In the history of Icelandic architecture there are two typical building styles predominant: small timber houses clad in corrugated iron and the classic Viking style turf house. As of today, corrugated iron is the most popular roofing material used in Iceland and the typical Icelandic residential house would be a small timber house clad in said corrugated iron painted in all the colours of the rainbow.

Surprising enough that no too long ago, the beginning of the 20th century, some people on the country side still lived in turf houses which are known to originate from the Viking Age. Iceland was settled towards the end of the 9th century, in the middle of the great Viking Age. The settlers were mostly from Norway and brought their local building traditions with them, in this case the typical Viking longhouses (langhús) or Viking Age farm house, which were slightly adapted to match the Icelandic environment. Due to the abundance of turf as building material and the harsh climate in Iceland the settlers relied on turf as main building material as turf houses offered superior insulation compared to buildings that were only made of wood or stone.

The longhouses were quite simple, they had one large space know as hall or main room (skáli) with a central fireplace and trampled earthen floors. The walls were curved and made of pieces of turf (strengur). Inside of the turf walls was a timber frame which was often panelled. The turf roof rested on two horizontal beams called purlins, supported by two rows of posts which divided the hall into different areas for different purposes. The side areas, for example, had a slightly raised timber platform which was used as sitting or sleeping area. In another compartment the medieval settlers were stalling farm animals.

Soon after the beginning of the settlement, the design of the longhouse changed and elements were added, such as a living room (stofa), smaller outhouses and latrines. Turf houses evolved more and more according to the social changes and a new type of building emerged. Around the 14th century the classic Viking Age turf house was replaced by the so called passage farmhouse (gangabær) which had the entrance between the living room and the main room, and several smaller buildings joined by one passageway.

By the 16th century, housing in Iceland was in severe decline due to the lack of timber for heating and as building material, so people ate, slept and worked in a communal living room called "baðstofa". Some places had a special arrangement (fjósbaðstofa) placing the "baðstofa" into the attic above the cattle-shed in order to use the heat of the cows. In the middle of the 18th century, the Danish authorities slowly took notice of the housing problem in its subject country and enforced improvements of the turf houses. This resulted in the arrangement of of three buildings in a row and the ends closed with timber gables which gave the name to the style: gabled-farmhouse (burstabær).

Around 1900, timber front buildings (framhús) were added. During the first decades of the 20th century, most turf farmhouses were modernized with electricity and other conveniences. Living in turf houses was certainly not of a romantic matter as they were dim, damp and rather cold. Despite of their lack of comfort are those Icelandic turf houses a great example of the interaction between building and nature, being the ideal shelter from the rough Icelandic climate. After all, this type of building was used in Iceland for over thousand years up until the beginning of the 20th century.

The Guide To Icelandic Architecture by the Association of Icelandic Architects reads “The traditional procedure of constructing a turf house was to erect the external walls first, then the timber frame, and finally the roof. In effect, the turf house was an organic building process, because it was constantly added to, enhanced and adapted. When a turf farmhouse was no longer used it merged back into the natural environment. This explains why so few turf houses have been preserved.”

Luckily, a number of said turf farmhouses are still preserved and can be visited as part of the National Museum of Iceland's collection of historic buildings such as Glaumbær in Skagafjörður, the farm of Keldur in Rangárvellir, Stöng in Þjórsádalur or at the Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík, in Aðalstræti 16. These and many other sites represent the traditional and oldest buildings in Icelandic history.

With the beginning of urbanization in the 18th century, timber buildings emerged in Iceland. It were the Danish merchants living in Iceland who started importing more and more timber to build themselves grand and representative houses. Those early timber houses made by the Danes had tall, steeply pitched roofs and low walls and had a dark appearance due to the tarring of the outer walls. Around 1870 a timber-building style surfaced that was called Icelandic classicism.

This period was followed by the neo-Romantic Swiss-chalet style at the end of the 19th century, brought into the country by Norwegians. These houses stood out because of their ornamental friezes above doors and windows and of their projecting eaves with decorated end beams. These features were adopted by the Icelandic carpenters but using corrugated iron instead of timber imported from England to clad the houses.
This style became distinctively Icelandic. Many houses of this beautiful style can still be seen all over the country, such as the Ministerial Residence (Raðherrabústaðurinn) in Tjarnargata, Reykjavík.

For more information: Historic Buildings Collection, Architecture of Iceland and Inspired by Iceland.