Living life large . . . In a Yurt


    A year ago, they were living in a conventional two storey stucco house in downtown Victoria, a few blocks from the ocean.
     Now they’re nesting in an eco-friendly yurt perched high in the hills a few kilometres north of Shawnigan Lake — just about as far from the Mongolian steppes as could be.
    “They’re weird spaces, but they’re beautiful,” says coowner Donna Morton of the family’s rust-coloured canvas circular home that is just nine metres in diameter and peaks at a retractable opening 4.5 metres high.
    For the executive director of the Centre for Integral Economics, a locally based nonprofit that tries to redirect the marketplace toward sustainability, the longtime yurt fantasy came true in a move last June.
    It was part of a determined desire to live more lightly and closer to the land — in a 740square-foot circle.
    When visitors enter the surprisingly airy space supported by 30 rafters, the 42-year-old owner offers tea made from nettles harvested by her son, Wyatt, 10. He lives there every other week with her and her partner of six years, Dominique Collin.
    Why a yurt instead of a cottage?
“There’s something really different about being in a round space,” she says.
    Growing up in the mountains in California, Collin, 55, had always dreamed of building a house in the wilderness.
    Both had wanted “a place to live that was healthier; that was closer to nature,” Collin says, noting that humans have lived in round spaces for most of their history, such as igloos or teepees. He quit his federal government job to give it a try.
    They paid $25,000 for the yurt kit Morton ordered online from New Mexico; it turned out be incomplete. The cost rose to $150,000 after building a platform, adding decks, getting hydro, sinking a 107-metre well, and building the outhouse and sleep cabin.
    They also spent $220,000 on 6.5 hectares of land — several of which are already becoming an organic garden — which eventually they hope to share with others.
    The move was smoothed by scenery. They fell in love with the vista of receding green ridges. And being high up helps them get creative about their “big picture” consulting jobs, they say, augmented, of course by their BlackBerry, computer with satellite, Internet and cellphone.
    For six months, they lived, worked, slept, entertained and had overnight guests in the yurt. Then they decided they needed more privacy, so they helped build a 200-squarefoot sleeping cabin. Bookshelves are in the works and a tiny porch perfect for meditative moments is already there. The cabin contains a loft braced by a huge arbutus branch for Wyatt and topped by a skylight.
    “I love sleeping up there,” he says, scrambling up the ladder to show how it’s done. He is also the go-to guy for kindling when the wood stove needs to be fed.
    Sometimes they miss the comforts of regular home — like a washing machine — but they’ve taken a shine to a laundromat in Duncan. They do have a fridge, stove and other modern conveniences.
    All the windows are clustered on the south side for passive solar gain. At this time of year, they need only a couple of hours a morning of a little electric baseboard heater turned on low. “Otherwise, the solar heat lasts all day,” she says. “Same with lights — we don’t turn on lights except at night.”
    In the winter, the yurt is warmed by a large soapstone wood stove.
    Recently, the family was selected as one of 30 participants for a documentary called Change Makers. A TV crew from France spent nine days filming the family’s life in a joint project with Radio Canada that is to be aired later this year on CBC.
    The yurt’s interior is folkloric. The family brought almost no furniture with them — but bought several wooden pieces from an old farmhouse. A mint green cabinet sits below a tasselled valance from a yurt in Uzbekistan that Morton’s mother bought on eBay. There’s a kitchen island topped with concrete and local aggregate complemented by stools fashioned from alder branches. The yurt has room enough for a large dining table and spindle-backed chairs, retro school desk and a quiltcovered, curved little couch. It’s not all about the yurt. The duo built a cedar outhouse that contains a composting toilet. A bit downhill sits a recycled shower/bathtub they picked up for $50, braced by a wooden lean-to.
    “It’s really, really beautiful to shower outside — but you have to get used to the spiders,” Morton says.
    They plan to have storage space and a permanent bathroom with a second composting toilet under the yurt, but will keep the natural rock, both for flooring and a tub surround. Guests — and there are plenty in summer — bunk in the vintage Airstream trailer on the property, and both adults have work trailers on the property to make sure that Collin can home-school Wyatt in peace and quiet.
    The couple acted as their own general contractors/architects and planners, responsible for studying and buying nearly all the used and new green materials. Various tradespeople — such as an electrician — were hired and three builders along the way. Aptly named Dan Green helped with “a million little and larger projects,” Morton says.
    The couple hopes to be debt-free within five years.
    So nearly a year into out-ofthe-way yurt life, what’s it’s like?
    “It’s wonderful,” Collin says. “No regrets, no, none at all. On a quiet day, we can hear the kale growing that will be in the salad the next day.”