran in the west, as far east as Western Mongolia and south to Afghanistan. Common factors are language (all speak dialects that are Turkic derivatives) and religion (most are Muslim).
There are a number of differences between the Mongolian and Turkic versions of the ger. The Mongolian roof poles are straight, where the Turkic poles are bent so that they serve as both the top of the wall section and the roof. The Turkic roof poles are shaped by heating them over a fire, in a hot dung pile, or in a form of steam box, then bending them in a jig (usually a log with pegs hammered into it) and pounding them with a hammer. The lattice wall in the Turkic ger is often only four feet tall, but the bend in the roof poles adds height.
The Mongolian tono, or central roof ring, requires an artisan with carpentry skills and tools to produce it. It is so heavy that Mongolian gers usually use supports for the tono, called bagana. The Turkic roof ring is lighter and simpler to fabricate than the Mongolian version, and does not require supports.
Mongolian doors, considered a symbol of status, are heavy wooden single doors. If a Turkic ger has wooden doors, they are two-piece and open inward. Many Turkic gers, however, use flaps of felt or colorful rugs to cover the doorway. These felted doors are often quite beautiful, with stitched or appliqu�d patterns on them. Some Mongolian gers use a felted flap in addition to their wooden door.
Variations of the Turkic ger found in Afghanistan and sometimes Iran include a two-tiered lattice-wall version, and sometimes a more pointed roof section in areas with higher rainfall. The lattice walls are actually stacked; one sits on top of the other and a bellyband holds the wall in tension at the seam. Some of the two-tiered types also have a "cap" piece over an extended roof wheel in the central ring.
Another variation common in parts of western Central Asia is the use of a reed wall instead of (or in addition to) felt. On hot summer days a reed wall used alone allows for airflow while keeping animals out. In the winter a reed wall with design patterns makes a colorful interior under the felted mats. Kirghiz gers, in particular, use a lot of color and design motifs in both felted and reed work.
In both Mongolian and Turkic tribes, it is the women who are responsible for a major part of the creation and upkeep of shelter. This is common in nomadic cultures worldwide. The women are in charge of the felting process, usually a community event, and of patching the felt when it wears thin. They weave the rugs that become floor coverings and wall hangings, and the belts that go around the ger, holding the lattice wall together and the coverings in place.
The circularity of the ger is perfect for nomadic uses. The circle encompasses the greatest space possible internally for the amount of materials used (and carted from place to place). At the same time, the circular shape leaves the least amount of exterior surface area exposed to the elements (thus making it more efficient to heat) and leaves fewer surfaces exposed to wind, which very naturally moves around it since there are no corners.Ger Variations
The Buryat Mongolian tribes, who live in northern Mongolia and across the border in Siberia, have built permanent, wooden ger-type structures out of logs, sometimes adding sod roofs for extra insulation. The Buryats still call these structures ger and see them as simply more permanent versions of the felted lattice-wall shelters. The Buryats also use two versions of the tipi (called ursa): a portable tipi covered with caribou hides and a more permanent structure using bark.
For Mongolians, the ger is more than their traveling shelter on the Asian steppes. It is their centering point in a moving universe, their center of the universe. The internal floor plan of the ger is based on the four directions, much like the Native American Medicine Wheel or the Navajo hogan. The door always opens to the south. Opposite the door, sacred space is to the North. If the family is Buddhist, this is where the altar sits. It is also the place of the seat of honor for guests, perhaps in part because it is also the warmest spot in the ger.
Yin and yang, ancient symbols for masculine and feminine and the balance of life, hold space to the east and west. The western half of the ger is the male area and the eastern half, the female domain. Men's possessions (riding tack, hunting gear, etc.) are hung on the western wall sections. Men and male guests usually sit on that side. Women's tools, such as pots and pans and looms and felting equipment, are stored on the east side of the ger, where women, children and female guests also sit. As in a North American hogan or sweat lodge, one proceeds around the ger in a clockwise direction.
At the center of all things glows a fire, sacred, gateway to the world below. Above is the central skylight, the smoke hole, entryway to the world above. In the ancient Shamanist tradition, it is the ger that holds the balance and flow of yin and yang, and of worlds above and below. All of this is centered around the sacred fire, provider of warmth and light and the smoke that rises to the world above. In this way the ger expresses the balance of all things in the one, the circle.
The Native American Navajo hogan, which resembles the Buryat Mongolian log ger, maintains a strikingly similar internal structure, except that the door faces east and all directions are adjusted accordingly. Male and female haves are still to the left and right of the door, sacred space is opposite the door and all movement flows in a clockwise direction.Ger to Yurt: the move West
When North Americans use the term "yurt", they are referring, not to the Central Asian ger, but to a version made from modern materials, including steel aircraft cable and architectural fabrics. Behind the development of this new form of shelter lies a story of visionary designers and a movement committed to principles of simplicity and sustainability.
In the early 1960's radical educator Bill Coperthwaite was teaching at a Quaker school in New Hampshire. His math students had completed their required curriculum and were exploring the mathematics of roof design. When Bill saw a 1962 National Geographic article by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas about his trip to Mongolia, he was inspired. Here, in the Mongolian ger, was an indigenous design that could be adapted with the potential for creating a more livable, accessible shelter. Bill's math class built a roof, but already the design was changing. Instead of straight roof struts, the roof they built had a lattice framework and required no central compression ring.
From New Hampshire Bill moved to Grass Valley, California, to teach. Here he built, with students, the first complete yurt with lattice walls, a lattice roof structure and a cloth covering. Rather than a woven tension band around the top of the lattice wall, Bill used steel cable and set it into the lattice crotches at the top of the wall. Roof struts were slit on their lower ends and slipped onto the cable rather than being tied to the top of the wall slats.
Realizing that yurts made a great teaching and community-building tool, Bill began building wooden tapered-wall yurts with groups of students. In 1968, as part of his Doctoral program at Harvard, he worked with a group of students from the Study Travel School to build a campus comprised completely of yurts on some land in New Hampshire. This led to ongoing projects with schools and communities and Bill's designs continued to evolve. In 1972 he established the Yurt Foundation to continue his vision of studying indigenous cultures and applying their technologies to modern culture to design a simpler, more harmonious and sustainable way of living.
(2nd Canvas) Chuck Cox, one of Bill's high school students in the math class that built the first yurt roof, went on to build a modern canvas covered yurt as a student project at Cornell University. Chuck met his wife Laurel at one of Bill's workshops, and together they produced and sold a set of plans based on the yurt at Cornell. These plans, still available today, became the basis of modern canvas yurt design in North America.
It was 1978 and Kirk Bachman, a student at Idaho State University, built a canvas yurt as a project using the Coxes' plans. When Kirk graduated and went on to pursue backcountry guiding in the mountains of central Idaho, he took his yurt with him to live in. His employer asked him to build more yurts for use as backcountry ski huts, and a national phenomenon was born. Today yurts serve backcountry uses from coast to coast, serving Nordic hut-to-hut skiers and summer hikers both.
Also in the Northwest in the 70's, a group of hippie tree planters called Hoedads were living in the woods and replanting Oregon's forests. Hoedad Charlie Crawford (a mathematician on sabbatical) decided the yurt would be a perfect shelter. Using the Coxes' plans initially and later printing his own, Charlie produced numerous canvas yurts for the Hoedads under the name Cascade Shelter.
It was Alan Bair who put canvas yurts on the map. Picking up where Crawford left off, Alan started Centering Shelterworks (which later became Pacific Yurts), in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and introduced innovations like NASA insulation and architectural fabrics. While continuing to perfect yurt design, Alan and his team spread the word about yurts locally and nationally, eventually marketing canvas yurts worldwide. It was Alan who first sold yurts to the Oregon Parks Department for use in campgrounds, a local initiative that has become a national phenomenon.
Other canvas yurt companies started up in the '80's and '90's, with similar stories but each with their own emphasis. Following Kirk Bachman's initiative, brothers Bo and Jeff Norris began producing yurts for their backcountry ski business in Maine. They eventually dropped the ski business to focus on yurts and for many years produced a unique design with a pentagonal central ring and lexan skylight, and a central stovepipe exit. The company folded in spring of 2001, but some of their design elements are being carried on by Nomad Shelter operating out of Homer, Alaska. Colorado company Advance Canvas Design, started by Don and Emma Kiger, produces high quality yurts similar in design to Pacific Yurts but at somewhat lower cost.
Blue Evening Star, a tipi maker, incorporated tipi design into a unique form of yurt geared to Southwest living. Her book Tipis and Yurts has been on the market since xx, and along with her yurtbuilding workshops, has helped to spread the word about yurts and living lightly.
The most recent innovations in yurt design have come from Nesting Bird Yurts in Port Townsend, Washington. Initially started by a designer Will Hayes and visionary entrepreneur Jenny Pell, the design incorporated yacht-building technology in woodworking and structural components that exemplified the beauty and sturdiness found in yachts. Under Pell the company maintained a strong commitment to ongoing product development with non-toxic and environmentally sustainable materials. In February of 2002 the company changed owners and as a result may change some of its priorities. New designs are already being advertised. (For more information and updates on the Nesting Birds changeover, go to Forum.)
Canvas yurts work especially well for modern nomads and people in transition. Typical of nomadic shelters, they use minimal materials and are light on the land, combining environmental sustainability with a high degree of comfort. Building the wooden deck takes carpentry skills and few days to complete, but putting up the yurt itself takes less than a day (my 20' Pacific Yurt took 5 people about 5 hours to put up), or two days for a 30' yurt.The Wooden Yurt Home
One of the students working on early projects with Bill Coperthwaite was a gifted 17-year-old named David Raitt. Inspired by Bill, David went on to pursue yurt design and building as his passion and vocation, building yurt homes and communities in New Hampshire and California and eventually establishing California Yurts. David's designs evolved from Bill's tapered wall yurt with chevron roof to a straight walled version with roof and walls built of framed panels. These panels could be pre-fabricated and transported to a site, thereby making it possible to meet California's stringent building codes and still keep costs down for the homeowner. David added his own design modifications, extending portions of the circle outward to add extra rooms and even using the nautilus shape as the basis for an extended roof section design. Yurts were also built with two stories and sometimes joined together with rectangular additions.
Two companies which David Raitt helped to start have become major forces in the yurt industry. Morgan Reiter caught the yurt bug as an architectural student in the '60's while visiting yurts designed by Bill Coperthwaite. Morgan combined his study of indigenous architecture with Bill Coperthwaite's and David Raitt's designs to build a yurt for himself when he moved to Oregon. Friends asked Morgan to build them yurts as well, and Oregon Yurtworks was born. Oregon Yurtworks also uses a pre-fabricated frame-panel system that reduces the costs for clients and keeps the wooden yurt homes, while not exactly nomadic, still more portable than their conventional counterparts.
Australian Mike Shepherd ran into David Raitt at a California retreat center where he was rethinking his life's direction. An inimitable enthusiast at whatever he does, Mike jumped in to help David's crew with a yurt-raising. Captivated, Shepherd spent time with David and Annie Raitt, learning about yurts and their business. On returning to Australia, he started Goulburn Yurtworks in his sheep-shearing shed and began spreading the word about yurts among Aussies. Along the way Mike created a kid's "Back to the Basics" yurt camp, where children aged 10-XX spend their days learning skills from milking cows to sheep-shearing and their nights sleeping in small wooden yurts around a central pond.Yurts Worldwide
While the use of yurts has spread across the planet, the emphasis varies in different countries. Yurt companies in the UK have duplicated the ancient ger traditions, both Mongolian and Turkic, and there is an emphasis on workshops and on the use of yurts for education and by community garden groups. Paul King of Woodland Yurts produces primarily Mongolian-style yurts. He had made plans available online and recently authored The Complete Yurt Handbook. Hal Wynn-Jones focused on the Turkic version of the yurt and is best know for creating a composite "tent" of six partial yurt frames joined with roof struts to yet another central compression ring. The large circus-tent sized yurt is available as a rental for weddings and large events. Welshman Steve Place has produced a pamphlet for CAT (Center for Alternative Technology, Wales) with information and plans for a Turkic-style yurt. He also teaches workshops. The rest of Europe doesn't seem to have strong yurt producers, though I'm told there are a number of retreat centers in Spain using UK-built gers for housing.
In Japan, a fascination with all things Mongolian has meant the importation of traditional gers from Mongolia. Taiyo Kogyo Corp., a firm which uses architectural fabrics to build stadiums, recently built 20 yurts for a park educational center using high-end architectural fabrics and a unique roof structure (see Fabric Architecture magazine, May/June '00, p. 56). Mike Shepherd and his wooden yurts seems to be the driving yurt force in Australia. I have yet to hear of fabric yurt companies there, though the Australian National Yurt Project in '97-'98 brought together felters nationwide to create a decorative felted cover for a traveling traditional ger. (If you have information on other applications and yurt uses across the planet, please contact us with that information and we'll include it when we update this site.)The Yurt is a Gift
There is something about the very shape of the circle that provides us a "glimpse into the wholeness, unity, and divine order of the universe," says mathematical philosopher Michael Schneider. "The circle is a reflection of the world's-and our own-deep perfection, unity, design excellence, wholeness, and divine nature." (A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe, Schneider, p. 4) The very shape of the circle seems to connect us at a primordial, cellular level to the unity of all things, to our inter-connectedness with each other and our connectedness to the whole.
The yurt is a gift, an ancient nomadic shelter only recently available to modern culture. Versatile, beautiful and spiritual, both ancient and contemporary versions give us an option for shelter that is affordable, accessible and gentle to the earth. By its very existence, the yurt calls us to live with simplicity, in community, and in harmony with the planet, following a lifestyle that truly exemplifies the injunction to "do no harm".
Whatever form of shelter we ultimately choose, it is good to learn from this ancient nomadic path, from the people of the yurt, and from the circle itself as it speaks of the unity and interconnectedness of all things.