Tuvans traditionally lived in settlements called aals , based on kinship, which formed the basic administrative units called somon or arban. Yurts were arranged according to each household's relation to the aal's leader, who was elected irrespective of age or sex. With urbanization, the collectivization of herds, and the enlargement of settlements, the traditional aal system is weakening. The somons and arbans have been replaced by thirteen administrative districts based on territory.
For centuries the Tuvans lived in felt yurts, as did Mongolians, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and other Central Asian nomads, with whom the Tuvans historically have had close cultural ties. The yurt is a cylindrical structure with a conic top. Its trellised frame is made of wood; its walls are made of felt, which provide good protection from Tuva's sharply continental climate. Held together by rope, the yurt is designed for easy erection and dismantling, essential for nomadism. A more permanent variant is the hexagonal log "yurt." In eastern Tuva conical "yurts" made of birch bark (Tuvan: chadyr or alazhy ), similar to the native American tipi have been used by hunters and reindeer herders. Beginning in the 1950s under Soviet influence, Tuvans began a slow conversion to rectangular dwellings made of wood, brick, or concrete. This transition has been marked in many cases by the deterioration of such dwellings.