Icelandic turf houses (Icelandic: torfbæir) were the product of a difficult climate, offering superior insulation compared to buildings solely made of wood or stone, and the relative difficulty in obtaining other construction materials in sufficient quantities.
30% of Iceland was forested when it was settled, mostly with birch. Oak was the preferred timber for building Norse halls in Scandinavia, but native birch had to serve as the primary framing material on the remote island. However, Iceland did have a large amount of turf that was suitable for construction. Some structures in Norway had turf roofs, so the notion of using this as a building material was not alien to many settlers.
The common Icelandic turf house would have a large foundation made of flat stones; upon this was built a wooden frame which would hold the load of the turf. The turf would then be fitted around the frame in blocks often with a second layer, or in the more fashionable herringbone style. The only external wood would be the doorway which would often be decorative; the doorway would lead into the hall which would commonly have a great fire. The floor of a turf house could be covered with wood, stone or earth depending on the purpose of the building. They also contain grass on their roofs.
Insulation of turf villages
The turf towns were mostly well insulated, ie. keep warm indoors while cold outside. In an interview with Gunnlaug Halldórsson, in Morgunblaðið 1975, a journalist asks why Icelanders did not experiment with building materials other than turf and rock. Gunnlaugar answers it with a short story:
Vilmundur Jónsson, later a general practitioner, served as a regional office at the Langanes fountain in 1918. He lived in a timber room, and sat in front of an oven with his fellow who could not freeze. Now, once upon a time, he went to the hospital, where there was a turf like everywhere. This was in a hurry, but in the town hall received Vilmundi, a polished woman who had a sick child. – Where is the heating? asked Vilmund, but the woman just glanced at him, and did not understand what he was going.
Gunnlaugur added this: They were pretty much isolated from these old turf towns, and did not need any heating.
Torf was also widely used as insulation between panels in wooden houses in the early 20th century. Another advantage of turf town was that the construction material was cheap and usually easy to access. Torftekja was considered to be in the past, and the turf was cut into marshes. The best turf is what is the root system of wetland plants and contains little or no clay and sand. The torch was either grated with a torve or a shovel. The torch was allowed to dry before it was unloaded, otherwise there was a risk of collapse and the walls were dulled.
Icelandic architecture changed in many ways in the more than 1,000 years the turf houses were being constructed. The first evolutionary step happened in the 14th century, when the Viking style longhouses were gradually abandoned and replaced with many small and specialized interconnected buildings. Then in the late 18th century a new style started to gain momentum, the burstabær, with its wooden ends or gaflar. This is the most commonly depicted version of the Icelandic turf houses and many such survived well into the 20th century. This style was then slowly replaced with the urban building style of wooden house clothed in corrugated iron, which in turn was replaced with the earthquake-resistant reinforced concrete building.
The turf towns were still a poor place to stay, and often had to be installed on such buildings, as turf usually lasts less than other building materials. In Þjóðólfi, in 1863, it was described what meant that the scandinavia often needed a turmoil and said that Icelanders are:
… always building the same house this year yearly; for one year the water has run into one wall or the fork or frost splits and blows in. The second year the roof is unused and the roof is in the woods, and it is necessary to tear the roof and put a new trench on the house, the fourth year of broken bush or 1 -2 long bands or spikes, and still have to tear the roof for that reason, the fifty year the outer cover is broken and has to be rebuilt all over the house, etc. This is the most common thing in house construction in Iceland.
Torflajsla is a craftsmanship that was lost and few who knew the handshake, but in recent years there has been an interest in preserving the knowledge and experience built up in a thousand years, including training in turf load to teach people to use turf for construction.
Attitude to turf town
In his book Dagur í senn (1955) Halldór Laxness writes:
We may be hotspots, and electric lights are difficult to put in place for a visionary human life living in turf, a coarse foundation, people who live and believe in gout and behind the hot screen. However, this manhood itself is hot and rich; and eternal; and the stars shine above the party.
Source from Wikipedia