Re-building a turf barn at Tyrfingsstaðir farm

Posted by

Billy Reid, Historic Environment Scotland, Works Manager

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Tyrfingsstaðir turf farm in Iceland, dates back to before 1300 and was inhabited until 1969. The turf buildings consist of the main dwelling and several out buildings such as animal enclosures storage buildings and barns.

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These buildings follow a familiar style of earth buildings where by they have a stone base course with earthen walls and a roof. This can be referred to as the buildings boots, braces and hat.

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The building that we were working on was a turf built barn. We started by excavating the site to the original level of the old barn. The barn is set into the hillside I suspect this is due to a lack of rainfall in the area so there is not much of a problem with moisture rising from the ground or
through the walls.   
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The next step is to build a stone and turf base course. The stones in this case are used to prevent abrasion from use or animals to the soft inner
turf walls.
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Here you can see a strip of turf or Strengur. These are triangular in shape with the thickest part of the Strengur is placed to the face or front of the stone and used in between the courses of stone and help to bind the stones together.
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Then strips of Torfa a double Strengur are laid to the thin part or tail of the Strengur on the inside of the wall from front to back. These are built overlapping each other which strengthens the wall and bonds it together.  Once the stone base course is built to the required height the clamping blocks or Klambra can be built on top. 
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The Klambra is then built in courses with the green side all following the same direction. The course above is laid in the opposite direction and spreads the downwards and lateral forces clamping the blocks together. The Klambra is trimmed to give a flat face to the finished wall. Unusually there are no Strengur or strips of turf used in between the clamped blocks and were only used in between the stone on the base of the structure.
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The tops of the Klambra are then trimmed using a turf scythe. This process is carried out so that the top of course is level making it better for building the next course and also has the benefit of being aesthetically pleasing.
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In this sequence you can see the blocks of turf being cut for Klambra or clamped blocks. This was the main cut used for the re-build of the barn. The Klambra is now ready for building.
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The round inside of the barn required the Klambra to be cut with enough of an angle so that they can be firmly pushed together with no gaps, these gaps would create weak areas in the wall which could lead to
collapse or failure of the structure. 
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Once the walls are built to the required height we are then ready for the timber frame for the roof.
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The timber slats for the roof are then dressed with turf which can be either Torfa or Snidda a diamond shaped block. These are built in an over lapping fashion which again creates a bond between the turfs. Snidda rooves are much thicker and support the growth of vegetation when the bog plants die and are replaced with plants that are better suited to a dryer growing medium.
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The timber used is minimal and often consists of only a few load bearing posts, as traditionally speaking wood was a scarce commodity and is still collected as drift wood and dressed and split as required. The added bonus of using drift wood from the sea is that it has a high salt content which acts as a natural preservative and helps stop the wood from rotting.  
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Turf is a versatile building material with excellent insulation qualities. These are the basics of building an Icelandic turf structure.  

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