How to build a turf house

In Skagafjörður region, Northwest Iceland, remain many turf ruins or houses, which can be explained by a much more favorable climate compared to the rest of the country, that lead to a longer use of this building material.

We went for a visit at the only accessible turf stable of Iceland, located at Lýtingsstaðir, in Skagafjörður.

The site once consisted of a manor, a church (that later became the community house), as well as a farmhouse, and some barns and stables made of turf.  None of these buildings survived time, so in order not to lose this precious inheritance, the owners completed the construction of a turf stable and a storage room in 2015, in line with traditional methods. A turf horse pen was added on-site late 2016.

We took the opportunity of this project to learn about the different steps of a turf house building process.

1) Turf Preparation

The project starts with the preparation of the turf. Turf is an ideal material for temperate oceanic climates like Iceland. Relatively easy to work with, and endless source, it provides a good insulation for buildings.

Every piece is cut in advance with a scythe, that will later help trim the wall as well, then put to dry. The respect of the drying period is crucial to the sustainability of the building. Wet turf would weaken the building, every piece shrinking when drying, or rotting when heated.

2) Walls bases

The wall base consists of three rows of stones, to prevent soil moisture from seeping into turf and wood. In the old days, barns or stables were built out of turf and stones to their full height to limit damages caused by animals.

3) Laying up

Next step is the one that requires the most skills, as it consists of fitting together all the blocks of turf, in such a way as to best ensure building stability.

Lýtingsstaðir turf stable is made of clamped blocks with strips between the layers, a technique which is also to be found at Glaumbær. If we look closer, ash layers dating back to past eruptions (most likely Katla, 1755 in this case) are visible, trapped in turf.

4) Framing the house

Both for the frame and front, larch was chosen because of its authentic look, as a witness of time going by since the project completion.

5) Roof addition and Front

Turf strips are positioned so that they overlap each other, just as regular tiles would be, until the roof is covered. The turf composition combined with this building technique ensure a higher resistance to weather conditions.

 

This type of construction requires special precautions. In Winter, the stable is being wrapped in a giant tailor-made net to protect it from storms and blizzards. In Summer, it is the grass that needs to be taken care of.

The Old stable offers a new face with the seasons, going from a bright green in Summer to a pure white in Winter, making this a great place for visitors in all seasons. Your journey through turf houses of Skagafjörður will take you next to Glaumbær, Víðimýrarkirkja, Grafarkirkja, Tyrfingsstaðir… and many others!

The Old Turf Stable in its winter coat, pictures by Evelyn Yr

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