Lounging in France 13: Roofs Through Time

Fans of Robert Heinlein will recall that in his short story ” –And He Built a Crooked House” one of the characters remarks that the main job of a house is to keep the rain off. Yes, shelter is a core function, because getting wet is always miserable, for you and all your stuff. Before you can do anything — write, read, cook — you have to be dry.

So here we are, the absolute basic shelter: a cave. This cave in the village de la Madeleine has been a residence since the Neolithic. Prehistoric humans built wooden walls, the Romans built in stone, medieval farmers hid from raiding knights. and the local lord erected a castle on top. But this handy cave still keeps out the rain!

But caves are relatively rare. And they’re not easy to expand — what if you need extra space? Then you move into building. This is fairly low-tech, a wood and reed hut. No joinery or carpentery necessary, just stick those timbers into the ground, hitch them together, and tie bundles of twigs over. It’s not very satisfactory however. Stand inside and you can see sky! In the Neolithic you might plaster this over with clay, but it’s not going to hold up for more than a winter.

Thatch, now, is sturdier. This roof is, I’d say, about eighteen inches thick. The thatch is bundles of reed or straw, tightly tied together and then hitched to the cross-pieces of the roof. You can see some extra bundles in the eaves there. This roof will shed water for a good five or ten years, if it’s maintained and you keep critters from nesting in it. This is skilled labor — look at that pretty edge! And here’s a shot of the underside, so you can see the wood understructure.

But for real durability, you need stone. Let’s do that next time.

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Lounging in France 13: Roofs Through Time — 6 Comments

  1. On an episode of Time Team they built a daub and wattle hut with a thatched roof. Learned that you don’t want your smoke hole dead center. The wind coming in through the leather flap of a door will fortify the fire and make it spread. Better a lot of tiny gaps in the thatching. Typical English weather the team had to take shelter inside during a brief rain storm and it worked. But all those sweaty bodies crammed together started to smell.

  2. You have to keep it up, however. Drive away birds, repair holes, keep the edges nice. And it’s difficult these days to find people who can lay thatch properly. An ordinary American asphalt shingle roof is usually warranted for 30 years, and will easily last 40 unless there’s a hailstorm or something. With no maintenance whatever!

    • My aunt lives in a thatched farm, and has done so for nearly 5 decades. When they bought it the thatch wasn’t new (at least 10 years old, from the color of the thatch in old photographs), and they never did anything to drive away birds or repair holes or do anything to the edges. After a few decades they timbered the inside of the roof over what had been the stables to stop insects from falling down from the thatch (in the living area it already was timbered on the inside when they bought it).

      The one thing they did was watch out for sparks on New Year’s Eve, when everybody (including their neighbors) sets off fireworks.

      After about 40 years the farm did catch on fire, and it needed to be almost completely rebuilt, including rethatching the roof – as a semi-historic building it needed to look the same from the outside. That roof is also expected to last at least 50 years.

  3. I stayed in a property that had a roof thatched with heather a couple of years ago. There are different styles of thatching in diferent parts of the UK depending on what material was commonly available when thatching was the common roof covering. The cottage I stayed in wass just off Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland,and belonged to the Landmark Trust who preserve interesting historic buildings as holiday lets. They also have apprenticeships to pass on the skills needed to maintain their buildings.

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