Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 11, 2010

Workshop gives the dirt on building a yurt

Participants learn how to build the round structure

By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — Leelanau forest, Mongolian yurt.

The unlikely pairing met Saturday thanks to a "Building a Modern Yurt" workshop held on the grounds of the Eco Learning Center. Furniture builder Matt Joppich guided a crew of 10 participants as they followed detailed plans crafted by American yurt champion Bill Coperthwaite.

Working industriously Saturday and Sunday, the team's goal was a completed 13-foot diameter wooden yurt. An effort the previous weekend assembled the yurt's platform.

Taking a short break Saturday from installing flooring, Dennis Klinefelt of Karlin praised the yurt's simple circular structure.

"Incredibly energy efficient and the strength comes from the circular design," said Klinefelt, who has participated in previous seminars and workshops at the Eco Learning Center. "They're not usually made of wood — like a Mongolian teepee, they could break a yurt down and travel with them."

Enamored with yurts and a skilled builder, Joppich wanted to meld his two interests building a wooden yurt that can be insulated and used year round.

"They're quite unique and very wonderful to occupy either for meditation space or a chicken coop or bigger ones could be houses," said Joppich, who had workshop participants layering cellulose and wool below the wooden flooring for insulation.

The very simplicity of the concept of a yurt and its construction captivates Joppich. The basic design and ease of creation harks back to prior generations where people built their own homes. Housing was inherently affordable in an era before specialization, codes and permits, complex designs and myriad amenities and features.

"The biggest thing is that our building industry for homes has changed dramatically in the last 100-200 years," he said. "It used to be that a person could build their own home to live in using indigenous materials and now we can't do that because it's a very specialized industry."

Jayne Leatherman, director and educator of the nonprofit Eco Learning Center, welcomed Joppich to conduct the summer's final workshop on her land. The output of the yurt workshop is a practical one for Leatherman, an additional structure to help the working farm, CSA and educational facility.

However, the big picture of offering a space to learn is more important. Joppich previously taught workshops on "Simple Tools and Techniques," "Women's Woodworking for Homesteaders" and "More Tools, Techniques and Projects." Attendees in this latter class learned to build simple furniture, chicken coops and small outbuildings.

The unifying theme of these hands-on classes has been to boost competency in basic skills — woodworking, creating shelter and learning by doing, for example, in the yurt building workshop. These are skills mostly lost to the average person in today's high-tech, low-touch lifestyle.

Relearning and sharing such basic skills is not about going back but moving forward, Leatherman said. Instead, these opportunities reflect a fundamental philosophy of the Eco Learning Center.

"We're not really going back, but standing on the shoulders of history so we can solve the world's problems," said Leatherman, adding: "We each do what we can in our own square feet."