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Thatching is the craft of building a roof with dry vegetation such as straw, water reed, sedge (Cladium mariscus), rushes, or heather, layering the vegetation so as to shed water away from the inner roof. It is a very old roofing method and has been used in both tropical and temperate climates. Thatch is still employed by builders in developing countries, usually with low-cost, local vegetation. By contrast in some developed countries it is now the choice of affluent people who desire a rustic look for their home, would like a more ecologically friendly roof, or who have purchased an originally thatched abode.
Thatching methods have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation, and numerous descriptions of the materials and methods used in England over the past three centuries survive in archives and early publications.
In equatorial countries thatch is the prevalent local material for roofs, and often walls. There are diverse building techniques from the ancient Hawaiian hale shelter made from the local ti leaves, lauhala or pili grass of fan palms to the Na Bure Fijian home with layered reed walls and sugar cane leaf roofs and the Kikuyu tribal homes in Kenya.
Wild vegetation such as water reed (Phragmites australis), bulrush/cat tail (Typha spp.), broom (Cytisus scoparius), heather (Calluna vulgaris), and rushes (Juncus spp. and Schoenoplectus lacustris) was probably used to cover shelters and primitive dwellings in Europe in the late Palaeolithic period, but so far no direct archaeological evidence for this has been recovered. Straw probably began to be used in the Neolithic period when people first began to grow cereals, but once again no direct archaeological evidence of the use of straw for thatching survives in Europe prior to the early medieval period.[page needed]
Some groups of native peoples in the New World lived in thatched buildings, but most tribes lived in structures roofed with bark or skin. French and British settlers built temporary thatched dwellings with local vegetation as soon as they arrived in New France and New England, but covered the more permanent homes they soon built with wooden shingles.
In most of Europe and the UK, thatch remained the only roofing material available to the bulk of the population in the countryside, in many towns and villages, until the late 1800s. The commercial production of Welsh slate had begun in 1820 and the mobility which the canals and then the railways made possible meant that other materials became readily available. Still, the number of thatched properties actually increased in the UK during the mid-1800s as agriculture expanded, but then declined again at the end of the 19th century because of agricultural recession and rural depopulation. Gradually, thatch became a mark of poverty and the number of thatched properties gradually declined, as did the number of professional thatchers. Thatch has become much more popular in the UK over the past 30 years, and is now a symbol of wealth rather than poverty. There are approximately 1,000 full-time thatchers at work in the UK, and thatching is becoming popular again because of the renewed interest in preserving historic buildings and using more sustainable building materials.
Thatching by hay for making Pandals at Kolkata.
Although thatch is popular in Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Ireland, there are more thatched roofs in the United Kingdom than in any other European country. Good quality straw thatch can last for more than 50 years when applied by a skilled thatcher. Traditionally, a new layer of straw was simply applied over the weathered surface, and this ‘spar coating’ tradition has created accumulations of thatch over 7’ (2.1 m) thick on very old buildings. The straw is bundled into 'yelms' before it is taken up to the roof and then is attached using staples, known as 'spars', made from twisted hazel sticks. Over 250 roofs in Southern England have base coats of thatch that were applied over 500 years ago, providing direct evidence of the types of materials that were used for thatching in the medieval period.[page needed] Almost all of these roofs are thatched with wheat, rye, or a 'maslin' mixture of both. Medieval wheat grew to almost 6 feet (1.8 m) tall in very poor soils and produced durable straw for the roof and grain for baking bread.
Technological change in the farming industry has had a significant impact on the popularity of thatching. The availability of good quality thatching straw declined in England after the introduction of the combine harvester in the late 1930s and 1940s, and the release of short-stemmed wheat varieties. The increasing use of nitrogen fertiliser in the 1960s–70s also weakened straw and reduced its longevity. Since the 1980s, however, there has been a big increase in straw quality as specialist growers have returned to growing older, tall-stemmed, 'heritage' varieties of wheat such as Squareheads Master (1880), N59 (1959), Rampton Rivet (1937), Victor (1910) and April Bearded (early 1800s)] in low input/organic conditions.
In the EU it is illegal under the Plant Variety and Seeds Act 1964 (with many amendments) for an individual or organisation to give, trade or sell seed of an older variety of wheat (or any other agricultural crop) to a third party for growing purposes, subject to a significant fine. Because of this legislation, thatchers in the UK can no longer obtain top quality thatching straw grown from traditional, tall-stemmed varieties of wheat.
All of the evidence indicates that water reed was rarely used for thatching outside of East Anglia. It has traditionally been a 'one coat' material applied in a similar way to how it is used in continental Europe — weathered reed is usually stripped and replaced by a new layer. It takes 4–5 acres of well-managed reed bed to produce enough reed to thatch an average house, and large reed beds have been uncommon in most of England since the Anglo-Saxon period. Over 80% of the water reed used in the UK is now imported from Turkey, Eastern Europe, China and South Africa. Although water reed might last for 50 years or more on a steep roof in a dry climate, modern imported water reed on an average roof in England will not last any longer than good quality wheat straw. The lifespan of a thatched roof is also dependent on the skill of the thatcher, but other factors need to be taken into account, such as climate, quality of the materials used, and the pitch of the roof.
In areas where palms are abundant, palm leaves are used to thatch walls and roofs. Many species of palm trees are called "thatch palm", or have "thatch" as part of their common names. In the southeastern United States, Indian and pioneer houses were often constructed of palmetto-leaf thatch. The chickees of the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians are still thatched with palmetto leaves.
Good thatch will not require frequent maintenance. In England a ridge will normally last 8–14 years, and re-ridging will be required several times during the lifespan of a thatch. Covering thatch with wire netting is no longer recommended, as this will slow evaporation and reduce its longevity. Moss can be a problem if it is very thick, but is not usually detrimental, and many species of moss are actually protective.
The Thatcher's Craft, 1960 remains the most widely used reference book on the techniques used for thatching. The thickness of a layer of thatch decreases over time as the surface gradually turns to compost and is blown off the roof by wind and rain. A thatched roof can be thought to be nearing replacement when the horizontal wooden 'sways' and hair-pin 'spars', also known as 'gads'(twisted hazel 'staples') that fix each course become visible near the surface. It is not total depth of the thatch within a new layer applied to a new roof that will determine its longevity, but rather how much weathering thatch covers the fixings of every overlapping course. “A roof is as good as the amount of correctly laid thatch covering the fixings.”
Thatch is not as flammable as many people believe and burns slowly 'like a closed book'. The vast majority of fires are linked to the use of wood burners and faulty chimneys with degraded or poorly inserted or maintained flues. Sparks from paper or burned rubbish can ignite dry thatch on the surface around a chimney. Fires can also begin when sparks or flames work their way through a degraded chimney and ignite the surrounding semi-charred thatch. This can be avoided by ensuring that the chimney is in good condition, which may involve stripping thatch immediately surrounding the chimney to the full depth of the stack. This can easily be done without stripping thatch over the entire roof. Insurance premiums on thatched houses are higher than average in part because of the perception that thatched roofs are a fire hazard, but also because a thatch fire can cause extensive smoke damage and a thatched roof is more expensive to replace than a standard tiled/slate roof. Workmen should never be allowed to use an open flame near thatch, and nothing should be burnt that could fly up the chimney and ignite the surface of the thatch. Spark arrestors usually cause more damage than good as they are easily blocked and reduce air flow. All thatched roofs should have smoke detectors in the roof space. A spray-on fire retardant or pressure impregnated fire retardants are available to reduce the spread of flame and radiated heat output, but are not a substitute for common sense and fire prevention planning.
On new buildings a solid fire retardant barrier can be applied over the rafters making the thatch sacrificial in case of fire. If fireboards are used, it is essential that a ventilation gap be left between the boarding and the thatch so that the roof can 'breathe', as condensation can be a significant problem in thin, single layer thatch. Condensation is much less of a problem on thick straw roofs, which also provide much better insulation since they do not need to be ventilated.
Thatch has some natural properties that are advantageous to its performance. It is naturally weather-resistant,and when properly maintained does not absorb a lot of water. There should not be a significant increase to roof weight due to water retention. A roof pitch of at least 50 degrees allows precipitation to travel quickly down slope so that it runs off the roof before it can penetrate the structure.
Thatch is also a natural insulator, and air pockets within straw thatch insulate a building in both warm and cold weather. A thatched roof will ensure that a building will be cool in summer and warm in winter.
Thatch also has very good resistance to wind damage when applied correctly.
Thatching materials range from plains grasses to waterproof leaves found in equatorial regions. It is the most common roofing material in the world, because the materials are readily available.
Because thatch is lighter, less timber is required in the roof that supports it.
Thatch is a versatile material when it comes to covering irregular roof structures. This fact lends itself to the use of second-hand, recycled and natural materials that are not only more sustainable, but need not fit exact standard dimensions to perform well.
Thatched houses are harder to insure because of the perceived fire risk, and because thatching is labour intensive it is much more expensive to thatch a roof than to cover it with slate or tiles. Birds can damage a roof while they are foraging for grubs, and rodents are attracted by residual grain in straw.
Thatch has fallen out of favour in much of the industrialised world not because of fire, but because thatching has become very expensive and alternative 'hard' materials are cheaper — but this situation is slowly changing. There are about 60,000 thatched roofs in the UK and many more are being built every year.
New thatched roofs were forbidden in London by the Normans in the 12th century, and existing roofs had to have their surfaces plastered to reduce the risk of fire. The Great Fire of London in 1666 had nothing to do with thatch. The modern Globe Theatre is one of the few thatched buildings in London (others can be found in the suburb of Kingsbury), but the Globe's modern, water reed thatch is purely for decorative purpose and actually lies over a fully waterproofed roof built with modern materials. The Globe Theatre, opened in 1997, was modelled on the Rose which was destroyed by a fire on a dry June night in 1613 when a burning wad of cloth ejected from a special effects cannon during a performance set light to the surface of the thatch. The original Rose theatre was actually thatched with cereal straw, a sample of which was recovered by Museum of London archaeologists during the excavation of the site in the 1980s.
It is claimed that thatch cannot cope with regular snowfall but, as with all roofing materials, this depends on the strength of the underlying roof structure and the pitch of the surface. A law passed in 1640 in Massachusetts outlawed the use of thatched roofs in the colony for this reason. Thatch is lighter than most other roofing materials, typically around 7 lb per square foot, so the roof supporting it does not need to be so heavily constructed, but if snow is allowed to accumulate on a lightly constructed thatched roof it could collapse. A thatched roof is usually pitched between 45–55 degrees and under normal circumstances this is sufficient to shed snow and water. In areas of extreme snowfall, such as parts of Japan, the pitch is increased further.
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