How Reykjavik’s Sheet-Metal Homes Beat the Icelandic Winter

(This story is part of an ongoing series on the home designs that define cities. Read more here about iconic floor plans in Hanoi, Brussels, Athens, Sydney, Singapore, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. Follow our Storythread to have future installments delivered to your inbox.)

For the first-time visitor, Reykjavik is a surprising place. It’s not just the city’s seasonal extremes of daylight and darkness, the spectacularly changeable weather or the craggy profile of Mount Esja looming over everything. It’s also the city’s buildings.

Streets in Reykjavik’s downtown are often lined with rugged, cottage-like timber-framed houses clad top to bottom in a material that (roofs aside) is used elsewhere almost exclusively for industrial, non-domestic purposes: corrugated sheet metal. To someone used to seeing this material reserved for warehouses or farm buildings, the sight of wall after wall of crinkled iron or steel creates the impression the Icelandic capital’s heart is made up of really pretty sheds.

This reflection needn’t belittle either Reykjavik or Iceland’s built environment. The story of these so-called Icelandic ironclads, developed between 1880 and 1925, is a remarkable one of resilience and innovation in the face of difficult living conditions — one not of isolation, but of globalization. It reflects a country that has been among the world’s first to enthusiastically embrace practical new ways of building — such as using sheet metal, concrete and prefabrication — without abandoning care or charm.

This housing’s relative newness still reveals a striking factor that distinguishes Iceland from the rest of Europe: Though Iceland has been inhabited for almost 1,200 years, only a modest number of its surviving domestic buildings predate the late 19th century.

That’s partly because, as Iceland emerged from centuries of hardship, it turned its back on traditional building types associated with poverty, leaving them to deteriorate. Until the late 19th century, most Icelanders lived in turf houses. Compensating for a lack of local trees, which grow slowly in Iceland, these houses built up walls of earth and grass-growing sod around timber frames. The few remaining survivals look delightful under their coating of lush grass. To live in, they were frequently damp, dark and poorly warmed by a single kitchen hearth, while the walls needed regular repair or rebuilding to remain solid and watertight. “People think of turf houses as like regular ones but with grass-growing roofs” says Icelandic TV host, former city councilor and campaigner Gísli Marteinn, “but in fact living in one was almost like living in a hole in the ground.”

By the 19th century, the country’s tiny middle and upper class had a better, if equally unusual option. Wealthier Icelanders lived in wooden houses — but without local timber, they were often imported as kits, shipped over in pieces from elsewhere in Scandinavia then hammered together on site. This early type of prefabricated home, subsequently copied and produced within the country by Icelandic artisans, was comfortable compared to the turf houses. It still faced a specific local enemy: the Icelandic weather.

“Mostly it rains horizontally here” says Gunnthora Gudmundsdottir, a planner for the Greater Reykjavik municipality of Hafnarfjörður and former employee of Iceland’s National Heritage body. “With the wind blowing hard the rain would be thrust directly into the house’s structure, which could cause them to deteriorate and dissolve.”

A coating of tar (also imported) could help, but when Icelanders started trading with the U.K. in the 1880s, they discovered a new-fangled material that was more durable: wrought iron sheets, sealed against corrosion by dipping them in molten zinc. “The way it worked was that Icelanders would export sheep,” says Gudmundsdottir “and get corrugated iron in return. People realized quickly just how great the material was as a shelter from the wind and rain.”

These houses became the default type both in Reykjavik and elsewhere in Iceland. When the city experienced a major fire in 1915 that left metal-clad houses largely unharmed, the city made this trend into law, requiring a corrugated coating for all new houses built close together. Kept in place until the mid-1920s, this bylaw ended up giving Iceland’s capital the largest cluster of metal-clad buildings in the world.

They remain perhaps the most striking feature of central Reykjavik today, having endured partly because they suit the environment and work well as places to live. Rarely rising more than two stories above an English basement, their low height lets sun reach the streets, important in a place with long, dark winters. They are equipped with south-facing suntrap backyards wherever possible. Older houses, meanwhile, often have north-facing balconies — built on the house’s shady side to function as a sort of outdoor refrigerator for storing the household’s food. Lowish ceilings, often steeply pitched on the upper floors, help keep the houses warm. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are stuffy.

“Quite soon you realize it’s not like living in a modern apartment” says former ironclad house-dweller Marteinn. “It’s not that wind actually blows in, but they aren’t airtight. That means the air quality is fantastic compared to a modern concrete house. In Iceland, we have an abundance of cheap hot water, so people turn their heat up and have 20-minute showers every morning, and because it’s so windy people keep their windows closed. So more fully sealed mid-century houses like the one I live in now can get humid and moldy inside. You just don’t get that with the older timber houses.”

These houses also have charm. Placed vertically rather than horizontally, the attractively-textured sheet metal proved to be an excellent canvas for vibrant color. Capped with broad gables and with white window frames, houses clad like this was look inviting against grey skies and have enough variety in their plans and ornament to keep things interesting. Many earlier houses are plain, but later examples show trappings of the more elaborate “Swiss style” popular across Scandinavia around 1900 — essentially a lavish chalet-esque makeover of existing traditions that might feature hand-carved wooden trimmings, or a more self-consciously romantic roofline.

After the mid-1920s, Iceland largely gave up on this type of housing, embracing functionalist and expressionist architecture in concrete with enthusiasm — and achieving some stunning results. Entire new quarters of higher modernist villas and apartments were built, which themselves remain popular as places to live today. By the 1960s, many were keen to sweep away the city’s metal-clad houses, just as the turf houses had disappeared before them.

Moving away from the inner city’s densely built streets, Reykjavik developed into a sprawling micro-metropolis, with scattered neighborhoods, busy roads and heavy car use more akin to North America than the rest of Scandinavia. The popularity of the inner city has returned in recent years (even if the middle class has started to flee the intense touristification of Reykjavik’s downtown), rescuing the ironclads from slum status, and even making them expensive. Pressure to usurp the valuable land they inhabit for development still remains.

“There have been cases of investors buying these houses and then waiting for a time until they are beyond repair so they can be torn down,” says Gudmundsdottir. “People who love these houses have had to fight quite fiercely against an attitude that they’re just old rubbish. Attitudes have changed, however. The city has made protection stronger, and people increasingly like the fact that the atmosphere these low-rise buildings create is so friendly.”

Marteinn also notes a sea change in attitudes. “Time and time again we’ve been so ashamed of our architectural history that we’ve torn down everything that might remind us of the poverty of our past.” Now the debate has shifted — from whether or not to demolish to how to preserve most authentically.

“With the very oldest houses, people are now debating whether to keep iron cladding, which isn’t original to the house, or to remove it and paint with modern paint that can protect against the weather. Personally I’d prefer to keep them as they are — you can find wooden houses all over Scandinavia, but corrugated iron is quintessential Reykjavik.”

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