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Alternative Living: Yurts and Kit Homes

One of the non-traditional types of dwelling being considered by people nowadays is the yurt. Most people know them only from old films about Genghis Khan. Yurt is the Russian word for them, but the Mongolian name is Ger. These are the traditional temporary dwellings of the nomadic tribes of the Central Asian Steppe and surrounding areas. They have been used for over three thousand years by the different groups not only on the great grasslands, but also in the deserts and mountains too.

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The first written mention of these portable houses came from the Greek Herodotus around four hundred years before Christ. Yurts or Gers are ideal for the rugged conditions of Central Asia and suit the nomadic way of life of the people who were and are still today, herders and farmers. They move with the seasons and need to search out new grazing lands for their herds. Light and easily movable homes are a must for that type of life-style. That is why the yurt has been developed and used for all this time. Because of the materials used to cover them, yurts can be kept warm even in the coldest months. To counter the fierce winds of the steppes they are rounded and this shape makes them more wind resistant than square shaped structures. Although made mainly of materials the nomads have on hand, the frame of a yurt is made of wood. Because no wood is found on the great plains of Asia the wood has to be bought or traded for, and the most common woods used are willow and birch. These can be used as rods or thin poles for the roof sections and woven into a lattice for the wall sections or khanas. These types of wood can be molded into slightly curved shapes by bending them with the aid of stream vapor. This gives the frame its rounded shape. Inside poles can be used as pillars to help support the roof. In the very center of the roof is a large round hole that is used for both smoke extraction and ventilation. Below this would sit a hearth or stove. This structure is then layered in felt, made from the wool of sheep, goats or yaks, and is tied together by leather thongs. During hot spells the felt sections can be raised for ventilation. The real beauty of yurts is that they can be assembled or dismantled within a few hours.

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Weaving the walls together.

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The roof poles going up.

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The roof poles in place.

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The first roof cover going on.

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The second roof cover going on.

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The final yurt cover is on.

Modern Yurts

The idea of the yurt as living structures has found its way to Europe and the United States. Being easy to transport, put up and take down has a great appeal for some people. They can be used as either temporary or permanent fixtures, in some cases they are probably better than traditional tents. There isn’t any need for pegs or guidelines as it is held together by compression. The traditional yurt uses the weight of its covers and roof section to anchor the walls in place. Light, strong and large, they are a viable alternative to other temporary or permanent structures.

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A yurt in the USA.

Modern yurts can be made from different materials and can be more comfortable than the traditional style. The size of the structure depends on the amount of sections used in the frame. This can be smaller or larger, according to preference. Kits from around ten feet in diameter to thirty five feet can be purchased off the shelf, and larger yurts can be manufactured to order. Within the yurt, the interior can be divided into spaces through the use of hangings or frame sections. The standard size has space enough to sleep from five to fifteen people, and with headroom of over six feet that can accommodate sufficient people or belongings. The uses that they can be put to are varied, instead of building an extra room on the house or extending a garage to warehouse things a yurt may be the simple answer to your storage problems. They can be used as temporary vacation homes, overflow accommodation for visitors, locations dinner parties, for family gatherings, outdoor kitchens or nurseries etc. Yurts can be used as temporary storage or more permanent structures such as offices or even restaurants. They first became used by the National Parks organization in Oregon and now many national parks in the U.S.A. now use them as campground accommodation and shelters for rangers.

Yurt Innovations

It was in the 1960s when yurts came to the attention of the American public as an alternative to tents and static cabins for recreational purposes. It is said that an American Ambassador to Mongolia saw them on his tour in the country, and was so impressed with them that he brought the idea back to the states. Since then the perception and uses of yurts have changed. What was once a novel and fun idea has now become an established industry supplying yurts to all kinds of people for different purposes. Due to economic pressure and financial restraints many people cannot afford traditional housing, but there are many companies that sell kits so people can build their own structures. Over the years the materials used may have changed, but the concept of decent, affordable housing hasn’t. Also, because environmental concerns are now very much part of daily life many people wish to live a more ecologically friendly life; people may find that a yurt is the answer to both ecological and financial problems. Not only is this type of dwelling less damaging to its surroundings when assembled, but the companies that produce the kits are also very environmentally conscious and source their materials from sustainable resources. They can be supplied with different decorative features too, some of the manufacturers also offer furniture that is custom made for yurts. For wilderness resorts and other eco-friendly type businesses yurts are an ideal choice. The manufacturers also supply spare parts and a range of accessories. As with their original design modern yurts can be insulated for cold weather use. A basic kit will include lattice wall sections for the outside frame, rafters for the roof section, the centre ring to fix the rafters to, an acrylic dome, a door and frame set, a tension cable to hold it all together, plus windows and side covers. Flooring is an additional option. There are manufacturers and distributors of yurts all over the world, places as far apart as China, Korea, New Zealand, Hungary, Holland, Australia and France. In England there are many camping sites that use yurts instead of traditional tents for outdoor holidays. This type of holiday is called ‘glamping’ as it is seen as luxury form of camping.

Small Kit Homes

Kit homes have been around for quite a while now in various different forms. They have also come in a variety of different sizes, from relatively small areas to large structures. There are also prefabricated homes that are made from concrete panels, but they seem to be a thing of the past and aren’t part of the new wave of enthusiasm. Interest for small do-it-yourself homes has various roots, one is the on-going financial problems that face the world today. The nature of employment has changed and also the lack of adequate work has changed people’s view of the world in which they live. Uncertainties in regard to maintaining themselves have led people to look for alternatives to owning property of the more traditional kind. People still want and need homes, but without an almost guaranteed long-term employment or a source of income mortgages may be hard to come by, so cheaper and more cost effective dwellings are being sort. Small kit homes can be a solution for many people. Also a small kit home may be the solution to having a holiday dwelling. Small self-assembled houses can be bought and put up by two or more people in just a few hours of work. Saving the money for these kits is a lot easier than a deposit for a brick and mortar type house. Also, getting a loan from a bank to purchase one will be much easier as the banks aren’t risking so much money on people who don’t have property to borrow against. This also eases the financial burden of the property owner. An added bonus to these kits is the fact that they can also be disassembled and transported to other locations when needed. Many of these new designs are purposely built on small trailers for just this purpose; the same idea as a caravan or mobile home, but without the bulk. Another advantage is that they don’t require much space, so purchasing land to site them is cheaper too. A family with an unmarried son or daughter could build one in the backyard. Another reason that kit or flat pack houses are becoming more popular are environmental concerns. Those that want to lessen their own carbon footprint see these dwellings as a commitment to a more eco-friendly way of life. Many of these homes are built to be much more energy efficient and use much less harmful materials than normal constructions. The one great problem of this type of housing is the lack of space. This can be offset by a change in attitude towards consumerism. Less material possessions and clutter leads to a simpler lifestyle. Probably one of the greatest selling points of these houses is the satisfaction that comes from building your own home, even if it comes in kit form.

History

Not long after the turn of the last century, kit houses became a real industry. They have had many different names over the years, kits, catalogue or mail order homes, but whatever name they were packaged by they incorporated the same idea of self-assembly, following instructions supplied by blueprints for their construction. One of the most well-known is the Sears Roebuck Company that over a thirty year period sold thousands upon thousands of these homes to American house buyers.

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A 1922 advertisement for the Sears Roebuck Company home.

Some were small and some large, but the majority were family sized homes. They were innovators in the industry and designed over four hundred types of houses. They encouraged people to customize the houses to their own taste and then the company’s architects would incorporate them into the final blueprints. After receiving a deposit the blueprints would then be mailed in the post and the whole construction package would be freighted to the nearest railroad depot to the buyer.

An advertisement for a smaller kit home.

Today’s Industry

There are quite a few companies dedicated to the supply of kit houses. Things haven’t changed much since the turn of the century, the packages containing the construction materials can still be shipped to the buyer, but most people pick them by themselves. Although the idea stays the same the materials used and the technology have advanced. Some of these companies are quite willing to sell the customer just the blueprints and instructions on how to put them together. They will also show them where to get the materials needed from construction companies that stock the right supplies.

Not all customers want the bother or have the skills to build their own homes, even kit form, and so professional builders are contracted. They are usually crews employed by the kit companies or recommended because they have experience in that type of building. Inexperienced people may employ a crew, but also work alongside them for the experience of being physically involved in building their own home. This is great for people who don’t have any practical skills, as correcting mistakes can work out to be expensive when you have hire someone else down the road. Years ago there wasn’t this level of help; once the package was sold, the client was on his own. Over the last few decades the construction industry has been particularly hard hit by bad economic times, but the alternative dwelling industry seems to have weathered the storm. Recently there has been a surge in small kit house building in the Carolina’s.

Choices

The kinds of kit available on the market today can be roughly divided into four basic categories. These are log cabins, timber framed, panel houses and domes. Within these basic types can be found sub-categories, these are usually combinations or hybrids of the different types. Another kind using a steel frame is a fairly recent addition to the market. There are green homes that are built to maximize energy efficiency and lessen environmental damage, and the construction materials are sourced from renewable resources. Each category has a very amble selection of designs and styles to choose from. For the buyer it means costs versus desire. One example of this is the log cabin kit - the first decision to make is what type of wood to use. The price of your cabin will depend upon the quality of the wood. This can also depend on how the wood has been treated to avoid shrinkage. Kiln dried wood or cut from deadwood? Completely round logs or round on the outside and flat on the interior? Which kit to buy? A basic kit will supply only walls and you have to add the rest, the advantage is that everything is pre-cut and slots together with no cutting. The second option includes the roof with beams and rafters too and may require more work in the fitting. The third option is the complete package that will probably need a small crew to assemble. Floorings are usually an extra option.

Warning

It is essential that the buyer understands that although the cost of a kit home may be only a third or even a quarter of the price of a brick and mortar home, the starting price is usually only for the shell or basic structure. Being able to assemble the home on your own with a few friends to help is ideal, but if not then you have to factor in the fees of a professional builder. Many builders will charge a flat fee per square foot. The price of the additional costs such as electrical wiring, plumbing, insulation and drywall plus other fixtures that a dwelling needs has to be taken into consideration. Payment of outside utilities should be accounted for too, be warned that anything that is not actually mentioned in the manufacturer’s brochure is probably considered an extra and will have to be paid for. Before going to the supplier that you have decided upon, it is best to review the prices of all of the competitors, and armed with that knowledge you may be able to get a discount or a better deal. Some of these companies also give free seminars to would be builders with no experience in construction. Some also offer on-site advice or aftercare service. It is recommended by all in the industry that the potential buyer should talk to others that have bought kit homes and now live in them to get a solid understanding of the advantages and disadvantages before committing themselves.

References


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