Thatch roofing has a history that goes back thousands of years, making it one of the most time-tested types of roofing. It was the predominant roofing material in many places until the 1800s and remains the signature roofing of the country cottage.
With the history that thatch has, there are numerous examples going back to antiquity:
- The Howick House, a few miles east of Alnwick in England, dating as far back as the Mesolithic era (8,000 to 2,700 BC) is known to have been thatched.
- Iron age (1,200 to 600 BC) towers and fortresses used thatch for roofing.
- Roman writers mention that the thatched hut of Romulus was preserved in the heart of Rome on Palatine Hill, to remind Romans of their rudimentary origins.
- Coins from the reign of the Emperor Constans (the brother of Constantine II) show images of thatched homes.
- The iconic Viking long houses were typically roofed with sod or thatch.
Through the dark ages, thatch was used on the poorest peasant’s homes as well as the wealthiest king’s halls. The middle ages saw a variety of building types from almshouses, hospitals, houses, chapels, guildhalls, and castle gatehouses, many of which were thatched. For example, in the 1300s the Pevensey castle in Sussex purchased six acres of water reed to provide roofing for its chambers and halls.
A little-known use of thatch during the middle ages is that it was used in the masonry construction of the great castles and cathedrals. Thatchers were employed to provide thatching as a protection for unfinished work through the winter months of no work. Thatch covered the tops of unfinished walls, and large temporary thatched roofs were erected to cover unfinished spaces. This is documented in places such as Windsor castle and the church at Covent Garden in London.
In the century following the start of the reformation, many opportunities and new wealth fueled what is known as The Great Rebuilding. Most of the “old” buildings of Europe come from this era and most of these had a thatched roof.
During the mid to late middle ages (late 15th to early 16th centuries), Europe recovered from the black plague, and England and France recovered from the hundred years war. A time of peace and prosperity resulted, eventually producing the renaissance. This is when thatch reached some of it’s highest refinement. William Cahill says that the French were the first to really beautify thatch as we know it today. The English and Germans were quick to adopt these traditions and they were soon followed by the rest of Europe, each region with a slightly different take.
Normandy is especially known for its well-preserved thatch cottages or “thatchies” when literally translated from French. Thatched half-timber cottages and rural Normandy are synonymous, evoking images of lush green cottage farms with chickens and ducks foraging in the yard.
In parts of France the ridge of thatch roofs is planted with Irises. The roots (rhizomes) help to bind the ridge together while also keeping it dry as they drink up any excess moisture.
Some of France’s aristocracy expressed their fondness for thatch in hamlets and model farms that they built, popularized by the theories of the Physiocrats.
Hameau de Chantilly was built in 1774 by Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé on the grounds of Chateau de Chantilly. It was designed by architect Jean-François Leroy. The half-timbered thatch cottages have rustic exteriors that surprise guests when they step into the luxurious interiors complete with classical pilasters and murals.
Louis Joseph’s Hamlet inspired Marie Antionette and she followed in 1783 with Hameau de la Reine (hamlet of the queen). Architect Richard Mique and painter Hubert Robert worked together to produce the design. The buildings, many of which are thatched, were inspired by vernacular Flemish or Norman architecture. Among the hamlet buildings there is a farmhouse with its own farm, a dairy and its barn (burnt down during the French Revolution) and a mill fed by a meandering creek. Most of the buildings are arranged around a large central pond. The relatively humble hamlet was a stark contrast to the rest of the rather extravagant buildings on the grounds of Versailles.
As Europe started to become less rural, thatched country cottages became a favored theme amongst the “picturesque” artists of the late 1700s. During the industrial revolution, canals and then rails, allowed heavier roofing materials to be more easily delivered to construction sites, providing competition for thatch. The use of thatch continued to increase in tune with the increase in agriculture. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800s when thatch started to decline with agricultural recessions and rural depopulation.
The introduction of the combine harvester along with the short-stemmed wheat varieties significantly impacted the availability of quality thatching materials (Varieties of wheat from medieval England were said to have grown 6’ tall). The introduction of nitrogen fertilizers also reduced straw’s longevity. In the UK it is illegal under the plant variety and seeds act of 1964 to plant older varieties of wheat. These factors all contributed to a massive decline in thatch until the late 20th century when thatch began to increase again.
UNITED STATES AND CANADA
As European settlers crossed the Atlantic to North America they brought their thatching traditions with them. Jamestown, New Amsterdam, and many other settlements were first roofed with thatch. As colonization spread west, especially into the plains where less forests were found, thatch was commonly used. Many of the Forts and posts of the Hudson Bay company used thatch as a roofing. Many photos from the American civil war reveal the use of thatch as well.
Another example of thatch is revealed in a story of young John Adams (2nd US president) and his father Deacon Adams. He had big plans for his son. Hoping to persuade his son that farming is a less than desirable pursuit, Deacon took John to the marshes for a very long cold day cutting thatch. At the end of the day when he asked his son how he liked farming now, young John replied, “I like it very well Sir.” This was not the response John’s father had hoped for and he forced John to go back to his studies. – John Adams a Life, by John Ferling
Thatch huts are an African icon. Some argue that their shape was inspired by the Egyptian pyramids. They are integral to Africa’s roots and architectural legacy.
In Southern Africa, the Zulu, the Swazi, and the Nguni construct thatch domed huts. A ring of poles is anchored in the ground and brought together at the peak. The peak is either a smooth dome (early Xhosa) or to a conical point (Sotho). The thatch is skillfully crafted. Zulu domes, or indlu, have exquisitely detailed entries. Some Nguni huts feature a layer of floor mats for insulation. The thatch roof is brought to an ornate finial and a net wraps the whole hut to endure brisk winds.
The Xhosa’s later homes have developed into a consistent form known as the rondavel. These homes are typically round, have one room, and are roofed with thatch. In areas Southern Africa they can be common. Some of the regional variations include a curb or plinth before the dome roof begins (Swazi and Zulu), flattened or low slope roof on a taller wall, or tall cone shaped roofs.
Construction methods also differ. Typically, the wall is made with a ring of posts and infilled with wattle and mud. In wooded areas infill may be replaced with more posts. Some peoples, such as the Tswana and the Venda, extend the eaves to have a continuous wrap around porch.
The Samoan word for all house types from large to small is fale. The frame is shaped into a dome and when complete is covered with thatch. If available, the preferred thatch is dry sugarcane leaves. Otherwise the coconut palm leaves are used instead.
Iconic of Filipino culture, the nipa hut or bahay kubo is a house built on stilts with a thatched roof. The roof is tall and steep with broad eaves. The steep roof easily sheds rain especially during the monsoon season. The tall roof provides a space for heat to escape allowing cooler air to be drawn in from the windows in the walls below. The broad eaves help keep the area around the nipa dry. During the eruption of Mount Pinatubo many houses collapsed under the weight of the volcano’s ash. Most nipa huts survived because their roofs were steep enough to shed the heavy ash.
Pre-European Hawaiians were kept dry by thatch roofs. Homes were simple shacks for slaves and outcasts, beach front huts for boat builders and fishermen, modest shelters for the maka’ainana (working class), sacred and extravagant heiau of kahuna, and palaces with basalt foundations for the ali’I (elite).
The traditional Hawaiian home, otherwise known as the hale, used the same patterns found all throughout Polynesia. The hale’s thatch roof typically used the sweet smelling pili grass. If that wasn’t available other thatches included pandanus leaves, grasses, banana trunk fiber, or sugar cane leaves. It was lashed to the frame in bundles with grass or coconut fiber ropes. The thatch at the peak was layered thicker with extra care to keep out wind and rain. There were typically no windows and one small entry opening.
Many of those native to South and Central America such as the Maya, Inca, and Aztec lived in thatch homes. Even to this day, in rural areas of Latin American such as the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s not uncommon to find thatched homes built similar to those of their forefathers.
From what we’ve found in archeological remains and colonial accounts of the Inca, thatch was the main roof of choice. Typical Inca construction consisted of stone foundations and walls, a timber roof structure, and a thatch roof. The timber roof structure was anchored to the stone walls with lashing. The spectacular stone walls remain today, but the thatched roofs are long gone.
Some of the stonework is so tightly laid there is but a hair line between stones. Based on colonial accounts, the thatch roofs were nothing short of impressive either. El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega was the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman. Growing up in 16th century Peru he saw much of the still very intact ways of the Inca and wrote extensively of such.
He described the thatch of imperial buildings to have been at least a fathom (six feet) thick! (Comentarios Reales de los Incas, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, 1609, p. 321) Some believe the quality of craftsmanship that went into the thatch roofs of the Inca would have rivaled that of the Shinto shrines in Japan.
Shinto temples and shrines are well known for their thatch roofs. They are also known for being kept in prime condition. The time span differs from building to building, but most, if not all, Shinto temples and shrines are rebuilt every 10 to 30 years! Some of these buildings predate Buddhism in Japan, which means they have been rebuilding them for well over a thousand years. Though not the primary purpose, this continuous rebuilding process, in part, helps to sustain Japan’s thatching traditions.
The traditional houses of Japan are known as Minka (Japanese: 民家). They are the vernacular houses that emerged out of the Edo period. Though they came from one period, today the term covers many vernacular Japanese styles. Receiving high levels of precipitation in most areas of Japan, the minka roof’s shape has been derived from heavy rain and snow fall. The steeper the roof the better it sheds water, so minka roofs are known to be rather steep.
Thatch was often the roof material of choice for minka houses. Today Japan has 100,000 thatched properties. Minka houses probably make up the better portion of this number. As with English cottages, special treatment was given to the ridges of minka houses. They could be finished with thatch laid flat several layers thick, bamboo, or wood timbers. A minka owner’s social status could be identified by the size and complexity of the building and its roof. The more wooden timbers (umanori 馬乗り) or bundles of thatch at the ridge the higher the owner’s standing.
In Bali, Indonesia, the black fibers of Arenga Pinnata called ijuk are used as a thatched roof material for meru tower and pura temple roofs. Meru towers are known for their rather unique appearance. They feature a multi-tiered roof extending the height of the tower, and can have anywhere from three to eleven tiers.
Thatch has seen a long and widespread legacy. In equatorial regions thatching traditions go back to antiquity using palm branches. In cooler climates, thatching generally switched to traditions using the straw from grain crops. Like most traditional crafts, thatching has, in some ways, suffered from the changes brought by civilization. However, many of today’s property owners see the value of keeping their cottages thatched, even if it’s to simply get a better selling price on the market. Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, calls thatching one of Great Britain’s most glorious traditions in the forward of the book Thatches and Thatching.
Have you considered thatch for your next roof? Feel free to let us know in the comments below.
Hendricks Architecture, architects in Sandpoint, Idaho. We’ve designed everything from small mountain cabins and storybook houses, to mountain lodges and estates.
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