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

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Glaumbær

Photo: Matt Riggott

Whatever the shape, turf houses were made from the same basic materials. Timber was used for the frame, turf for the walls and roofs. Stones were occasionally laid together with the turf for walls, and slate used to underlay roofs. Wood has never been widely available in Iceland, so the timber generally came from driftwood or trade with other regions or nations. Wood panelling, in particular, was expensive and therefore only used by the richest of homeowners. While the wealthy may have had walls and floors lined with timber, the poor had to make do with turf and dirt, occasionally employing slate (if they were lucky!).

Turf house inside

Photo: Chris 73

The turf itself was cut from mineral-based marshlands, and different tools were used depending on the shape of the turf required. How long the turf would last depended on a variety of factors, including the composition of the soil, the skill of the craftsmen and the surrounding climate. Inevitably, the turf would deteriorate and have to be replaced anywhere from every 20 to 70 years — though the original timber frames would often be kept throughout.

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Three turf houses

Photo: Christian Wirth

There were many benefits of using turf for construction in a harsh environment like Iceland’s, the lack of other suitable materials (where turf is plentiful and, of course, free!) being one. Turf also has wonderful heat retaining properties, keeping the interior of a turf house at an even temperature regardless of fluctuations outside — pretty important in a time before central heating! Drafts and air infiltration were also naturally kept at bay, meaning minimal heat loss from escaping warm air. Finally, unlike stone, turf is a relatively easy material to work with once the method has been mastered.

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