When the yurt’s loo takes pride of place…

While Architectural Digest describes yurts as “an architectural wonder of the world” — and it is without doubt — inside my yurt it’s the loo that’s the showpiece.


Sanicompact43 – the ultimate toilet

It’s Saniflo‘s Sanicompact 43— a very superior toilet in every way.  It’s high quality ceramic; it’s almost silent; it’s about the most waterwise-efficient toilet you can get… and it took less than 5 minutes to install in the yurt!  And it has a soft-close lid & seat — you just tap it and it slowly closes on its own. Continue reading

The yurt’s biogas unit/biodigestor… for R300!

All the blackwater from the yurt’s toilet goes into the biodigestor.  And so does all the organic waste from the kitchen.  Methane gas output is increased by fats, oils, greases and sugars, and you can use the gas for cooking and heating.  Another byproduct is liquid fertilizer, which you can use in the garden.  You won’t need to buy fertilizer again!

The biodigestor: The bottom tap drains liquid fertilzer, the tap on top is the gas outlet and the blackwater input pipe is lying across the top of the tank, ready to be inserted into the tank.

The biodigestor: The bottom tap drains liquid fertilzer, the tap on top is the gas outlet and the blackwater input pipe is lying across the top of the tank, ready to be inserted into the tank.

The tank cost about R200 from Peninsula Drums and all the other fittings are from Overberg Agri and cost about R100.  So… blackwater sorted for about R300!  And all byproducts can be re-used.  What on earth are we doing pumping all our effluent into expensive reticulation to expensive sewerage treatment works kilometres away?  And unlike septic tanks, there is no danger of polluting groundwater.

In 1980, India had over 9 million biodigestors in operation.  Today the number can’t be counted because they are even found on apartment balconies, primarily for organic waste to provide cooking gas for the inhabitants.

My solution took less than an hour to make.  I cut holes for the liquid fertilizer and gas output pipes, and inserted tank connectors with taps.  How to get the tank connector into the drum?  Take a very thin piece of wire and insert it into the drum and guide it to come out of the hole where the tank connector has to go.  Feed the tank connector onto the wire and pull it into the hole, where it needs to be tightened.

For the blackwater input pipe, I cut a hole into the one screw top, inserted the fittings into it and connected a piece of PVC pipe.

The other screw top remains to be used for organic waste and checking levels inside.  Once the biodigestor starts producing gas, a similar but shorter pipe will be inserted to stop gas escaping when organic matter is added.

The drum should be painted black to prevent algae-producing UV rays penetrating the drum.  (If that happens, your methane will be replaced by carbon dioxide.)  I’m going to wrap the drum in thick black plastic which I already have.  Bear in mind, the biodigestor needs warmth, so it’s located on the sunny side of the yurt.

Here are two videos which will tell you everything you need to know about biogas units:

How to build a biogas unit

You can also buy recycled flowbins from Peninsula Drums – really quite a remarkable award-winning company.

How to build a biodigestor


The biodigestor is only possible because of the Saniflo Compact toilet.  Firstly, it macerates and pumps the effluent to the drum.  The drum can be above the ground.  Secondly, the Saniflo unit only uses 3 or 1.8 litres of water per flush, compared to the normal 6–10 litres of conventional loos.  The biodigestor tank can be much smaller and is far more efficient with lower water volumes.

Now, all the unit needs is some blackwater and a bucketload of cow manure to kickstart the anaerobic process.  It takes about a month for gas to be produced, or less since the blackwater is macerated.

The Yurt’s Catastrophe! … and Making it all Work

I had just gone to sleep one night… I knew it was going to be windy but the winds were well within what the yurt had been through before. And then I became aware of the sound of the wind just rising and rising. I waited for the gust to end but this was no gust. It was like a runaway train, just gathering momentum. I jumped up and went to the door which was already bucking under the strain. I leant hard against it, wondering if I could hold it back for the next two hours when the wind was due to drop. I didn’t have to wait. The door broke loose, knocking me out the way, and came to rest in the centre of the yurt, flattening the services wall in the process.

I scrambled up to fetch my dog and rushed him into the vehicle for safety, and caught my breath. My mouth was bleeding badly -from lacerated cheeks and lips. (Later I discovered my body was covered in the worst bruises I’d ever seen.)  Looking back at the yurt, it was gone…

DEVASTATION: The yurt was blown right off the platform. A quarter of the floor had been ripped up. The yurt's contents were spread across the field.

DEVASTATION: The yurt was blown right off the platform. The walls were flattened.  A quarter of the floor had been ripped up. The yurt’s contents were spread across the field.

This was a traumatic night. On my first night back in the yurt after it was rebuilt — during the next storm — I understood the real meaning of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Every time I closed my eyes to sleep, I saw the roof disappear, or the door come flying towards me, or a gap appear between the wall and the floor, or, or, or….  I had to open my eyes to prove it wasn’t true. Fortunately that didn’t persist.

Peter Kastner let me stay in the “Trailer” — a whimsical place to stay — while I regrouped and gathered my thoughts.  I kept asking myself, “Am I arrogantly trying to achieve the impossible?”  Can I really beat the wind and Mother Nature?

So I made a plan and — before I outline that plan — I’ll give you the answer.  I can’t beat it but I can cater for it.  The yurt has withstood two more storms now, one reaching wind speeds of 121km/h.  During the one shown below, the inside of the yurt was a sea of calm while noise raged outside.  The walls hardly rippled, and — most times — there was just an occasional lazy flapping on the roof.

Forecast on the Windy app: the winds on the mountainside are almost permanently the gust speeds shown.

Forecast on the Windy app: the winds on the mountainside are almost permanently the magenta-coloured gust speeds shown above… or more!  The wind comes barrelling down the mountain kloof that opens into this “idyllic” copse of trees.  In the time I’ve been here, two trees have blown over.

Firstly, a note of warning about the Windy app.  It’s not wholly accurate but it is good for warnings.  It shows the same weather in the village as on the mountainside where the yurt is located.  But while Stanford can be quite pleasant, the yurt can be buffeted in a gale.   Even 200 metres down the mountainside, a howling gale turns into a light breeze.

What was the plan?

A (more) level floor
Given the total devastation, I had the opportunity to rectify one problem — levelling the floor.  The slope on the first floor just encouraged the yurt’s structure to slide off the base.  Just after I erected the yurt and before I attached it to the floor, I woke up to find it had just slid off its base in a medium wind.  That’s when I realised how light the yurt actually is.  The total weight of the walls, covering, rafters and roof ring is only about 150Kg.  So the weights on each of the 16 points where it meets the floor is less than 10kg at each point.

Make it as air tight as physically possible
This was a big issue and I had to address several components:

The Roof Dome
I had wanted to get a plastic dome like Yurta has, but there are long lead times getting one made.

The roof dome on Yurta's yurts

The roof dome on Yurta’s yurts

The camera decided to do it’s own thing… creatively. It still gives an idea of what the roof light looks like.

I had been using a translucent sheet of tunnel plastic tied to stays in the ground.  This worked well because it was easy to open and close, although it was challenged in strong winds.

I needed a fast solution that would be totally air tight.  So I bought a sheet of 1220mm square 9mm plywood, cut a circle and the opening to match the roof ring, and glued a sheet of tunnel plastic onto it.  The seal is a strip of self-adhesive foam rubber (used for door jambs).  Four bolts hold this tight to the roof ring.    It works brilliantly!  And if you are going to be using the yurt for camping trips away, it’s far easier to transport.

It can be opened and closed — with some effort because you need to use a ladder to get to the roof — and the ideal solution is for it to be attached by a screw jack which can be opened by a long pole.  I couldn’t find any locally.

screw jack

A screw jack

The issue of the door’s position
Everybody I spoke to said the door needs to be at the opposite end to where the bad weather comes from.  I said that the door and its frame, if they are the strongest elements in the yurt’s wall, need to anchor the yurt against the bad weather.

So the door is more sturdily connected to the wall than it was before, and it’s also anchored, at the top and bottom on either side, by wire stays connected to one-metre steel posts hammered into the ground.

In addition, and to make using the door during a gale still possible, there’s a 3m wide x 2m high wind deflector.  It’s basically two sheets of shade cloth between wooden posts.  (I’ve read of people doing this with broomsticks and stays, but I wasn’t taking chances.)  This has worked well.

Sealing the wind gap between the walls and the roof.
I’d used some bubblewrap as insulation against the morning sun, which was wrapped over the tension cable to form two layers hanging down and wrapping under the floor.  This formed a fairly tight seal against the roof and seemed to be the solution.

So I applied this to the entire wall and in light winds it seemed to do the trick.

Bubblewrap hung over the yurt's steel tension cable to create a better seal.

Bubblewrap hung over the yurt’s steel tension cable to create a better seal.

Then, while I was writing the previous story and waiting for the first real storm to hit, I looked at the pictures of traditional Mongolian yurts I used there and thought… wait a minute… I’m missing something — the rope bands around the yurt.  So using existing rope and the eye-hooks in the door frame for the wire stays, I wrapped two lengths of rope around the yurt diagonally.

As the winds rose… there was no flapping and almost no wind entering the yurt.  So I rushed off to buy more eye hooks and more rope, and now have three lengths of rope wrapped around the yurt for really bad weather.  The windows can’t be opened when the ropes are in place, but I really don’t want the windows open when there’s bad weather.

The yurt is now probably more draft-free than any house I’ve ever lived in.  It’s a sea of calm and totally drama-free while the wind roars outside.  It’s bone dry inside even in the heaviest downpours.

I think the project has been a success… even if it did take its toll on me!  It has been tested under the most extreme of weather conditions.

There’s still a really unique bathroom to share with you!



Adventures with a Yurt (or Ger)

Imagine a small house, granny flat or weekend getaway where the structure only costs you R12,000.  (That’s US$850 or €750!)  You can’t buy a small Wendy house for that… and it’s about the same cost as the emergency materials given to shack dwellers after fires destroy dwellings in informal settlements.

And it’s a structure that one person can pack up and re-erect somewhere else within an hour.  But it can also be as permanent as you want it to be.  In North America, yurts have become popular as permanent homes because of the rising costs of conventional housing.

What if I told you it doesn’t need municipal building plans or approvals?  It’s a tent!  And if you erect it as guest accommodation, AirBnB tells you that it’s been their most popular specialist sub-category worldwide?  That it would make an ideal yoga studio, or info office, and those who have seen it, wished they had one to take to music festivals?

An online ad by AirBnB - it shows the popularity of yurts for tourist accommodation but it seems a bit too optimistic!

An online ad by AirBnB – it shows the popularity of yurts for tourist accommodation.  The R20,617 figure is for the monthly income.

Can you imagine yurt villages along all SA’s major routes, where travellers could stay for under R100 a night?  Now that would be an impetus for tourism!  And I’m sure many accommodation establishments will be taking a careful look at adding yurts to their offering.

Yurts have been around for over 2000 years and known to provide comfortable accommodation from -40°C to +40°C, withstanding winds of up to 160km/h.

My yurt was inspired by photos my sister sent from Mongolia and then, after further research, by the simplified yurt manufactured by Yurta in Canada.  The project is not a commercial venture but aimed to get people thinking out of the box.  I’d be happy to share what I’ve learnt with anyone who wants to take it further.

First, the traditional yurts which have been around for over two millennia right across Asia.

Tradional yurts in Mongolia (where they are called Gers -- meaning "home").

Traditional yurts in Mongolia (where they are called Gers — meaning “home”).  “Yurt” is a Russian word with the same meaning.

This traditional yurt shows how the bottom of the wall can be lifted to allow a draft to cool the interior.

This traditional yurt shows how the bottom of the wall can be lifted to allow a draft to cool the interior.  You can see the number of wall laths used in a traditional yurt.

Then a Western take on a yurt by Canadian company Yurta — high-tech and dramatically simplified.  Using 30 laths for the walls appealed to me for its uncluttered look.

Yurta's version of the traditional yurt.

Yurta’s version of the traditional yurt.  Photo: Yurta

Yurta's 17-foot diameter (5.18 metres) shows off the frame and rafter as the wall is being added.

Yurta’s elegantly simple, 17-foot diameter (5.18 metres) shows off the frame and rafters as the wall covering is being added.  (That looks like the insulation.)  Photo: Yurta

So the yurting started!  Yurts are so well documented online that it’s just a matter of learning.  Any aspirant yurt builder must visit the Yurt Calculator.  It gives you everything you need to know, and even calculates the materials needed and gives the total cost.

For the record, my yurt is 6m in diameter with a floor area of 28.3m² and a total height of 2.95m.  It uses 16 rafters instead of normal 60, and the wall uses a similar lesser amount.  The height of the wall is 183cm,  The angle between the wall laths is 69 degrees.  This is the drawing the Yurt calculator produced to show the geometry of my structure:

A 6m diameter yurt is about the largest you can fit in the back of a standard bakkie.  Within my 6 metre yurt, I planned living, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom areas.  Would it work?  The proof is in the pudding, as they say — I was going to try yurt living for a few months to test it!  (Bathrooms in smaller yurts are not commonplace.)

The plan of my 6m yurt, showing living, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom areas.

The plan of my 6m yurt, showing living, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom areas.

What are the basic materials needed for my yurt’s structure?  Bear in mind that this was for a temporary yurt, to determine what sort of space it would offer…

Yurt materials
Material Cost
30 x 22x44x2400mm SA Pine for wall; cut to 222cm R1144
16 x 22x44x3000mm SA Pine for rafters; cut to 265cm R1008
1 x 1220x2400mm 18mm shutterboard; cut in half; laminated together & cut to make roof ring R245
1 x 1220x1220mm 9mm plywood and a small piece of tunnel plastic; to make the rooflight R140
Nuts & bolts & fittings ±R400
3mm steel cable & fittings R150
Door ±R800
20×1.8m x Canvas or Ripcote for wall from Cape Coaters R1000
30×1.8m x Canvas or Ripcote for roof from Cape Coaters R1500
Makeup of Ripcote covers See notes below
Insulation: 100metre roll of bubblewrap R241
Total for tent part of the yurt R6628
10 sheets x 1200x2500x50mm Polystyrene from Isolite for the insulated floor R1155
10 sheets x 1220x2440x3.2mm Masonite for the floor R800
Adhesive for the floor R360
Total for the floor R2315
Total excluding making up the covers R8943

A smaller yurt would be slightly cheaper and, if it’s just for short-term camping, you probably wouldn’t bother with the solid floor.  With a wall height of 1.83 metres, a strip of Ripcote needed to be added to the bottom of a 1.8 metre roll.  If the wall height was under 1.8 metres, this would incur a small saving in the material cost but a significant saving in the time to make up the covers.

The concept for the floor was 50mm of polystyrene to insulate the floor and raise it out of water’s way, to which hardboard would be glued.  The yurt’s Ripcote wall would then be drawn under the floor and tightened to provide a weatherproof seal.

Providing the ground is level and compacted, 50mm thick polystyrene sheets glued to 3.2mm thick Masonite actually provides a very nice floor!  After shopping around, Isolite provided the polystyrene.  They were fantastic to deal with and very knowledgeable.

They recommended Peekay for the adhesive.  This was a bit of a disaster.  The first adhesive they sold me “ate” the polystyrene — apparently it hadn’t been mixed properly when they decanted it from a big drum.  Thank goodness for doing a test first!

Plywood and thicker hardboards would have been ideal but cost and weight became an issue.  I wanted something I could erect on my own. Click & Lock flooring would also have been ideal, but cost (about R600/m²) was an issue for a temporary project.

To cut the circle, I looked for the right wire to attach to a solar battery but couldn’t find anyone to provide the correct advice.  Isolite offered to give me some wire but in the end I did the cutting with a kitchen knife heated over a blow torch.  That was more than adequate.

I approached the frame with trepidation — would it really work using 22x44mm SA Pine?  Would 30 pieces of wood really encompass a 6 metre diameter?  With proper planning, basic tools, and not too much skill, it’s possible to make the entire frame in a day.  And the Yurt Calculator proved to be absolutely spot on.

This is the entire yurt's frame - the roof ring, the steel cable, the rafters and the complete wall.

This is the entire yurt’s frame – the roof ring, the steel cable, the rafters and the complete wall.

I still marvel that the folded wall which is only 800mm wide, 44mm thick and 2220mm high extends to provide nearly 18 metres of wall, 1.83m high.

Erecting the yurt - the rafters are being attached to the roof ring, wich then gets raised with a lifter. Once the steel cable is around the perimeter of the rafters is attached, the entire yurt is sturdy.

Erecting the yurt – the rafters are being bolted to the roof ring, which then gets raised with a lifter. Once the steel cable around the perimeter of the rafters is attached, the entire yurt is very, very sturdy.

 The frame has probably been the biggest success of the whole project.  I never fail to be amazed at how strong it is once the steel cable has been erected.

Make up of covers
The make-up of the covers was sponsored by a leading tent manufacturer.  When it seemed that they would be unable to do it in the short term because of factory strikes and the year-end rush, I looked elsewhere.

An upholsterer with experience of manufacturing tents for Antarctic tourist bases seemed a good choice.  He quoted a first try at R5280 where the covers would be made up on the frame, which needed to be erected at his factory.  “This concept is new to us and we have learnt from past experience that many hidden costs usually pop up,” he said.  That was before he looked at the Yurt Calculator and it’s instructions for making up the covers.  He did say that subsequent covers would be cheaper — about R2500 – R3000 to make up — if the Ripcote was provided.

In the end, the covers were made up by the experienced tent manufacturer.  The entire yurt frame and the rolls of Ripcote were shipped upcountry and I provided the link  to the Yurt Calculator and it’s instructions for making up the covers.  I also sent a CAD drawing of efficient use of Ripcote with a hardboard template for cutting the roof panels. We had tried the template out with a test panel and it seemed fine.  They said it didn’t work but I think they preferred to adapt one of their existing tents.


Preparing a door the shou sugi ban way


The door frame is SA Pine and the stable door is Shutterboard which has been treated in the traditional Japanese way — shou sugi ban (焼杉板)  — which makes it water-, bug- and fire-resistant.  It originated in the 18th Century primarily as way to treat cedar siding to make it weatherproof.  The technique — which involves charring a wood surface to render it a deep charcoal-black — has become popular recently as a treatment for contemporary exteriors and indoor furnishings alike.

The wood is charred using a blowtorch.  Excess charcoal is removed using a wire brush.  And then two coats of Linseed Oil are applied.  And the treated wood is said to be good for ten years when another application of Linseed Oil is due!

Kitchen counter/Services wall/Bathroom

A R20 plastic bowl from an Agri store makes the perfect, light-weight basin. Just cut a hole and fit a plugged outlet. It goes well the the luxury mixer tap.

A R20 plastic bowl from an Agri store makes the perfect, light-weight basin. Just cut a hole and fit a plugged outlet. It goes well the the luxury mixer tap.

What makes this yurt unique is the services wall which bisects half the yurt.  A kitchen counter hangs off the one side, with the toilet, hand basin and large shower on the other side.  It’s probably the most efficient plumbing solution possible.

Everything could be collapsed and light weight was a factor.  The kitchen basin is a R20 plastic basin from a hardware store.  The shower, which can be used as a bath, is a pond basin.

And it doesn’t need any underground services.  Blackwater from the Saniflo toilet goes to a biodigestor and greywater is pumped by another Saniflo unit to a recycling system.  Both these will be the subject of future stories.

It finally all comes together
When I contacted Jami & Peter Kastner at Stanford Hills Estate about testing the yurt there, they said they had just the spot — an idyllic grove which they had identified for camping.  And so the real adventure began.

There was a lot of enthusiastic and inquisitive farm help getting the yurt erected.  The first time I realised things were not going to be as expected was when someone said, “This comes together like an old army tent!”  Instead of the walls attaching to the steel cable around the yurt, according to the instructions, the walls attach to the roof with hooks.  Well, I thought, maybe with all their experience, the tentmaker has a better way of doing things…


The Yurt

The yurt hadn’t been up for more than a few days when a very outspoken businessman called. He had to see it NOW! He’d been wanting to buy a yurt from Mongolia for US$1800. I couldn’t dissuade him — it wasn’t anywhere near finished — and he arrived 10 minutes later.  Getting out of his vehicle, he looked at the yurt scornfully… “That’s not a yurt!  That’s a tent masquerading as a yurt,” he said.  “The roof is all wrong!”  A few moments later when he went inside, looking at the walls attached to the roof by hooks, he just shook his head.  Totally unimpressed, he left again as quickly as he had arrived, saying “The frame shows promise but the tentmaker is an idiot!”

And there I had a purist’s perspective!  The roof isn’t the smooth cover you’ll see in the pics at the top of the page, and the peaks and valleys between the rafters does encourage buffeting by wind.  It is reminiscent of an old Provincial Roads maintenance camp rondavel.  And the hooking of the walls to the roof — which doesn’t provide an airtight seal — was to become my biggest bugbear.

I had been warned that darker coloured canvas or Ripcote can be 40% hotter than lighter colours, so Cape Coaters supplied a roll of Ecru Ripcote — an off-white colour similar to the wall of the Yurta yurt at the top of the page.  This was lost at the at the factory where the covers were made up and they asked if they could make it with Sand Ripcote.  Yes, it is much hotter, even in winiter when the sun shines.  But insulating a yurt is quite easy.  The Mongolians use felt from their sheep, and so does Yurta in Canada, combining it with a space-age fabric.  A 100 metre roll of bubble wrap, costing about R240, does the job if one isn’t catering for extreme heat or cold.

Once you move inside, the interior of the yurt is a truly spectacular space.  And it is a space that works very well.

Yurt interior

More photos and stories to come… Coming next:

You can subscribe to email notifications for future posts at the top of the right hand column alongside (on laptops & PCs). On low resolution mobile phones, you won’t see it.

What’s a Yurt?

Two posts from my sister on Whatsapp from Ulaanbataar in Mongolia really got me thinking.

She had shown me a photo of the yurt belonging to the building manager for her apartment block before.  He and his family live in their ger or yurt alongside the apartment building.  But he had been away for his summer holidays and was re-erecting his ger on the same spot as last year.

The photo at 12:17pm shows the floor down and the frame erected.  By 1:58pm, the entire structure had been completed. Continue reading

Saying Goodbye to Eskom is cheaper than you think

CapeInfo’s Smarter Living Project started off to determine what one really needs to go off the electrical grid — is it  as expensive as  people say or, if one adapts one’s lifestyle, is it affordable or… even cheaper.  Off-the-grid in this case meant no external electric sources at all — no Eskom, no municipal connection. Continue reading

Municipal water costs R50/kilolitre; but just R9.20/kl from GrandWest’s treatment facility

While the cost of potable water currently is R50 per kilolitre (on the Level 6 commercial tariff),  it’s costing GrandWest Casino and Entertainment World in Cape Town just R9.20 per kilolitre from the treatment facility. It will take approximately 28 months for GrandWest to realise a return on its investment. Continue reading

Solar panel window blinds

This is for my wish list but you can pre-order them now at https://solargaps.com/.  SolarGaps smart blinds automatically track the sun throughout the day, adjusting position to the optimal angles to generate solar electricity to power devices in your home, apartment or office.

At about $1,000 a m², they’re not cheap… but discount the cost of curtains, the ability to control your blinds with your mobile phone, and maybe you can justify them.  But you can be sure, if this catches on, prices will drop!

They generate up to 100W-150W of renewable energy per ±1m² of window, enough to power 30 LED light bulbs or three MacBooks.  So with ±4m² of window on the north-eastern face of the house, I would be able to generate 1.6-2.4kWh over four hours just on one side of the house.