Yurt Town

/ Tuesday, March 20, 2012 /
A photo of a yurt, via Rochester Green Living.
Last month, Seacoast Online ran a a piece about a man that has proposed building yurts for the homeless.

Timm Piper has an idea for housing homeless people who are unwilling to stay in, or who are barred from, Seacoast shelters. 
"Some homeless people just don't want to live in a shelter," said Piper, a 43-year-old sales representative from Exeter. "Some prefer to be alone, or in small communities in the woods. Why not help accommodate this?"
Yurts are a type of nomadic housing that has roots in Central Asia and have recently become a Western phenomenon, offering an alternative to log cabin renters. They're round, compact, incredibly efficient, cheap to build and portable, in a loose sense of the word. In northern New Hampshire, it is not uncommon to find the sides of mountains dotted with the tiny dwellings that can be rented by peace seekers. Using the ground or a simple foundation of planking, yurts utilize a wooden lattice work as a circular wall that supports a number of wooden beams that make a coned or domed roof. The structure is then wrapped in any number of insulating and weather-proofing materials. In cooler climates, a wood stove often sits in the center of the yurt with its chimney protruding through the pinnacle of the roof.

A yurt being assembled, via Wikipedia.
In the Seacoast article, Piper explains that these Yurts would sit on donated or government owned land, giving the homeless an alternative to living in a shelter or freezing on the streets. Barring a lot of the debatable logistics of such a noble endeavor, I was intrigued by Piper's solution and reasoning: that regardless of the norms of our society, the American Dream of home ownership is not ideal for some and even being woven into the tapestry of a larger community, like Manchester, can be unattractive. Our country does not deal with the idea of societal conscientious objectors very well, for all intents and purposes, being homeless is practically illegal in the United States. But what if we gave people the option and all it required was a government subsidized structure and the land it sat on?

I imagined a small compound of yurts beside the unused streets atop Hackett Hill in Manchester's north-west quadrant. Nomadic peoples milling about, building a small, self-taught community that minimally relied on the small city below. Maybe Yurt Town residents would raise small amounts of livestock to be sold in local butcher shops at a premium, where the meat would inevitably end up in front of patrons of Manchester's more food conscious restaurants. In the summer, nightly bonfires would rally the growing village where stories, jokes and light discourse would be passed, binding the community to one another in friendship. Families might grow in the small community and face the inevitable question of whether or not rejoining the city below, with all its perks and headaches, is worth the potential ridicule and lack of support of their neighbors.

The inside of a yurt, via AroundTheYurt.com
The picture painted above is a pretty idealistic scenario, the best one could hope for with such an idea, but Piper's idea asks the question, is the society we're born into the only option? Why can't I opt out? It's a good question, one better answered by philosophers and lunatics, but under its all encompassing umbrella is the question of what "home" is to people. Does a home have to be a house or an apartment? Does a home have to be attached to a mortgage or rent? Does it even have to be attached to the ground it sits on?

With a true encroaching sense of a global economy and community, the idea of a home may change rapidly over the 21st century. Since the birth of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934, the United States has been nudging its population towards the two car garage and picket fence, and eventually the McMansion, with federally underwritten loans. This effort would inevitably lead us to the economic shenanigans of the last decade, somewhat proving that houses, that have doubled and tripled in size since the 1950s, might be unsustainable for every family, undermining a cornerstone of the American Dream. Couple that with people like Andrew Hudson, a recent college graduate who moved to India in 2009 because he couldn't find a job in the States, who presses the question, in 50 years will people be considering a move to Shanghai after college or receiving a job offer, just as easily as we might consider a move to a neighboring state?

The idea of a home might see a drastic paradigm shift to people being less attached to their surrounding living structure or maybe even more attached to a structure they can bring with them. Several months ago I came across a "house" designed by Adam Kalkin built almost completely using shipping containers.

"12 Container House" by Adam Kalkin.

"12 Container House" by Adam Kalkin.
While the above house is immobile, it's pretty easy to imagine a world where jet-setting job seekers and contractors buy specially built or retrofitted cargo containers (outfitted with satellite, wireless internet and all the comforts of the modern age) that could be packed up and hauled off by an 18 wheeler to the next "job site." Developers could build complexes where you don't pay for the roof over your head, but the door and space your container is attached to. Containers would line the outer edges of buildings with shared communal spaces where your neighbor in 10A could be different every month. Parking garage super structures would be built, housing several levels of living containers at the base of an arboretum style skyscraper, a glass and steel bastion protruding through the pollution filled nethersphere.

"Container Living Complex" by Manchester Oblique
In the same vein, I found Jimenez Lai's White Elephant, a building within a building concept, a fun, ultra-futuristic possibility that accentuates the idea of home mobility further. While Lai's White Elephant has been described as "super furniture" that can be manipulated to sit in any number of different positions, its crystalline shape juxtaposed against the metallic hull gives it the feeling that a larger iteration should be floating through the blackness of space, or the hollowed out innards of an asteroid tethered to a network of similar living spaces that could be towed (or propelled?) to its next location.

"White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai via BLDGBLOG

"White Elephant" by Jimenez Lai via BLDGBLOG


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