History of Turf Building

Posted by

Alistair Norris, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, Architect

Turf house History

First settlement

The permanent settlement of Iceland began in the Viking age around the 9th century. The first settlements are believed to have been in the Reykjavik area. Archaeological remains and references in the sagas suggest that Austurvöllur gardens area in the city centre may have been the original.

Excavation of an early long house in this area has revealed that the building was substantially constructed in turf with inclusion of stone in the foundation and a basic timber frame to support at least the centre of the roof.


Due to the inherent difficulties in moving large amounts of heavy materials with only human or animal power it was common to use materials found locally to settlement areas. This resulted in the development of Iceland’s very own turf, stone and timber vernacular architecture.

An additional limiting feature was the type of stone available. While in contemporary Europe soft sedimentary stone was beginning to be carved into regular blocks and the romans has developed limestone concrete a millennium before the geology of Iceland provides largely igneous rock. A type of stone not so well favoured for its workability in construction.

As with many forms of vernacular architecture it is likely that this style of construction was developed as a necessity of living in the cold and relatively resource poor environment of Iceland.

Turf was the primary component of most buildings in Iceland from the settlement days to at least the 19th century. Good construction turf comes from boggy areas and as such most settlements and laterally farms required a sustainable supply of this. The material once dried is both structural, relatively insulating and self-healing to a degree.

Timber was initially available from trees in some parts of Iceland, however over the centuries this very limited resource was depleted and the primary supply was thus driftwood from neighbouring landmasses. There was for a time competition for rights to claim driftwood from beaches around Iceland.


The first buildings in Iceland were turf Longhouses (Skáli) similar to contemporary structures in Scandinavia or the British isles. These were long (15-30m) slightly oblong structures generally with an entrance slightly to the right of the centre and a porch structure of some sort on the inside. These longhouses were sometime connect to each other or had annexes and other rooms attached.

Over the centuries these structures grew more complex and trade allowed for a larger amount of imported timber to be used in construction. As a result the recognisable style of the passage farmhouse (gangabær) came about. This generally involved a series of rooms from the formal living space at the front to the main living quarters at the back. These interim rooms were generally stores and kitchens or smoke rooms for the preservation of meat.

On farms which could afford it timber end gables were presented on some external walls to display wealth, this had something of a distinctive ‘comb’ aesthetic which many might now recognise at sites such as Glaumbær.

End of Turf building.

From the late 19th and early 20th century turf building ceased to be the main form of construction in Iceland surpassed first by timber construction and soon after by the widespread use of modern concrete. This form of construction is now only used to maintain historic structures and in demonstration projects to keep the knowledge of these construction techniques alive.



Guðmunder St. Sigurðarson et al. ‘Reading the Landscape’

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