Turf homes: The grass-topped farmhouses that defined Iceland

A land of vast open spaces, steaming blue lagoons, geysers, and powerful volcanoes, Iceland is beautifully raw and remote, but not exactly hospitable to humans.

When the Norse and British settlers emigrated there in the 9th century, the island’s harsh climate and limited resources proved challenging.

The Vikings, however, had brought with them a solution: turf homes, something already popular in Norway.

For the next millennium or so, these grass-roofed dwellings protected Icelanders from blistering winds, rains, and even earthquakes.

While today they are a rare find on the Icelandic fjords, a UNESCO nomination in 2011 highlighted a renaissance in the appreciation of this style of building.

“Turf farms and homes were in every part of Iceland and have been the prevailing building method for generations,” Hannes Lárusson, founder of the Islenski Baerinn (Turf House Museum) in southwestern Iceland, tells CNN.

“In my opinion, they are without a doubt one of the most important contributions of the north to vernacular architecture of the world.

Icelandic turf architecture has its roots in building techniques dating back to the Iron Age — indeed, the Romans used “turf bricks” to build fortresses and defensive walls.

Across Norway, the Faroe Islands and parts of Scotland, turf houses also proved popular.

But whereas in those countries, turf buildings were for the lower classes, in Iceland even the wealthy resided in “turf chateaux,” according to UNESCO.

A typical Icelandic turf farm was actually a cluster of between 2 and 30 buildings connected by earthen corridors, a type of structure known as a baer, the general word for farm.

For support and protection, the back of such a building was dug into the hillside, while the front jutted out and had a pointed, mossy roof.

“These buildings are a miracle,” Hildigunnur Sverrisdóttir, an Icelandic architect and scholar, tells CNN. “The ground in Iceland is like this crazy beast — it’s always shaking with earthquakes and eruptions.”

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