The Yurt-Shaped House on Orcas Island

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The Yurt

We anticipated the affair we had with Orcas Island would disintegrate upon contact with our normal lives. We’d arrive back in Seattle with stories of misguided property searches or bullets-dodged. We could imagine saying, “Remember that one time when we almost bought property on Orcas. Phew, that was weird!”

But it didn’t happen. It stuck and Sachi was the glue. She became increasingly convinced that Orcas Island was a reasonable goal to have. Being our de facto CFO and chief party pooper, I often look to her for restraint. I propose dumb ideas to her often, and precious few make it through the Sachi filter. But this time it was different. She was now convincing me it could work, that we could afford it and that it could contribute to our happiness. While Sachi was 95% sure, I was slightly less so. We’d toyed with the idea for years and I loved the idea of island property, but was now the time?

A few weeks later, we were back on the island and driving around with the nice lady who originally printed out the flyers we sorted by the campfire. She is a longtime resident who plied us with island culture as we toured vacant land and tried to imagine the outlines of a future house among the trees. One of the quotes that stuck out was regarding the island’s ability to weed people out over long, dark winters. She said, “In the summer, it’s Orcapulco, but in the winter, some people think it’s Orcatraz.” We took note. The northwest winters aren’t for everyone, but they work for us.

Most of what we saw that day was a bit disappointing; pieces of land squeezed between two homes, overly steep slopes, difficult approaches. But we held out hope and saved a place on the west side of the island for our last visit of the day. It was priced similarly to most of the vacant land we were seeing, but included an unusual and intriguing house.

To find this house, we drove up a long dirt road and turned into a driveway between two huge cedar trees. After we parked, something happened I’ll never forget. Just as I stood up, a bat flew directly into the center of my chest. A bat! In the middle of the day! Was this a bad omen? Is this place haunted? It even left a little spittle on my shirt.

The realtor led us through the deer fence and to the light blue house with a conical cedar roof sporting an ecosystem of moss and lichen. The first thing we noticed walking in was a dated kitchen, a foul smell and a few rat droppings on the counter. This was that kind of house, we thought. In looking around, the true strangeness of the house was revealed. It was essentially circular; a fifteen-sided house with a conical ceiling that reached up to fourteen feet at the highest point.


The house was one big room with two pie-shaped bedrooms and a bathroom. And the bedrooms had no ceilings. Instead, the walls of the bedrooms were like cubicle walls that reached up to eight feet and stopped. Privacy was not a feature of this house. Thankfully, the bathroom had a ceiling.

With the exception of some appliances, it hadn’t been updated since 1985 when a family ordered the parts and built the house themselves. It was a “kit” house that might have lasted longer than expected. Plant-themed wallpaper from the eighties peeled off the bathroom wall, burn marks on the aged carpet told a story we couldn’t fathom and a mustard yellow refrigerator from 1977 hummed in the kitchen.

Construction photos from an album left by the original owners
Construction photos from an album left by the original owners

The house was built on a slope with a daylight basement that was left unfinished since the eighties. Walking through it, it felt like no one cared enough about the house to finish the basement. From the beginning, it might have seemed like a mistake that didn’t deserve more investment. The realtor described it as a “yurt with a basement” and the more we looked at it, the more it was yurt. A yurt-shaped house.

The house, we all agreed, was a bit of a liability. But, the property had a nice west-facing view and lots of trees. To our surprise and delight, fiber optic internet had come to the road only weeks before.

Despite the negative impressions, the house had bohemian charm. It felt like an oddity, left over from a time when this kind of kit home was a fad and people marveled at the amazing potential of living inside of a circle.

And it was a fully functioning home, complete with a dishwasher, washer/dryer, etc. The decking had recently been replaced and we didn’t see evidence of water damage or foundation issues. With a little shaping, it could be a neat little island place.

Up to this point, we had assumed that a house of any sort would be out of reach. Yet there it was, a Goldilocks house. Too run-down for people looking for a vacation home and a liability for those looking for vacant land. For us, it could be just right; a place that reserved our spot on the island for whatever we could conjure in the future. And in the meantime, it could provide a way for us to test life on the island on an intermittent basis.

We left the island that afternoon. As the ferry to Anacortes tracked its way through the archipelago and across the Rosario Strait, I sat across from Sachi on booth-style seats next to a window with a big question hanging in the space between us. It was the middle of July, less than three weeks from the camping trip and we’d only seen one house on the entire island. Yet, the momentum we both felt was unmistakable.


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On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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