Icelandic Building Traditions

Building materials

Turf is the oldest and most common building material used in Icelandic dwellings for 1100 years.

Before discussing the development of architecture, some consideration should be given to this vitally important but impermanent building material and the building methods used.

Only in Iceland has this building technology, once so important in the architecture of Nordic countries, survived to the present day. Archaeological research into buildings from the Age of Settlement in Iceland have found the same types of turf which were used for house walls at the beginning of the 20th century, so it can be assumed that the tools and methods used for cutting turf and laying walls have been preserved in a similar manner through time.

Turf for building is obtained by lifting off the top layer of grass or cutting it out with a small-bladed spade. The turf to be used as “bricks” in laying walls or roofs was peeled off or dug using different techniques, depending upon what sort of turf was needed in each instance.

The main types of wall turf were called strengur (long sods of turf) and hnaus (blocks of turf), of which there could even be different types, wedge shaped blocks (klömbruhnaus) and straight blocks (kvíahnaus).

A strengur is a sod of turf often over a metre long and usually about 7 to 10 cm thick.  Walls constructed of these long pieces were thought to be the longest-lasting. Remains of such walls have been found in archaeological investigations of many of Iceland's oldest building remains.

Klömbruhnaus. When this type of turf is used for building, the turf is placed on its side, so that one grassy top layer leans against the preceding block. The narrow end lies inward and locks the inside and the outside of the wall together.


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