Iceland’s Historic Turf Houses: The Eco-Homes of the Future?

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Twin turf houses

Photo: sly06

Many centuries before ‘going green’ became fashionable, Icelanders were constructing eco-friendly and energy efficient dwellings all over their island. Earth-sheltered houses have a long history that spans the globe from Africa to Europe. In Northern Europe evidence of turf houses (as they are known there) has been found as far back as the Iron Age. Later, the Romans used turf in the construction of their walls and fortresses in the northernmost reaches of their empire. It is believed that turf has been used for even longer than this, but as earth and grass rot away very easily, or become mixed with the surrounding environment, no traces of older constructions have yet been found.

Rounded turf houses

Photo: michael clarke stuff

In countries such as Norway, Scotland, Ireland and Greenland turf houses were left to those who couldn’t afford anything else. In Iceland, however, the practice was more egalitarian. It was the material of choice for residences of chiefs and peasants alike, as well as other buildings such as churches and stables — pretty much anywhere that people needed to stay dry and warm.

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Turf Church

Photo: Ira Goldstein

In the 9th century turf was used in the construction of Nordic-style long houses, multi-purpose buildings where people both slept and worked. This design later changed to a collection of houses connected by a central passageway that was totally unique to Iceland. A feature of this type of house was a raised section for sleeping which stood away from the entrance and was high enough to be heated efficiently. This design was used until the 1800s when the houses once again became joined, but retained their separate roofs.

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