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Hardscaping 101: Thatched Roofs

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Hardscaping 101: Thatched Roofs

October 12, 2017

All across Britain quaint cottages are topped in thatched roofs; it’s an ancient craft that’s central to the chocolate-box image of old England and that dates back to the Bronze Age, when thatch—which consists of densely packed grasses—was a lightweight, accessible material to keep stone or wattle and daub houses warm and water-tight. Even grand structures were sometimes topped in thatch (in 1300 a Norman castle in Pevensey, Sussex used six acres of rushes to create a roof).

And little of the thatching technique has changed since then. Houses in other European countries, including France and Denmark, feature thatched roofs. In tropical climates, thatched roofs of straw and palm fronds  are typical. Thatched public buildings including schools and churches are still a common site in East Anglia, and on Remodelista we recently featured a remodeled Danish longhouse with a dramatic thatched roof.

Is a thatched roof a choice for you? Read on for everything you need to know:

What materials are used in thatched roofs?

The Dinesen Family Home in Denmark. For more of this project, see A Historic Renovation for Danish Design Royalty. Photograph courtesy of Dinesen.
Above: The Dinesen Family Home in Denmark. For more of this project, see A Historic Renovation for Danish Design Royalty. Photograph courtesy of Dinesen.

Materials vary in different areas —broom, sedge, heather and flax can all be used for thatching but most common in Europe are straw or reeds, especially in East Anglia where Norfolk reeds provided the most prized roofing material of all— it lasts the longest too.

In tropical climates, such as Fiji, thatched roofs may be made of palm fronds. In Hawaii, perennial grasses such as Imperata cylindrica and Heteropogon contortus are used in thatched roofs.

How is a thatched roof made?

For more of this project, see Frisian Style: An Otherworldly Former Hay Loft Transformed in the North Sea on Remodelista. Photograph courtesy of Francesco Di Gregorio.
Above: For more of this project, see Frisian Style: An Otherworldly Former Hay Loft Transformed in the North Sea on Remodelista. Photograph courtesy of Francesco Di Gregorio.

Each bundle of thatch is laid with the flower ends of the reeds or straw, facing up and fixed into place temporarily with an iron pin.

Thatching tools include mallets to hammer spars. For more information or to inquire about a thatched roof project, see Heart of England Thatchers.
Above: Thatching tools include mallets to hammer spars. For more information or to inquire about a thatched roof project, see Heart of England Thatchers.

As each bundle is added the thatcher bashes it in with a flat-faced metal “leggett” to create a smooth finish. The thatch is then fixed into place with permanent hazel ‘spars’, a thatching wire is used across the top to prevent bird damage, and the ridge line is finished with a deeper layer of thatch which is often cut into decorative styles, which vary area to area. In different regions there are also different styles of thatching around eves and dormers too.

Architects Karin Matz of Sweden and Francesco Di Gregorio of Italy transformed a former hay loft in a farmhouse on the small island of Föhr (technically belonging to the Nordfriesland district of Germany) in the North Sea. Photograph courtesy of Francesco Di Gregorio.
Above: Architects Karin Matz of Sweden and Francesco Di Gregorio of Italy transformed a former hay loft in a farmhouse on the small island of Föhr (technically belonging to the Nordfriesland district of Germany) in the North Sea. Photograph courtesy of Francesco Di Gregorio.

In England even new build houses and outbuildings have thatched roofs – they add an instant historic and period feel – but it’s the traditional cottages of rural counties where it looks most at home.

How much does a thatched roof cost?

In Portugal, a hotel complex&#8
Above: In Portugal, a hotel complex’s cottages have roofs thatched with grasses harvested from the banks of the nearby Sado River. For more of this project, see Outbuilding of the Week: Portugal’s Casas Na Areia. Photograph by Nelson Garrido.

A thatched roof may add a big premium to the value of your property but it also comes at a cost. It’s a major expense (costing up to £25,000 or $33,000 for a complete re-thatch in the UK).

What is the lifespan of a thatched roof?

For more of this project, see Outbuilding of the Week: Portugal’s Casas Na Areia. Photograph by Nelson Garrido
Above: For more of this project, see Outbuilding of the Week: Portugal’s Casas Na Areia. Photograph by Nelson Garrido

Most thatches will need to be replaced every 30 years but the lifespan of a thatched roof depends on material, geographical location (humidity plays a bit part in how quickly a thatch will degenerate) and how well it was installed in the first place.

Are thatched roofs a fire risk?

The risk of fire is no different to a normal house although if there is a fire a thatch will go up in flames in a flash and a poorly lined flue is often the culprit. It is, of course, advisable to keep bonfires well away from thatched homes too.

N.B.: Are you considering a roofing project? See more styles and types of roofs:

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