Many centuries before 'going green' became fashionable, Icelanders were constructing eco-friendly and energy efficient dwellings all over their island. Earth-sheltered houses have a long history that spans the globe from Africa to Europe. In Northern Europe evidence of turf houses (as they are known there) has been found as far back as the Iron Age. Later, the Romans used turf in the construction of their walls and fortresses in the northernmost reaches of their empire. It is believed that turf has been used for even longer than this, but as earth and grass rot away very easily, or become mixed with the surrounding environment, no traces of older constructions have yet been found.
In countries such as Norway, Scotland, Ireland and Greenland turf houses were left to those who couldn't afford anything else. In Iceland, however, the practice was more egalitarian. It was the material of choice for residences of chiefs and peasants alike, as well as other buildings such as churches and stables — pretty much anywhere that people needed to stay dry and warm.
In the 9th century turf was used in the construction of Nordic-style long houses, multi-purpose buildings where people both slept and worked. This design later changed to a collection of houses connected by a central passageway that was totally unique to Iceland. A feature of this type of house was a raised section for sleeping which stood away from the entrance and was high enough to be heated efficiently. This design was used until the 1800s when the houses once again became joined, but retained their separate roofs.
Whatever the shape, turf houses were made from the same basic materials. Timber was used for the frame, turf for the walls and roofs. Stones were occasionally laid together with the turf for walls, and slate used to underlay roofs. Wood has never been widely available in Iceland, so the timber generally came from driftwood or trade with other regions or nations. Wood panelling, in particular, was expensive and therefore only used by the richest of homeowners. While the wealthy may have had walls and floors lined with timber, the poor had to make do with turf and dirt, occasionally employing slate (if they were lucky!).
The turf itself was cut from mineral-based marshlands, and different tools were used depending on the shape of the turf required. How long the turf would last depended on a variety of factors, including the composition of the soil, the skill of the craftsmen and the surrounding climate. Inevitably, the turf would deteriorate and have to be replaced anywhere from every 20 to 70 years — though the original timber frames would often be kept throughout.
There were many benefits of using turf for construction in a harsh environment like Iceland's, the lack of other suitable materials (where turf is plentiful and, of course, free!) being one. Turf also has wonderful heat retaining properties, keeping the interior of a turf house at an even temperature regardless of fluctuations outside — pretty important in a time before central heating! Drafts and air infiltration were also naturally kept at bay, meaning minimal heat loss from escaping warm air. Finally, unlike stone, turf is a relatively easy material to work with once the method has been mastered.
Once, the craft of turf house building was widespread in Iceland. Farmers built and maintained their own homes and passed the skill down through the generations. These days the traditional art of turf house construction survives only in the hands of a few. Nobody inhabits the turf houses of Iceland any more, although some are still used for storage and outhouses. But the future looks bright: an increasing need for ecologically sound building materials means that interest in the turf houses, along with earth shelters in general, has increased in recent times. Perhaps one day the artisan skill of building turf houses will be in demand again, and an increasing number of rural environments will come to resemble the Iceland of ages past.