DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE
These structures are known as “yurts” in the West. The word comes from the Russian “yurta,” which in turn comes from the Turkic word “jurt.”
PART ONE OF TWO PARTS
COTTAGE GROVE – Alan Bair never intended to start a company or a movement.
Then one day, he read an article on yurts in National Geographic detailing how nomadic sheepherders created one of the most efficient surface-to-volume ratio structures by using very lightweight natural materials.
His curiosity was piqued.
He didn’t intend to start a movement, but 43 years later Bair has made Cottage Grove Ground Zero in the western production of these ancient dwellings.
Nestled among the trees a couple of miles south of Cottage Grove on Highway 99 are a cluster of dome-shaped dwellings and the world headquarters for Pacific Yurts. It is here that most of the structural elements of this new-old dwelling are manufactured. All of the elements are then brought together, packaged, and shipped out all over the world.
Yurts have been dwellings of the nomadic people of Mongolia and northern east Asia since before written history. The traditional herders covered their yurts with felt pads made from their animal’s wool for insulation and animal hides for a waterproof covering. Similar structures are still found in parts of Turkey and Hungary thanks to Genghis Khan, who traveled with a huge yurt mounted on a wagon and pulled by 22 oxen.
The shape allows wind to flow around it rather than resisting it. Being light and easily portable with pack animals made it perfect for moving the structure to fresh pastures for their herds, and the use of lightweight materials make this traditional design highly-efficient and sturdy.
DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE
Bair figured out how to build one for himself in the mid-1970s. This yurt came in handy when he was living in the woods in Cottage Grove when he was a contractor for tree planting. Later Bair and his wife, Chandra, lived in a yurt while they built their home on undeveloped land.
It became clear to Bair that there was a market out there for this simple structure. Friends who helped him build the original yurt wanted their own. A reporter got wind of the yurts, and that story led to calls from people wanting help in building their own from all over.
In 1978, Pacific Yurts was formed, originally with two partners. The first factory floor was in an old dairy barn in Creswell. The barn was cold and drafty but had the room to tinker and perfect the yurt designs.
This barn served as an incubator of small businesses as they shared resources and ideas. The budding yurt business shared the barn with two other small Oregon businesses which were also just getting started. One of them, Burley Bike Bags, was contracted to sew yurt covers made from marine-grade canvas.
As things began to heat up with the yurt business, electrical power needs and other issues, in 1980, Pacific Yurts pulled up stakes in Creswell and moved to its current location south of Cottage Grove near Weyerhaeuser.
They rented an old frame building that had seen many other enterprises, including an auto repair shop, and surprisingly, considering the building’s size, a roller skating rink. There was lots of room on the property to expand the operations, which would come in handy in due time.
Bair eventually bought the building and the three-acre property. The old frame building was too old, cramped and failing structurally, so it was replaced by a larger, modern structure further back on the property. This dramatic move “across the stream,” allowed Pacific Yurts to up production and plan for expansion.
One of the core principles of Pacific Yurts has been the concern and care for the environment. This belief guided the development of the property and the product. Careful planning allowed them to preserve the old growth oak savannah on the property and minimize the impact on the land. Conscientious landscaping adds beauty and wildlife habitat to the operation.
PHOTOS BY DANA MERRYDAY/THE CHRONICLE
Austrian artist Friedenreich Hundertwasser would have felt quite comfortable inside a yurt. He had an antipathy towards straight lines and right angles, calling it “sterile architecture” and that “the straight line leads to the downfall of humanity.” The round portable dwellings with domed roofs don’t have a single corner in it.
Respect for land is in the bones of the yurt itself. It is by definition a low-impact environmentally-friendly product. Yurts can be placed in the wilderness by delivering the pieces in the back of a pick-up truck, trailer, or in a few cases, by ATV or helicopter.
Pacific Yurts uses second-growth wood from sustainably managed forests, minimizing waste, and reuses all scraps and pieces, pre-cycle and use green power and soy inks. Using minimal materials to create maximum space, its portability and its ability to leave virtually no trace, the yurt is a light touch on the Earth.
Next week: The many splendored uses for yurts.