Among the flags of the long-shot nations competing in the Summer Olympics, you might have spotted the banner of Kyrgyzstan, whose yellow symbol in the middle of a red field appears to depict the sun’s rays radiating out from a plaid beachball. That beachball is a sketch of that nation’s traditional wooden form of shelter, the yurt. In much of Central Asia, the yurt is a powerful symbol of home, security and national pride.
In this country, the yurt began to gain favor in the late 1970s as an alternative form of shelter that was low-tech, affordable and portable. Not only does its round shape have an organic, womblike aesthetic that many people find appealing, but it’s also structurally very strong, able to support a great deal of weight and to withstand the high winds of the Mongolian steppes or of America’s Great Plains.
Matt Rogers, proprietor of Clean Air Yurts and Woodworks, got interested in these traditional shelters soon after moving to Gardiner in 2006. Born near Allentown, Pennsylvania, he began visiting the Shawangunks to rock-climb while pursuing his college degree in earth science at Penn State. During his senior year of college his academic focus turned to architecture, and by the time he graduated he knew that he wanted to spend his life designing and building homes and other structures.
“I built two houses here, but I soon found that I didn’t like how the construction industry is set up,” he said. “There’s a lot of distrust.”
Rogers then began to study alternative building techniques. “I built my first yurt in the style that other companies in this country use, with a vinyl cover,” he explained. “Then I started doing research into vinyl, and found out that it’s not healthy for people or the environment.” He still owns that experimental model, but frets over being around it, knowing what he now knows about the effects of breathing in the toxins released as vinyl breaks down.
Several years ago, Rogers set himself to the task of changing the game of yurt manufacture in this country. “It started on the West Coast about 30 years ago,” he said. “They started using Douglas fir because it was abundant there, and they’re still using it. And the yurts haven’t really changed in style.”
Why had there been so little innovation? Vinyl-coated yurts were “still being touted as something that people should be living in,” he said with a sense of outrage. He urges consumers to read the fine print before investing in a yurt, noting that vinyl components are sometimes disguised under the nomenclature of “proprietary polymer.”