Saturday 23 September 2023

Thatched roofs

Most of us take for granted that we will spend most of our lives paying off other people that we paid to build our homes, yet until historically yesterday people made their own homes. They built with wattle-and-daub, cob, with squares of turf, with stones, bricks or planks of wood, using whatever they had; everyone knew a carpenter or mason, John Curran remembered, and they pooled their resources, and houses, farm buildings, and stonewalls were constructed when required.”

Some of those building materials could be superior to what we use today. In rural Ireland I once helped sculpt a house out of cob, a wet mix of sand, clay and straw that holds together like concrete, and can be far more durable. The house began with stone walls that went up to waist height, as cob needs to be raised above the damp. Then we heaped the wet cob mix on top of the stone walls one lump at a time – “cob” is from an Old English word for “lump” – and then trod them down in our bare feet. Bit by bit, the walls got higher, until we could lay a roof on top. After the walls are given a plaster finish, the house can look just like any other, but made at a fraction of the cost, as it uses the simplest and cheapest material on Earth -- earth itself. Despite this, they can last hundreds of years; Sir Walter Raleigh’s palatial mansion was built of cob, and still stands after 500 years.

Many farmers in my native USA make homes out of straw bales, which are as fire-resistant as wood and which are superb insulators. Here, though, straw was put to other uses.

“Ninety-five percent of the houses at that time were thatched, and I can tell you they were warm comfortable houses,” John Lydon remembered. “The fireplace was almost as wide as the house, and there was always a huge turf-fire blazing in the centre, which drove heat all over the kitchen. 

The straw from a thatched roof was free from the fields; some roofs even had scarecrows to keep birds from stealing bits for their nests. Local saplings were cut, bent and tucked into place to secure the straw so tightly that the fiercest winds couldn’t dislodge it. Nor, in this damp climate, was it a fire hazard. The roofs lasted several years until moss started growing over the straw, staining the rain green as it streaked down the white sides of the cottages.

Thatchers were “usually lithe and agile to facilitate climbing on roofs that were often fragile,” Joe Keane said. “He chose his materials with great care to ensure durability against harsh winters. The thatched roofs of Irish cottages were aesthetically pleasing and ecologically sustainable.”

“The old-time thatchers could turn their skills with straw to other areas, and one of these was apparently the weaving of mattresses which were said to be of such quality that they would last for years: some of them had even mastered the difficult art of making conical ‘bee skeps’ out of straw,” Maurice McAleese said. “When a thatcher succeeded in weaving a skep he could consider himself as being at the head of his trade.”

Even if you don’t want a thatched roof, you could make a green roof. Cultivating plants on your roof creates a patch of natural habitat, partially replacing what was destroyed to create the building in the first place. They provide food for bees and other miniature helpers who will fertilise your garden. They help insulate your home, which can spare you heating and cooling costs. Finally, they look brilliant.

To create one people generally cover an ordinary roof with some kind of lightweight plastic, like pool liner, and spread thin but fertile soil on top of that. The soil should be laced with grass and other seeds, and over the soil should stretch fleece to stop erosion until the plants grow.

These roofs do not have to just carry grass, which is one of the hardiest of plants. They could carry wildflowers as well, which would create a striking cover for your home as well as fodder for insects. I urban tenants who are even using their roofs for beehives, allowing the bees to pollinate urban gardens while allowing them to steer clear of passing humans. If you grow hanging plants like nasturtiums, you could even have the plants hang over the sides of your roof, creating awnings and shaded walkways in the seasons you need them most.

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