The Farrells’ 250-Square-Foot Mongolian Yurt
Name: Cathy, Greg, Nick and Andrew Farrell
Location: Keene Valley, New York
Size: The two yurts are about 250 and 350 sq/ft each, on 100 acres of land
Years lived in: 34 years, owned
Thirty-four summers ago, Brooklyn dwellers Cathy and Greg Farrell gathered fifty of their closest friends in New York’s Adirondack Mountains to build a yurt, a flying saucer–like structure once reserved for nomads in Mongolia. In 10 days, the sloping walls of the simple dwelling rose beside a stream, the start of a sprawling compound worthy of the Swiss Family Robinson. Over the next three decades, Cathy, Greg and their two sons added a second yurt, cooking area, wood-burning hot tub, sauna, and zip line – every bit of it built by hand with friends.
Why a yurt? On a practical level, it could be constructed within their limited vacation time. Philosophically, the circular shape creates an ideal environment for group interactions, bringing people face to face easily. Intrigued, Cathy and Greg enlisted the help of Dr. Bill Coperthwaite, a yurt pioneer who adapted the traditional Asian pole-and-felt design to the Western sawn timber frame.
Just 16 feet in diameter, the weathered pine of the original yurt blends easily with the natural environment, its interior lit by a skylight and warmed by a wood-burning stove. An outdoor cooking area came next – a fire pit, pantry and dining table – then a lean-to downstream for their growing boys, Nick and Andy.
Years later, when Nick and Andy decided to build their own yurt, both their own college-age friends and the original summer of ’76 crew joined in. Since then, the community connected to the yurt has continued to grow, each person contributing something to the property.
A construction-savvy friend spearheaded the creation of a zip line down the stream. Others built the sauna and popular hot tub, fed by the nearby stream, and rolled boulders up the hill to ring a fire pit, the social center of epic annual gatherings. Every year in late summer, dozens of friends meet in the woods to camp, cook and enjoy the one-of-a-kind space, a creative community spiraling ever outward from a simple, circular yurt.
By Nick Farrell
Inspiration: The inspiration for the yurts was Bill Coperthwaite, a kind of yurt-building pioneer who adapted the traditional Mongolian design using animal skin or thick felt to a more permanent, sawn-timber design.
Favorite Element: The skylight. I also really like the curved full logs that serve as rails for the upper yurt deck stairs.
Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenge for the original yurt was to create the curved, hobbit-style door. To do so, my dad soaked thin, 1″ X 5″ strips of pine boards, and then bent them around into the oval shape. I know that he broke a number of pieces before he finally got one to work.
What Friends Say: The yurts are a cross between a flying saucer and a cupcake. Or, the compound is part Swiss Family Robinson, part Ewok village.
Biggest Indulgence: The hot tub, for sure. The hot tub design was copied from a company called “snorkel stove.” We bought one of their pre-fab hot tubs about 20 years ago, but it was in a damp spot and sat directly on the ground, so it rotted out within 6-7 years. However, the actual stove and the compression bands were still in good shape, so we just recycled those. Otherwise, we used cedar that my brother’s old roommate acquired as a green builder in Vermont. Cedar is good for hot tubs and saunas because it is very rot-resistant.
Proudest DIY: The hot tub plumbing system does not involve any electricity (obviously). It is gravity-fed from the nearby stream, using about 200 feet of 1″ diameter hosing. From a physics perspective, as long as your input is higher than your output, then the water should draw through the line. However, in order to make this work, you first have to “prime” the line by filling it full of water using a primer bucket system. Once you have a continuous column of water throughout the line, the adhesive properties of water will help to pull water through the line, even uphill.
Best Advice: Provide the space and basic materials necessary for people to be creative, and then get out of the way and let them run with it. This has happened on any number of occasions. The hot tub project was spearheaded by my brother’s old college roommate. One of my college friends, Steve Spektor, orchestrated the zip line project, stringing up the cables over the course of a weekend. In 2006, a few of my college friends started rolling big boulders out of the stream — and ultimately created all of the beautiful, natural seating around the bonfire pit. Of course, it helps to have a bunch of talented and creative friends.
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(Images: Liz Vidyarthi. Originally published 2010-09-22)