Tired of spending too much money on rent, Melissa Fletcher found a solution, and a home, in a yurt. Getting her first yurt built was a slog of permits, codes and dispelling myths, as the structures were not well-known, well-understood or allowed in Hawaii at the time. But once she had one under her belt, she was certain she could create another. And another.
Thus was born Yurts of Hawaii, Melissa’s company, which helps prospective yurt-buyers design and assemble their alternative homes, handling every aspect from permitting to septic systems. I had the chance to talk on the phone with Melissa about the cost of a yurt, the popularity of alternative housing and why you should always research any company you trust with building your home.
For those who may not know, or who haven’t spent hours looking at them on Airbnb like I have, do you want to explain what a yurt is?
That’s been a challenging question over the years. A yurt is many things. It’s big, it’s a wide open room, affordable housing, it originates from Mongolia. The concept of the structure is a little more than a thousand years old. In modern days we’ve adapted that to use contemporary materials.
It goes up very fast, very solid and very durable, meets all the codes for the most part. There are some codes that are a little more challenging than others, especially as the years go on and zoning departments become more and more stringent, not necessarily always in a good way. Usually they raise the cost of housing more than is needed. But the yurts are compatible here in Hawaii, and in many cities and states.
Some people call it a round portable cabin. Some people say that they’re like tents. I don’t personally like that analogy because a tent can’t withstand 120 mile an hour winds. It doesn’t have that strong infrastructure. But I think what throws a lot of people off is that it’s got material on the top and sides, and so that’s why people tend to want to classify it in a way that they know.
How did your life, then, become intertwined with yurts?
I moved to Hawaii back in 2005 to go to college, to get my degree in psychology. But I was paying a lot of money for rent. My roommate had land. I was like, “What are you crazy? Why are you paying this much money for rent? It’s Hawaii, it’s not like Maine, where you can’t really live outdoors.” So I made a deal with him that I would figure out an affordable way to build on his two lots and in exchange he would give me free rent until the time I graduated. So that’s what started it.
The permit departments here were not permitting them at the time. So I had a bit of a battle on my hands there. But I started engineering them with structural engineers here and made my case, and in the end we were able to do it. That was part of the journey, because I realized I could do that for a lot of people around here.
How did you go about starting the company? You said you’re not an engineer, so what has been your role in all of this?
There are a lot of different manufacturers of yurts, but what none of them do is the legwork to get you your drafting, your permits, your site prep, your plumbing, your electrics, your design all pulled together. There’s nobody doing that, except for us, that I know of, in all of the states. A lot of people could buy a yurt, but not a lot of people had the time and the knowledge to pull it all together into a functioning house. So because I had done it and because I had made contacts with the architects and the engineers and the permit people, all of that, I just started pulling it together under one roof. Then I added services on from there. Now we can help them from start to finish.
Was it hard to get the company off the ground? It seems like it’s a bit of a niche market. Is there a lot of demand for alternative housing in Hawaii?
There is a lot of demand for alternative housing. And I think that’s the case everywhere, really. Especially, as I was saying earlier, the cost of housing is just ridiculously high. There’s no need for it to be as high as it is these days. But, you know, people make money on it, so they just drive those prices higher and higher. And people are figuring that out. So people are looking at things in alternative ways, whether it’s yurts, or container homes or all of those different things where you can keep the costs reasonable.
It took me a lot of work to get the business off the ground, but it was something that I was extremely passionate about right from the get go, and when you’re that passionate about something it doesn’t really seem like work. Every day I put in a lot of work and before I knew it I had a good business going.
I was looking some stuff up today, actually, about average rent costs and I found that the average rent in Hawaii is about $1,300, compared with $860 for the United States as a whole. Between that and the economy, have you seen demand increase for this kind of solution?
I have seen it increase. I think it’s coming into people’s awareness more. When I first started the business, the biggest question that I would get was “what’s a yurt?” Now I rarely ever get that question, because people know. Word has gotten out, you know? People love them. I think that combination affects it, the economy, and certainly people figuring out that the cost of housing is disproportionately high, but I also think that it’s getting out there in people’s consciousness that these are an option.
You always get those people who are not comfortable getting out of their own paradigms and their own way of thinking. So there is always that. People want to kind of put them down, and come up with all these reasons why they don’t work. But nine out of the ten of those reasons, upon scrutiny, they just don’t hold any water. A lot of times I get the statement, “Oh they don’t ventilate, they don’t do well with mold.” It couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our office yurt is in the rainiest climate in Hawaii. It’s been up for two years now, and there’s not a speck of mold. You just have to make sure you get the right upgrades.
There are also very poor yurt makers out there and they’ve done a lot of damage to the industry. You’ve got these really great people that are making yurts. They’ve done their research and they’ve done their engineering. It’s so important when people buy from companies, that you’re working with somebody who knows what they’re doing and is going to stand behind their product. When I first started out, we were with a company that was awful, and I quickly learned the difference.
What was going wrong with the yurts with that company?
Oh gosh. Well, one of the major things was what we call corkscrewing. You have all these rafters going into a ring in the center, and that ring wants to twist. So if the company hasn’t dealt with that, you have a very dangerous situation on your hands because that whole roof can come down in an instant. And so all of the major yurt companies have dealt with that: Colorado, Ranier, you’re not going to see that problem with any of their yurts. But the poor companies—and there’s a few of them—you will see that problem. Their roof-to-wall connections are shoddy, their wall-to-floor connections are shoddy, a lot of their connections are just shoddy. The hardware, the interior metal is going to rust out real fast. They just haven’t been doing it long enough, they haven’t addressed it, they’re just kind of in it to make money. So they just have that lack in quality. It’s worth it to pay a little bit more and not have to deal with any of those problems.
That’s the only thing I would say—just make sure that you’re dealing with a good, reputable company. A little bit of research will let you know. NAYA, which is the North American Yurt Alliance, is something that I and a couple other yurt manufacturers have started up. We’ve been slow getting off our feet. It’s a national yurt alliance for good quality yurt makers. You can check with groups like that to make sure it’s a good yurt company, check with a website called yurtforum.com. Just do the research.
I was looking on your website and I saw that you can price your own yurt. But I don’t know what kind of features I should get. So I was hoping you could tell me, if I was going to move into a yurt, just a modest one with only the features that you think are really necessary, about how much would that cost? Ignoring the fact that I would have to move to Hawaii.
There’s a huge variance, really, in what people do with them. There’s a huge misconception, too, that when you’re buying a yurt you can get into a yurt for $10,000 and that’s it. But when you’re looking at a yurt home, your main costs associated with building a home are going to be infrastructure. It’s going to be your septic or your cesspool system, getting electricity to the property and run through the structure, plumbing, your water source, things of that nature. If we’re talking about just the structure itself of the yurt and the platform, then it’ll vary from about $22,000 to $28,000, depending on the flooring that you use and stuff like that.
And that’s not counting all the infrastructure?
Right. Because your infrastructure’s going to vary too. If you’re on a larger lot, then you can go with a cesspool instead of a septic system. If you’re going to go solar, that’s going to be a different cost. You can cut it to the wire and build on as you go. You could put your septic system in and then rough it for a little bit until you can afford your electric, and then rough it for a little bit until you can afford nice cabinets and stuff. And then you’ve got the cost of drafting and permitting, that’s with the architects and walking it through the permit department, permit fees and all of that. That averages about $5,000. Drafting is when we sit down with you and figure out what you want the inside to look like, where you want everything, you know.
There’s going to be land ownership costs hidden in there, too, right?
You’ve got to have somewhere to put it.
Right. And that can vary as well. Obviously. We’ve got some lots here that go for $10,000 and the same sized lot on the other side [of the island] will go for $500,000.
Do you live in a yurt?
I don’t live in a yurt now. I did for about four years, and recently we decided to put our money into doing our office yurt. So we built our office yurt on the side of the highway, near Volcano Village and so that’s our big project now. I look forward to living in a yurt again someday.
We’ve been talking about the upfront costs of getting a yurt and I was wondering if you could detail for me, after the dust had settled, what your monthly expenses were once you were just living in it?
Well, your monthly expenses are going to be what they would be in any house. You’re just going to have your electric, gas. Most people here in Hawaii don’t pay for water. Electric is high here. If you’re on solar, you can count that out. Again, it’s a huge variation.
You don’t have maintenance costs like you do with a house, where you’ve got to replace things, or you’ve got to paint. You wash the yurt once a year. If you get the Duro Last roof, which we recommend here, that comes with a 15-year warranty. Usually it lasts closer to 20 years. At that time you just replace the roof and the walls, that’s the exterior. The infrastructure still stays solid. And you replace it in a day.
That’s about how long most metal roofs are going to last. Here in Hawaii, that’s what most people have. If you look at the cost of replacing a metal roof, you have a huge amount of money for materials, and then you have a huge amount of money for labor and it’s usually going to take at least a week to replace a decent-sized roof. So if you look at it that way, the maintenance costs of a yurt are way less, way easier to deal with.
So did you feel like you were saving a lot of money, then, when you were living in the yurt?
I felt like I saved money from the get go. Once the yurt is up and you’re living in it, you’re going to have very similar costs to any other structure. Your savings are in the building itself. So when you’re talking about a 700-square-foot house that you have to build, for the structure alone, you’re looking at $58,000 to $80,000. And with a yurt, you’re looking at $22,000 to $28,000. And then you tack on the infrastructure costs, which are going to be the same regardless of the structure.
This is just something I was curious about, because you mentioned septic systems—do you have a bathroom in the yurt?
Yep. You can have it in the yurt, or you can tack on a room. A lot of times people want to keep the yurt really wide-open feeling, so they’ll add on a little room, with a bathroom and things like that. We do a lot of custom-type work like that. But you can definitely have it inside the yurt. I like it inside the yurt, because you have to have a ceiling over the bathroom—that’s code—and then you can easily turn that into a little sleeping loft or a reading loft.
You talked about it a little bit, but what are the legal hoops that you have to jump through with permitting and such?
Our biggest challenges when we started permitting were a lot of misconceptions. They didn’t think that the yurt would hold up to the wind, and we proved through rigorous engineering and testing that they would hold up to 110 mph winds with the basic wind kit. We have an alpine yurt that will withstand, gosh, probably up to 150 mph winds. And the standard one is going to withstand up to 80 mph winds.
Insulation is a big one, especially in colder climates. They want to see the R-value. R-value is really an outdated way to figure insulation because modern insulations, they’ve been developed by NASA and they are reflective insulations. They’re phenomenal, lightweight, environmentally-friendly materials, but they don’t meet R-value, because they just act a whole different way. We’re still seeing a lot of places that will give us a hard time because of that. And then we have to put in insulation that’s not ideal for the yurts.
The manufacturers don’t do a lot of that. They make the yurts and then it’s up to the people who buy them to make sure they meet code. That’s what we do here. We work with Colorado Yurt Company very closely and they make sure that their yurts are made to our specs so they’re going to meet all the codes here.
So you guys are the intermediary.
Yeah, we do all the work to design it, permit it, getting it all set up, and then they make the yurts for us that we request, with all the upgrades.
About how many a year have you been putting together?
Probably seven to ten a year.
Hawaii seems like a place that would be extra-conducive to yurts. Do you think that this is something that might catch on in other states?
I think that’s a common misconception. When people hear what my business is, they’re like “Oh yeah, yurts would work in Hawaii, because it’s warm and temperate and tropical,” but actually Hawaii has 80 percent of the world’s climates. Last night it got down to 41 degrees. Up in Alaska, Nomad Shelter—that’s Lee and Jess Tenhoff—they make their yurts up there. That’s their specialty, making those yurts for Alaskan weather. And Colorado Yurts, they have a colder climate in the wintertime. If you look at their alpine yurt, it’s phenomenal—it’s so strong. It’s the only yurt on the market that can really take snow well. You see them at ski resorts, you see them all over. You see them in every climate. So I definitely think that they’re catching on all over. Not just Hawaii.
Julie Beck is a writer and editor in Chicago. She pays rent. For now.
Photos courtesy of Yurts of Hawaii