Celebrating 40 years of portable structures
By Leonie Sherman
Photos courtesy Pacific Yurts
When Alan Bair was a young tree planter in the Pacific Northwest he saw a photo of a Mongolian ger — or yurt — in National Geographic and thought it might be the solution to his housing woes. Living out of a pup tent for weeks at a time while he was in the field on contracts was getting stale. He never imagined the yurt he built from scratch would provide a livelihood for his family and a dedicated crew of 35 employees. Forty years later, the company he started, Pacific Yurts, has shipped thousands of simple, round structures around the globe. Americans know what a yurt is thanks largely to his efforts.
Bair bought a piece of undeveloped land in rural Oregon, and he and his wife moved into the yurt while they got a garden going and built the house they’ve lived in ever since. Though they’ve added a porch and replaced the fabric on that original yurt, it still stands on their property. “My kids’ friends and visitors love to stay there,” Bair explains.
Before long people started calling to ask for help putting up their own yurts, or to enlist Bair’s assistance in building a yurt on their property. Along with two other partners, Bair started the business in a dairy barn outside of Cottage Grove, Oregon and began to manufacture the shelters. Originally he shared shop space with a bike trailer manufacturer and a furniture maker. Now Pacific Yurts operates two facilities near Cottage Grove and produces hundreds of yurts every year. “Without even knowing what an entrepreneur was, I became one,” says Bair with a laugh.
“We might have sold 15 yurts that first year,” says Bair with a sigh. “We weren’t making a lot of money and my original partners decided it wasn’t for them. Those first few years were a struggle,” he admits.
But then Bair discovered electronically welded fabrics. Pacific Yurts won an award from the Industrial Fabrics Association International which brought a lot of exposure along with credibility and contacts. A new customer, who was an aerospace engineer, introduced NASA insulation and Bair’s company became the first to use it in a yurt. “The premium fabric on our yurts comes with a 15 year warranty,” Bair explains with a hint of pride. “That’s a longer warranty than most roofs!”
Nomads from Central Asia were the first to use yurts, but in the 21st century, people from all over the globe appreciate the traditional structure. “I think something deep inside us longs for a simpler life,” explains Bair. “And a yurt, well, it’s round, there’s a view of the stars at night, you can sense when wind kicks up and hear the rain falling but stay warm and cozy inside. A yurt really speaks to people, it represents a simpler lifestyle.”
“The use of a yurt is limited only by imagination,” says Bair. Pacific Yurts customers have used the structure as a fly fishing lodge in Patagonia, and a heli ski base camp in British Columbia. People use them as art studios, and parks in almost every state rent them out in developed campgrounds. A native judge in the southwest calls his a hogan and uses it as a community court house. Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park has one suspended eight feet up in a Jeffrey Pine that they’ve used as an office for seven years; the trunk grows out of the skylight. “It holds up really well, even in the winter,” says CEO Jesse Desens, who was impressed when the yurt stayed standing after last year’s monster loads of heavy snow. “All our customers walk in there to sign waivers and make reservations, and they just love it.”
The rise of ecotourism means resorts are the fastest growing segment of Pacific Yurt’s business. “A lot of campgrounds and sustainable lodges want a light footprint, and visitors want to make sure they’re not harming the environment. A yurt really bridges a gap there, where families can be more comfortable than regular camping, feel close to nature, but know that they’re doing no harm.”
And Pacific Yurts has gotten right on board with the trend towards luxury in the wilderness, offering larger models, which provide space for add-ons like a bathroom, a full kitchen, a wood-burning stove, thermoglass French doors. One customer has even installed a wide screen TV. “We started providing yurts for ‘glamping’ before there was even a name for it!” Bair says.
Bair is most proud of the customer service offered by Pacific Yurts and its team of skilled workers. Every customer gets a survey a few weeks after receiving his or her yurt. Feedback is almost all positive, but occasionally customers offer ideas for how they can improve their product. Employees work as a team and focus on quality and craftsmanship every step of the way, right down to the presentation of each shipment. “It makes my job so much easier to know that everybody really cares about the product,” explains Bair.
And the proliferation of yurts benefits more than the people who use them or the lucky employees who call Bair boss. Back before Oregon State Parks started using Pacific Yurts, some parks were in danger of closing down due to lack of revenue. Renting yurts allowed them to generate income even during the shoulder season. “It’s really gratifying to know that a beautiful scenic area has been able to remain open to the public thanks in some part to the money they get from renting out our yurts,” says Bair.
And 40 years after cobbling together his first model from scratch, he’s still in love with the product. “You can put the basic one in the back of a pick up truck, build a platform and set it up in a few hours!” Bair explains, his voice rising with enthusiasm. “It costs a fraction of a permitted house and be removed without a trace. I don’t know of any other structure that’s as comfortable, transportable, easy to install and low cost.” He pauses to reflect. “And nothing has the soul and charm of a yurt.”