Turf Building Course – Reflections & SWOT Analysis

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With Contributions by Ingrid Shearer, Andrew McConnell, Linda Dunwell, James Fussell, Sarah Lawther, Jim Shearer, Paul Higginson and Sara Carruthers

Reflections

We have included here a few personal reflections from members of the group in their own words:

“The course allowed us to explore many aspects of turf building from hands-on practical experience of tools, materials, construction techniques and conservation issues, to interpretation, presentation and potential audiences.”

“Helgi was an excellent, humorous and patient teacher, encouraging us to get stuck right in from the beginning, which was fitting as we were essentially working in a bog! We were lucky to be working with the foremost expert of turf construction in Iceland and I came away with a much better understanding of the material and the techniques needed to build a turf house that will last. It seems that there is no “right way” to build with turf and styles will differ from area to area. However, the quality of the turf is certainly a factor in ensuring longevity. Would I choose to live in a turf building? There is no doubt that aesthetically they are incredibly pleasing to look at, blending in beautifully with their surroundings. There is also a unique sound quality when inside due to the insulative properties of the walls and it is said that a wild storm raging outside won’t be heard by those sheltering inside. However, they are also hard to keep clean, need constant maintenance and don’t seem practical at all to live in. There is also a perception in Iceland that these buildings represent a poorer and shameful period, one to be forgotten rather than embraced. However, with growing interest from outside this unique heritage of buildings and building techniques may yet be saved. Perhaps a turf wrapping around a clean insulated building could be a way a great way of combining old and new, maintaining the outer beauty yet eliminating the inconvenience of dusty, draughty old interiors. Perhaps not a design for the turf purist, but an eminently more practical space to use and enjoy, in my opinion. One lasting impression that I came away with: Iceland produces excellent lamb and Helgi is a BBQ master!”

“The basics of construction were taught as incidental in the wider aims of learning about turf-building through building with turf. Questions were answered through instruction, so the builder was learning whilst doing. This is a practical approach which suited our group of enthusiastic and driven individuals. With an abundance of written and specific information available about the methods of turf building, it was more accessible to simply give it a go without being too precious about the exactitudes required in other construction methods.

Frank and honest discussions about the relevance of turf-building in modern construction were insightful. With many anticipating an atmosphere of warmth and cosiness, this was not reflected in any aspirations to live in such buildings, modern construction providing cleaner buildings that are easier to maintain. With an excellent collection of turf-buildings in Iceland and an enthusiastic core of individuals dedicated to the continuation of this construction tradition, it is a challenge to see a long-term vision for turf-building if the buildings and maintenance are no longer relevant or practical for modern life. It is this dichotomy which leads our group to consider the future for turf-building.”

“What an amazing experience this was to enjoy a new environment so alike and in other ways so different from the Scottish Highlands. Our Hosts and the people we met were friendly and very fond of a joke or two, quietly and sometimes it took us some time to catch on or may be that was just me being slow!
Visiting the turf buildings was very interesting – seeing pictures had not led me to believe that the turf would have such a texture – like flocked wood. The turf had colour and created lovely shapes in the inner corridors of the buildings, and in the larger complex at Glaumbaer did not feel cold or damp – both of which terms I had expected, to explain why no-one lives in them today. I did expect them to be dark inside – due to the small windows, but in fact many of our Scottish vernacular buildings would have had similarly small windows, maybe none at all, or may be in the past Scottish people also could have used sheep bladders (before glass was available) in the windows.

Our Hosts were obviously very proud of the history of the turf buildings and always happy to answer our questions but seemed disconcerted when we asked why no-one lived in them now. Modern housescertainly have many modern conveniences that the historical buildings do not – but I was surprised that there were none of these houses set up to give tourists an experience of staying in one. It appears that Turf houses as a way of living has a bad rep!

Yet there are many original ruins protected in the area and around Iceland, which have yet to be checked out (due to very high numbers of ruins). Unlike in Scotland where this vernacular tradition died out several hundreds of years earlier, and most ruins of this type are much harder to find, my map research of the area indicated lots of potential remains. In Scotland there are several reconstructions being discussed for those areas which have evidence of turf walled buildings, or longhouses of a more Viking nature, and now I know how to identify them in satellite images and also I would be able to volunteer to help build these buildings.

The actual building experience though obviously hard work, and wet work, thank goodness for the rubberized jackets we had been provided with, it was also very rewarding. Learning how to create the pattern which seemed very complicated was actually simple when you know how, though it still took some practice and we did not always get the right thicknesses first time. The “turf” was very heavy as we were cutting in a peat type bog and thankfully we did have a flat bed and tractor to get the turf to the building, so we did not do it all “old school”. But still there was a lot of lifting and carrying involved – like any building project really. It was great seeing our rough edges turning into lovely herringbone patterns, and over the course of three days we finished the “Smoke House” apart from the wooden front gable which would be added later by a carpenter.

As a group we made a team right from the start and discussed our report several times during evenings of our visit as we wanted to try something different.”

SWOT Analysis

The group conducted a rapid SWOT analysis of these issues and explored potential audience segments that could be engaged.

Strengths
• Turf structures blend into landscape: being a natural and local material, turf structures fit well in the landscape, invariably low-rise buildings which work with the site topography, rather than rely on cut and fill or made-up ground like many other structures. The visual sensitivity of turf building is matched by the physical sensitivity. These building are low impact.

• Affordable and sustainable: turf is a renewable material which can be locally sourced without relying on carbon-heavy transportation. The widespread use of turf building was because it was readily available and affordable.

• Unique atmosphere and ambience in internal spaces: acoustic qualities and contrasting dark and light spaces. This strength should be aligned with uses that are compatible for these qualities, rather than trying to make these qualities compatible with alternative uses.

• Uniqueness as a living tradition: ‘Turf belts’ extend across many areas of northern Europe and America but are relics in these communities. Unique scale and extent of survival in Iceland. Much more could be made of the historic connections between the northern countries, focussing on Iceland.

• Heritage: Several surviving examples from the archaeological record are well researched and well presented. We have evidence of inhabited turf buildings dating from around 800AD up to the recent past. This reinforces the time depth. The record and ease of translation of turf building in Iceland is unique.

• Good quality materials: turf and wood primarily in Iceland – the turf is in all the lowland areas primarily for grazing for sheep and horses (in the past also goats though there are not many goats remaining today) and there are plenty of turf bogs. Wood however is another matter – there are few trees in Iceland (most were cut down in the past), mostly a slow growing and short birch which do not lend themselves to construction. The vernacular wood is usually driftwood from Russia, it can take a long time for the wood to wash up on Iceland’s beaches, so it is well preserved by salt and very strong. Otherwise all wood must be imported and so is expensive. We did see tree planting in some areas that we passed, so this may change in the future.

• Simple/accessible construction: easy to practice and good for teaching basic principles of construction. Accessible to a variety of audiences.

• Potential to draw/disperse visitors across the island rather than concentrated around Reykjavik: the increasing demand for ‘experience’ tourism would fit well and enable visitors to get beyond the more famous attractions. There seems to be a perception in Iceland that people/visitors would not wish to stay in a turf building, but from reading about and talking to visitors they seemed to be surprised that no-one still lived in them. Some visitors have expressed the wish to stay in one while visiting Iceland as an “experience”.

• Cosy/safe: many times we heard this about the buildings and yet they are not used for anything other than storerooms and museums. Iceland has considerable Geothermal resources and in-fact the modern buildings are very warm because of this form of heating, which could be adapted for use in a modern version of a turf building. The modern buildings do not look particularly well insulated.

• Great acoustic properties: could be used for events, sound recording, storytelling

• Visually legible: easy for audiences to understand and conservators to repair – there are construction text-books and these are critical to future generations on understanding how to build.

• Cheap material and ecologically low impact with low levels of embodied energy during the manufacturing phase: if sourced locally and using unskilled labour (it would not take too long to gain the experience to cut shapes right more often than not).

• Powerful way of combining natural heritage and cultural heritage

• 300+ exchange/network contacts – could be mobilised for advocacy and knowledge.

Weaknesses

• Knowledge concentrated in a few individuals: need for greater investment in transmission of knowledge and skills within Iceland where the skills seem to be concentrated in a small pool of people who like Helgi travel all over the country, though the ArchNetwork seems to be doing reasonably well.

• Dependency and vulnerability: the traditions, skills and confidence of turf-building is overly reliant on too few individuals. And this situation does not seem to be improving, it is seen as a dying skill. Would having a modern variant of this type of building encourage more builders?

• Need for upkeep is relatively high: construction needs constant attention, if not maintenance and repair. Stewardship of sites requires maintenance to be built into lifestyle. Walls and roofs are affected by rotting of the turf degrading the binding of the structures, animal damage, wind damage. Walls last 50-100 years depending on local conditions but roofs are more vulnerable to the strongest of winds. This is common to many vernacular building techniques.

• Tradition may be fixed and not evolving: need to find new ways of utilising the old methods. Modern wood working methods like the use of Glulam beams for the roof supports could significantly improve the longevity and safety aspects for the roof, and result in more draft proof inner lined rooms (though the drafts may have some anti-damp properties too). In addition, the dark nature of the buildings inside could be improved by the utilization of glass Gable walls, giving a modern evolution for the buildings.

• Not appreciated, valued or understood within local/Iceland and beyond: need to generate a vison of how relevant the material and methods are for the future. Many architects and builders in the UK are being encouraged towards more sustainable building methods by clients and some governments. In Iceland the Turf building tradition was certainly very sustainable (used for over 1500 years), but obviously population pressures could mean that less land will be available for providing turf for buildings. But the buildings themselves can be recycled to the land, it was common practice to build a new house and spread the turf from the older buildings out to improve the fields for cultivation.

• Challenging perceptions: Is this because Icelanders see the buildings everywhere and so do not think they need to be protected, or that the methods of building are too simple to be preserved as a technique? Obviously, there are a core of people who feel this is something to be saved – but is this a general feeling of tradition in Iceland by the general populace, or would they prefer to see the buildings lost (certainly in Scotland and in Ireland the perception of vernacular buildings seems to be one of a “best forgotten history”).

• Relevance (desirable/affordable/maintainable): everyone could be a builder – the skills would come quickly, even though there is a physical cost as it is hard work, but the materials are relatively free on your own land. However, it seems the perception in Iceland is that they are not desirable. Could a concept building using modern and older turf techniques together be a way to challenge this perception. Turf roofs are becoming very popular in many countries, a modern take on the original turf roof, which although they have a very different structure are becoming more relevant.

• Vulnerable to fire: Fire is a great risk with turf and Helgi says to new build without some kind of layer between the turf and the interior would not pass inspection. A turf house once on fire will smoulder until nothing is left. What technical studies have been undertaken for fire-proofing? Would a modern version of this building need to use fires? Most modern buildings that we saw are using geothermal energy to create electricity or are using geothermal water-based district heating systems to bring the heat to the buildings: low level, constant background heating with ventilation is likely to create a positive internal environment in a modern turf house without a fire risk. Obviously a cosy fire helps to make the building seem warmer but the modern buildings we saw did not have open fires (log burners were evident). Rocket Mass heaters could be used as in Russia and some Baltic countries – do they really burn almost 100% of ash and have a temperature output that is unlikely to cause fires (though maybe out of scope in Iceland due to the lack of trees for burning).

• Traditional building skills / lack of transferable skills: there do not appear to be many brick or stone builders in Iceland, most newer buildings appeared to be made from wood panels, metal or concrete, so the techniques of building with turf blocks is not transferable at this time. There are very few turf builders to pass on knowledge either.

• Labour costs: currently high as limit to number confident in leading such work. There may be no way to reduce the costs associated with labour. Making tooling to cut the type of blocks of turf needed would actually be difficult (Helgi did make some basic calculations which suggested this) and may mean it would always require a lot of hand labour. In Scotland, there is a similar lack of traditional craft skills in the construction industry, which people are trying to address through government sup-ported apprenticeship initiatives eg stonemasonry.

• Sourcing suitable and sustainable locations for materials: cost of transport over significant distances defeats the purpose and spirit of the material. In Iceland local sources are available but population pressure may cause this to be a problem in future

• Long regeneration process for grassland: this can be mitigated by climactic conditions and can be farmed / re-seeded. Over the natural life of the building the land does regenerate though if the turf is taken within the land of the farm (commercially this is unlikely to be the case) it may not regenerate fast enough; witness the loss of Peat bogs in Ireland and Scotland. Bogland legislation discussion to be had.

• Staffing issues: the work would tend to be seasonal with little work available in the winter months, and in the summer, farming may be the priority. In the past, homes were built with help from the community, is there such a community of willing and able hands existing now who could work under the supervision of a skilled master builder?

• Land ownership – often such buildings were built by tenants with landlords unwilling to allow use of good pasture ground as material for the maintenance of buildings. Does this scenario exist in Iceland? Definitely in Scotland. But in Iceland this landownership did not seem to be the same. The workers lived in the farm, (were they an extended family?) they did not form their own households outside the farm boundaries?

• Access and ownership issues – buildings may have fallen into ownership of those who have no desire for the retention and prefer to see active neglect to accelerate demolition.

• Symbolic/cultural associations – poverty/parochialism – with cheap materials and semi-skilled labour used to build what have be described as dirty houses, the stigma attached to turf buildings can be challenging to contest.

• Poor earthquake resistance: it was mentioned that a number of people have been killed from roofs collapsing during earthquakes: Iceland is a seismically active region. The tradition lasted for over 1500 years: this could either be of necessity – lack of other materials – or that not all buildings were vulner-able. We observed various timber roof structure designs during the visit – some more substantial than others. It is not known if any research has been carried out in this regard eg test the structures with positive joints, diagonal bracing and ring beam type structures. There have been successful develop-ments in low impact interventions to improve earthquake resistance in traditional clay buildings in Peru, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, some of which have led to the rediscovery of older construc-tion details which improved earthquake resistance.

• High maintenance requirement: constant monitoring is required, but roofs are easy to access and material readily available; it needs to become more of a lifestyle choice. Is the population of Iceland increasing? Will the land be able to accommodate more farmers? Would there be more opportunity to encourage this type of building work to young workers as an alternative employment? There are many unanswered questions.

• Lack of services: perhaps there has been insufficient investigation into alternative methods of integrating services?

• Poor hygiene: Relates to above – provision of services and sanitary facilities. Ventilation is key.

• Design/technology hasn’t evolved over the last c 50 years to meet higher expectations of comfort eg there do not appear to be examples where turf has been used in modern high end ‘designer’ housing NB landscape examples eg figure of eight. This is a critical issue and needs to develop beyond tokenism. There is further exploration to be had in the use of turf as external finishes, landscaping etc.

Opportunities

• Landscape architects/public realm/conservation: underused in garden design and furniture, may be utilised in retaining walls, boundary walls, turf capping etc Are there any architects in Iceland considering making elements of Turf Houses a feature in any new buildings? Buildings in Saudarkrokur certainly are not built on exactly the same blueprint, and there are some very interesting uses of concrete we noted in underpasses showing evidence of a flexible planning environment. Some modern houses have turf roofs but they are not the same as the iconic turf buildings. Could the museum promote and/or find a sponsor for an (international?) architectural competition?

• Demonstrating impact of climate change, sensitive/visual impact, monitoring and awareness raising: Helgi mentioned that over the past 30 years there has been a change in the climate of Iceland and many of the Turf buildings which were frozen to the core of the walls, preventing rotting of the structure, are now generally not frozen though out the year. Many Turf roofs are suffering more from wind damage in the winter due to more violent storms and to less snow covering the buildings and protecting them. There may be other climactic changes which could affect the Turf bogs and the availability of farming land.

• Communal building projects/sociable aspects: recreating the tradition of community building parties. Our experiences building as a team have shown that this type of communal event would have brought together many diverse personalities. In the past the need for shelter was the driving force and buildings were built to accommodate many people who lived in close quarters, something few people would consider today.

• Events space: good acoustics for music, storytelling etc.

• Animal shelters and storage spaces, garden sheds, smoke houses, bothies/shelters etc: this may be a way to keep the turf building tradition alive in any modern farm in Iceland. Bothies in Scotland are making a comeback for hikers and there are still areas near rivers in the mountains where a network of Turf buildings could be utilized for emergency shelters.

• Creating links across the ‘turf belt’ of northern Europe: promoting cultural tourism.

• Skills development: first principles engineering, basic construction techniques. Turf buildings were the main building type in Iceland until recently, so they must have been very suitable for the environment. There should be scope for experimental architecture, and assessment of techniques to implement the turf techniques for sustainable buildings.

• Outdoor learning opportunities: turf building projects for academically disengaged secondary school children in liaison with schools as well as craft and trade-based learning; can improve soft skills (team building etc) as well as opportunities to explore other ways of learning and career choices. Confidence building: therapeutic use for existing groups eg mental health issues, combatting isolation (do these groups exist in Iceland?).

• Turf buildings provide unique spaces which may be suitable for groups with additional support needs/sensory groups eg turf buildings have calm enclosed quiet spaces which may provide positive experiences for people who are on the autistic spectrum. Also wet play/green gym: excellent absor-bent and cushioning material for active play for small children c/w forest schools approach to learning.

• Aesthetics: utilising the aesthetic of patterns and weathering in fabrics, materials, design and architec-ture. Can these different designs be used in other ways, such as pattern replication in fabrics.

• Boutique experiences: events and small gigs, overnight stays, shelters for northern lights viewing etc – huge tourism potential

• Reinventions of tradition: a need to find appropriate use for modern construction projects

• Intangible heritage – symbolic associations, storytelling, language, oral histories etc

Threats

• Climate change: freeze/thaw cycle causing denuded walls. Wash out from rain. Erosion/ decomposition

• Apathy and indifference: a construction type that requires attention and is endangered by neglect more so than any other construction type.

• Misunderstandings and misconceptions of material requires a change to the perceptions of modern Icelanders who seem to be scathing of the materials but who also have little or no experience living in them. Turf Buildings do not necessarily need to be seen as a backwards step. This is probably part of a cycle that all traditional vernacular buildings go through.

• High expectations: that the houses would be warm, cosy and liveable.

• Support at local and national government level: changes in priorities made elsewhere would have huge impact on work at local level.

• Loss of living memory/intangible heritage: Although the national museums are proud of the heritage there does not seem to be a push to educate the modern Icelanders about the value of the buildings. This is a tourist attraction only. Are there links being made with architecture/construction colleges in Iceland?

• Seismic activity

• Lack of tools knowhow; difficult to obtain turf scythes – possibly these are not made any longer or only made by hand?

• Remaining historic monuments are fragile: can they cope with the impact of visitor pressure for long? eg Glaumbaer. Potential solutions would be to control visitor numbers by raising ticket prices / timed tickets / pre-booking; could still make it free for organised Icelandic school groups etc. The buildings cannot only be a snapshot in time, if the methods are to survive.

Audiences

• Turf belt audiences: Iceland, Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland and USA
• Volume tourism: bus tour groups
• Independent travellers
• Local/regional audiences
• Experience tourists
• Students: architecture, traditional buildings skills, conservation, agriculture, geology, archaeology, arts and music, landscape architecture
• School groups: May have to develop specific teaching packs for teachers. Particular relevance for maths, geometry and STEM subjects, geography, and humanities subjects
• Artists and musicians (e.g. Earth Homing: Reinventing Turf Houses exhibition)
• Continuing Professional Development
• Corporate/team building experiences
• Differently advantaged
• Crafts enthusiasts
• Reminiscence and Alzheimer’s groups
• Different ability groups: Asperger/Autism groups
• Hipsters
• Seasonal opportunities: northern lights viewing, Christmas events etc
• Landscape gardening: garden centres
• Tool technique
• Planning
• Process skills
• Volunteer development and groups

Unique selling points

• Ecological interest
• Innovation for Iceland: marketing on basis of wider benefits
• Unique experience of local theme: need to exploit the regional intensity of turf buildings.
• Off the beaten track for general tourist experience: a tourist-free tourist experience ?!
• Promoting cultural and natural heritage

Next steps?

Audience analysis and development
Pilot projects
Barriers

Acknowledgements

Big thanks to Bryndis specifically, a brilliant host and driver for our visit, who patiently answered questions she must have been asked many times before about Iceland in general and more specifically the Turf Buildings. Thanks also to Helgi who was a great teacher, letting us make mistakes then showing us how to fix them.
The above report is based on our short and intense visit to Iceland and we apologise for any misunder-standings or misconceptions we may have picked up about turf and turf building.


People in grass houses…….

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