Saturday, January 11, 2020

Update on Building a Yurt


Yurt Building Update

Yurts are easy and cheap to build. They can be owner-built for a few hundred dollars and provide four-season homes that are simple to construct in about six weeks. That said, they only work when the fundamental principles of architecture and construction are strictly followed.
Those principles are structurally safe, built to last for decades, livable without fossil fuels, always dry, warm in winter, cool in summer, won’t burn and doesn’t annoy the neighbours. Then there are the essential intrinsic requirements – sunshine, fresh air ventilation and a pleasing view.
The design only works when the site works. When choosing the site evaluate – slope, groundwater flow, surface water flow, water table level, soil composition, vehicular access, solar orientation, sunshine and wind.

The reason you should build or supervise the construction of your yurt is that details matter - or you listen to the whispers of intuition, so you don’t hear howls of remorse. There is a plethora of micro homes and yurt kits available in the marketplace. These are convenient and expensive consumer products. Consumerism is a polite word for profit and envy. Buyer beware. 
To date, I have built three yurts and with the third one I really think that I got everything right (full construction details are available in my ebook and on this blog). They are all in central Ontario where winter temperature can drop to – 20c. In a damp or cold climate full exposure to winter sunshine is essential.

The basic specifications remain the same. Twenty foot inside diameter (floor space 315 sq.ft.), door faces east, the south facing window is a full-size recycled patio door set on its side. The other four windows are equally spaced around the wall and all can be opened. The twelve-inch diameter center post is set upside down to maximize the surface area to support the roof beams. The roof has an eighteen-inch overhang, this is a simple way to protect the wall from the weather. The yurt must be built above the surrounding ground, this is further enhanced by setting the lattice wall poles on a stem wall made of 25 kg ‘poly’ animal feed bags filled with crushed stone and tamped rigid. This wall is two bags or ten inches high. A drainage channel is dug around the outside to direct surface runoff away from the building. The site is carefully chosen or modified to prevent ground and surface water becoming an issue. I used R20 six-inch fiberglass insulation, there are more expensive, but environmentally more friendly alternatives, like hemp. The waterproof membrane for the roof is an industrial quality 40 ft by 60 ft tarp. I cut it in half so that the roof has two layers and the remainder covered the walls. Because all four windows open, I am not concerned with having breathable walls. The inside wall is covered with used lumber tarps which are available free if you ask nicely. I will cover both the inside and outside with cow manure. A herd of cattle graze my land, in spring the area where they have been fed round hay bales is a sloppy mix of cow poo, mud and strands of hay. This mixture is free, comes ready made, spreads like peanut butter and sets as hard as tree bark. Within a few weeks of applying it is hard, a grey brown colour and has no smell. It is applied in two thin layers and the final one on the inside is whitewashed. To get more heat from the wood stove, I position the stove four feet laterally from where the pipe goes through the wall so that more heat radiates inside rather than into the great outdoors.

On a personal note, I do get a certain about of criticism from friends who say, “You can’t tell people that they can build their own home in six weeks for $500, other people are just not like you.” Well, maybe I am too enthusiastic at times, however, with a little help from your friends you might be surprised just what you can achieve. To help you saddle your dreams, I am happy to respond to questions and comments either by email, hughmorshead@gmail.com or through Facebook.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Summary of yurt construction

The yurt is 20ft in diameter and has a surface area of 315 sq. ft. The center is 8ft high and 6ft 6" at the wall. The frame is made of eastern white cedar. A stem wall of two layers of hard-packed animal feed bags filled with crushed stone keeps the timber off the ground. This enables construction on rocky and uneven ground without need of excavation equipment. The 18" overhang protects the walls. Fresh cow manure makes the very best plaster; it's free, comes ready made, spreads like peanut butter and sets as hard as tree bark. The center post is either a tree trunk with a fork or simply set upside down. There are five windows, the main one is a south-facing patio door set sideways, the other four are evenly set around the wall and all open outwards so that there is plenty of ventilation and daylight. I did a cement and lime stucco on the inside of my first yurt, now I will plaster both the inside and outside with cow manure, on the inside it will be sanded down and white-washed. The lattice wall is filled with insulation and this is covered with at least two layers of used timber tarps ( free and generally slightly ripped). Chicken wire covers the taps and this anchors the cow manure. One layer of cow manure works, however, when time permits, a second layer will be added. The roof has three layers, the first is an old tarp, next is 6mil. polythene vapor barrier, then a heavy duty agricultural tarp (500 sq, ft.). Cedar poles wired together hold down the tarps and keep the four inches of compost in place. The roof is the seeded with grass seed.

Photos of my yurts.

Here are photos of the three yurts that I have built or are under construction. Detailed instructions and comments will be added later.

Yurt No.1 with cow manure exterior plaster
interior of Yurt 1.
South facing window
Center post and raised bed.
Door.
Woodshed and summer kitchen.
Straightening window frame post with Spanish windlass ( twisting a loop of chain with iron bar).
Upside down center post.
 Detail of post and roof beams.
Second  hobbit home.
 Yurt No.2
 Center post

How to Build Ultra Low Cost Homes and the Art of Living Free

My book on off-the-grid living was published as an ebook in June and is available on Amazon. I''m going to add another chapter titled - Okay, now the reality. This will give the bare bones truth of what it is like living off the grid, along with the mental and physical requirements needed to make it work. It will also include updates on building a yurt. I'm now building my third one. This info will also be published on this blog.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

How to Build DIY Ultra Low-Cost Homes




I am writing a book about sustainable living. It will be published as an ebook on Amazon in May, 2019. Here is a list of the contents and the Introduction.

How to Build Ultra Low-Cost Homes
and the Art of Living Free

Hugh Morshead

Contents

1.      Introduction to building.
2.      Building an Earthbag Hobbit House.
3.      Building a Yurt.
4.      Water Wisdom.
5.      Composting Toilets.
6.      Sauna
7.      Worm composting.
8.      Intensive Veggie and Herb Growing.
9.      Energy – The Currency of Life.
10.  Foraging to Freedom
11.  Living Free.

Introduction
We have driven ‘Old Blue’, our planet, into the ditch by driving backwards into the future on a road we’ve already trashed. Mother Nature wrote the rules of the road and we can only hope she will give us a tow. In the meantime, here’s a guide book for those who feel stranded, it’s also the story of how I turned off the highway onto a forgotten byway and created my own hobbit land.
Ten years ago, I moved into a one-room cabin in the woods, I thought that I would be living a life of voluntary simplicity with one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st - after my first summer the bank called. The manager met me at the door and asked if she could sit in on the meeting. Across the desk I faced two sets of arched eyebrows, their concern was my sudden wealth. I told the bank ladies that Charles Dickens wrote the book of finance, his stories are about keeping your head above water in hard times. I paraphrased the money lender in David Copperfield - disposable income or happiness equals income minus expenses. I went on to say that neo-liberalism had turned the necessities of life into commodities. Not for me though… I get free electricity from the sun, free heat from my woodlot, free water from nature and free food from my garden. The bank ladies smiled and so did I, by wiggly my toe in Thoreau’s Walden Pond I had jumped up an income level. Now, for the first time in my life I had the affluence of time and money. I left the bank as chagrined and mystified as I had entered and began picking away at the threads and tangles of off-the-grid living. How come other people can’t unleashed their inner Bilbo Baggins? I came up with four insights.
1.      Going green is a money mission from a banker’s viewpoint. My life energy would no longer be sacrificed on the hamster wheel of work and debt. 

2.      Clarity of thinking. Every aspect of this lifestyle must be thought out and acted upon. You think, plan and do. Mainstream life is digitalized and automated – including thinking patterns. In contrast, to make this work I used my emotional intelligence for critical and creative thinking. I became innovative.

3.      Location. It was easy for me to make this transition because I could harvest the discarded treasures from the crawlspaces and slip steams of the consumer society.
4.      Turn Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its ear. Like a winning jockey, you bust free from the pack and hit the front. Forget about meeting basic needs, that’s easy, instead connect with the mystic or spirit world. I don’t mean disappearing down the rabbit hole of esoteric practices, but rather, roadster the contours of life with nature in the passenger seat. When travelling in the wilds under your own steam you feel a slight spiritual undertow that sweeps you closer to nature and further from mainstream society. The veil between myself and other dimensions and its denizens was a heavy broadloom until I met my Gandalf while cycling through Ireland. It was a winter’s day in an empty Youth Hostel on a wild shore. He was in his sixties, had a massive head of shaggy hair and beard, his face was as furrowed as a ploughed field. He was walking across Europe.  He told me to go to St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenes and walk the Camino de Santiago. Adventure is bred in my bones and bicycling the emptiness of Patagonia, Iceland and Newfoundland along with sauntering the Camino pushed my reset button. The physical and spiritual world have always been one for indigenous people and if you can tap into that you discover something wonderful that you didn’t know you’d lost. Desolation, uncertainty and change dominate our world; building resilience and optimism into our lives gives us buoyancy and fills our sails on this Homeric adventure.

If my DNA could be unraveled like an old wool sweater the three dominant threads would be -   swinging a hammer, snapping the synapses with a good book and roaming forgotten byways. Having the affluence of time means you put your feet up, sit back and ponder the big questions. How much is enough? What do we need? What do we want? What are our responsibilities to each other and the planet?

It’s about co-sufficiency, rather than mere self-sufficiency. As soon as you bale out of the rat race; you jump right back in with your skills and enthusiasm to help create a strong and vibrant community - we all need someone we can lean on, as the old song goes. I wriggled my way into the local community with my vermicomposting business. A farmer’s market had just opened, and they were looking for vendors. Spending Saturday mornings selling bags of worm poo and partially composted manure full of worms might not excite entrepreneurs, for me, it was dirt into dollars. My neighbour grazes his cattle on my rough pasture. Red Wriggler worms give manure the Midas touch turning it into ‘black gold’ compost. At the market I would plunge my hand into a bag of compost and brandishing squirming worms tell tales of sustainability. 

Whether folks want to admit it or not we face an inevitable collision between two mutually exclusive ways of doing things. Our economy depends upon infinite growth, our lives depend upon the finite and sustainable systems that govern the planet. Once you know something it’s hard to unknow it. We need to adapt now so that we are not so far of the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust later. Living ahead of the pack calls for confidence and being at ease in challenging the norms so that we can share often simple solutions to problems when they arise.






Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Yurt before Plastering




How to Build a Yurt


How to Build a Yurt.
Yurts are simple and quick to build compared to other alternative homes. The traditional Mongolian yurt is brilliant in its simplicity. Physics rather than brawn provide structural strength. The lattice wall leans slightly out, a steel cable holds it in place enabling the wall to support the roof. The drawbacks are: poor ventilation, no windows and perhaps having to cuddle up to sheep for supplemental heat. These can be easily rectified by framing in windows, installing an airtight woodstove and fitting fiberglass insulation into the earth plaster covering the wall frame. A two-foot roof overhang, along with a coat of lime wash protects the wall from rain.  A cedar log in the center supports the roof. The bones of the building are Mongolian, the skin is Iron Age Celtic. The timeless challenge is to turn the dream into reality when you’re clinging to the margins of society. There is also the spectre of building permits and bye-law regulations. These are there to protect us from our own and our neighbour’s follies and misfortunes. Building codes are based upon what has pasted the test of time. Imagine Monty Python as a Roman building inspector facing down the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan… “Yurts?!!!... Nooooooo…  you must have proper buildings.” Building an alternative home is a Homeric journey – you can make it to the distant shore with sweat, research and a smidgeon of luck.
Kindness, helpfulness and sociability are all marketable skills. Baby boomers are now in their dotage and many elderly people are living alone on beautiful rural properties. Some of them would welcome the comfort and security of having a supportive couple living close by. Local government is edging in this direction. To help this trend we need to build things right.
There is a long list of parameters to consider when choosing a site. Southern exposure, protection from prevailing wind, avoiding low ground, water management and vehicular access to name a few. This is going to be your home, make it so magical that you never want to leave. Luckily, creativeness and frugality go hand in hand. There is a bibliography at the end of these notes, these books will give you the knowledge and confidence you need. Take comfort with the thought that these building techniques and materials have proven successful for thousands of years, unlike the modern suburban home which is experimental and decidedly dodgy to live in with off-gassing, flammable materials and stale air. Before going into the details of construction it helps to have an overview so that you can have a picture in your mind’s eye.
The yurt is built on a two-foot high platform of packed sub-soil with a top-dressing of limestone screenings. In my experience, a twenty-foot diameter starter home with a 315 sq. ft. floor is the right balance between economy, structural strength and liveability.  The rounded door is framed by fitting two curved logs together, the window frames are attached to posts dug into the ground. The lattice wall is covered on the inside and outside with an earth plaster, fiberglass insulation is sandwiched between the plaster. The chimney for the woodstove passes through the wall. Three of the five window open and this ensures good cross-ventilation. The cedar poles for the lattice wall are seven long and five inches in diameter. The poles for the roof are twelve long and six inches diameter at the top. The roof poles are two feet apart at the wall. Roof strapping is done with salvaged 1” by 6” planks. Three layers of tarps cover the roof, the middle one is 100% waterproof, the other two protect it from the rough edges of the planks and from UV radiation. The roof is covered with a thin layer of compost; this holds down the tarps, helps to insulate and looks natural.
All houses need to be higher than the surrounding land to protect them from surface run-off.  Building on packed sub-soil rather than on a timber frame prevents having cold air and critters under the floor. The platform needs to be at least six feet wider than the yurt. Driving over the dirt with a front-end loader tractor as it is being built will pack it hard. Then, add a top dressing of six inches or more of limestone screenings. Wet screenings packs hard.
Before building the wall, the center post needs to be set in position along with posts for the door frame and the main south-facing window. The posts for the other windows are smaller and they are fitted after the wall is up. The trick to digging holes by hand in hard ground is to use water. Dig as deep as you can be using a digging bar, spade and digging clams. When you hit impossibly hard ground pour six inches of water in the hole, twenty minutes later the ground will be soft enough to get down another few inches, repeat this until you reach a depth of at least 2’9”, preferably 3’6”. I’m fortunate to have cedar logs available which are resistant to rot. An alternative method is to place the post in a plastic bin to protect the wood from moisture.
Curved and irregular shaped doors and windows have charm and character. Hanging the door and fitting the two curved door posts takes ingenuity and chainsaw skills. I scout my woodlot for a pair of curved logs at least eight feet long and no less than eight inches in diameter. These are dug into the ground on the east side to form an arch. The door is roughly four feet wide and five feet high, big enough for furniture and a full-size mattress to fit through. The trick is to have enough of one door post plumb so that the door doesn’t open like a gull’s wing. The door opens outward so that bears at least knock before entering. Next, set a pair of 8” posts on the south side to frame the window, measure the width of the window and allow for the 2” by 6” planks that will frame it. It is easier to frame the window if the posts are half-rounds.
A 20’diamerter circle has a circumference of just over 62ft. My yurt has 32 roof poles, each one is supported at the wall by the crossed wall poles. The first step is to make about thirty pairs of crossed poles. The dimensions are: 7’ poles that are five to six inches in diameter, crossed 9” from the top with the base 52” apart. Fasten them together with 6” or 8” nails. Mark the position of the wall by laying a rope on the ground. Place the first pair of crossed poles in position on the line of the wall and support them temporally with a 12’ roof beam. Add the next pair of crossed poles so that the tops are two feet apart. Follow the same pattern with the remainder of the wall poles, for example, the right leg of one pair cross over and in front of the left leg of the next pair. This maintains the curvature of the circle. After a few pairs are in place, only every third or forth with need to be supported. Lean the wall poles out approximately five degrees. Thread 3/8” steel cable through the joins of the poles and attach the ends with a turnbuckle. Adjust the poles so that you now have a uniform lattice wall that leans slightly out. Tighten the turnbuckle. Wire the legs of the poles tightly together wherever they cross. The roof poles can now be placed in position to form the roof frame. The thin end of the poles rest on the wall. The roof overhang above the south window may need to be adjusted to maximize the heat, winter sunshine and sprouting salad greens.
Iron Age round houses had a roof angle of 14 degrees. Steep enough so that rain flows off, but not so steep that it becomes a torrent eroding the platform or the living roof. The inside height is eight feet in the center and six feet at the wall. The center post supports over thirty poles with seven-inch tops. Ideally, find a tree trunk that has a fork or large limb that can be used to support some of the poles. Alternatively, fit four poles on the trunk and lay the others on top of these. Anchor the poles with eight-inch nails. The roof is then covered with 1” by 6” planks, preferably hardwood. Fit the planks close together, otherwise the tarp can bulge through the gap. Dumpster cowboys are center stage during roofing when scrap timber and trashed tarps are golden. There are many options for the waterproof layer. A heavy-duty agricultural tarp costs about $400 and polythene vapor barrier $40. Then there are all the hi-tech liners used for tailing ponds. My choice was polythene vapor barrier sandwiched between old worn tarps and this works fine. The vapor barrier comes in eight-foot widths and is taped in position. Fasten the edge of the tarps to the underside of the roof overhang. A wood frame of light poles holds the tarps and the ‘black gold’ compost in place. Take a pair of seven-foot poles (left over from the wall), attached the ends together six feet apart with wire, place this over the peak of the roof, do the same with another pair of poles in the opposite direction. The peak should now be ringed by four poles approximately three feet from the top of the roof. Attach more poles onto these until there is a spider’s web of poles covering the roof. This ‘deadman’ style of construction enables a fabric to be anchored to a roof without punching nail holes in it. Next, shovel a three-inch layer of compost onto the roof.
Windows provide ventilation, heat in winter and year-long daylight. It is easiest to fit standard recycled windows. If you have the time and ingenuity, rounded plate glass table tops, car windshields or even a car door can be fitted into the wall. I drive pick-up trucks until they drop, the doors are reincarnated into hobbit homes. There is something about winding down the window, feeling the fresh summer breeze, tunes taking you down memory lane and you’re still on the couch. The main south-facing window is a full-size glass patio door set sideways. Three other windows are timber-framed and have hinges on the upper side, so they swing open from the top. They are framed into posts dug into the ground, the frame must be sturdy enough to support a section of the roof because one pair of wall poles is removed to fit the window.   A smaller window on the west side allows the late afternoon sun to stream in. Quality of life inside the yurt is dependant upon good ventilation, plenty of daylight and scenic views.
The lattice wall is covered with fabric and chicken wire, this will later be covered with earth plaster. An alternative is to weave branches or lathes between the poles to hold the plaster. Landscape fabric provides a cheap breathable barrier, house wrap is a more expensive option. The fabric provides a layer between the plaster and the fiberglass insulation.  The wall has five layers: a lime white wash, earth plaster, chicken wire, fabric, fiberglass insulation, fabric, chicken wire and earth plaster. The fabric and chicken wire are nailed to the lattice wall. Thread 12-gauge wire through the chicken wire to give it extra support. The fiberglass insulation is fitted into the lattice wall. The result is a weather proof breathable wall at minimal cost. Planet loyalty, aesthetics and breathability is why you should use earth plaster and not cement stucco.
The floor is paving stone or interlocking brick. These are easy to embed into the limestone screenings. Master scavengers can source these from the detritus of construction projects. The stone floor is a heat sink for sunshine and the woodstove. A wood floor and area carpets can be added later. A small airtight wood stove provides heat and is used for cooking. The chimney passes through the wall where it is protected from the weather by the roof overhang. Anchor the chimney to the roof for support. Read the building code before installing the stove.
A 40-watt solar panel with a charge controller and a 12- volt battery will power LED lights and charge a smart phone or tablet. Ideally, have two batteries so that there is backup for overcast winter days. The cost jumps substantially if you add more panels and an inverter for AC current. In practice, it’s cheaper to have a top- quality generator for when you need more power, such as, running a vacuum cleaner or a vehicle block heater. Generators must be run regularly to remain reliable.
Earth plastering is where you really connect with the planet - mixing sand, clay and water together, squishing straw into it and then massaging gobs of it into the wall. It takes time, ingredients can be varied, mistakes can be rectified, and the results are deeply satisfying. It’s more important to grasp the principles and variables than rigidly follow a recipe or technique. First, do a simple test to learn the percentage of the ingredients in the proposed earth you plan to make the plaster out of. Half fill a jam jar with dirt, fill it water add a spoonful of salt and shake. Sand, silt and clay will separate out enabling you modify the mix so that you have roughly a 50-70% sand to clay mix. Earth plaster is clay, sand, fiber and water mixed so that it’s soft and sticky. Adapt what you’ve got to what you need. Here is an overview; clay is the glue, sand gives strength and reduces shrinkage and straw reinforces. It’s best to have three layers, the first gives a rough layer that is pushed into the wire mesh to form a strong base. The second layer smooths out the unevenness and the final layer is finer, thinner and less likely to crack. It can take a week or more for each layer to dry. To help the second and third layers stick, wet the plaster with a lime wash. Longer straw is stronger than short. Plastering is unleashing your creative genius; it takes you off on wild riffs improvising with shredded paper, animal manure, hair, sawdust – the list is endless. Mastery comes practice or to borrow a line from Van Morrison - ‘you have to do it for real, anytime, anywhere’.
Barefoot Architect by Johan Lengen                                     Copyright 2018, Hugh Morshead                                                                                          Earthbag Building by Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer                                                           Building Green by Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan
How to Build a Yurt.
Yurts are simple and quick to build compared to other alternative homes. The traditional Mongolian yurt is brilliant in its simplicity. Physics rather than brawn provide structural strength. The lattice wall leans slightly out, a steel cable holds it in place enabling the wall to support the roof. The drawbacks are: poor ventilation, no windows and perhaps having to cuddle up to sheep for supplemental heat. These can be easily rectified by framing in windows, installing an airtight woodstove and fitting fiberglass insulation into the earth plaster covering the wall frame. A two-foot roof overhang, along with a coat of lime wash protects the wall from rain.  A cedar log in the center supports the roof. The bones of the building are Mongolian, the skin is Iron Age Celtic. The timeless challenge is to turn the dream into reality when you’re clinging to the margins of society. There is also the spectre of building permits and bye-law regulations. These are there to protect us from our own and our neighbour’s follies and misfortunes. Building codes are based upon what has pasted the test of time. Imagine Monty Python as a Roman building inspector facing down the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan… “Yurts?!!!... Nooooooo…  you must have proper buildings.” Building an alternative home is a Homeric journey – you can make it to the distant shore with sweat, research and a smidgeon of luck.
Kindness, helpfulness and sociability are all marketable skills. Baby boomers are now in their dotage and many elderly people are living alone on beautiful rural properties. Some of them would welcome the comfort and security of having a supportive couple living close by. Local government is edging in this direction. To help this trend we need to build things right.
There is a long list of parameters to consider when choosing a site. Southern exposure, protection from prevailing wind, avoiding low ground, water management and vehicular access to name a few. This is going to be your home, make it so magical that you never want to leave. Luckily, creativeness and frugality go hand in hand. There is a bibliography at the end of these notes, these books will give you the knowledge and confidence you need. Take comfort with the thought that these building techniques and materials have proven successful for thousands of years, unlike the modern suburban home which is experimental and decidedly dodgy to live in with off-gassing, flammable materials and stale air. Before going into the details of construction it helps to have an overview so that you can have a picture in your mind’s eye.
The yurt is built on a two-foot high platform of packed sub-soil with a top-dressing of limestone screenings. In my experience, a twenty-foot diameter starter home with a 315 sq. ft. floor is the right balance between economy, structural strength and liveability.  The rounded door is framed by fitting two curved logs together, the window frames are attached to posts dug into the ground. The lattice wall is covered on the inside and outside with an earth plaster, fiberglass insulation is sandwiched between the plaster. The chimney for the woodstove passes through the wall. Three of the five window open and this ensures good cross-ventilation. The cedar poles for the lattice wall are seven long and five inches in diameter. The poles for the roof are twelve long and six inches diameter at the top. The roof poles are two feet apart at the wall. Roof strapping is done with salvaged 1” by 6” planks. Three layers of tarps cover the roof, the middle one is 100% waterproof, the other two protect it from the rough edges of the planks and from UV radiation. The roof is covered with a thin layer of compost; this holds down the tarps, helps to insulate and looks natural.
All houses need to be higher than the surrounding land to protect them from surface run-off.  Building on packed sub-soil rather than on a timber frame prevents having cold air and critters under the floor. The platform needs to be at least six feet wider than the yurt. Driving over the dirt with a front-end loader tractor as it is being built will pack it hard. Then, add a top dressing of six inches or more of limestone screenings. Wet screenings packs hard.
Before building the wall, the center post needs to be set in position along with posts for the door frame and the main south-facing window. The posts for the other windows are smaller and they are fitted after the wall is up. The trick to digging holes by hand in hard ground is to use water. Dig as deep as you can be using a digging bar, spade and digging clams. When you hit impossibly hard ground pour six inches of water in the hole, twenty minutes later the ground will be soft enough to get down another few inches, repeat this until you reach a depth of at least 2’9”, preferably 3’6”. I’m fortunate to have cedar logs available which are resistant to rot. An alternative method is to place the post in a plastic bin to protect the wood from moisture.
Curved and irregular shaped doors and windows have charm and character. Hanging the door and fitting the two curved door posts takes ingenuity and chainsaw skills. I scout my woodlot for a pair of curved logs at least eight feet long and no less than eight inches in diameter. These are dug into the ground on the east side to form an arch. The door is roughly four feet wide and five feet high, big enough for furniture and a full-size mattress to fit through. The trick is to have enough of one door post plumb so that the door doesn’t open like a gull’s wing. The door opens outward so that bears at least knock before entering. Next, set a pair of 8” posts on the south side to frame the window, measure the width of the window and allow for the 2” by 6” planks that will frame it. It is easier to frame the window if the posts are half-rounds.
A 20’diamerter circle has a circumference of just over 62ft. My yurt has 32 roof poles, each one is supported at the wall by the crossed wall poles. The first step is to make about thirty pairs of crossed poles. The dimensions are: 7’ poles that are five to six inches in diameter, crossed 9” from the top with the base 52” apart. Fasten them together with 6” or 8” nails. Mark the position of the wall by laying a rope on the ground. Place the first pair of crossed poles in position on the line of the wall and support them temporally with a 12’ roof beam. Add the next pair of crossed poles so that the tops are two feet apart. Follow the same pattern with the remainder of the wall poles, for example, the right leg of one pair cross over and in front of the left leg of the next pair. This maintains the curvature of the circle. After a few pairs are in place, only every third or forth with need to be supported. Lean the wall poles out approximately five degrees. Thread 3/8” steel cable through the joins of the poles and attach the ends with a turnbuckle. Adjust the poles so that you now have a uniform lattice wall that leans slightly out. Tighten the turnbuckle. Wire the legs of the poles tightly together wherever they cross. The roof poles can now be placed in position to form the roof frame. The thin end of the poles rest on the wall. The roof overhang above the south window may need to be adjusted to maximize the heat, winter sunshine and sprouting salad greens.
Iron Age round houses had a roof angle of 14 degrees. Steep enough so that rain flows off, but not so steep that it becomes a torrent eroding the platform or the living roof. The inside height is eight feet in the center and six feet at the wall. The center post supports over thirty poles with seven-inch tops. Ideally, find a tree trunk that has a fork or large limb that can be used to support some of the poles. Alternatively, fit four poles on the trunk and lay the others on top of these. Anchor the poles with eight-inch nails. The roof is then covered with 1” by 6” planks, preferably hardwood. Fit the planks close together, otherwise the tarp can bulge through the gap. Dumpster cowboys are center stage during roofing when scrap timber and trashed tarps are golden. There are many options for the waterproof layer. A heavy-duty agricultural tarp costs about $400 and polythene vapor barrier $40. Then there are all the hi-tech liners used for tailing ponds. My choice was polythene vapor barrier sandwiched between old worn tarps and this works fine. The vapor barrier comes in eight-foot widths and is taped in position. Fasten the edge of the tarps to the underside of the roof overhang. A wood frame of light poles holds the tarps and the ‘black gold’ compost in place. Take a pair of seven-foot poles (left over from the wall), attached the ends together six feet apart with wire, place this over the peak of the roof, do the same with another pair of poles in the opposite direction. The peak should now be ringed by four poles approximately three feet from the top of the roof. Attach more poles onto these until there is a spider’s web of poles covering the roof. This ‘deadman’ style of construction enables a fabric to be anchored to a roof without punching nail holes in it. Next, shovel a three-inch layer of compost onto the roof.
Windows provide ventilation, heat in winter and year-long daylight. It is easiest to fit standard recycled windows. If you have the time and ingenuity, rounded plate glass table tops, car windshields or even a car door can be fitted into the wall. I drive pick-up trucks until they drop, the doors are reincarnated into hobbit homes. There is something about winding down the window, feeling the fresh summer breeze, tunes taking you down memory lane and you’re still on the couch. The main south-facing window is a full-size glass patio door set sideways. Three other windows are timber-framed and have hinges on the upper side, so they swing open from the top. They are framed into posts dug into the ground, the frame must be sturdy enough to support a section of the roof because one pair of wall poles is removed to fit the window.   A smaller window on the west side allows the late afternoon sun to stream in. Quality of life inside the yurt is dependant upon good ventilation, plenty of daylight and scenic views.
The lattice wall is covered with fabric and chicken wire, this will later be covered with earth plaster. An alternative is to weave branches or lathes between the poles to hold the plaster. Landscape fabric provides a cheap breathable barrier, house wrap is a more expensive option. The fabric provides a layer between the plaster and the fiberglass insulation.  The wall has five layers: a lime white wash, earth plaster, chicken wire, fabric, fiberglass insulation, fabric, chicken wire and earth plaster. The fabric and chicken wire are nailed to the lattice wall. Thread 12-gauge wire through the chicken wire to give it extra support. The fiberglass insulation is fitted into the lattice wall. The result is a weather proof breathable wall at minimal cost. Planet loyalty, aesthetics and breathability is why you should use earth plaster and not cement stucco.
The floor is paving stone or interlocking brick. These are easy to embed into the limestone screenings. Master scavengers can source these from the detritus of construction projects. The stone floor is a heat sink for sunshine and the woodstove. A wood floor and area carpets can be added later. A small airtight wood stove provides heat and is used for cooking. The chimney passes through the wall where it is protected from the weather by the roof overhang. Anchor the chimney to the roof for support. Read the building code before installing the stove.
A 40-watt solar panel with a charge controller and a 12- volt battery will power LED lights and charge a smart phone or tablet. Ideally, have two batteries so that there is backup for overcast winter days. The cost jumps substantially if you add more panels and an inverter for AC current. In practice, it’s cheaper to have a top- quality generator for when you need more power, such as, running a vacuum cleaner or a vehicle block heater. Generators must be run regularly to remain reliable.
Earth plastering is where you really connect with the planet - mixing sand, clay and water together, squishing straw into it and then massaging gobs of it into the wall. It takes time, ingredients can be varied, mistakes can be rectified, and the results are deeply satisfying. It’s more important to grasp the principles and variables than rigidly follow a recipe or technique. First, do a simple test to learn the percentage of the ingredients in the proposed earth you plan to make the plaster out of. Half fill a jam jar with dirt, fill it water add a spoonful of salt and shake. Sand, silt and clay will separate out enabling you modify the mix so that you have roughly a 50-70% sand to clay mix. Earth plaster is clay, sand, fiber and water mixed so that it’s soft and sticky. Adapt what you’ve got to what you need. Here is an overview; clay is the glue, sand gives strength and reduces shrinkage and straw reinforces. It’s best to have three layers, the first gives a rough layer that is pushed into the wire mesh to form a strong base. The second layer smooths out the unevenness and the final layer is finer, thinner and less likely to crack. It can take a week or more for each layer to dry. To help the second and third layers stick, wet the plaster with a lime wash. Longer straw is stronger than short. Plastering is unleashing your creative genius; it takes you off on wild riffs improvising with shredded paper, animal manure, hair, sawdust – the list is endless. Mastery comes practice or to borrow a line from Van Morrison - ‘you have to do it for real, anytime, anywhere’.
Barefoot Architect by Johan Lengen                                     Copyright 2018, Hugh Morshead                                                                                          Earthbag Building by Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer                                                           Building Green by Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan