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  • Þorbjörn Sigurbjörnsson

Turf house architecture trends in Iceland

Iceland doesn´t have an architectural history – we just recently stepped out of the turf houses! The type of housing settlers brought with them to Iceland have been called long houses, a type of lodge as we would call it today. These lodges were oblong houses, more narrow on the end with one entrance at the side of the house, near one of the end. A fireplace was in the middle of the house and seats, or beds, along the walls. In time, extensions were made and later on they were connected to the lodges and that’s when we start moving towards having something like turf houses. These types of houses then evolve into having the entrance at the middle of the houses, which the divides the house in two parts; a kitchen and a storehouse on the one hand and a lodge and sleeping facility on the other. These type of houses were popular and dominated the architectural trends all the way to the 18th century. The famous turf houses or burstabæir then take over. The turf houses are different from there predecessors as they divide the houses even more and the houses are built side by side with a hall between them. These turf houses were widely built up to the 19th century as the old houses were not suitable anymore. Turf, mud and rocks were not the best building materials, although we did not have many options in those days. These houses needed to be fixed frequently as the lifespan of the materials used was not long. Later on, rock walls, paved stone floors, wooden panels and rafters for the roof and walls replaced the mud and turf. By the middle of the 18th century the first concrete house was built in Iceland, in the island Viðey. Iceland´s treasurer, Skúli Magnússon, was the instigator when he applied for a residence in the island of Viðey. In the 18th century more concrete buildings were built such as Bessastaðir, known today as the presidence´s residence, government offices and churches. In the late 18th century wooden houses became more common as areas become more densely populated. A few wooden houses had been built before that time although the turf houses were still the most common houses. What changed with the concrete houses and the wooden houses is that the houses became two-storied with sloping ceilings and attics. The houses became bigger. The increase in wooden houses can be traced to this increase in trade and areas becoming more densely populated, like Akureyri up north, Ísafjörður in the west-fjords and Reykjavík. The wooden houses caught fire frequently and that is when Icelanders started building more and more concrete houses with iron gird or iron bars within the concrete walls. Many of the old houses in Iceland have cultural and artistic values.

By the middle of the 20th century houses needed to be reformed or torn down in order to adapt the town to the increase in population and the road system. Protests were made which led to the establishment of the National Committee on Architectural Heritage in 1970. Therefore we still have houses like the old Reykjavík college and the church at Bessastaðir.

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