Turf Ting A Visual Diary & Written Report

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Andrew McAvoy, Retool Architecture

This report is in the form of a sketch diary which can be downloaded as a pdf below.

This is a chronological visual report on a research trip to Iceland, from 2nd to 9th of June 2019.
Presented through hand drawing and the lense of an i phone camera.
Sketches amidst lessons and work by Andrew McAvoy RIAS of Retool architecture Glasgow, toward future sustainable architecture.
These being undertaken in a Chatwin vain, as live time thought and Faber – Castell PITT pen meanders during one weeks raw
experience of hands on traditional Turf Building in Iceland.
The frame was entered with some sense, that new architecture on the Arctic rim, will have to evolve to tackle the greatest
contemporary human imperative – Climate Change.
To this end matters of thermal transfer and isolation offered by the inherent properties of Turf are reflected on. ( with of course – a
pinch of Icelandic pragmatism and dark humour, thrown into the hot tub …for good measure.
The course was taught in Iceland during the Erasmus +, facilitated Trip organised by Arch Net.
One particular question was raised in my mind during the course – how can the tradition evolve and find new relevance. One critical
observance was made , that there is some contemporary tech that could become symbiotic.
See the Accompanying Report words documents for some attempt at explanation.

Turf Building Course in Iceland– hosted by Byggdasafn Skagfirdinga

2-9 June 2019

Report by Andrew McAvoy on behalf of  Retool architecture Ltd  – Glasgow – Scotland – Arctic Rim


Tel 00 44 797 468 3712

With thanks to:-

  • All the staff at the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum and all the wonderful Icelandic people who greeted us at the various sites for sharing their knowledge.
  • Libby Urquhart & Seona Anderson at Arch network for developing and running the visit.
  • The funders of the project –  The EU – Erasmus + programme.
  • Our employers; Retool Architecture, Dubhead Arts, the John Muir Trust, Historic Environment Scotland (HES), Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (LLTNP), National Trust for Scotland (NTS)
  • My fellow participants selected to report individually on aspects of the course, their impressions on Iceland and what the will take back to their various organisations in Scotland. 

Especial thanks to:

Bryndis Zoega who looked after us brilliantly sharply and humorously from airport arrival to departure in Iceland.

Helgi Sigurdsson for his metered instruction, allowing us to make mistakes and learn by doing amidst surprisingly technical turf construction.

Further special thanks to the genus loci for secret bathing spots, thermal indulgence and time out to listen to the birds amidst a backdrop of … still cool summer breezes through grass.

It was a great pleasure to share the experience with fellow participants, selected to report individually on aspects of the course. Their impressions on Iceland and what they will take back to their various organisations in Scotland becoming a surprising outcome of the week.

Our group composed in alphabetical order: –

1. Duncan Ainslie, HES

2. Stacie Allan, HES, Architectural Technician, Central East District, Conservation

3. Emily Bryce, NTS, Operations Manager Glencoe & Glenfinnan

4. Andrew McAvoy, Retool Architecture, Director and Principal Architect

5. Sandy Maxwell, JMT, Volunteer Work Parties Co-ordinator

6. Alistair Norris, LLTNP

7. Brigitte Postma, Dubhead Arts

8. William Reid, HES, Work Manager, M.C.U.

Re-building a turf barn at Tyrfingsstaðir farm.

By Billy Reid – Historic Environment Scotland – Works Manager.

Participant context

I attended the course as a practicing architect and director of a contemporary architecture practice, commonly working in and around old buildings in futuristic and sustainable ways.

Although I enjoy the process of recording, documenting and repairing historic buildings and deploy the inherent – craft based technologies found therein…I am not a heritage specialist and it was a great opportunity to work with the other members of the group who were and to watch them apply their skills practically on a live process.

I realised quite quickly that as an architect commonly found messing around with the time continuum and pulling stunts in both public and private realm that unite past present and future, I was perhaps looking at the Turf rather differently.

I have never been comfortable with the idea that certain buildings or even techniques are placed squarely in the heritage frame, commercially viable ones in the present usable frame and others being deemed as modern…. in the odd futurism box.  Rather I embrace the idea that all techniques continue to evolve and must do. Further that building typologies and techniques advance on a very long- time continuum spanning centuries.

Architecture… I see! … as a functional Art Form, lending itself to turning what might just end up being construction or ahem. just a building, into something surprising… delightful, harmonious resonant and perhaps even when it’s carried through properly to end of creation process….  sublime.

I see materials and technique, as culture and society, with their production as tangible cultural heritage, where society by default considers them (without thinking) as intangibles.

Sustainability, Ecology and Environment.

I have always worked on the basis that buildings should be able to fall back to Earth, in their most constituent parts without toxicity at the end of usable life and without harm for the environment hosting them.

I enjoy the vernacular for that reason.

The course illustrated to me that Turf buildings share the highest of idealogical territory in their materiality and technique and chart the whole of development on one isolated Island.

+… in the same way as say Adobe in sub Saharan Africa.

Passive solar capacity, honed forms, orientation, earth sheltering and efficient use of localised material led me to apply for the Turf course.

I travelled to Iceland with that lense in mind… Looking to find the pragmatic and the sublime on the Arctic rim.

The reports of my colleagues on the trip cover the physicality of the process, techniques and tools required for excavation and partial rebuilding of a former Cow Byre at Tyrfingsstaðir Farm over 3 consecutive days in June 2019. The core report seems solid, thorough and accurate.

No need for me to repeat.

On consideration of inspection of the first known Turf house in Reykjavik dating from around 900 at the settlement museum, travel through the landscape and visits to various important Turf buildings in the west and north west of Iceland and with ingested Turf running through me from hands on days … with Helgi and Brindisz at the Tyrfingsstadir in Kjálki … I report as follows : –

Past, present + future.

Turf – akin with: mud, mud brick, rammed earth, fired earth and adobe …… is perhaps being overlooked in its ability to serve some pressing human needs … And with world resources challenged as never before … it has despite the present blind spots …a future!

It seems that Iceland like other places has placed a material and technique in the heritage Box due to a progressive pragmatic cultural that associates it with hard living and old times. Rural depopulation has placed emphasis on towns and cities and reduced rural dwelling. The landscape is strewn with redundant buildings and structures and land holding sizes have generally increased.

There is a stigma attached to Turf. that needs to be adjusted to allow for the material and technique to creep out of the heritage frame.

 It will be the arts, science and design environments that kick it into the realms of present and future once again. Perhaps new imperatives will increase desirability and imbedded cultural value due to death of Fossil fuel exploitation and continued societal endorsement

Turf seems to be a worthy contender for inclusion in emerging zero carbon environments.

Some attributes that could be considered might include: –

  • A time touchstone.
  • A material connecting human condition to its environment. People, soil, earth and connectivity through physical contact.
  • A high amount of localised contextual reference and appropriateness in its future presence in construction.
  • Its potential as a coursed and cambered material in exterior walls – For enclosure walling, retaining walling and building walling.
  • Inherent balance of strength to weight ratio in semi dry Klambre , Strengur and Torfa during construction process ( depending on …site selection, skill and seasonal cutting.)
  • Ability to retain moisture and avoid run off, with long time line in terms of moisture retention and sump credentials.
  • Ability as surface to support plants and ecology.
  • Aesthetic possibilities where grain selection and laying are tightly handled as per the eye of Helga.
  • Easily transferrable into cutting edge interior design. Provenance being a foodie’s term, could be transferred to material linings. and into for instance. contemporary eateries, cultural buildings and contemporary eco tech.
  • Acoustic properties in separation of room environments.
  • Wider sensorial associations to localised site and environment specific situations, in realms of touch, smell, appearance, resonance etc.

Note – different sites and root stock offer variance and possible potential for exploitation of specifics.

  • As varied as any textile, in terms of colour, particulates, grain.
  • Zero toxicity, loco focussed, integral to local landscape.
  • Possible toxin Sink in health environs.
  • Thermal and wind speed Isolation versus thermal insulation, and in line with good Arctic rim practice.
  • Zero imbedded material production cost, minimal carbon footprint where carefully selected locally and handled properly.
  • A complementary material to other thin high-tech materials such as recyclable aluminium.
  • A breathable material comparable with breathable constructions and the associated compatible materials.
  • A material with Thermal mass and slow time lag in terms of heat loss.
  • A potentially living material with ability to offer footprint back per sq m of excavation, through use of its surface on roof or wall after cut and scrape.
  • A material that synthesises Architecture and landscape and which builds symbiotic.
  • A material offering firmness, commodity and where used properly – Delight.

Further observations on potential uses.

  • Suitable for use in development of contemporary eco chic architecture.
  • A fine interior Design surface in the right hands .
  • Suitable for use in skill training, volunteer training, self build and self maintain community structures.
  • A low material cost and imbedded carbon footprint for establishment of Climate Change regulation as it pans out by 2030
  • Scaleable up and down in construction unit size – depending on harvesting technique, tools or perhaps bespoke machinery and handling apparatus –   height, thickness, bond, banding layering and pattern making.. All variable to match the site and scale.
  • A methodology linking Iceland’s History, living memory, skill set and willingness to perform autonomously and avoid dependence.
  • Allowing for Materiality that can be aligned with thermal springs, district heating, capillary piping to interiors and locking of low temp heat into isolated thermal mass of fabric.
  • Heritage of framed and boarded gables lending itself to contemporary variance.
  • Continuity of tradition.
  • Facilitating Architecture of changing orientation – particularly on southerly openings where seasonal exposure to sun, light aspect and view would be desirable.

At time of writing, lessons learned in Iceland have resulted in tweaks to the design of a partially earth sheltered and turf roofed contemporary house in Ireland by my practice Retool architecture, about to be tested against an ultra conservative planning authority in the Republic of Eire.

A house that will reconnect contemporary design with an ancient tradition of earth building for the most celebrated cultural monuments of Ireland and the local area.

Lessons from Iceland to be applied.

Maximise thickness of turf and particularly the substrate layers to iron out seasonal fluctuations in moisture to avoid dead turf and dead roofs.

Consider grain, roots versus vegetation layer and angle in cutting and placement.

Tune the cutting to trial excavation areas to site,

Requirement for care in cutting, stacking and storing in line with good Icelandic practice.

Concentrate on finding the living Turf, and then layer and bond to suit the situation.

Consider taking the roof to the wall and to the ground to retain moisture capillary action and avoiding drying out.

Understand the water table relative to the irrigation of the roof or the wall. Helgi says – “don’t irrigate, let it be.”

Assess local archaeology record.

Carry weight of international research to the area.

Don’t be bullied by building control or jobsworths.

Relate form to local architectural record, ecology and local landscape.

Equate the footprint science in terms of carbon and material production and mileage.

No membrane for thermal mass.

Exploit the material for all its properties.

Keep the building alive.

Above all …Avoid the bullshit.

Potential research links to be carried forward: –

  • Component footprint, science of that, future performance data logging and accreditation, certification as a component.
  • Comparable projects across different countries.
  • Heritage versus contemporary + Tangible versus Intangible Cultural Heritage strain.
  • Allan Leslie / Chris Dalglish
  • International Eco networks and publishing,
  • Guerrilla Cartography network.

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