Yurt biz owners think it's hip to be round: McCordsville firm counts on growing popularity for circular buildings with odd name

June 11, 2007

It was a terrible storm.

Emerging from his tattered tent at a Renaissance re-enactment camp more than 20 years ago, Ken Lawrence surveyed the decimated landscape, with only three oddlooking round structures surviving the 60-plus-mile-per-hour winds.

Intrigued by what kind of structure withstood such a violent blow through this tent town, Lawrence poked his head inside the Mongolian-style yurt, a round tent-like structure with a uniquely engineered roof.

"I was amazed they were still standing," Lawrence said. "Utterly amazed."

Immediately, the self-proclaimed military brat who grew up working with his hands wanted to take measurements and investigate the design.

The yurt's owner surprised Lawrence by offering blueprints on the spot.

Within weeks, Lawrence set out to make his own yurt, and from his fascination with the versatile structure, a business was born.

Lawrence, 44, started The Great American Yurt Co. in 1987 while continuing to work as a computer systems operator. He sold three or four yurts a year until he lost his computer job after 9/11 and started making yurts full time.

After selling a yurt with a 20-foot diameter for $2,900 on eBay shortly after 9/11, Lawrence was convinced the demand was strong enough to grow the company considerably.

"For a long time, I was a part-time carpenter and full-time computer geek," Lawrence said. "Then, I decided [yurt building] is what I wanted to do."

Lawrence made the transition look easy.

"My dad's a country boy, and I always had a thing for wood," said Lawrence, who uses all the scrap wood his company produces to make chests and chairs that he sells for a small profit. "We produce almost zero landfill material."

Lawrence, who runs his company out of a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in McCordsville, recently renamed his firm Yurts R Us and took on a partner, Jerry Ritchie, who will handle marketing and business operations.

The new facility is a considerable upgrade from the 4,000-square-foot barn his company previously called home, but Lawrence still works to contain costs, keeping inventory lean and his marketing budget targeted at specific trade shows and other business-to-business opportunities. Long-range plans include buying a manufacturing building.

Ritchie, 42, who founded and recently sold robotics firm Ritchie Automation, has a wealth of entrepreneurial experience, which Lawrence said will be key to growth. Lawrence, meanwhile, can focus on engineering a better yurt.

Ritchie hopes to diversify the firm's customer base and grow global sales.

"Business-to-business is going to be a big area of growth for us," he said. "We're going to aggressively target campgrounds, state parks and other commercial uses for our yurts. We think there are a lot of untapped markets."

Yurts R Us sales are now 40 percent commercial and 60 percent to individuals. Ritchie thinks future sales will tip 80 percent commercial.

Though Lawrence and Ritchie wouldn't divulge annual revenue, industry experts estimated it between $700,000 and $1.3 million.

Yurts R Us sells several sizes of yurts ranging in price from $4,000 to $14,000. It takes about 100 man hours to manufacture a 30-foot yurt-the largest the company offers-which offers 706 square feet of space. In most cases, the yurt comes in a kit and buyers are responsible for setting them up.

Yurts R Us also sells insulation and additional window kits, sky panels, stove kits and other extras.

It takes a few hours to a few days to put up a yurt, depending on the size.

"If you can follow instructions and read a tape measurer, you can put a yurt up," Lawrence said. "My 16-year-old daughter can put up a 16-foot yurt by herself."

Lawrence said his company is only a phone call away if troubles arise during set-up. And, he added, while the yurt can be used as a temporary or semi-permanent structure, part of its beauty is that it's somewhat easy to put up and taken down.

Of course, if a buyer prefers, Yurts R Us can help find someone to erect the yurt for a fee.

Ritchie is looking to set up a more intense sales effort the same way a builder puts up a yurt-fast. To do so, he is putting together a network of independent sales representatives and dealers. Already, dealerships in Hawaii and New Jersey have been established.

"That's just the beginning as we formalize these efforts," said Ritchie, who met Lawrence more than 20 years ago participating in historical re-enactment activities.

The competitive landscape for yurts has intensified considerably since Lawrence sold his first one for $1,000.

While sales industry-wide continue to climb at a steady 10-percent annual clip, an increasing number of manufacturers are cropping up nationwide, multiple industry sources said. The West Coast, and the Pacific Northwest, in particular, are yurt hotbeds, but the East Coast is also a growing region and the Midwest is starting to show signs of promise.

Yurts R Us has thus far withstood the onslaught of competitors, Lawrence said, with sales increasing 25 percent to 100 percent each of the last six years.

The early North American yurt buyers were eco-minded individuals looking for something different, industry experts said.

"With the Internet, more people are finding out about the virtues of the yurt," said Alan Bair, who founded one of the nation's largest yurt makers, Pacific Yurts Inc., in Oregon in 1978. "A lot of companies making yurts are also popping up, so it's important for people to do their homework and make sure they have the proper engineering and service support behind the yurt they buy."

The uses for yurts continue to grow, Bair said, from auxiliary building to vacation retreat to an art studio, hot-tub house, play room and more.

The word yurt is originally from the Turkish word meaning "dwelling place." The term came to refer to the tent-like structures only in other languages.

The Mongolians and Russians became most famous for using the round structure, also called a ger. Enthusiasts in other countries have taken the visual idea of the yurt and adapted it to their cultural needs.

Yurts are highly engineered and built for extreme conditions. The shape is said to diffuse the force of high winds, allowing yurts to stand when conventional tents and other square-shaped structures may fall.

A yurt does not rely on ropes or stakes to hold itself up; rather, the walls, rafters, roof ring and tensioning bands all work against one another, in a marvel of physics and engineering.

Original yurt builders more than 2,000 years ago used animal fur and skins to make yurt roofs. In the United States and Canada, yurts are now made with hightech materials.

Lawrence uses an industrial vinyl and three-quarter-inch lattice to construct his yurts. Because equipment for mass producing yurts is scarce, he designed his own production process and much of the equipment to make it happen.

John Versace, a New York craftsman, plans to make his new yurt his permanent home.

"This will be like living in my own little temple," said Versace, reached while putting up his yurt on eight acres he owns in the Hudson Valley. "The one thing I like about it is this structure is not taxed like a house because it is not considered a permanent structure. But it's an amazing, simple design that I've always been fascinated with."

Versace found Yurts R Us on the Internet and said he decided to buy a yurt from the McCordsville company due to Lawrence's personal touch.

"He's always been available every time I have a question," Versace said.

He is planning to separate his 30-foot yurt into several rooms, including a bathroom, bedroom and upper loft. Versace paid about $12,000 for his yurt, and said finishing touches will cost another $8,000 to $10,000.

"The weather gets pretty extreme here, but I'm not worried," he said. "With the construction of this, I'll be warmer than most in the winter."

Lawrence said the biggest adjustment to using a yurt is "thinking round."

"Most people are used to dealing with square structures when they design and decorate," he said. "But there are very few right angles in nature. It takes a different mind-set, and then you see the true functionality and simple beauty of this space."
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