May ABODE: Needing extra space, local families discover the yurt

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 Christine Gyovai and Reed Muehlman built an extra-big deck to support their yurt, so that they’d have outdoor hangout space around it. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

It’s a moment familiar to countless homeowners: You look around the house and think If only we had a bit more space. More room for storage, a place to be alone, somewhere to stash the guests —there are plenty of reasons one might add square footage. But how? Building onto an existing house costs a lot, takes time, and makes a mess.
Enter the yurt.

“We have a tight little house,” said Reed Muehlman, who lives with Christine Gyovai and their two young children in an 1,100-square-foot house in Albemarle. When entertaining, he said, “We definitely put people on mattresses in the living room, but at some point [we needed something more].”

A yurt—that is, a modern, locally built version of the round tentlike structures traditionally occupied by Mongolian nomads—was the perfect solution. “It’s a non-permanent structure,” said Muehlman, who shares with his wife a commitment to stewardship of their land. “It doesn’t permanently affect the landscape. I had much less fear about putting it up.” Buying a yurt essentially means getting a kit: walls and roof which get assembled on-site, then sit on a deck.

Gyovai summed up the yurt’s other advantages, from aesthetic to practical: “I love round spaces…I love the feel of the space. It’s cost-effective. [And] we could put it up in a couple of weekends.”

It helped that the couple was familiar with yurts, too; Gyovai had stayed in one while taking a permaculture course in California years before. “We knew what the yurt would be like,” she said. If experience with yurts tends to breed affection, that may explain their increasing popularity. The number of local yurts, while still small, is growing.

Dave Berzonsky and Estela Knott added a yurt to their backyard so that they could open a preschool; their two daughters can use the space too. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Between worlds
Enthusiasts tend to praise yurts’ practical advantages first, but most end up alluding to intangibles. Traditionally, the yurt not only provides shelter but functions as a microcosm, organizing its inhabitants’ spiritual landscape. “The very shape of the circle seems to connect us at a primordial, cellular level to the unity of all things, to our inter-connectedness with each other and our connectedness to the whole,” is how the website yurtinfo.org puts it.
Belmont resident Dave Berzonsky stated it more specifically. “We wanted to make a space for children they instantly recognize as special,” he said. “It creates a subtle shift in their consciousness that makes them think they’re in a magical, creative space.” His wife, Estela Knott, opened a preschool last fall in the yurt they added to their backyard.
The couple’s house looks like an ordinary brick rancher from the street. But Berzonsky and Knott, who also teach music through their organization Blue Ridge Music Together, see their entire property as a symbol of the universe. Carter’s Mountain, visible from the backyard, serves as the local mountain god. The gardens that fill the backyard are laid out in celestial shapes—sun, moon, star—and aligned to the four directions.

Preschool students and the couple’s own children, ages 4 and 1, can develop “an understanding of the totality,” Berzonsky said—from planetary motion to seasonal cycles—while doing things on a small scale within these indoor and outdoor circular environments.
“It’s so wonderful to be in a round schoolhouse,” Knott says. “The center is our common place where we do structured activities, like our music circle time. We gather in the center and disperse to the ring.” Around the circle are kid-sized tables and chairs, a play kitchen, and other learning stations. The center is open, and all is bathed in sun by the round skylight in the middle of the dome-shaped roof.

“The kids like to lie on the carpet and look through the dome and watch clouds roll by,” said Knott. Her husband likes to do the same: “You’re lying in your yard, but you’re lying on a carpet.”

Furnished with a walnut floor, the yurt is a space that encourages creativity. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Do it yourself
For Knott and Berzonsky, the yurt provided a realistic way to create a magical space —and a place of business—in a short period of time. “A year ago at this time, nothing you see was here,” said Berzonsky.

He’d first learned about yurts during a natural-building workshop in California, which left him “obsessed with building a cob cottage.” (Cob is an ancient building material similar to adobe.) But, having bought their Charlottesville house in 2009 and wanting to move forward on their plan for the preschool, the couple needed a faster way to create shelter.

“This is the most bang for your buck for a natural building environment that you can achieve quickly for not too much cost—open, airy, from natural materials,” said Berzonsky. “The cob cottage was not possible; the kids would be in high school by the time it was done.”

Their yurt cost $6,000, purchased used from Blue Ridge Yurts; it had formerly served as an office for the music festival FloydFest. Berzonsky, who had little building experience, spent several months creating the yurt’s “foundation:” a hexagonal deck that sits on seven concrete piers, with a plywood ring to attach to the bottom of the yurt.

It wasn’t an easy process. “The plans had angles I had to cut on the rafters that you can’t really cut on a table saw,” he said. “It was totally challenging, but not nearly as challenging as the floor.” Because yurts don’t come with floors, each yurt owner can choose material; Berzonsky bought some beautiful and inexpensive—but quirky—walnut flooring on Craigslist. “Every single piece was bent and had to be routed, planed, run through the table saw,” he said. “I would never wish that on anybody.”

Yet putting up the yurt itself took Berzonsky and a helper only a single day. Soon afterward, Reed Muehlman helped him make a quick adjustment to the roof to fix a leak. And that was that.

Space is carefully apportioned in the Dawes yurt, which houses two adults and two kids. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell) 

A house goes up
Yurt-raising parties are a common way for owners to get their new structures in place. Raising a yurt, Muehlman said, “is an involved assembly process. It’s not hard, but it is a concerted effort. Don’t think you’ll throw it up like a camping tent.”

Essentially, the collapsible latticework walls of the yurt go up first. A metal cable is threaded around the top of the wall. Then the roof rafters get attached to both the cable and the “compression ring” that frames the central skylight. Muehlman followed the advice of Blue Ridge Yurts and rented a Sheetrock lifter to hold the compression ring in place during rafter assembly.

It’s the before and after—preparing for the yurt, then finishing its interior—that can become more time-consuming and costly, depending on myriad factors. Gyovai and Muehlman took a patchwork approach, doing some work themselves and hiring Sugar Hollow Builders for the rest. Like Knott and Berzonsky’s, their yurt was also a former FloydFest office, and the entire project—including a larger-than-necessary deck, to provide some outdoor sitting space—cost $11,800.

Blossom and Hawker Dawes hired someone to build a platform on their land in Crozet in 2010, then erected a yurt over two weekends with the help of friends. After that, Hawker spent a fall, winter, and spring building a loft, full kitchen, and furniture. They moved in shortly before Blossom gave birth to their second child.

Their yurt is larger than the other couples’—24 feet in diameter rather than 20—and much more densely furnished, as you’d expect in a full-time home. The loft provides a sleeping and play space for their daughter, soon to turn 4, and creates a ceiling over the “master bedroom” and kitchen areas. Dawes used wood salvaged from the old cottage on their property to build kitchen cabinets, made countertops from local soapstone, and found off-price oak flooring.

Purchased new, this larger yurt cost $16,000, its higher price due in part to extra windows, six in all (the couple wanted to take advantage of mountain views).

Having originally bought the property with the intention of renovating the cottage, the Dawes opted for a yurt because of “the fact that we could put it up so quickly and live on our land,” said Blossom. Their intention is to tear down the cottage, salvage as much material as possible, and build a new house.

“We plan to keep the yurt,” said Blossom. A yoga teacher, she envisions using it as a yoga studio or for putting up guests. “Or we could have a B&B.”

Many parents might balk at sharing a small space, free of walls, with two children. But for this family, it mostly works. “We get them to sleep by 7; then we can watch movies or make dinner [without waking them up],” said Blossom. “But we don’t have any privacy.” Too, when just one child is sleeping, she sometimes wishes for a room with a door she could close.

Gyovai and Muehlman use their yurt as a home office and guest room; it has slept as many as six people. (Photo by Andrea Hubbell)

Swing space
“The flexible nature of the yurt has been one of the most attractive things,” said Gyovai. She uses hers as a home office, but it also sleeps guests—two couples at a time, or (in one case) a mother and five children. “It has been invaluable—as craft space, gathering space,” she said. The deck outside holds a table and chairs with a leafy view.

Even a yurt that holds a preschool can find other uses when the students go home. Knott and Berzonsky use theirs for rehearsing and teaching music. “It’s nice to rehearse in here,” said Berzonsky, who performs regularly with Beleza Brazil and the Olivarez Trio. “It’s got great acoustics.”

On his birthday, they discovered another use for their yurt: as a place for a babysitter to supervise their and their guests’ children while the adults had a civilized dinner party in the house.

Kathy Anderson and Sharon Morley, owners of Blue Ridge Yurts, have sold about 100 yurts to customers in the six years they’ve been in business. They’ve heard of some inventive uses for yurts—a dulcimer workshop, a martial arts studio, and a B&B in Stanardsville, which features a hot tub and a private bedroom. But, they said, the majority of their customers buy yurts for full-time residences.

As such, most choose larger yurts. Their company charges $15,190 for a 30′ yurt with 10′ high walls, but the cost can quickly approach $20,000 with extras like insulation, additional windows and French doors. The smallest, most basic yurt—16 feet across—costs $6,145.
“You can do anything to a yurt that you can do to a conventional home—electricity, plumbing, partitions, glass windows,” said Anderson. “You can be off the grid.”

One reason yurts are affordable—and considered friendly to the environment—is that, as a side effect of being designed for lightweight portability, they use relatively few materials, said Anderson. “There’s very little lumber in the walls. You’re not digging a solid foundation into the ground….If you take down a yurt], four months later the grass grows and you never know it was there.”

That light footprint attracted Muehlman to the yurt, but aesthetics were important too. “There’s probably another level that has to do with appearance in the landscape. It’s hard to put something out there that isn’t obtrusive. I could put up a single-wide, but…[the yurt] is a much more endearing, character-filled thing.”

Living with yurts
“When we tell people we live here, the main theme is ‘Have you frozen to death?’” said Blossom Dawes. “But it’s very comfortable.” She and her husband heat their yurt with a woodstove, and they treated themselves to two mini-split A/C units. “It makes it livable,” she said. “Other people could probably live without the A/C, but I’m not that person.”
When the heat isn’t fierce, they open the door and the dome for ventilation. Siting matters too, said Gyovai: Her yurt sits under some maple trees. “It stays in shade until 12:30 or so in summer, which helps with heat. We use it until mid-afternoon,” before it becomes too warm.

Yurts may be insulated—Blue Ridge Yurts uses a reflective foil system—but are by nature more open to the weather than houses. This, say enthusiasts, is part of their charm.
“It’s an intimate connection with the elements,” said Blossom Dawes. “If it rains really hard and we’re watching a movie, we can’t hear it. A gentle rain is just beautiful. And you can feel the lattice contract in [a strong] wind. But I’ve told myself, this is a design that is very ancient and from very harsh places.” (The ancient design includes an open hole rather than a covered skylight; Gyovai and Muehlman had to replace a skylight dome after theirs flipped off in a microburst.)

Knott said that her preschool students love hearing rain and wind from inside the yurt, and that weather makes it clear that the yurt “is not a hard building, it’s soft. But it’s still strong and safe.” Inside, she said, the yurt’s visible structure is an aesthetic plus. “It’s such a beautiful texture—natural wood over natural canvas. It’s the perfect space for being a musician or artist.”

As for Dawes, you might expect her to feel cramped in her one-room home, with two kids underfoot. But she said it’s just the opposite, partly due to the high central dome: “From our bed when you look up, this seems so big to me.”

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