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“My argument is, what’s to stop a guy from saying, ‘I want to build a one family house’ in his yard?. I’m against this, because I don’t see any way to enforce it.” Covert councilman Chuck Bosman was talking about allowing yurts in the town of Covert, an issue that will come up for public discussion at the July 13 meeting. Because yurts don’t comply with building code, the town has been reluctant to allow them.

But yurts are not only an issue for Covert. Although the town has resisted, so far, allowing the structures or allowing variances for them, since yurts are not in most code enforcement officers’ playbooks the modern day version of Mongolian nomads’ tents are in the forefront of the tiny home movement. Proponents of yurts point out that yurts have less environmental impact than traditional homes, they can be moved, and they’re affordable. Leaving behind the wool felting that covered the traditional ger for materials like vinyl, Tyvek, and insulation, modern yurts rely on their forebears mostly for structural elements.

The circular dome shape of a yurt is created with a set of khana, made of wood, plastic or metal, that give shape to the walls, a circle at the top called a toono, and roof poles that radiate from the toono to the walls. The downward pressure of gravity against the khana provides the tension that keeps the structure erect, and allows for an arched, empty interior space that makes yurts feel a lot bigger on the inside than they look from without.

“Cost is a huge thing,” said Steve Gabriel of the Permaculture Institute. Gabriel and his small family lived in a yurt while they were building their house. “We were looking to start a farm, and the yurt was basically an affordable way to get ourselves on the property. For the first couple years, we wanted to put our finances into the farm.”

“I really like the size and shape of a yurt; it feels very comfortable to me.” Louise Adie lived in a yurt village on Tug Hill Plateau for five winters. Adie is very much an outdoor person, having led kayak tours of the Antarctic for several seasons. Although she already has a yurt, she needs a place to erect it, and she’s looking for a long term situation. “I’m getting older, and I’m not a person with a lot of money to spend.” She has a site picked out, where a mobile home once stood. It has a concrete pad, a driveway, and utility hookups and it’s near where she grew up in Trumansburg. “I’ve been here since I was eight, and I’d like to stay here.”

However, different towns have different building codes, and fitting yurts into those codes can be a headache. In many, the Universal Building Code’s minimum dwelling size 940 square feet prohibits yurts. The square footage of a 30 foot diameter yurt is about 250 square feet. In Covert, the minimum building size is 940 square feet, making not only yurts but any other small dwelling illegal. Next door, the town of Ulysses has eliminated minimum dwelling sizes, and in still other places, yurt owners are hoping to fly under the radar.

Gabriel said that at first, he didn’t think he needed a permit for his yurt because it was temporary, but then he discovered he did need one. He worked with the code enforcement officer in his town to make his yurt legal. “They want to know, is it structurally sound? Yurts are built to code for snowload by the manufacturer.” Although almost no building is fully code approved (the building code handbook for New York State has 35 chapters), code enforcement officers are tasked with making sure buildings are safe to live in, and tend to err on the side of caution.

“If you’ve got all the drawings and designs for the code officials to look at, that helps.” Michelle Menter has a 30 foot yurt complete with a full kitchen,
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a bedroom loft, front deck and a patio out back. Sited in a lovely garden on a hillside in Newfield, the yurt has a steady stream of paying guests through the summer. Many stay for the weekend or through the week to enjoy the sounds and smells of nature and the exotic fun of staying in the circular dwelling.

Likewise, Kingtown Beach in Ulysses has two yurts that campers rent for summer vacationing. Yurts like these can be found on “Glamping” or glamor camping sites, as they offer all the ambiance of a tent with the comforts of home, too.

“You can hear the birds singing,” said Gabriel. “It’s really quite nice in the summer months.”

However, if you want to do more than just camp in your yurt, the question of heating comes up. Mongolians use a central wood stove, but for modern yurt owners, building on a concrete slab with radiant heat is ideal. The yurt owners spoken to for this story had decks or platforms built first, and the yurts were erected on top of them. “It’s not easy to insulate,” Gabriel said.

Adie said the yurts she stayed in at the Nordic village were warm, and the dome at the top of the yurt can be opened for ventilation.

Yurt manufacturers offer a variety of packages, with code approved windows and doors, as well as options for insulation and amenities. The “basic yurt” offered by the Colorado Yurt Company starts at $11,000 for a 30 foot diameter yurt (front door included); adding roof insulation is $1730, wall insulation another $1445. Many people go even cheaper by purchasing a used yurt online, or by building part of their yurt themselves. Thus, adding in the cost of the platform or slab, a property owner could build a livable yurt with $20,000 or less and expect it to last fifteen or twenty years.

For people like Adie, that sounds just about perfect. “It’s personal,” she admits. “I love the roundness. It feels so comfortable to me, and it’s a small footprint.”

Note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct square footage for a 30 foot yurt; in an earlier version of the article 250 square foot correct for an 18 ft diameter yurt was cited.

The math error (30′ diameter equals 250 Sq. ft.) indicates the shoddy reporting / facts presented in this article, whose sole purpose is to propagandize the difficulties of Ms. Adie is experiencing in building her substandard yurt in the Town of Covert. It is the minimum standard for residential construction and I assure you that Ms. Adies’s yurt does not meet these standards. The Code was developed by professional / licensed engineers and is not subject to lesser interruptions by local code enforcement officials. These quotes from the article say it all: “Yurt owners are hoping to fly under the radar. It’s personal, I love the roundness. It feels so comfortable to me.” It’s all about ME. I’m special. I don’t need to follow the rules other people do.

Fred, Jafo232, thanks for catching that number; in an earlier version of the article I was working with the 18 ft. What is the point of setting building codes to these standards when we allow people to live in mobile homes? Trailers are not safe, but they are allowed because they are considered temporary but they are certainly no more or less temporary than a yurt. I would also take issue with your assertion that building code is concerned with affordability. Tiny houses are built with standard materials, but they are disallowed because they are below the square footage requirement.

I totally agree with your statement about “trailers,” but I believe they have been banned in the Town of Covert for many years. Any trailers you see date back to the pre ban era, or are allowed by a variance for a specified period, as temporary housing while a house is being built. And by “trailers,” I do not mean double wides or manufactured housing. Regarding tiny houses; I believe a code compliant 350 400 SF one could be built for 1 2 inhabitants. However, what happens when the family grows, or the house is sold to a family of, say, five. Suddenly the house is not Code compliant and is a health and safety hazard to its inhabitants. How is the Town or County going to monitor situations like this? Conduct a periodic headcount? Moreover, once discovered, are they going to condemn the structure and evict the family or knowingly allowing habitation of an unsafe house?In conclusion, it seems that the current Codes and Land use Ordinances handle the issues of unsafe trailers, yurts,
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and potentially tiny houses quite nicely.

Yurts are entirely safe and reasonable residences. I have lived in one for 20 years. In extreme weather it resists wind and damaging hail better than many “conventional” structures. While other homes near me were losing shingles or roofs my yurt simply “breathes” with the walls flexing so they do not break. It is a mode of construction that conventional minded folks can’t quite understand and engineers don’t have a box it can fit into. The code as written does not adequately address yurt construction if it is being used to deny construction. A yurt is safer than a house in most instances. Properly fitted it is warm and comfortable and as safe from fire and weather as any other. Maybe even a bit better than really. Building codes are supposed to be designed to prevent unsafe structures from being built in general but too often they are used by inspectors and towns and villages to exert undue control and influence over how someone else would prefer to live. In the case of Yurts there is no slippery slope leading to one family houses being built in front yards or general abandonment of the code or any other silly notion. In my town they initially permitted my yurt as a seasonal structure/outbuilding for purposes of having some kind of permit they could issue. The real issue is officious and ignorant officials who simply don’t want to accommodate a perfectly reasonable style of shelter. Perhaps instead of denying permit they should look into towns that have accommodated yurt living without issue there are lots and lots who have.