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Small houses
Alternative Building

Voices of Spencer Creek

Yurt, Sweet Yurt

A Conversation with Michael Kemp

Text by M. G. Hudson
Photos by Michael Kemp

..."if we could learn more from how we live in a cabin, we'd be much more comfortable in our houses. The openness and the camaraderie cabins encourage is much more appropriate to the way we live today. Our lives have metamorphosed almost beyond recognition in the last hundred years, yet our houses are built almost to the same floor plan. We have professionals telling us what we need for resale and meanwhile the people in the houses are saying, 'Yeah, but I don't use those rooms anymore'." (from an interview with David Wiech) - Sarah Susanak, architect and author of The Not So Big House









Tired of commuting, our friend Michael Kemp announced he was putting in a yurt on his family's place. Modern prefabricated yurts, inspired by old Mongolian, felt, circular tents or "yurts" used by nomadic herds-people for countless centuries, are structures of simplicity and beauty. They can be thoughtfully adapted to any site. They give a lot of space per "square" foot. They are less expensive than conventional structures. Well, yes and no... Like any other construction venture yurts can be an adventure into official red tape, budget adjustments, and lessons in patience.

When Michael needed private space for work and recreation, he first looked into Pacific Yurts Works's canvas yurts. (Having once experienced a canvas yurt with a wood stove on a rainy cold winter day, I had been amazed how beautiful, snug and warm it was.) But our county has strict regulations -- since a canvas yurt is considered a "tent", it must be taken down completely at least one day a year to be a legal "temporary structure". Michael asked about permanent wiring in such a case. In a canvas yurt -- no go. (According to county land use office, it would be legal to have extension wires strung through the woods but not underground lines!) So Michael looked at other options: prefabricated structures, trailers, manufactured homes but none of them were aesthetically very pleasing or meeting his needs. He re-examined the yurt solution and found Oregon Yurt Works and their line of prefabrication components that one can configure to the site and overall design.

A permanent wooden structure would changed his project, especially his budget but Michael decided to do it. "It appeared that having a contractor build a one-room, 12 x 14 cabin was more expensive than this yurt." The son of architect and a do-it-yourself-builder Jon Kemp, Michael knew from years of experience what's involved in siting, building and finishing.  "I decided that I wanted a nicer space that didn't move rather than a funkier space (like a trailer) that could double as a vacation vehicle", explained Michael as we sat in his finished yurt the other day. Through the center skylight and the bank of windows placed to maximize light, the yurt was suffused with the green and silver glow of the growing forest in the rain. "I am glad I made that decision. Oregon Yurt Works was great to work with. I liked everybody I came into contact with in the company ... from the owner and receptionist to the guys out on the shop floor."

I asked how he decided to place the yurt. "Siting was one of the challenges because there are so many factors, light, drainage, access to house and driveway and utilities, slope, construction factors, which trees can be cut and which trees must not be cut... I choose to be closer to the center of the property." And about the placement of window, doors and decks? Within the framework of the 26 panels pre-fabricated components, Michael found that he had a lot of flexibility and was able to adjust the placement and orientation of these components. He ordered "tall walls". It was cost-effective to go larger with the floor size, too. "Even though the components are standardized, they can be configured to make each yurt unique. The changes were cleared with the engineer, of course!" Michael added.

How big is the yurt? How long did it take from start to finish? Michael informed me that the "... yurt is 31 ft. radius, 762 sq. ft. with 333 sq.ft. of decking", extending into the lovely outdoor space of ferns and forest. I didn't get the volume of Michael's yurt but it feels very large and spacious. From start to finish, excluding a few months hiatus, the whole process took less than a year. He hired Mike Dotson, a local contractor, for some of the structural work such as building the pier and post foundation, assembling the prefab components and making the whole thing "weather tight" and finished to the outside.

Michael with a little help from some friends and his Sweetie covered the inital site clearing, the sub- flooring ("Just start in the center and lay down your sheets of plywood ... then as you get to the curve of the walls, it gets fun!"), the walls raising, insulation (each fiberglass batt had to be cut to size and stapled), and window enclosures, and (real!) wood paneling.

Michael had the wiring and tile work done by an expert and has six electrical boxes on the domed ceiling for flexible lighting plans. The hardwood floor is hickory and was put in by Hardwood Glen. It is beautiful.

So it was a collaboration between myself and my friends and the contactor. The wall raising took three to four days. The roof came in pre- fab sections and we had a crane in -- sorry, no pictures of the crane." I asked Michael if he had to do it all over again, would he? "Absolutely! It is so much better than I visualized it. It is more wonderful than I expected. I love this site and structure. Yes, the finishing work is more than you can believe... it's like having a child. It is more work than you imagine and its worth it!"

And as to the commuting? "Well ... it really hasn't cut down on my driving I'm afraid. Between my son who goes to school in town, and my mom who's in town, and all the times I need to drive in to connect with my clients ... I only get to stay put one or two days a week. But it's a beautiful structure in a beautiful spot. It's a little difficult to visualize a nicer office environment. I do have to warn anybody thinking of doing the same thing: I didn't post many billable hours the first month I was in the yurt. It was just too d_mn nice."

© Spencer Creek Press, West By Northwest 2000-2002 All Rights Reserved unless otherwise noted.

The opinions expressed by the authors are not necessarily the opinions of the publisher and/or sponsors.

West by Northwest
Spencer Creek Press
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Eugene OR 97405

West By Northwest

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