Driving around Iceland’s ring road – the only major highway in this isolated island country – one has to notice the lack of trees in the landscape. While Iceland has some of the most amazing scenery I have seen, forests are certainly not a part of Iceland’s natural beauty. But Iceland wasn’t always treeless, and when Iceland was fist settled by Vikings in the 9th century, around one third of the country was covered by birch forests.
With human settlement came deforestation. As people cut the forests to make way for fields and grazing animals, the forests disappeared almost completely. But people still needed shelter from the cold climate, and with wood practically unavailable they had to come up with alternative materials for building their houses. The answer was turf or sod, the top layer of soil that is held together so tightly by roots of grass that it can be cut into mats. Icelanders have been building turf houses for over 1000 years, and the technique is very well-suited to the country’s environment and climate.
The design and evolution of turf houses in Iceland
Turf house building techniques in Iceland have evolved over time, but the materials have remained the same. Most turf houses have a wooden frame structure, and stones are sometimes used in the walls as well. The turf is cut from the ground and the mats are then stacked on top of each other to form walls. Depending on the way the turf is cut and placed, different structures and wall textures can be created. The roof is also made of turf and it was traditionally made waterproof with tree bark. Having a stone foundation prevents moisture from the ground from rising up the wall, which helps prolong the lifespan of the structure.
The first turf houses in Iceland consisted of one large space, and the design resembled longhouses built by Vikings in other countries. The exterior walls were made of turf, and sometimes there were light wooden interior walls that divided the space into two or three rooms. Over time the design evolved into a series of smaller houses connected by a passageway and with turf walls all around. The houses would grow over time as new parts were added. Other buildings – everything from churches to storage rooms – were also commonly made with turf.
Because the roots holding the turf together deteriorate over time, the turf needs to be replaced periodically. Depending on the composition of the turf, the quality of the craftsmanship and the climatic conditions, the turf would last 20 to 70 years. After this the turf had to be replaced with new turf, although the original wooden frame and stone foundation could be kept.
Despite the lack of trees, turf houses usually have some wooden parts, and the wood came mainly from driftwood. In addition to the wooden frame structure, some houses also had interior wooden paneling on walls and a wooden floor. Because wood was difficult to obtain, the amount of wood in the house depended on the wealth of the owners. Some had wooden paneling in only one room, while those who couldn’t afford it had bare turf walls and dirt floors.
The benefits of turf houses
Even when there were forests in Iceland, the local birch was not ideal for building as it couldn’t withstand the harsh climate. Turf provided a more durable building material, and turf houses also created a more comfortable indoor climate. Turf houses have a fairly stable temperature throughout the year, and they are warm in winter and cool in summer. Turf was replaced by concrete during the 20th century, but these concrete houses were much colder than turf houses before insulation became common.
Turf walls are much thicker than timber walls, and this provides extra insulation. Because of the grass and the roots, turf is also a better insulator than stone. Because of the shape that blends in with the landscape, wind passes easily above turf houses which creates less cold drafts. The structure and thickness of the walls also protects from drafts, as does the near lack of windows. In some houses animals were kept indoors in rooms below bedrooms, and the heat from the animals kept the houses warm.
Turf houses have existed in other Northern European countries as well, and the technique is much older than the settlement of Iceland. But in other countries turf houses were only built by the poorest people who couldn’t afford other materials, while in Iceland turf houses were common among all classes and all types of buildings. This widespread use is a testimony to the suitability of turf to Iceland’s climate and environment.
Knowledge of turf house building was once widespread in Iceland. During the 20th century the amount of turf houses started declining – and with it the amount of people who had the skill. Today only a few craftsmen remain who have the skill to build turf houses. But with today’s need to find more sustainable building techniques, interest in turf houses is also rising, and hopefully the Icelandic turf house techniques can be revived before they are forgotten.