By John Titor
Turf has been used for building structures by European and arctic cultures since the Neolithic period.
In Iceland, these green-covered dwellings merge beautifully with the natural landscape. This type of architectural material first appeared with the arrival of British and Norse settlers at the height of Viking Age in Europe around 9th through 11 centuries. Turf became a popular choice because timber was sparse and low to regenerate. Turf, on the other hand, was durable, renewable and widely available.
They got the turf bricks from local bogs and transport them to be used for houses at higher elevations. The turf were then laid over a timber structure as walls and roof. Its thickness provide insulation from harsh northern climates. After the original wetland plants died, dryland grasses take their place and grew over the roofs. Depending on climate and location, turf walls were replaced after 20 years, in some region, they could last up to 70 years.
It’s very hard to tell the precise origin of turfs because of their biodegradable properties and susceptibility to rain and wind erosion. However, evidence of turf constructions can be found throughout the ages across Ireland, Scotland, Greenland, Norway, the Faroe Islands, and the Great Plains of the United States.
According to historic records, up to 50% of Icelandic dwellings were partially made of turf until the late 19th century. As populations began to live in major cities like Reykjavik, wood building started to replace earthen architecture and stonemasonry. And after fires razed over the city in 1915, concrete became the material of choice.
A tourism boom in turn of 21st century encouraged Iceland to reexamine the value of their traditional architecture, and the Turf House Tradition of Iceland was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011.