Hidden in the Landscape: The Unique Architectural Heritage of Icelandic Turf Houses
Turf houses are a distinctive type of dwelling found in Iceland with origins dating back to the 9 th century AD, which are attributed to the country’s Nordic settlers. The development of turf houses in Iceland took into consideration the island’s local climate, as well as the available building materials. Turf houses continued to be widely used until the middle of the 20 th century. Today, few turf houses remain in Iceland and they are regarded as an architectural heritage of the country, being nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011.
A turf house in Bakkagerði. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Unique Construction Used the Natural Materials of the Region
The turf houses of Iceland originate in the long-house tradition of the Norse. During the 9 th century AD, the Vikings settled in Iceland, and brought their architectural traditions along with them. Over the centuries these structures were adapted to suit the Icelandic climate, and the natural resources available on the island.
In the Norse homeland of Scandinavia, long-houses were typically constructed with timber, preferably oak, which is native to the region. In Iceland, however, dwarf birch was much more readily available, and therefore was used to construct the frames of the turf houses. Additionally, the island has an abundance of lava rocks, as a result of eruptions. These were used for the construction of turf houses.
Earth covered building in Sænautasel (Saenautasel) in Iceland. (Image: Chris73/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The most distinct building material for these Icelandic structures is the turf itself. In Europe, turf was harvested in blocks from bogs, and used for construction purposes. This building technique has been in use since the Iron Age. In other parts of Northern Europe, turf was used by the poorer classes, though in Iceland both the rich and the poor exploited this natural resource. Thus walls and roofs of the Icelandic turf houses were made using this material. The houses of the rich had wooden frames on which the turf would be placed. The turf served as a natural heat insulator and provided protection for its inhabitants from the harsh northern climate. The turf needed replaced from time to time, depending on the regional frost and thaw patterns. In some places, for instance, the turf could last for as long as 20 years, whereas in others, up to 70 years.
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‘Torfhaus’ Grass roofed hut in Iceland. (Image: piviso.com)
The Extreme Survival of Turf Houses
Up to the middle of the 20 th century, turf houses were the norm in Iceland. A number of these turf houses still survive to this day with the oldest existing example of such a structure being the Keldur at Rangárvellir, on the southern border of the Icelandic highlands. Keldur consists of a dwelling house with a number of outbuildings. During the 12 th and 13 th centuries, Keldur was home to the Oddi clan, one of the powerful families in Iceland during the Free State era. Keldur has been rebuilt many times over the centuries. The current turf house there was rebuilt after the devastating earthquakes of 1896 and 1912. Keldur was acquired by the National Museum of Iceland in 1942 as part of the National Historic Buildings Collection and is opened to the public between June and August.
Earth covered turf homes in Keldur, Iceland. These were built in 1193 and are supposedly the oldest buildings in Iceland. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Modern Materials Take Hold – Spotlight on Preservation
Around the middle of the 1960s the last inhabitants of Iceland’s turf houses began moving out. These traditional structures had been gradually falling out of favor among Icelanders since the beginning of the 20 th century. In the country’s capital of Reykjavik, for instance, concrete became the preferred building material when the city was rebuilt after being razed by fires in 1915. Three years later, Iceland obtained its independence from Denmark. A nationalistic campaign was launched to clear the country of its traditional buildings, including turf houses, in favour of modern ones. In more recent times, however, the boost of tourism in Iceland has brought the turf houses under the spotlight and has raised questions about their preservation. In 2011, the Turf House Tradition was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, an indication of the Icelandic government’s efforts to boost the status of these traditional buildings.
Top image: A row of turf houses in Iceland. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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