As human beings, since the beginning of time, we needed to adapt to our surroundings in order to be able to survive. We humans have been able to stablished in the most remote and rough areas one can imagine. All of this was possible by analyzing the environments. Using what nature offers as a resource for our own benefit and using the knowledge acquired through the centuries. This is the case of Turf Houses in Iceland, nothing but the adaptation of mankind to tough surroundings.
Iceland is a volcanic island located in the North Atlantic Ocean. At first, it was not inhabited and the conditions were not exactly the most idealistic ones. Weather was tough, humid and rainy. The ground was barely arable and sources of food were quite limited. The first big challenge for the first settlers was to find the best way to shelter themselves from this inclemency.
This is when Turf houses got their leading role. Turf houses are not exclusive Icelandic, this way of building dates back from the Iron age and were quite common in Norway. Truth is, it became the traditional and most followed way of building in Iceland. So common that nowadays it is considered the typical Icelandic house structure.
The settlers cleverly used what the Icelandic nature had to offer. The grass freshly cut from the ground and the Lava rock for the foundations. These foundations were built with big stones that played the role of bricks. On top of them, they laid grass or turf then another layer of stones. In order to build up these houses, a triangular wooden structure was the framework. Then the stones and turf was slowly build up by its side and top in the order mentioned before.
Once the sides were set, it was time to reach the roof. Compacted soil was the perfect material for this area and it was used until the builder completely covered the roof. It may not look like it, but these structures were strong and sturdy. So strong that these houses usually lasted for about one generation. Also, they could be easily maintained and in case of renewal, the same stones were used over and over again.
When building it, the turf is cut from the ground with soil in it. This helps the grass to keep on growing with the rain and humidity of the Icelandic weather. Providing a great isolation system from the gust of cold wind. The ideal stones for turf houses must have a flat side so they can be layered easily.
Sadly, after the II world war, the government encouraged a more modern way of building and house renewal. This ended up with many turf houses being destroyed and nowadays they are barely used. Back to the old days, they were basically everywhere. Turf houses were rarely detached; they were usually a setting of cluster of turf houses. Shared walls helped keeping the interior warm and allowed the owners to build a barn or a stable between one house and the other.
Turf Houses, Traditional Icelandic Way of Living
The interior of these houses were cozy and warm. Usually there was just one living-bed-kitchen room. In few words, just one room for everything and everyone. Beds were set on the side, kitchen at the bottom and then, in the main central space, the common area. Working spaces like the barn had a connecting aisle with the living area so you really did not need to go outside to switch rooms.
If you would like to see how these houses look like, they are still some you can visit. There are turf houses museums with real houses, real interiors that will allow you to learn about how incredible these houses can be. Built in such natural and simple way but so useful, beneficial and convenient for the Icelandic people and their history for centuries.