Green Housing that Kept Icelanders Warm and Alive for a Millenia

Glaumber, like other Icelandic torfbæir (turf houses) has changed in size and layout over time
Glaumber, like other Icelandic torfbæir (turf houses) has changed in size and layout over time

Something you notice in Iceland: while it’s grassy green, there are few trees.

When the first Nordic settlers arrived in 874 A.D., they noticed the barren landscape, too. Forests covered less than a third of Iceland, much less than elsewhere in Scandinavia at the time.

Which is why settlers built torfbæir (turf houses) from blocks of grass and soil up to a metre thick arranged around a timber framework (often driftwood) and packed in to form the walls and roofs.

In rural areas, turf houses were the style for a thousand years, up until 1910-1930. Not surprising, because up until the early twentieth century, 96% of Icelanders lived on farms.

And while there were turf houses in Norway, Greenland and my ancestral country (Scotland’s Hebrides), as a BBC article says, in Iceland, “they were lived in for a significantly longer period of time, they were used by all classes of people, they served as everything from sheep pens to churches and they are generally better preserved today.”

Magellan and I saw torfbæir at Glaumbær, considered one of Iceland’s top attractions and the linchpin of the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum.

The earnest young man in rimless glasses and a buttoned-down shirt selling tickets was astonished that we didn’t want to see the museum’s timber houses. But we had other places on our itinerary and had come expressly to see torfbæiir.

Since the first settlement of Iceland, there has been a farm here. In the field below, ruins of a Viking longhouse and smaller structures from the tenth and eleventh centuries were discovered in 2002.

According to Icelandic sagas, Snorri Porfinnsson, said to be the first son born to European explorers in North America, lived at Glaumbær with his parents, and being a strong advocate for converting Icelanders to Christianity, he built a church. It is also said to have been the home of Thorfinn Karlsefni, an explorer mentioned in the saga of Eric the Red who visited Vinland (Newfoundland!).

Seeing Glaumbær’s historical value, the British benefactor Sir Mark Watson donated £200 in 1938 (about $30,000 today) for its preservation. When its last owners left in 1947, Glaumbær was declared a protected historical site. The Skagafjordur Heritage Museum was established and obtained the property to exhibit turf-farm life a year later, opening it to the public in 1952.

The present farmhouse has 13 buildings, the oldest ones dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, the newest added in 1876-1879.

Farmers built torfbæir with thin slats of wood covered with thick layers of turf and roofed with sod. They cut the turf into three shapes: large rectangles, thin strips, and triangles; the latter were fitted into the structure for stability and strength. Until the eighteenth century, turf provided the only insulation.

They sloped the roof’s steep pitch at just the right angle. Too steep and during dry spells, the sod would crack, the grass would wither and when it rained, water would seep in. If the angle of the roof was too flat, the turf would become saturated with water.

Over time as the turf grew and fused into place, buildings became stronger and more weather resistant.

For me, the highlight of Glaumbær was the verdant green turf, lush and alive, row-housing architecture at its finest, a thousand years ago.

And the personal items inside: fish-skin shoes, toys made from animal bones, driftwood chests and horsehair bags.

It got me wondering what items would each of us choose from our home to be displayed in a museum.

A tomato-stained cookbook, travel diaries, the Mary Dalton poetry book Clare bought me? Would Magellan include his combination mitre saw or other tools he uses frequently? And you?

Navigation

Glaumber

Waterson, Luke. “Turf houses: Iceland’s original ‘green’ buildings.” BBC. October 14, 2022.

Sir Mark Watson

2 Responses

  1. Interesting article and indeed a glimpse of the past, I find it interesting, although construction differs it is not so different between countries, driven by what is available, is the key, necessity overcomes grandeur and beauty. Beauty may be a side benefit but I doubt if it held much standing in the building and maintenance of said construction.
    Nice tool chest Mr Engineer, my Grandfather on the Matthew side, had a similar collection, now in the hands of my cousin Jim, very suitable as he is an architect and so the building trade is passed on again.
    Looking at the pictures I have to say smaller abodes are indeed not only in our past but our future too.
    Cheers,

    1. It was very interesting to see homes that were built 250 – 150 years ago, with organic material, still standing and potentially functional. Whereas for our 40 year-old home, built to the newest federal design standards at the time, the entire exterior had to be replaced after just 20 years suffering from “leaky condo syndrome.”

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