PROPERTY / Home is where the yurt is: A 3,000-year-old design for desert living may be adopted here. Nicole Swengley on the future tents of Britain

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The Independent Culture
HOUSES made from wool? More like pulling it over our eyes. What if it rains or blows a hoolie? Living in a tent might be fine for nomads in warmer climes, but camping out in Britain is hardly a cushy option.

Hal Wynne-Jones is a builder who tries hard to convince people otherwise. He has launched a range of felt-covered dwellings, constructed along the lines of an Asian nomadic tent called a 'yurt' or 'ger', and believes they will appeal to everyone from lovers of the rural good life to the homeless.

'Felt is an unbelievably good insulator,' he says. 'With a stove in the middle, yurts get too hot rather than too cool at night. They are very strong, but fold up into small components. Designed on geometrical principles, their hemispherical shape sucks them to the ground so they don't blow away.'

The felt, copper piping and bamboo that Hal Wynne-Jones works with are a far cry from the Cotswold stone he used as a Gloucestershire builder for 15 years. His Damascene conversion to desert dwellings happened when he saw an engraving of Genghis Khan, 13th-century ruler of Mongolia, who controlled his empire from a felt tent.

Wynne-Jones is now building his own empire - so far a small one - of enthusiasts dedicated to the yurt cause. As well as some New Age travellers of no fixed abode, recent purchasers include Susie Cole, an interior designer in Lyme Regis. 'We're very anti-camping in the normal sense,' she says, 'but we use the yurt as a portable ski chalet in Scotland. It's very dry and warm, sound-proof and takes an hour to put up.'

Chris McHugo, director of a field studies centre in the south of France, uses his yurt as a staff recreation room and office. 'It has survived 60mph winds and six inches of snow,' he says. 'But the felt is permeable to rain. I throw a tarpaulin over mine when rain threatens.' He likes the fact that a yurt has no machined parts. 'It's a work of art as much as anything else.'

Rosemary Verey, the gardening expert, has quite a different use for her yurt. 'Mine has a bamboo skeleton covered with green mesh netting which I use as a store for plants. It's not frost-proof but protects plants while allowing light through. Personally, I think it would make a marvellous fruit cage.' And Hal Wynne-Jones thinks there may be another use for yurts - as low-cost housing for homeless people in this country and for refugees in Bosnia and Kurdistan.

Yurts originated about 3,000 years ago in Northern China and Iran. The domed Chinese willow tent amalgamated over the years with the Iranian 'alachiq', a sophisticated gypsy tent, affording protection against cold, extreme heat and high winds.

Wynne-Jones has designed a contemporary version using a wooden frame joined with leather thongs, bound with a strong woollen band, then covered with felt. Unlike most tents, it has no guy ropes and is quickly pitched or dismantled by two people.

His first yurt cost him pounds 50 to make. He assembled it in a weekend from wooden poles covered with an old tarpaulin, and lived in it for three months until it blew down. Undaunted, he spent a year refining the design to withstand gales yet fold flat for travelling. Now the supports are of steam-bent oak, covered with felt and canvas, and there is a waterproof groundsheet floor.

Modern yurts can be connected to a water supply and electricity point, and a septic tank lavatory can be installed. Wynne-Jones has lived with his family for a year in one of these more sophisticated models, moving out only when his field flooded. 'I learnt that you have to be choosy about sites.'

His cheapest model costs pounds 500, an 8ft diameter willow frame covered with felt and lined with a plastic groundsheet. Prices escalate with such embellishments as a porch, a raised wooden floor or traditional tent band around the top. A deluxe 16ft diameter model, suitable for a family of four, costs pounds 4,400.

Yurts may be comparatively cheap, but are they really suitable as homes? Aren't the interiors pitch black because they have no windows? 'They have a large, clear PVC roof-light,' says Hal Wynne-Jones. 'During the shorter days, we used paraffin lamps and candles. But electricity would really be better.' He admits that living in a tent requires adjustments to your lifestyle - such as earlier bedtimes and earlier rising.

Anyone who relishes this seasonal retuning of the body clock may find the yurt way of life appealing. But are there any other advantages? 'Without sounding too corny,' Wynne-Jones says, 'it has a very calming effect on people; it's very difficult to get angry in a yurt. I think this is because it is circular with no angles or sharp edges.'

Surely there are risks in using a wood-burning stove in a construction made of wood and felt? 'The stove is in the middle of the yurt,' Hal Wynne-Jones explains, 'and is safe if you are careful. The stove pipe goes out through a metal guard in the PVC part of the roof. We have just had fire precaution approval from British Standards.'

Are we likely, then, to see a rash of yurts springing up as homes? Are tent villages for homeless people really feasible? Hal Wynne-Jones thinks so. 'They won't suit everyone, but I'm sure there are some who would prefer to live in their own yurt than in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.' If old habits die hard, then one that dates back 3,000 years may yet enjoy a new lease of life.

For further information, contact Hal Wynne-Jones, Arlington Mill, Bibury, near Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5NL (0285 740593)

(Photographs omitted)

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