Mont. yurt business a growing venture

2/20/2013 2:30 PM
By Associated Press

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — When Beth McDonald wanted to downsize from a 3,800-square-foot home in Massachusetts, she chose the simplicity and portability of an ancient form of living space — the yurt.

She purchased her new home, which she said took approximately eight hours to put up with the help of friends at a yurt-raising party, from Shelter Designs of Troy, a growing yurt-production enterprise located about 15 miles west of Troy near the Idaho border.

"I researched the companies and they had a good reputation," McDonald said. "They make a really nice yurt."

Hays Daniel, 33, and Vince Godby, 45, are the owners of Shelter Designs.

"We're extremely remote," Daniel said. "People are always surprised to hear there is a busy manufacturing business in the middle of nowhere. It's very fitting for what we do and the materials we use. We work with a lot of local sawmills, and local people help to supply lumber for the yurts.

"Shipping is difficult, but we manage. We've become well-versed in crating and freight logistics."

The shipping component to their business is important to master, as Shelter Designs' yurts have been shipped to Tazmania, Australia, Hawaii and all over the continental United States. The yurts are delivered as kits, and the company has just finished creating a setup video along with a 30-page book of instructions.

It's not too complicated to erect a yurt, though, Daniel said.

"You only have to make some small cuts, and you can use mostly hand tools," he said. "When you set up the wooden frame, everything is sanded and oiled, the doors are hung and ready to go. There's no shimming or trimming. Even on our largest yurts, a crew of three to five people can have it set up and done in one or two days."

Daniel and Godby are perfecting their yurt business at a fortuitous time, just as the trend of "glamping," or glamour camping, gains steam. Yurts are the kind of structure that give resort guests the opportunity to sleep in a warm insulated structure on a nice bed, but still feel as if they're surrounded by their natural environment.

Commercial yurt purchases are on an upswing, Daniel said, as conservation groups, campgrounds, farmers and places that need to provide employee housing are discovering the convenience and cost savings of yurts. Shelter Designs yurts are being sold about half to commercial and half to residential customers, Daniel said.

Yurts are fairly portable, but they're not a tent, Daniel emphasizes.

"We use high-tech architectural fabrics, it's not canvas," Daniel said. "It's generally a vinyl-coated polyester with welded seams."

Yurts can run as small as 16 feet in diameter to new 40-foot diameter yurts that offer 1,256 square feet in one room. The 30-foot diameter yurt is 707 square feet.

"It's a big voluminous space," Daniel said. "In larger yurts, people will frame in walls, partition kitchens and bathrooms, have big-screen TVs and Internet. You can hook up your septic, have hot and cold running water, some people put in composting toilets. You can do anything in a yurt you can do in a conventional home."

Daniel, originally from Georgia, entered the yurt world out of necessity, when he and his wife needed a place to live in 1999. After building a few more yurts, he and Godby, who is from Pennsylvania, decided it could be a viable business and incorporated in 2005. They decided to "go for broke" in 2008, quit their day jobs as carpenters and jumped full time into yurt production.

Their yurt-building expertise came about through trial and error, taking a design from Central Asia that is thousands of years old and modernizing it with steel fasteners, high-tech fabrics and insulation.

"People who know yurts say that compared to other commercial yurt companies there's a certain edge we have with the quality of our woodworking," Daniel said. "Each one is custom ordered and we custom build it."

Daniel and Godby employ two workers at the Troy facility, centered around a 3,000-square-foot shop that he said is "almost big enough." The business also keeps four to five workers in Billings at Reliable Tent & Awning busy with fabric orders.

"Then it branches into the local community, with lumber suppliers and sawmills," Daniel said. "When we're cranking and the orders are piling in, there are probably 15 to 20 people we're keeping occupied.

"We never make one yurt at a time; we always have two to eight going in peak production season."

Daniel can easily cite how many yurts the company has produced in its five years. In 2008, Shelter Designs made one structure. In 2009, that figure went to seven, then the numbers skyrocketed to 20 and 25 the following two years, with 30 yurts ordered in 2012.

"We're not touching on the market share so far. Some big yurt manufacturers might build 300 a year, but we don't want to be the biggest necessarily, we just want to be the best. It's important not to grow too fast," Daniel said.

Shelter Designs has no advertising budget and is relying on its website and word of mouth to market its products.

He believes the company's remote Montana location encapsulates the romantic notions of simplicity that accompany yurt life. Finding customers who want to support Montana-based businesses has also been instrumental, Daniel said.

Neither Shelter Designs partner has traveled to Asia, the home of the traditional yurt, but Daniel hopes that a yurt tour is in the future.

"One of our far-reaching goals is that once we get yurts on each continent, to do globe-trotting trips to see our yurts and other yurt culture," Daniel said.

That plan is no more far-fetched than the yurt business itself once was, Daniel said.

"Ten years ago if you would have said Vince and I would own a steadily growing and sustainable yurt venture, I would have laughed."

___

Information from: Daily Inter Lake, http://www.dailyinterlake.com


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