Somewhere between a tent and a hut lies a curious little structure known by a single ungainly syllable: yurt. A yurt--also known as a ger, if that sounds any better--is a small, round, roofed structure that looks like something Bilbo Baggins might have used as an outhouse. But it has become the trendy choice for do-it-yourself shelter.
Yurts were invented thousands of years ago by Mongolian nomads, and the basic structural elements haven't changed much since then. A yurt has a circular lattice wall topped by a round roof that comes to an adorable little point. The simple design belies its many virtues: yurts are tough as a yak, easy to build and cheap to heat. They're also eco-friendly: there's not much in them besides wood and cloth, and they sit lightly on the ground, no foundation required, so their impact on the environment is minimal.
"We've taken the ancient wisdom of the original design and incorporated modern technology and fabrics," says Alan Bair, president of Pacific Yurts, a leading manufacturer of prefab yurts. Bair built his first yurt 25 years ago after spotting one in the pages of National Geographic. Over time he improved on tradition with seven-ply reflective insulation, architectural-quality vinyl-laminated fabrics and aircraft-quality tension cables to produce a warm, draft-free, ultra-stable modern superyurt. He now employs more than 20 people full-time supplying yurts to ski resorts, national parks, military bases and thousands of private yurt enthusiasts all over the world, who use them for anything from a stylish toolshed to a whimsical vacation home. Yurts even served as warming huts at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "We've seen this almost astronomical rise in demand for the structure," says a bemused Morgan Reiter, founder of Oregon Yurtworks, a 20-year veteran of the yurt business. "A lot of that just comes from a broadening of people's ideas about what they can live in."
Pacific Yurts www.yurts.com offers six different models, ranging from 12 ft. to 30 ft. in diameter and starting at $3,350; optional features include French doors, skylights, ceiling fans and a water catchment. But with all those improvements, shouldn't yurt makers be able to come up with a better name? "We got used to yogurt," Bair says firmly. "We can get used to yurt."
--By Lev Grossman