Living Under the Winter Ice~

Laufas is an old turf house in Northern Iceland. There are many of these partially underground historical sod houses in Iceland. The house was built between 1866-1870 and is very large and multi-level, with one floor completely underground. In this photo you can see the sod brick construction which has withstood the test of time and Iceland’s formidable winters.

Laufas house facades are made of wood which is quite scarce in Iceland.

There are underground passages,

and underground rooms.

These houses are snug,

but quite spacious,

and not at all claustrophobic inside.

20-30 people lived in Laufas House.

The houses give one a sense of communal underground living,

that was heat efficient during Iceland’s unforgiving winters.

Laufas House was a wealthy priest’s house, and some rooms are more polished and finished than others.

This was a working farm, on a gorgeous site, with a church that was originally built in 1698.

Cheers to you from Iceland’s fascinating turf houses~

325 thoughts on “Living Under the Winter Ice~

    1. I am completely fascinated by these houses. They are similar to the sod houses in the central plains during the pioneer days in America with one major difference, many of Iceland’s houses are large, multi-dwelling, interconnected, underground homes, like small underground towns.

  1. Dear Cindy, for me these are the most intriguing images you have ever posted! I love that you have left the beaten track in Iceland and have shown us how it was in the past. I love the below- ground passages and rooms! What skilled labor went into all that! I assume they had wood fires for winter heat and the smoke rose into the small vent in the roof. Can you imagine what it was like to winter over in such houses! Thank you for revealing a way of life I had never imagined (and we have wintered in Nordic climes!). The kitchen takes me back to our time in Maine – they lived a lot on what we called “Maine meals” – everything in one pot!

    1. I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books and wanted to live in her sod house on Plum Creek, so I am fascinated by these houses. They are almost little underground towns, all the working and living aspects are partially underground with these thick, almost woven sod bricks. Only the church is completely above ground and I will post about the church later. The craftmanship and skill are evident everywhere. There is this sense of snug safety and security. Icelanders tell me people lived in winter in continual pursuit of calories. It does challenge my imagination to envision living here all winter, but I am very impressed with Icelanders and their fortitude. I am happy you share my interest in these amazing houses and the stories they tell. Be well my friend & thank you.

  2. Timothy Price

    Iceland is definitely on our list. Have you read any of the Inspector Erlander novels by Arnaldur Indridason? I imagine that was the type of house and farm Erlander grew up on from reading all the novels in the series.

      1. Timothy Price

        I think they are fantastic novels. I would recommend reading them in order. “Jar City” is the first novel in the series.

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  4. Thanks for sharing these interesting underground houses, Cindy. Personally that long dark corridor with soil between the upright posts looks positively claustrophobic. I need light. The others images which show windows and ‘normal’ walls and colourful interiors look absolutely delightful.
    Love the box (or children’s) beds.

    When I downsized my bed in 2010 to a king single, one of the first things I bought was a sort of box bed with drawers underneath and attached headboard. Can be a bit of a chore to tuck the fitted sheets under the heavy mattress though. With box beds you need a very light mattress 🙂

    1. I love box beds ever since reading Thumbelina as a child, she slept in one. The corridors are passage ways between the houses underground and they are a bit claustrophobic, but the rooms and houses feel very spacious which is odd since they are mostly underground,

  5. This post was a real eye opener for me. I had no idea what it was like in those underground places. Not much daylight, and the dark days would seem long, but everything is so well organized.

  6. It’s so beautiful…the exteriors with the lush green grass, wood, and stone. They were so clever. They look quite comfy, and cozy.

    I saw some Cave houses in France and wished I could have toured them, but they were private houses in use at the time. I imagine the premise was the same warm in the winter, and cool in the summer.

  7. Thank you, Cindy, for this visual journey through the cozy partly underground houses in Iceland. One of our sons made a car tour all around Iceland and brought home some fascinating photos and later even created a fascinating video. I am sure that my blogging friends would love to see your photos too.

  8. Reblogged this on The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Family Project and commented:
    Thank you, Cindy, for this visual journey through these cozy, partly underground houses in Iceland. One of our sons made a car tour all around Iceland and brought home some fascinating photos and later even created a fascinating video. I am sure that my blogging friends would love to see your photos too. That’s why I reblog it with your kind permission.

    1. Your son drove the wonderful ring road! Good for him. I imagine the photos are impressive. It is impossible not to take impressive photos in Iceland. Thank you for kindness and the reblog. It is thoughtful of you and most appreciated too.

  9. Wow, this is amazing! Our ancestors lived the life inextricably intertwined with nature & science, but we live with science & technology and take nature for granted.

  10. Wow, life must be so tough in those underground houses. I always thought its a wrong idea to build underground houses in cold places. You see our basements always are coldest during winter time. But there should be some explanation here too. But in any case, it’s amazing stuff. I wonder how it would look during winter!

    1. Even underground, these houses were built with thick amounts of insulation from the surrounding freeze, and there were fireplaces everywhere, but still, I think they might be cold and survivable. It is quite amazing isn’t it.

    1. Yes, I definitely think of this and compare my country unfavorably to Iceland. Iceland’s capital has a jail with a couple of cells, but, according to Icelanders, it has a dearth of business. America has the fullest jails in the world, so it is hard for me to comprehend and painful to compare. Icelanders still live in close quarters, but they are much less experienced with crime.

        1. I hope so, but, I treated domestic violence perpetrators for many, many years. We don’t know what the incidence of child abuse and spouse abuse were in those long dark winters.

  11. Fascinating, when I go back to Iceland I need to visit them too. Icelandic people did think well how to avoid those cold winters and came up with great solutions. And they look so lovely form outside too. Just imagine in Summer you say, I just go out to mow the roof…… 🙂 This is obviously a museum, do people still live in those houses though?

    1. Laughing…..They don’t need to mow their roofs, winter will do that for tham. It is amazing, isn’t it, how people step up to hardship.These houses are now all protected cultural artifacts, aka, museums. But, if I recall correctly, Laufas house, as just one example, was occupied until the late 1930’s.

  12. Cindy, utterly fascinating photos of a magical place. I have always appreciated your many photos from your travels that have shown us the intricate and opulently decorated buildings and cathedrals, but the stark beauty and perfect simplicity of these sod-covered below-ground houses are every bit as majestic as any ornate building you’ve shared. Thanks for giving us this glimpse. Best, Babsje

    1. Your comment gave me goosebumps. Is it our species amazing artistry that makes the greatest impact, or just the clever craftsmanship of long term survival, against significant odds.

      1. Hmmm good questions. I think the survival of our species from the earliest of days into, hopefully, the future is magnificent artistry and cleverness combined. Was harnessing fire clever? Making and using the first wheel? The first tools? Even birds such as crows and ravens and herons use tools. The ancient cave paintings of France and Spain are both clever and artistry. I tend to find beauty in simplicity – the Shaker and Quaker – as well as in the ornate European cathedrals that took centuries to build and decades to paint. Whatever the answer is, I was deeply moved by your post and found your exterior photos gorgeous. Thanks for making me think. Best, Babsje

    1. Yes. My house is built of everything artificial. Can you image cutting the sod, lacing it in a diamond pattern, and having it survive and still shelter, in Iceland almost 200 years later!

  13. Truly fascinating, thank you Cindy. I have seen photos of turf houses, but nothing this elaborate, and have never seen the inside. Much enjoyed this enlightening visit.

  14. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in an earth or covered home. I know they’re a great insulator from the weather, but not sure I could handle living in one. Thanks for the tour Cindy!

  15. Nancy Walker

    I am absolutely fascinated with Iceland. My friend just returned from a vacation there with his family. This post was fabulous and educational. <3 Amazing, Cindy, as always!

  16. They are really beautiful – and your photos show them well, inside and outside. Many years since we visited, so thank you for taking me again! I had forgotten much…

  17. Reallyreally interesting! But not claustraphobic? ( on the other hand, survival in such a place no doubt outweighs personal feelings) Thank you! Loved this.

    1. I don’t know why it didn’t feel claustrophobic, but it didn’t. It was like a village underground. Icelanders tell me they feel complete peace when they visit these houses and I definitely felt this too.

    1. These structures are not drafty at all and they are built below the frost line. They are snug tight and comfortable inside, mid-60’s seems right in summer. In winter with fire, I imagine they were quite comfortable. The design is so efficient. Iceland is the land of earthquakes, volcanoes and avalanches, and yet these amazing homes survive.

    1. I am so struck by the intelligent design of these underground homes. It kinda puts our modern houses to shame doesn’t it. Thank you Charles for showcasing them & cheers to you~

        1. And you are lucky to live in a photographers paradise with bears for buddies and bald eagles for neighbors. We have a mixture of lucky and unlucky things in our lives. I just ‘focus’ on the positive.

  18. such cool spaces…seems magical 💫 I’m reminded of homes created in Alberta…The Ukrainian Dug-Out Home…thatched home…of vertical poles and coated with several layers of mud plaster on the interior and the exterior.

    wonderful posts Cindy 🤓 smiles hedy ☺️

  19. Not really too many… but there are some days I’d like to bury myself in that snug environment.
    I’d prefer an isolated but adapted (with conveniences) island in a mild climate. 🙂

    Safe travels!

    1. I have no idea what it would be like to live all winter in such cold and semi-darkness. I think this is why they brought their light underground. You might like summer in Iceland where light seems ever present, but I kinda miss the dark, defining day and night. I have no idea why, or how, these people are so resilient and survived and prospered, but they did.

  20. This post is very informative. The homes are charming. But on the other hand, I felt squeezed just by looking at the indoor shots. I guess when it’s a matter of necessity, there is no room for such thing as claustrophobia. 🙂

  21. I think there is a part of this in all of us, a place where we could truly live off the land and experience time away from all the noise & activity of the ‘modern life.’ Wonderful introduction and photos, Cindy. A different view of Iceland than I have seen before.

    1. I certainly agree with you. I moved to The Holler for just this reason. At first I was uneasy with the isolation. Now what we call “civilization” makes me uncomfortable. I am quite happy with critters for neighbors. Love hearing from you Randall & thank you.

  22. I wonder why no one lives in these anymore? They are cozy and I’m claustrophobic and wonder if I could live in there. It makes sense to live somewhat under the earth to stay warm and cool. Great photos of them. An acquaintance just came back from a trip there and fell on the cobblestones the first day injuring her eye and her husband had a kidney stone episode while there. They became very familiar with the hospital system there and were quite impressed. 😉 I like your version of Iceland better. 🙂

    1. Icelanders reveal themselves when you talk to them. They are kind and hardy people, who have historically lived in circumstances that would kill most all of us. It gives them such an interesting perspective. Icelanders seem to visit the turf houses, like touchstones, to clarify who they are, and to feel a sort of peace. But you know, the lure of civilization has moved us all. TTowns have electricity, hospitals, restaurants. Few can resist this <3

  23. In the American West, those choosing to settle on the Great Plains, many of their first homes (and most of the time, their forever home) were sod homes. That’s how the term, “sodbuster”, came about. Similarly, there wasn’t much wood on the prairies. Furniture that wasn’t being used would be repurposed for structural uses like a door or window door (substitute for a glass window), or firewood of last resort. We do have it easier with modern home construction versus a turf or sod home. 🙂

      1. In the pioneer days, the women couldn’t afford to be shrinking violets. More often, they were more educated than their husbands. They were the ones who could read and write, and taught their children where there was no school. The men, a lot of manual labor, which ended up being their leading cause of death. For women, it was child birth. They were hardy stock back then. While popular media (TV, movies, dime novels) shaped our notion and perception of those days, the oral histories and personal writings are where one gets true sense of what life on the frontier was like.

  24. This looks so fascinating! Adds up one more reason to the list of ‘Why visit Iceland!”. Do you have any idea if these places are open to tourist accommodation or something? 🙂

    1. The historic, old, turf houses that are left standing, are either kept open as museums that you can tour, private property, are are not habitable. I would recommend googling a list of them and visiting them as a day tourist.

  25. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    I am catching up on posts that I missed while I was away and nothing gives me more pleasure than discovering the images captured by my favourite photographers. One of which is Cindy Knoke who travels the world with her camera. Iceland has an inhospitable landscape and climate for much of the year, but as Cindy demonstrates, there is a warm welcome underground. #recommended

  26. What an extraordinary style of living, from so many angles— architecture , structure, society, style… thanks for the tour. I am thinking what it would be like to have lived this way in that era.

  27. So amazing Cindy! Cool that they’ve been preserved and available or people to explore them. Thanks for taking us along… You are an intrepid traveler Cindy!! I’m wondering how many countries you’ve been to?! hugs!

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