Green Houses


Green Houses

Published in the 2014 August-September issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica – IR 04.14. Words by Margrét Hallgrímsdóttir, Translation by Eygló Svala Arnardóttir and Photos by Páll Stefánsson.

The history of the Icelandic turf house is unique and the constructions are among Iceland’s most significant contributions to international architecture.

The National Museum of Iceland preserves age-old houses, including the country’s most noteworthy turf farms and turf churches, in their original form. The unique turf houses reflect the nation’s history, the struggle for survival, the skill and the sense of aesthetics.

The National Museum’s staff and academics have worked on increasing knowledge of turf houses in order to preserve them as well as possible and make them accessible to the public.

Turf farms are the product of a centuries-long development and their history remains unbroken, even from the first ages of settlement, as is the case with Keldur in Rangárvellir.

Turf farms are a cluster of connected houses. Each house was constructed with a certain purpose and reconstructed if considered necessary and the circumstances allowed for it. Therefore, all houses of a turf farm rarely date back to the same period. This is why defining the age of a turf farm is open for discussion, even though the age of single houses is known.

Quite a few different types of turf farms have emerged through the centuries, changed with time and been adapted to the circumstances and style of each period. The arrangement of houses in most standing turf farms bears witness to the last epoch of a long development.

Different types of turf farm arrangements have been recognized and they are, to a certain extent, representative of different regions. For example, the large North Icelandic turf farms are of the same type. The arrangement of houses is similar from one farm to the next, even though the number of houses varies.

What characterizes the North Icelandic turf farms is that the front houses all have their entrances facing the farmyard, a type known as burstabær. The back houses lie at right angles to the tunnels that lead through the farm from the front houses.

In turf farms, materials from their closest environment are used for the construction: turf, rocks and even driftwood.

The turf houses that have been preserved the best in Iceland have many things in common, even though the implementation of the construction is diverse. The diversity can to some extent be traced back to differ-
ent emphases in each region, as well as the differing circumstances and work methods of the house builders.

Ancient construction of turf farms is marked by what materials were available. In the West Fjords, limited turf was used, as good quality stacking rocks were widely at hand. Turf houses in the region were therefore almost exclusively stacked with rocks, as can be seen in the hut in Vatnsfjörður and the farm Litlibær in Skötufjörður, which are included in the National Museum’s collection.

However, good quality stacking turf could be found in Skagafjörður and Eyjafjörður, which is why the walls of the turf farms Glaumbær in Skagafjörður and Laufás in Eyjafjörður were made of turf.

Meanwhile, in Grenjaðarstaður in Aðaldalur, Þingeyjarsýsla, lava rocks were considered to be the best-suited building material, as was also the case in turf houses in other areas marked by volcanic eruptions. The same can be said about the walls of the turf farm Þverá in Laxárdalur, for example.

It is interesting for those traveling the country to keep this in mind and observe the turf farms in context with their surroundings. This summer, tourists have enjoyed visiting the district museums and the National Museum’s turf farms around the country and experiencing their environment, where history and nature merge.

The turf houses fit perfectly into the Icelandic landscape, are built from local materials and have through the ages served as shelter from the Icelandic climate. They bear witness to Icelandic handicraft and ingenuity in house building and the relationship between the nation and its country.

Hörður Árnason, who is among Iceland’s foremost academics in this field, put it this way: “The turf house, the Icelandic turf farm is, above anything else, one of man’s many solutions to the past and present problem of how to find shelter from the harsh nature and bad weather; to create a refuge for himself and his family and a place to work and play under different conditions at different times. It’s part of the history of the house on planet Earth.”

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