Engineering's Great Achievements: The Yurt

2003 Engineers: Changing the World Essay Contest
Second Place Winner in grades 6-8

By Aighanym Barzhaksynova

I'm from Kazakhstan, and I've seen a lot of yurts. I think the yurt is a great engineering achievement, because it's been used for over 2,500 years by nomads of central Asia, and because Architectural Digest magazine acclaimed it as an "architectural wonder."

A yurt is like a home that can be moved around. It's round with a small hole in the middle of the roof. In Kazak, that hole is called "shangrakh". It's a symbol of good life. The smoke of the fire and steam from the cooking pot goes up and out this hole.

A long time ago in central Asia, people were trying to find shelter. People used their animals to create a part of the shelter. They took the sheep's wool and sprinkled water on it, and then put a sheepskin on top and rolled it up and waited until the fibers matted together. That made felt mats. The roof was made of long pieces of wood that come to the center of the roof at a wooden ring of the shangrakh. The circular wall was made from long pieces of wood that were tied together by leather straps into a lattice pattern. They put the felt on the roof and the walls with a rope made from animal hair. A rope or cloth can be stretched on top of the wall to make it stable.

A yurt is quite hard to make. You really need an expert to tell you how to combine the 29 wooden poles and how to space them and tie them. Five men need about two hours to build one.

In winter you can put more felt mats on to keep warm. In summer you take some off for coolness and to let air flow through the shelter. Sometimes in really cold weather people had to take their animals inside the yurt so that the herd would be warm. If the person had only one yurt then he'd sleep with the herd!

Long ago a rich person would have maybe thirteen yurts, and a poor person would have one or two. Today, yurts in Kazakhstan cost as much as a small car, about $3,000. It usually lasts for 25 years.