Turf Building

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Summary

This report follows a brief group study trip to Iceland to examine turf building, techniques and culture.
The report briefly explores the techniques and key issues considerd by the author as a result of the
trip with a view to better understand earth building techniques used in Scotland which have all but
disappeared.
It seems that turf skills in Iceland are dying out and are now only generally only considered useful to
conserve the historic built fabric. Very few new turf structures are being built or commissioned.
Those that are constructed are considered art pieces or are built for tourists as a fascination piece.
The conservation of these structures is relatively simple but requires a level of understanding and
more than a little hard physical work. The knowledge which would have originally been passed down
through the generations is rapidly being lost as the Icelandic peoples modernise, move away from
farming practices and become ever more embroiled in modern day western culture. A small number
of taught courses are being offered to retain the knowledge but these are few in number. Building
with turf is no longer (at least for the time being) a physical necessity and has become impractical for
the vast majority. For those living in towns and villages at a much higher density, the practicalities of
turf cutting are greatly reduced and not required a materials can be purchased online and shipped
from anywhere around the globe…!
Having said this, turf was noticed being used as a low boundary wall in the centre of Skagafjordur
which demonstrated some knowledge being retained and transferred into an urban context. While
the use of turf has perhaps become the exception to the norm it is unlikely that this important historical
Icelandic method of building, which is engrained into the history of the country, will be side-lined for
long. As cultural tourism continues to grow and international business and globalisation spreads,
communities will need to hold on to their identity and the things that have formed their culture and
society, not only to retain a sense of place and a people, but to also perhaps survive in the
consumerism driven by global tourism that will almost certainly continue to invade and exploit every
part of the globe.

Introduction

This report has been compiled from an architectural perspective following a 7 day group study trip to
examine turf building in Iceland. The trip was kindly funded and hosted by Erasmus+, Arch &
Byggdasafn Skagfirdinga. This report outlines how of turf was used for building in the past based on
the examination of remaining built heritage. During the trip we visited a number of museums and
historical turf sites. These visits enabled me to examine the techniques used and to appreciate the
context into which people were building. The sites visited are listed below.

Landnamssyningin, The Settlement Exhibition – Reykjavik.
Aoalstraeti 10. The oldest building in Reykjavik.
Holar Cathedral – Holar
Audunarstofa, Holar Bishops office – Holar
Nyji Bær, Historical turf house – Holar.
Helgi Sigurdsson’s turf buildings – Akrar
Vidimyrarkirkja turf church
Tyrfingsstadir A Kjalka turf house – site of building. And tour of other turf building on site.
Glaumbaer Museum Varmahlid 560, Iceland

In addition the group grained knowledge from 3 days of practical hands on building experience
working on a small turf structure under expert guidance. This all took place during quite wet weather
but the positive outlook of the participants and our guides kept us smiling throughout. We were well
catered for which was appreciated after a hard day’s work in the rain.
Sincere thanks to our ever attentive and focused host Bryndis Zoega and her helpers including our
turf guru Helgi Sigurdsson who’s knowledge of turf known how was insightful, considered and
entertaining.

Context
Iceland has long had a 1000yr tradition of building in turf. Ever since the first settler’s timber has
been in short supply, as such drift wood, boats and bones have been used in the past as building
materials to help fabricate structures. Building with earth or turf was therefore necessity in order to
form shelter from the often harsh environment and long winter days. Earth buildings were still being
inhabited right up until 1970 and are regarded by those who used to live in them with much affection.

Material
Turf is typically and ideally cut from old growth grass and bog land which importantly must feature a
mature root system. The type of grassland which is used varies as does the subsoil accordingly.
Across Iceland various regions utilise varying tuft types for differing uses in construction depending
upon local availability. Indeed, within a single project varying types of turf type (root mix) may be
used accordingly for roof and wall elements as well as varying cuts of turf which constitute blocks,
wedges or strips depending upon use and region. The turf used for a roof structure may itself be less
deeply rooted as the turf will be cut thinner and built up in layers with less subsoil attached within the
root network.
Certain plant types are often good indicators of a good mature turf which may be suitable for building.
The Alchemilla Alpina plant has an extensive root system and creates a good binding network in
marshy wet soils. That being said, clay and even slightly sandy soils are present across Iceland and
have been used as suitable substrate for plant life which has then been used as the basis of the cut turf. However, the speed of erosion and compaction of the structure will vary depending upon
moisture content, vegetation and soil type. Sandy soil types compact and dry out less but will erode
quicker and may slip depending upon the layering of any sand. Clay will shrink more and compact as
it dries out but is considered to weather better.

During the trip we visited several properties where the walls were decaying from either rot, erosion or
both. The wall rot was caused by water penetrating the wall, rotting the core and inside face. In the
case of erosion this was more clearly present on southern facing walls where the wind rain and solar
effects are together more keenly varied which resulted in greater freeze thaw action and surface
degradation.

Having witness and constructed sections of wall and roof we gained an appreciation of the amount of
turf and hard work that goes into building even a small structure. Cutting large sections of stringer
and blocks by hand was very hard work and would have taken a long time, as it did even when using
modern spades which were constantly being sharpened. Using a special turf cutting machine was
quick, and relatively easy work, however the lifting, moving and placement still required a great deal of
effort. The impact on the landscape from the cutting was not minor and was noted to take 3/5 yrs. to
regrow. As such it seems likely that farmers would likely have rotated animals around the fields while
repairs works were ongoing and while grass was recovering to prevent excessive erosion of the soils.

Changing climate

The changing climate in more recent years has seen variation in plant growth and an extension in the
possible building window available for turf construction each year. However, as Iceland’s climate is
becoming warmer and wetter this is resulting in acceleration in the degradation in the turf structures.
As winters are becoming wetter and less cold, turf is staying damp for longer and not freezing as
might normally have been the case before. Whereas the water might have been frozen in the wall
and stabilized the structure, the lack of frost and sub-zero temperatures is allowing more rain to
penetrate the wall and saturate the structure during winter months, thus accelerating rot and
degradation.
It is this same variation in climatic conditions from north to south of Iceland which is thought to reflect
the general lack of remaining turf structure in the south. With the north being colder but dryer the turf
weathers better and has resulted in the survival of more built heritage today.
Perhaps as a result of this growing awareness of climate change and it apparent impact on the
structures, some of the building we visited appeared to have been fitted with a geotextile membrane,
at least at eaves level, and perhaps across roof areas too. The introduction of the membrane or
other sheeting is not traditional but may perhaps be considered a sensible response to the migration
of warmer air and thus wetter conditions for the surviving turf structures. The introduction of
membranes might also perhaps be considered a shrewd move to reduce the future maintenance
burden be that on the state or private individuals.

Construction method
During our study visit it became clear that a variety of turf building styles had been used in the small
selection of buildings we visited. In some cases differing blocks had been used and laid differently
and with overall build-ups being varying and being laid in different ways. In nearly all of the buildings
some historic sections of wall were visible which varied in colour, size and texture when compared to
newer surrounding turf pieces. The variation was perhaps due to the age, the varying soil type as
each field may have a differing build-up which will affect the visual patterns in any sediment present
and the moisture content.
Some sections of wall visually appear to have been made purely from ‘stringer’ pieces, while others
appear to have no stringer at all. Some of blocks appeared to have a rich clay base layer, while
others appeared to be far more fibrous and like a mat in texture and appearance.

Nearly all of the walls appeared to be constructed with a number of stone and turf base courses;
however the number of courses varied depending upon the proposed original building use. Those
that were intended for animals generally had a higher banding of stone and turf up to a height of
approx. 1000mm to reduce wear and tear on the turf from the inevitable rubbing and scratching which
would have taken place over the years. The animal houses also featured curved internal corners to
make clearing out easier. Above this base course the walls varied in height depending upon the
proposed use of the building, but most were only single storey with low doorways by modern
standards or were sized for livestock. Many of the buildings had a simple internally expressed free
standing timber frame sat on stones which supported the roof and which left the walls freestanding,
however this was not always the case. In some instances the rafters and tied beams, where present,
were rested directly onto the wall head with stones placed under them to help spread the load. A
number of buildings featured a double row of central columns which supported collar beam and
central strut which subsequently supported the ridge. The walls were often in the region of 1.2m
thick at the base and tapered up to approximately 1m over a single storey, however where they were
formed back to back as an evolution of building as an extension they were often thicker still.

Timber linings were present in churches and high status buildings, particularly in the main sleeping
spaces; however stores and ancillary rooms were left as exposed earth. Goods stored in such
spaces were often in barrels to protect them from vermin. The layout of the buildings meant that all
were entered via a gable end, rather than along the side wall as may be the case with a Norwegian
longhouse, which was a building typology that was known to be present as this was imported with
some of the early settlers.
The small, simple and often single roomed structures were fronted with timber facades and small
windows too where required. In places the topography of the landscape had been utilised to help
form the rear wall with the back of the building being cut into the hill side.
This would have sheltered the building from the harsh weather and improved the thermal performance
of the building while also reducing the amount of labour required to construct it.
The floors were often earthen and may have featured a stone hearth constructed from rocks. The
hearth would have burnt dried animal dung which would have been used for heat and cooking. To
this end the roof would feature a small opening and chimney to promote ventilation. The roof itself
was often constructed simply from turf strips laid directly across closely fixed branches which were
simply nailed to the rafters. The roof was built up using 5 different layers of turf with the first three
layers being placed upside down. Each linear strip of the layers was laid so as to overlap by
approximately 1/3 so as to form a giant shingle. The top layers were butted together and not
overlapped. At the verges each layer of the roof was stepped in a little to prevent a large visible
edge. The stepping allowed for turf strips to be laid along the wall head and up and over onto the
roof forming a seamless joins. The edge strips were well fixed with rough timber stakes fixed at
approx. 250mm centres in a staged arrangement to reduce wind uplift and subsequent erosion. The
pegs around the edge in this situation are often also used to secure nets to ensure turf is held down
and allowed to root and bind correctly.

Some of the buildings we visited had evolved over time with several abutting structures being added
and subsequently linked together. In some cases the extensions had evolved to the rear of the
structures resulting in long linear corridors with cellular compartments on both sides. This level of
evolution appeared to be rare, probably not least because the amount of turf and effort used to
construct this size of building would have been huge.

Maintenance
Iceland’s turf roofed buildings require ongoing maintenance and upkeep to ensure their long term
survival. Grass on the roof of the structures needs to be cropped by livestock in order to encourage
growth and to keep it healthy. Sheep or similar livestock would have traditionally completed this task,
however today many are left un grazed due to a lack of sheep or poor management. It is worth
noting that cows cannot be used for this purpose due to their great weight. The alternative is that the
grass is manually cut back by the owner as and when required. In some instances this may be more
politically acceptable than having sheep wandering around the church graveyard and roof, doing what
sheep do….
The walls also require ongoing maintenance due to erosion and wear. Renewal of turf walling will
often mean taking down the full depth of the wall section that has failed so that any repairs can be tied
back into the depth of the wall to ensure a robust structure is formed once more. The removal of so
much turf is required to ensure that any rot hidden from view can also be removed. Some of the
dried turf can be reused as fill to the centre of the wall, however all of the facing pieces will require
renewal with fresh material which takes much time and effort to cut, shape and install, to create a
matching finish.

Terminology
In a similar way that the vegetation and grass types might vary regionally, the naming of turf cuts
varies from region to region too. This variation is understood to have caused confusion and has
proven controversial as some published books refer to a certain type of cut as being a certain
dimension and type etc., where in practice they actually vary from place to place. It is understood
that local trade’s men now accept and understand this variation and as such approached building with turf in a more flexible way by often matching with the local style and methods of construction as the
variation in style and techniques have become more understood and perhaps accepted.

Conclusion
Building with earth is hard work. It requires a level of knowledge but it’s relatively straightforward
once this is understood. Harvesting the turf requires suitable ground which should be conveniently
located adjacent to the building site if possible due to the weight and volume required to meaningfully
construct using this method. Some of the tools are not commonly available, however some specialist
turf cutting machines are useful to speed up the process which would otherwise be very time
consuming indeed.
The movement of people from the farmland to the coast and into other jobs has resulted in a lack of
interest and or the need to maintain main of the turf farm buildings that existed. This migration is
resulting in a disconnect for the younger generations who are not learning the techniques for earth
building or the importance it once had for their nation. The physical restrains of geographic
relocation practically prevent tuft building due to the lack of land ownership and thus resources should
people wish to build in this way.
The cultural shifts of modern life and the desire for a quicker, cleaner, warmer and more technological
existence coupled with the migration and shift in geography for many, means that turf is no longer a
relevant or sensible choice for building. This small number of turf practitioners and conservers that
exist today will be kept busy retaining and repairing the structures that do exist while they are still
able. The training courses that do exist and are developing will probably suffice to educate enough
people to retain political will and technical understanding to continue this for future generations.
I hope that turf building techniques can be encouraged and somehow integrated with modern building
techniques to grow the cultural identity and the important historic link that turf has to the Iceland
people. I suspect that it is only through a modern reinvention that turf will in anyway become anything
more than a museum piece which will sadly loose relevance in time and its importance in the
landscape will be lost.

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