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Icelandic Turf Houses, land of hobbits that survive from earthquakes and use zero energy

Iceland’s grass-roofed houses are undoubtedly a part of the country’s persona and heritage. Through the rough climate and isolation, the turf houses kept the Vikings warm and throughout 11 hundred years until the houses, you might see today were built. Iceland might not have many ancient and grand buildings to show off like most of the European countries but if you look closely you’ll still find some of the old turf houses and can even visit them and explore.

The history of Turf Houses in Iceland
If you visit Iceland today it is quite hard to believe that once the country was largely covered in trees. In fact, research has shown that over 30% of Iceland was forested during its settlement years. In particular, was birch dominant just as it is today. So, even though our neighboring Scandinavian countries used oak to build their homes Icelanders would use their darling birch.

However, with limited resources and people thinking to short ahead the trees were quickly used up. Sadly, this would take centuries to heal and cause land erosion all over the island. However, people still had to build a safe haven for them and their families. Digging deep into tradition to try to find a way to do so.

At this time turf roofs were already known in Norway, where most of the settlers were coming from. It was, therefore, something they recognized and appreciated. Furthermore was Iceland packed with suitable turf and therefore an excellent opportunity to build turf houses.

Not only did the turf offer premium insulation exceeding wood or stone but it was also much easier to come by. This resulted in almost every single farm in Iceland being made up of turf houses. At night people would gather in the largest room, the only one heated up with fire and tell each other stories, knit and make wool and skin products. Others would sing or recite poems and everyone would keep warm in this same room that everything took place in. This was called baðstofa, or basically the “bath living room”.

How Were Turf Houses built?

Turf houses or torfbaeir as they are called in Icelandic were largely made up of flat stones, wood, turf, and soil. A wooden frame would firstly be built, limiting the need for wood greatly. Secondly was the turf that would be laid down, often in a herringbone style and in two layers to seal the insulation. The only additional wood to be added would be for doors and doorways. But those would also serve as decorative features and often be carved beautifully in the richer households. Furthermore, would richer households cover their floor in rocks or wood?

Vidimyrarkirkja Church in Skagafjordur

The biggest focus was on the bad sofa or the great hall were the whole family and entourage would gather for the night to eat, sleep and socialize. Those would often house a special chimney so that the smoke from the turf houses’ only fire could escape.

Do Icelanders Still Live in Turf Houses?

The quickest way to answer this question would be no. Icelanders don’t live in turf houses anymore. You might still see an occasional grass roof but that has everything to do with architecture and Icelanders wanting to hold on to their beloved heritage rather than any need for turf as insulation material.

In the year 1890, over 87% of the population lived in turf farms in the countryside. However, from that time people started to move into larger settlements, from the countryside to the city and the colorful corrugated iron and wooden houses you see today in Reykjavik started coming to life.

By the end of the 19th century, a reign of 11 hundred years of turf houses in Iceland had come to an end.

Source of Information Iceland travel

Written by Ketrin Ulbrich

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