How could I put a tipi-like structure up in the air?
Sky Yurt structure
I began to make some models and do some rough drawings. I was influenced by Bucky Fuller who said that structures should have an integrity that didn’t depend on gravity. I think he called that “tensegrity”. If the house I live in now, a Greek Revival built in the 1860’s, were pushed off into space, the components would begin to come apart. A tensegrity structure would hold together, like a bicycle wheel. It wouldn’t depend on the forces of gravity.
Long ago I built an eight-sided model out of dowels, eye screws and wire. I was impressed with how stiff the structure was and how strong it it felt. I carried that model through all my life changes and moves. I hung it up in a prominent place in my office or living space so I wouldn’t forget the concept.
An amazingly strong structure
Strength testing the basic structure
The strength in the structure comes from the compression ring around the outside diameter – much like a yurt. I added the tension wire in the middle, but was sure that I wanted a design that would be completely open inside. I would need to create another way of tensioning the yurt.
Today, I went ahead and strength-tested the structure to see if it was really as strong as i imagined. Amazingly, it held my weight (200 lbs.). In the current prototype of the Sky Yurt the downward tension comes from fabric cover.
An open field, surrounded by trees. A small river just over the bank on one side of the field. Woods and mountains in the distance. Just after noon the first nomad arrives in a van with trailer in tow and begins to set up. Through the afternoon and into the early evening, nomads arrive. Each arriving nomad chats with his neighbors, sizes up the available space, and chooses a spot that feels right.
The village takes shape
Each shelter is unique and yet each is a variation on a common theme – a round, open, fabric structure with an awning like a sun umbrella – the workspace. And in the center, perched above the open tent, a round and private living space – yurt-like, dome-like or maybe free-form. The village grows organically as the nomads arrive. Some folks chose to cluster together, some prefer more distance and privacy and set up on the fringes of the village. The kids roam freely, checking out the new arrivals, and reporting back on what the river is like and the play spaces they have found in the bushes.
Where did this vision come from
In Vermont, I built my tipi from a pattern in the bible that John and I used – the Laubin’s book, The Indian Tipi – Its Structure and Use. As I hand stitched the canvas together – some of the seams were 50 feet long and I ended up with a knot in my back as big as my fist – I imagined the Sioux swinging into the meadows along the Little Big Horn, and setting up their tipis in an open circle with the hubbub and organic chaos of dogs, kids, horses and dust.
The Sioux tipis were private shelters. They were hunters and gatherers and were often out of village. They were horse powered, and couldn’t haul a lot of stuff. My nomads are makers, might be veggie-diesel powered. They need to bring their workspaces and materials with them. But like the Sioux, they will be on the move to where the grass is sweet and the “hunting” is good.
First time getting the tipi cover up with help from J C and Pew
The idea for Sky High Shelters has been brewing since I lived in a tipi on the top of a hill studded with small pines in Cavendish, Vermont in the 1970’s. My brother John had a tipi one field over. I had an open-sided kitchen lean-to with an old wood stove for baking bread and a cable spool from the power company as a table. We would sit in directors chairs around the table, drinking perked coffee, smelling the bread in the oven, watching the day unfold. Then I would turn to my bro and ask, “So what are we going to do today?”
Outside all day
I loved being outside all day. I had a kick wheel for making pots with local clay tucked under the lean-to. Even in the tipi with a fire going I was “outside”. I could feel any change in the sky or weather through the white canvas. And the inside air never heated up – all the warmth came from the radiant heat of the fire on my body – just like the warm sun on a cold day.
When I stood on this spot on the top of the hill where the snow had melted away, and I looked at the view of the valley and mountains to the east and the deep woods to the west, I realized that as soon as I put my tipi on this beautiful spot, I was going to lose this 360 degree view. The structure would be in the way.
What if I could put the tipi up in the air and have an tent structure under it that could be open on all sides when the weather was fair. The smoke flaps on the tipi could be adjusted like a jacket collar to block the wind so the fire would draw well. Maybe the open tent structure’s fabric could adjust to block the wind or be wide- open to light breezes on a beautiful day. And that open tent space would become my kitchen and workshop. And at the end of the day my sweetheart and I could retreat into our tipi nest, sit around the small fire, talk, plan, make love and fall asleep breathing the cool evening air.
The dream deferred
But life changed. I married a woman with small boys. Lived in houses. Got a real job. Had a daughter. Got a graduate degree. Divorced. Fell in love. Got married again. Lived in an old school house. Made babies, boys this time. Got a bigger house in town. And a summer house. And a series of sailboats. And all the time I kept making drawings and models of my “Sky Tipi”. Two summers ago I asked my new friend Andy, an artist who had gone back to school to be an engineer, to work with me and we started to build the first prototype in the backyard. I started to call it my “Sky Yurt”.