Icelandic Turf Houses Are Old-School Green With a Viking Twist

This architectural tradition dating to the 9th century is an enduring inspiration

Turf house.
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Take it from animals that hibernate in dens surrounded by earth and roots, turf makes for a cozy home in cold climes – a fact not lost on Northern Europeans dating back to at least the Iron Age.

Building from turf has been embraced in many places, over many spans of time – Norway, Scotland, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, the Netherlands, and even in the American Great Plains. But while in these areas the practice was used to build dwellings for those with few means, the turf houses in Iceland differ.

Iceland's turf farmsteads developed from the longhouse – a tradition brought to Iceland from Nordic settlers in the 9th century, the first of which were Vikings. And according to the UNESCO World Heritage List, for which Iceland’s turf house tradition is nominated, the turf-building technique in the island nation is unique in that it was used for all economic classes and for all types of buildings.

A Sweet Church at Stong

credit: Thomas Ormston/Flickr

In celebration of these early green roofs and the employment of humble earth as construction material, here are some of Iceland's super picturesque turf buildings. First up, the turf-clad stave church, above, based upon the foundation of a small medieval chapel which was uncovered during archeological excavations at Stong in Thjorsardalur valley.

Just Around the Corner From the 'Gateway to Hell'

credit: Thomas Ormston/Flickr

This reconstructed farm which accompanies the chapel is based on the excavated farmhouse at Stong from Iceland's Commonwealth Era (930-1262). Historians believe that the original farm was destroyed in the 1104 eruption of one of Iceland's most prolific volcanoes, Mt. Hekla. There have been over 20 eruptions from the volcano since 874, so active has it been that during the Middle Ages, Europeans called the volcano the "Gateway to Hell." Yet so heavenly it all looks...

Glaumbaer Farmstead at the Skagafjorour Museum

credit: Wikimedia Commons

This beautifully preserved set, Glaumbaer farm, was inhabited until 1947 and presently offers visitors a peek into the past at the open-air Skagafjorour Folk Museum, which now tends to the buildings.

There has been a farmhouse at the site since the 10th century, but the current buildings were built between the mid-18th century and 1879. There is a passage connecting the individual structures that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years.

This configuration – a group of smaller houses connected by a central passage – is known as a passage-farmhouse. Altogether there are 13 buildings, including a communal eating/sleeping room and a pantry and kitchen. One building provided quarters for the elders; as well there are two guest rooms, two storerooms, and a blacksmith’s workshop.

More Glaumbaer Farm

credit: Wikimedia Commons

The buildings of Glaumbaer farm were constructed of turf, stones, and timber. The builders used some stone and mostly turf arranged in a herringbone pattern to construct the walls, with lengths of turf strip between the layers. Since there was little suitable rock locally, stone was used only at the base of the walls to prevent moisture seepage.

Behind the Turf

credit: pjt4/Wikimedia Commons

If you thought the interior of an 18th-century Icelandic turf house would look like a rabbit's den, you may be surprised to see how finished they could be inside – as evidenced by this room at Glaumbaer.

A somewhat unique characteristic of the turf houses in Iceland is the timber structure and interior panelling that serve as an armature for the insulating turf. Since timber was in short supply, the main source of lumber was driftwood and imported wood obtained through trade. Thus, timber panelling and wood floors were usually linked to wealth. Those with less means might have a single room, or just a few, with panelling.

An Enduring Farmstead

credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the southern border of the Icelandic highlands sits the turf farmstead Keldur at Rangarvellir, a collection of turf buildings that includes a dwelling house and a variety of outbuildings. The farm is near that hellish Mt. Hekla volcano; erosion and harsh weather have nudged most farmers to abandon the area.

According to UNESCO, Keldur was one of the residences of one of the most powerful chieftain families in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries. It earned several mentions in medieval Icelandic saga literature, especially in the Njals saga.

The gables are made from timber, and as would make sense, the walls are made with lava rock and then filled with a high-sand soil. Then snidda – diamond-shaped turf blocks – are placed between the rocks on the outside.

The farmstead is still inhabited and the house is a part of the National Museum's Historic Buildings Collection.

The Nuts and Bolts, So to Speak

credit: Wikimedia Commons

The durability of turf walls varied a lot from house to house and area to area – the composition of the materials, the quality of the workmanship, and the fluctuations in the climate all playing an important role, explains UNESCO.

Because of the eventual breakdown of the roots which serve as the binding force, replacing the turf is necessary, just sometimes sooner than others. When required, whole walls or an entire house would be taken apart and built again using the old stones and timber along with new turf.

Little Houses at the Skogar Museum

credit: Wikiemedia Commons

The sod farm buildings shown here are nestled in southern Iceland at the Skogar Museum, a vast cultural heritage collection of regional artifacts and historical buildings.

These were mostly built in the 19th century and were moved here and/or reconstructed from nearby locations. Included in the grouping is the building on the right which was once the guest quarters of the farm at Nordur-Gotur of the Myrdalur Valley (1896). The middle building – the Badstofa – served as communal space for eating, sleeping, and working at the Arnarholl farm in Landeyjar County (1895). The building on the left was a toolshed.

500 Years of Family Here

credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Bustarfell farmstead can be found in Hofsardalur valley in north-eastern Iceland, right by the by the Hofsa salmon fishing river. The site is comprised of 17 houses and is still inhabited by the same family that has lived there since the 16th century! (Although the farmstead was modernized in the 1960s when new dwelling houses and stables were built.)

As with other turf houses, the lower sections of exterior walls are mostly constructed from stone. Here, the upper sections are made of long thin layers of turf called strengur; interior walls have a similar make-up. Since the old buildings were used well into the 20th century they are graced with modern touches: concrete patches here and there; electricity; an oil-burning stove; and running water and a loo.

Bustarfell has been a part of the National Museum's Historic Buildings Collection since 1943.

The Little Hut That Could

credit: Wikimedia Commons

This abandoned Icelandic turf hut in the western region of Buoahraun remains rather anonymous, but it rests in an area that is not without its charms. While the area once housed a fishing village, now there is nothing but a lone church (painted a surprisingly beautiful shade of black) and hotel ... and an abandoned Icelandic turf hut. But the "elf-infested" nature preserve looks stunning and is paved with magic. According to local lore, a lava tube beneath the mossy groves is riddled with gold and precious stones and leads all the way to the lava cave of Surtshellir.

Saenautasel Farm

credit: Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1843, Saenautasel farm sits in the highland of Jokuldalsheioi and was inhabited until 1943. However, it was briefly abandoned between 1875-1880 thanks to the exuberant ashfall bestowed upon the area by the 1875 eruption of the Askja volcano. The buildings at the farm have been restored and the site is now open to the public with guided tours.

Take Me to Church

credit: Deborah Benbrook

On a strip of land between the Vatnajokull glacier and the North Atlantic sits the Nupsstadur turf farmstead and chapel. The farm consists of 15 buildings and the ruins of four others – the chapel is said to date to 1650. Until recently the same family had lived at the farm since 1730. Although the chapel remains privately owned, it has been under the care of the National Museum's Historic Buildings Collection since 1930. Occasionally services are held there, affording attendees a look at the paneled walls, carved altar, and even a piano. (Destination wedding or what?)

Nupsstadur is an outstanding example of the southern type of turf houses, where the cultural landscape has been preserved, notes UNESCO, concluding: “The magnificent setting has considerable aesthetic value.”

Which begs the question, don't they all?