Firstly, thank you to all the people who made this trip to Iceland – funded by Erasmus+ – possible. Thank you to ARCH Network and Libby Urquhart for organising the trip from Scotland and to Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga and everyone in Iceland for hosting us and making us feel welcome.
The focus of the week was the traditional building method of turf building. Focusing on spreading knowledge and skills of a traditional building method, this course fits in very well with the aims of the Scottish Lime Centre Trust. The Trust focuses on exactly these areas in connection with traditional masonry and lime mortars. This report will first go through a diary of the days in Iceland. After that, there will an introduction to the basics of building with turf. Based on our expertise, we will then connect the aspects of the course to our own experience.
Arriving in Keflavik after a slightly delayed flight, we were met by the amazing Bryndis Zoega. After a seemingly endless journey to Skagafjodur through the surprisingly light night, we arrived at the farm Keldudalur Hegranes where we would be staying for the week.
Day 1 – Monday
The next day started with a drive to the nearby Saudarkrokur for a series of lectures about the Icelandic cultural heritage management by Thor Hjaltalin, the basics about turf buildings and their conservation by Sigridur Sigurdardottir as well as some of Icelandic history as seen through archaeological finds by Gudny Zoega. Having taken in about as much information as we could hold, we went to visit the heritage museum. Being built up like a large collection room with random items on shelves rather than placed in glass boxed, it was able to show the necessity of storage of these artefacts and the amount most museums will have somewhere in back rooms.
Day 2 – Tuesday
On Tuesday, we started the turf building course taught by Helgi Sigurdsson. After a drive through some beautiful landscapes, we arrived at Tyrfingsstadir, where we would work for the next three days. The morning was spend having a quick look at the existing farm buildings before learning the basics of cutting turf, including the best way to recognise a good turf. Having had a very tasty lunch of lamb stew with potatoes and lots of butternut squash, we got to work. The building we were working on was a former horses stable and will be used for the farms sheep once it is finished. We started going over the basics on one wall, but later split up to work on different wall sections at the same time. As we were getting used to this material, the work progressed faster. After a full day’s work, we were all quite happy about the prospects of dinner. In the evening, we used the beautiful weather and went to see some fish drying racks at the shore line and drove to a viewpoint overlooking the town and bay of Saudarkrokur.
Day 3 – Wednesday
On the second day, the weather was again. We continued the three wall sections until they were the same height. Throughout the day, everyone also had a go at cutting and stacking some more turf. In the afternoon, we then started with the arch at one gable end of the building. The formwork supporting it during the building process was created out of random objects from the farm, namely three pallets, one plastic tub and some of the old wooden planks. During the afternoon, we finished the main arch layer, a very interesting process. After this was completed, we called it a day and left to change out of quite muddy clothes before dinner.
Day 4 – Thursday
The Thursday started with a closer look at the existing buildings. The farm house was particularly interesting as it still had many of the features from when it was last inhabited in 1969. It was good to see that many of the buildings are still used in the day to day farm life. Seeing a similar arch in use also explained its function in the stable. After this, we continued with the gable end by laying a further two layers of turf. After lunch, the formwork was taking out from under the arch, a very exciting undertaking. To our relief, the arch held and looked great. We then also had a look at one of the original walls, how it was built up and how the individual blocks have changed over time. The working day ended with an emergency sheep herding and an invitation to coffee and more cake than we could eat at the farm house provided by Christina and Sigi, the owners of the farm. We also got an opportunity to explore the river valley next to the farm. After the three intense days on the farm, it was strange to think we would not return the next day.
Trimming the edges of the wall for a neat finish and compacting the upper parts of the arch.
Day 5 – Friday
On Friday, the day started with a visit to a leather tannery also specialised in fish leather. A very interesting insight into a local industry. We then went on a tour of different turf houses. This included two farm buildings and a small church and showed that the buildings were constructed with different methods and turf cuts. Other sites consisted of the earthworks of former houses, such as Hegranesthing. This former assembly site near Saudarkrokur gives some idea of the complex history of Iceland. After a dinner including roasted horsemeat, we got to enjoy another of Iceland’s treasures, a natural hot spring pools.
Our trainer Helgi (above and left) and host Bryndis (left) finishing the arch.
Day 6 – Saturday
The last day in Skagafjodur was spent looking at some more examples of turf buildings. The most impressive one was Glaumbaer, which is set up like a museum with artefacts and fitted rooms. It was interesting to see how comfortable the main rooms were. While the storage rooms had the bare turf showing, the main living space was clad with wood and slightly raised. This was also a good opportunity to see different constructions of the roofs. After some lunch, we left for the long drive down to Reykjavik. On the way, we stopped for another turf church without stone foundation resulting in significant loss of fabric, as well as Iceland’s largest hot spring. After dinner, we were still able to walk around and have a first look at the city centre of Reykjavik.
Front and back view of the turf house in Nyibaer, showing the typical frontage and window design.
Day 7 – Sunday
The last day in Iceland started with a visit to the Settlement Museum. This also included looking at the temporary exhibition of some of the old Icelandic manuscripts and included an introduction to these by one of the university researchers. The museum is built up around a settlement era Viking longhouse found during the construction of a parking garage. The exhibition looked at some of the artefacts and information of this time. A great emphasis was also placed on how the longhouse would have looked and functioned at the time. After this, we spend the afternoon looking at Reykjavik, going up the Cathedral tower and looking at the many shops in the city centre. During out drive to the airport, we stopped to have a look at the cooled lava fields near Keflavik.
Basics of Turf
The second type of Turf is Strengur (Strip) which is cut from the ground using a scythe which can be seen in the picture above. The Stengur is cut from the ground in strips, a straight line is cut along the bog then the scythe is used to cut the turf out parallel to the original line which was cut. This is used to tie all of the Klambra together lying long ways over the Klambra which can be seen in the wall above.
The final type is the Torfa (turf) this is again cut from the bog using the scythe, the Torfa Is twice the thickness as the Strengur. The Torfa is cut from the ground in the same way as the Strengur although it is cut from both sides to create a wider piece of turf than the Torfa. The Strengur is used in the middle of the wall to tie the inner and outer faces together and create a flat platform for the next row of Klambra.
At corners and where doors openings are situated, larger square blocks are cut from the bog, these are cut using the shovel then the under cutter is used to free the turf from underneath, this was the most difficult part of the process, as it was hard to get the under cutter to go the full length of the block and free it completely. These blocks were also the heaviest.
The wall construction itself should have a stone footing although this is not present in all of the turf houses in Iceland, it is advisable as it helps the life span of the wall. The cross section diagram shows the layers of the wall which are all put in place by hand and trimmed to suit the space that they are going into, the interior and exterior of the wall are then trimmed with the spade and scythe to make them flush with the layer bellow.
(Timber Frame and Roof)
Once the walls are completely erected a timber frame is constructed in the inside of the building to support the roof structure. All of the wood that is used in the timber frame is reclaimed from either older structures or drift wood; this is because there are no indigenous trees left on Iceland. The corner posts are positioned on stone pads to stop the moisture from rising up the posts and rotting. The roof is constructed as a roof in the uk would be with a timber A frame resting on the corner posts with laths between each frame for the turf to rest on and grow through.
The understanding of how traditional craft skills are used and passed on is a topic of interest for myself as well as the Scottish Lime Centre Trust. The Trust actively promotes the correct use of lime through courses as well as practical application and guidance in many projects. My own interest was explored in my dissertation about the use of lime in Germany and the UK. Using this knowledge of a traditional craft, this section will attempts to compare the situation of building with turf in Iceland to the use of lime.
The reason for wanting to maintain traditional skills is similar in every country. Firstly, the skills are by themselves a cultural heritage as important as the physical remains in archaeological sites and similar. Secondly, these skills are vital for the maintenance of the standing buildings. As such, programmes such as this course are an important part of the conservation effort in Iceland.
At the moment, there are a number of ways how the skills around building with turf are retained. There are still individuals such as Helgi who have experience with turf building and who pass on the knowledge to those they are working with. Additionally, courses with international and Icelandic participants are aimed to promote the practical knowledge of using turf for building. Organised regularly, they also help to promote awareness of the importance of the preservation of these skills. These courses also have the inevitable result that more general knowledge and literature is available over the internet, also internationally. For example, with the reports written by the groups that have attended already, there is a solid basis of knowledge both written and practical in Scotland. This can already be seen by a simple Google search. When searching for many terms connected with turf building, pages about the turf tradition in Iceland are among the first hits. This enhances the international awareness of this tradition and shows that the schemes to promote knowledge about this craft have been successful.
Over the course of the week, a number of challenges for the craft skill of turf building were mentioned. One of them is the common misconception about which materials are most appropriate for building walls. While most old remaining buildings have blocks with a high clay content, a spongy turf is still favoured by many. This is mostly due to the fact that the spongy turf was used as an insulation material due to its good insulation properties. However, as it is spongy and therefore retains a lot of air which is great for insulation, the walls shrink considerably when drying. Another issue mentioned is the lack of knowledge about the appropriate use and repair of turf in the wider conservation circles in Iceland. It was also mentioned that the invitations to attend a course about turf have not been taken up, indicating the lack of interest in familiarisation with the traditional materials and techniques. As such, decision making processes do not have the basis of experience with the unusual material, which can lead to inappropriate repairs and mismanagement of the properties.
There are a number of similarities between this and the use of lime. For the transfer of knowledge about lime, courses and the passing of skills from one crafts person to another are also of vital important. Organisations such as the SLCT offer similar courses as an introduction to a traditional craft. It is also these kinds of efforts that spread the general knowledge and wider implications of lime in a more general conservation field.
On the other hand, many of the issues mentioned above are very similar to the situation with the use of traditional lime. The opinions about appropriate materials often differ significantly, with a lack of understanding what properties are most important (i.e. breathability is vital) and how they behave once applied (i.e. the necessity to cover and properly cure all lime work). As such, this is very similar to the use of the spongy turf with high insulation capabilities but low durability and problems relating to the shrinkage of walls once built. Issues relating to the lack of knowledge about the material in the wider building industry are also evident with lime leading to problematic specification and a lack of appreciation for costs involved in using lime. Similar to turf, this can have a negative impact on the maintenance schedule and can lead to having to redo work that has failed more frequently.
Next to these similarities, there are of course clear differences. Firstly, while turf is important for maintaining the existing properties, there is no widespread use in contemporary building which is arguably still the case with lime and masonry walls. Next to this, the number of existing buildings using these skills is significantly smaller than buildings with the material lime. This means that the workforce that can be supported are also significantly smaller, making the continuation of the skill more difficult. Nevertheless, this does not mean that it is any less important to do so.
It could be said that the revival of turf building is behind the so called Lime Renaissance, which started in the 1960s/70s. Despite the difference in scale, there is the opportunity to learn from the experiences of this in Iceland.
While not all challenges have been overcome yet, the effort so far has been successful. Courses are available and well attended and there is an increased awareness of the importance of turf buildings also internationally, with much information available online and a greater number of visitors to the properties in Iceland.
As a Building Surveying graduate at the beginning of my career the makeup of vernacular structures in an international setting was of grate interest to me and the Scottish Lime Centre Trust. This is the case as it is important to look at building types from all over the world to gain an understanding of how the built environment has developed over the years, what was particularly interesting for me with regards to the development of the housing type within Iceland was that as soon as it became feasible to import cement into the country the traditional Turf houses were abandoned and replaced with new concrete structures, this rings true to what happened in Scotland during the 1960s and 70s where our built heritage was being knocked down to make way for new concrete tower blocks. What was noticeable was a trend that concrete/cement seems to bring with it where ever you are in the world and this is the loss of traditional skills, in Scotland the use of concrete meant that the use and understanding of lime was lost as cement was the new wonder material, it was evident that this was also true in Iceland with the introduction of concrete the skills and understanding of turf house construction were no longer thought to be important as the construction industry had surpassed this form of construction.
At the time of the abandonment of the turf houses there was no sense of their cultural significance just like the tenement flats in Glasgow, these buildings were seen to be old and out dated with modern construction being far better and more comfortable to live in. Although in Iceland none of the Turf houses are now lived in it is important that they are preserved for the younger generation as these buildings are their link to the past, and unlike in Scotland where we have stone built structures which can be left to fall into disrepair and still resemble what the building was originally, all be it just a shell, this can’t happen with the turf houses in Iceland as they will breakdown and disappear leaving only the stone footprint as the only evidence that it was ever there. The idea of conservation was my main reason for becoming a Building Surveyor as I could see that even today in Scotland there is a need for people to have a greater understanding of how to manage and look after their property so that it can be appreciated by generations to come. What was evident in Iceland was that people were beginning to think this way about their Turf houses which had been neglected and left for many years, but just like in Scotland where we had lost the skills to work with lime mortars the knowledge to rebuild the turf houses were also lost.
From talking with Helgi it was interesting to get his opinion on the importance of understanding the materials. This again just like lime seems to be the one vital part of traditional construction that seems to be lost first, the understanding of the material as it is something that is passed down from master to apprentice and very rarely written down. This therefore means that the understanding of the material has to be developed all over again from scratch and in a lot shorter period of time than the people before you, Helgi was telling us how there are disagreements between different people in the heritage sector on what type of turf is best to use. This argument is very familure as in Scotland there are disagreements on what the best type of lime to use is, the only way to solve these problems and arguments is by showing why you feel that the material you have chosen is the best for the building, and this all comes through the experience of working with the material.
What I found interesting from a sustainability point of view was that the material only lasted around 60 years and then would start to break down, this was like nothing that I had seen or heard of before as we don’t deal with buildings in Scotland that have that short a life span. Although what I did feel was interesting was that the building material comes from the ground and once it has done its job and is at the end of its life span it will become one with the ground again meaning there is no waste or landfill costs making it a very sustainable and environmentally friendly material to use. Looking at this type of construction from a sustainability point of view it is one of the most sustainable forms of construction that I have ever come across, all of the building materials are reclaimed such as the wood which is drift wood from the beach and the turf its self comes from around the building therefore cutting out transport costs. With a growing interest in the UK of green buildings such as rammed earth construction and cob, it was of grate interest to me to get another prospective on how other countries developed green buildings in the past.