Peat Houses

Monday, October 22, 2012

As the focus on environmentally friendly, sustainable living continues to grow, earth-sheltered homes are enjoying renewed popularity. Made of concrete instead of the traditional wood, and then covered with earth to conserve energy and protect the structure and its residents from inclement weather, earth-sheltered homes are a contemporary answer to living sustainably and affordably.

To many people’s surprise, however, earth-sheltered homes have been around for thousands of years. In Canada, sod and peat houses built as far back as the 19th century remain intact and serve as examples for today’s architects and builders of naturally insulated domiciles.

For example, each year, tourists are drawn to the Addison Sod House in Saskatchewan, which was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2003, because it serves as a remarkable example of sod construction, a historic prairie settlement phenomenon that occurred throughout the tall-grass regions of the Canadian West. Earlier, in 1992, the home was designated a Provincial Heritage Property under the Heritage Property Act of Saskatchewan. James Addison, who was an expert builder, moved his family into the home in 1911, and it remains a functional home today.

Another historic sod house, or burdei, is located in the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just east of Edmonton, Alberta. Here visitors experience the fascinating history of the Ukrainian immigrants who settled in the east central region of the province in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Ukrainian Village also features a farmstead zone, one-room schoolhouse, grocery store, grain elevator, blacksmith house, churches and businesses.

Sod houses, or soddies as they were often known, frequently served as temporary dwellings for pioneers who needed shelter until they could procure lumber to build more traditional housing. Sod houses had no concrete foundation back then, of course, as earth-sheltered homes today do; rather, they took advantage of the readily available, thick-rooted prairie grass. Builders constructed walls by stacking sections or “bricks” of sod, leaving openings for doors and windows (windows were typically made of paraffin-soaked flour sacks). Roofs were constructed of hay or straw thatch, or – where wood was available – sod bricks criss-crossed over wooden poles. Interior walls were often coated with mud plaster, covered with cotton cloth and then wallpapered (usually with newspaper) to offer protection.

In spite of efforts to make these structures weather-resistant, soddie dwellers dealt with leaks whenever rains were of significant duration. Pests were an issue as well, since sod is the natural environment of mice, snakes, insects and other forms of wildlife. If not regularly maintained, sod houses often collapsed after extended exposure to the elements; those that did not were eventually abandoned and ultimately reclaimed by the earth through decades of wind and rain.

Sod structures were also constructed to house farm animals. Settlers built barns and equipment outbuildings, as well as structures for processing dairy products.

Peat houses, which are often compared to igloos for their compact form and wind resistance, differed from sod houses in that they typically had a wooden foundation. The outer surface of the structure was then coated with peat, which provided outstanding insulation to keep residents warm and safe from the elements.

In addition to offering more of the breathtaking sights that help Canada tourism thrive, sod and peat houses lend us ideas for our sustainable future. Today’s earth-sheltered homes draw from the strengths of these historic structures while improving on them through 21st century technology and engineering.


Sources: Canada’s Historic Places, Government of Alberta, Legion Magazine