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The wide-spread media coverage of the environmental living movement has recently pushed alternative homes to the forefront. Most of these structures are either replicas or adaptations of homes used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. With the advances in portable solar and wind energy generators, these homes can now support several of the essential electrical appliances that we have come to rely on. Off-grid living is no longer restricted to adventurous purists nor is it primitive. You can live in a tent year round and still blog about it.
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Green Living and Alternative Living Structures
Living in an alternative structure- a yurt, Eathbag home, micro home, Earthship, tent, teepee, or geodesic sphere construction- offers some unique opportunities to integrate traditional home essentials into a completely new environment. Choosing to live any of these homes is the first major step in changing from a lifestyle of consumption to one of equilibrium with the environment.
Earthships and Earthbag homes are permanent structures that are built with raw materials that have not been manufactured from standing timber, plastics, or other man made compounds. The physical structures and supports are essentially made from dirt, clay, and rocks.
R. Buckminster Fuller invented the Geodesic dome structure in 1954. They are also permanent homes but are made from fabricated aluminum or steel beams that are fitted into triangular panels that combine to complete a half circle dome. The metal super-structure is then fitted with panels that cover the triangular openings. These can be made of any number of materials but usually they are cell cast acrylic or plastic polymers. The major draw of this structure is that it doesn’t require internal supports so the entire area under the dome is useable living space.
Tents, teepees, and Yurts are all portable structures. They don’t seem to be the intuitive choice for a permanent home, but for nomadic people they are the perfect choice. Of course, this doesn’t preclude them from being used as permanent structures; some are fully capable of being used as a year round home in even extreme climates. Teepees and tents don’t offer as much protection from the elements as yurts do. The combination of portability and structural integrity makes the Yurt one of the most alluring choices for alternative home.
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Yurts as Semi-Permanent or Permanent Homes
Yurts seem to be the alternative structure of choice. This is likely due to the spacious open interiors, portability, and ease of set-up when compared to other green housing alternatives. The interiors often consist of one central support pole leaving the entire area available for living. There is also the option of joining multi yurts of similar or different sizes meaning internal design is practically unlimited. This makes using a yurt as a permanent home completely feasible.
Setting up a Yurt
Decking – Yurts don’t have to be erected on decking but if you want to have a solid floor this would be the way to go. Decking usually consists of either tongue and groove wood or SIPs laid out on a 4’x4’ frame. This flooring usually stays entirely within the yurts walls so it is either round or square with an internal hypotenuse the same diameter as the Yurt.
Walls – Yurt walls are made of a flexible lattice. They are lightweight and are only a shaping mechanism. The real strength of the structure is the tension created by the covering. The walls are usually foldable and attach to a metal ring structure at the top and bottom of the cylindrical walls.
Roof – The yurt roof is made of straight wood beams (sometimes rods) that run from the top of the perimeter cylinder to the center of the structure. Here they are fastened together with rope or bolted to a small circular frame in the middle.
Coverings – When the basic structure is in place, the wall and ceiling coverings are installed. The wall fabric is stretched and fastened on either side of the entrance. This fabric can be made of a variety of materials; the most common are vinyl composite, cotton, and polyester. The top is also made from the same fabric and is usually treated with a waterproofing spray.
When a yurt is erected in a cold weather area, it is traditional to use more than one covering. Sometimes up to four layers are installed including layers of thick blanketing or pocketed insulation.
Insulation – One of the major concerns with a yurt is keeping the internal temperature livable. Roof insulating kits are available but it is just as easy to purchase Astrofoil. This NASA inspired product consists of two layers of bubble wrap surrounded by a layer of silver foil. This creates a buffer zone between the outside air and the inside air with temperature diffusion being slowed by the silver foil. Floor insulation is a different matter and depends on whether you have chosen to have decking or not. Using decking you would need an underlayment of R-13 or higher polyfoam insulation (there are more green friendly alternatives from Agriboard).
Installing Portable Power Sources
Off-grid living in a yurt can be accomplished with photovoltaic power supplies and wind generators without having to give up the creature comforts to which you are accustomed. Adding a rolled solar power system to a yurt roof is fully possible because they are lightweight, able to be daisy chained, and can be linked to a battery back that produces an ample supply of 12-volt power. This would allow the purchase of either RV appliances (which run on direct 12 volt DC power) or with the help of a converter you could use traditional refrigerators, air conditioners, fans, and even flat screen TVs (think about walking into your grand Yurt and watching the game on a 60" flat screen – yep, it can happen).
If you don’t want to rely entirely on solar panels there are portable wind turbines available. These were developed to be used at traveling outdoor shows where access to electricity was hit or miss but they do nicely for an off-grid home. There are also several DIY projects that show you how to make a 1000-watt wind turbine on the cheap out of commonly available magnets and scrap metal.
Running electrical wiring and installing plugs may be the most technical aspect of putting up a functional yurt, after all, they don’t have windows so the interior can get awful dark and you’ll want some sort of lighting. If you’ve run decking, you can run the wires beneath the floorboard and put plugs and covers directly in the floor. If not you’ll have to trench the wires (use outdoor grade extension cords and GFI circuits to ensure no water problems) and run them directly to your appliances.
Drainage – The pitch of a yurt roof, usually 5 degrees or more, diverts water off all around the structure. A drainage field filled will pea gravel can be made around the home (a one inch wide, six inch deep, trench will suffice) to redirect water and keep it from pooling. And optional catch basin can be added along the drainage route to collect rainwater for use in the home (as an alternative to digging a well).
Yurts are usually large enough to accommodate an entire family but if there is a concern about privacy, multiple yurts can be connected via short tunnels or bridges or a large yurt could be subdivided using moveable panels (Shoji screen, etc.). This is especially effective when a composting toilet (see Advantages of Compositing Toilets) is incorporated into the home.
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Local Housing Codes, Rules, and Regulations
The biggest hurdle to overcome once you’ve decided to build (or purchase) a yurt is the local building inspector. Most inspectors have never had to deal with yurts or even know what they are. You will be responsible for educating them as to the structural integrity and feasibility of making this a permanent residence. Because Yurts don’t normally meet national, state, or local building codes, you may have to apply for special permits through a planning commission to get the necessary approval.
Using a tent as a year round structure may not be feasible but with a Yurt, it’s a whole new ballgame. Before you up and leave your home and decide to move to a yurt commune off in the desert somewhere do your due diligence and see exactly what you’ll be in for. There is a lot of planning necessary and a commitment to a nontraditional lifestyle, after all, the interior of a Yurt doesn’t offer anywhere to hang pictures of your in-laws.
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Instructables.com,"Build yourself a portable home - a mongolian yurt," David Buzz, http://www.instructables.com/id/Build-yourself-a-portable-home---a-mongolian-yurt/
Dornob; "Eccentric Aesthetics: DIY Eco-Friendly Earthbag Homes," http://dornob.com/eccentric-aesthetics-diy-eco-friendly-earthbag-homes/
Green DIY EnergyX; "Solar Energy Panel"; October 2009, http://www.greendiyenergyx.com/
Yurt Information, "Building Codes, Financing & Insurance For Yurts,"http://www.yurtinformation.com/otherfaqs.htm
YurtInfo.com, "Yurts and Codes," http://www.yurtinfo.org/buildingcodes.php
WindPower UK; "300W Portable Wind Turbine," http://windpoweruk.com/300W-portable.html
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Agriboard Industries;"Welcome to Agriboard", http://www.agriboard.com
Instructables.com; "DIY 1000 Watt Wind Turbine," Sspence, http://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-1000-watt-wind-turbine/
NetworkEarth.org; Natrual Buliding Colloquium; "Sustainability and the Building Codes," David Eisenberg, http://www.networkearth.org/naturalbuilding/codes.html