Reed as building material –
renaissance of vernacular
Ferenc Zámolyi, Technical University Vienna, Vienna, Austria; Ulrike Herbig, Vienna University of Technology, Vienna,
Keywords: vernacular, traditional building techniques
Reed and grass are widely used in many traditional building cultures all over the world. They are easy availability and
good material properties have made them a popular component in roof, wall and other constructional parts of houses.
In some areas whole buildings are built out of reed, and in other areas again it is used in combination with a variety of
other, mostly natural, building materials. After presenting different examples of the use of this special material from Oce-
ania, Asia, Africa and America, we will focus on the harvest, processing and use of reed in the middle-European region.
The use of reed in traditional architecture is mostly connected with the lowland regions of Europe, as in mountainous
areas wood as construction material and especially wooden shingles as thatching were always given advantage over
the slightly more ephemeral reed. Also the fact that in mountain areas less reed is available and in the lowlands wood is
scarce led to the evolution of a very typical appearance of lowland villages with reed thatched houses.
It is important to note, that according to availability of reed and peculiarities of agricultural production, in some areas
rye straw could even be more important than reed. Usually in more hilly and mountainous areas rye straw was more
easily available. However, with the introduction of mechanised harvest processing the resulting rye straw was not of
good quality anymore, and therefore from the beginning of the 19th century reed was the only organic thatch alternative.
Especially in the Carpathian basin and around Lake Neusiedl the use of reed has a long tradition. This tradition contin-
ues until present day, albeit on smaller dimensions and somewhat transformed compared to the „ethnographical” past,
when only natural materials were used in rural architecture.
attracted to the peculiar appearance of the more traditional material, and commission the use on newly built houses.
In some special areas, which are under cultural heritage protection, only the use of this traditional material is allowed.
Even so, the total number of buildings with reed roofs has decreased to a small amount, which means, that there are
only a few craftsmen left, who are still adept in reed thatching techniques. One aim of our research was to get an insight
into the working procedure of these craftsmen.
Interestingly the modern building industry also uses a number of products manufactured out of reed – usually they are
used as composites in combination with other building materials – reed mats as reinforcement under plaster layers or
to enhance insulation properties.
As Lake Neusiedl is not only a local, but also a major source of reed for the middle-European region (a substantial part
of the harvest is exported to the Netherlands and Germany) the traditional and present use of reed as building material
in its surrounding is worth to be studied more thoroughly.
In: Csaplovics, E., Schmidt, J. (eds.) (2011): International Symposium on advanced methods of monitor-
ing reed habitats , Rhombos Verlag Berlin. pp. 83- 108.
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
1 Organic Thatch
The use of plant parts as materials to cover the roof of buildings is widespread in traditional architecture all around the
covered by some kind of grass or leaves. This means the building techniques we will examine in this article are as old
as the house and human habitation itself and have evolved therefore over extremely long periods of time. So there
must have been many occasions and possibilities for the emergence of different techniques and certain variations in
techniques which involve grasses. These building procedures also have not altered much during the changes which
occurred in building industry during the last 100 to 200 years (and presumably did not alter too much before).
In fact we can state, that the use of plants and especially grasses as thatching is still a technique, which can be applied
even to modern houses and which only evolved a few variants during its extremely long history. Moreover methods in
different geographical regions seem to be similar. This suggests, that the function (protection against wind, rain and
very limited amount of processing techniques (in contrast for example to wooden constructive connections, where a high
number of varieties of wooden joints are known).
Apart from wooden shingles (which we will not consider here) there are following thatching techniques involving plant
- use of branches with leaves (e.g.: palm leaves all over the tropics, special tree leaves on Fiji)
- use of leaves only (e.g.: screw pine in Oceania), Banana leaves in Ethiopia
- use of grasses:
Apart from the widespread use of palm leaves for cheap and short-lived roof thatch all over tropical regions of the world,
species thriving in water, commonly referred to as some kind of “reed”.
However, this structure is completely differing from other grass thatching techniques.
Also of special interest is the fact, that reed (especially papyrus in Egypt and Iraq) is sometimes not only used as roof
covering, but also in limited ways as structural, load bearing member in (quite large) huts or in case of walls and fences.
The use of rye straw was very widespread in Europe before the appearance of threshing machines, but with commenc-
ing modernisation in agriculture and changing rye cultivars no suitable raw material was available any more. Although
from time to time initiatives are started which involve the sowing and hand-threshing of old cultivars of rye the produced
Fig. 1 House with palm leaf thatch, Samoa Islands. The building has no wall, only plaited screw pine mats, which can be lowered if
it is raining, 2002.
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
material is used for the maintenance of one or two historical buildings only. Contrary to reed thatching, which has been
able to hold on to a certain (albeit limited) importance and market in modern building industry, rye thatch can be regard-
ed today as a purely historical phenomenon.
2 Problematic structural Parts of roofs and measures to prevent the damage
of roof structure
In the course of this paper we would like to give different examples, how organic thatch and especially grass and reed
are used in traditional building culture all over the world. To be able to understand the peculiarities of each structure,
thatching material and its application, it is important to have some background information on basic principles of roof
Every kind of thatch (with very few exceptions as we will see) is applied to a roof in a way, that those parts which are
positioned higher up the roof slope cover those which are further down, shielding them from as much rainwater as pos-
sible. Usually there is also a considerable overlap between these parts. Therefore thatching activities always start from
or leaves there is also a displacement of each following layer by half a unit. This measure is also essential to produce
a more rain-proof cover.
The pitch of the roof is also used to reach rain proof conditions: The pitch of houses with reed cover can be lower than
the roof-pitch of buildings covered with treaded straw, where qualities of water drainage are inferior to that of reed.
The ridge part of the roof is especially prone to damage by wind and weather and is usually in every geographical
region reinforced by special means. These special measures very often are executed with care and emphasis, and in
very many cases the practical structure starts to be utilised for ornamental and symbolic reasons. As soon as there is a
deeper meaning attached to these (now usually already very decorative) rooftops, legends and stories are linked to it,
and it is integrated as an essential part in the identity of a traditional house in the mind of the people.
areas are usually very important in giving a house the qualities of a “traditional” building.
kinds of roofs (e.g. treaded rye straw roofs and reed roofs). Not only wind and weather cause and caused damage to
and to protect the roof against sparks different measures where taken:
enough not to be dangerous for the wooden structure and the organic thatch. Moreover soot layers, which are adsorbed
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
In case there is a ceiling usually some kind of rudimentary chimney is built - in very archaic cases this chimney leads
only into the attic, where there is usually a plate or a structural part of the chimney to direct sparks away from the thatch
to the inner void of the attic. The smoke leaves through small openings on one end of the roof or the gable wall. The most
recent development was the installation of chimneys, which penetrate the thatch - in this case care had to be taken to
execute the construction detail properly, as otherwise either rain would drain in the gaps between thatch and chimney,
or the thatch itself would be in danger of burning as a consequence of too high chimney-temperatures.
and the people’s belongings were lost, so the pulling down of the thatched areas with hooks was preferred to attempts
To secure the possibility of escape from houses with large thatched roofs, constructive measures where sometimes
escaping person was hit by or buried below the thatch.
3 The tropical parts of Asia and Oceania - a broad variety in Materials
The tropical regions offer maybe the broadest selection of organic materials to be used as roof thatch. The mainland
but nevertheless fertile islands are an environment abundant with wood and different types of grass. Usually the basic
structure of houses consists of wooden frames; sometimes even bamboo is used as load-bearing construction material.
In many cases rafters and other important roof parts are also made of round bamboo sticks. Sometimes an airily woven
3.1 Palm leaves and bres, Screw pine leaves
Different kinds of palms are a very important source of drink, food, rope, household utensils (bowls, etc) and building
material in the tropics. In some areas whole economies are based on certain kinds of palm trees (the coconut palm in
Oceania, the lontar-palm in Eastern Indonesia, the sago-palm in Borneo). It can be said, that they provide an essential
part of the necessities needed for livelihood, and that without these plants the settlement of certain regions would have
ally as a short-lived alternative if reed or other grasses are not available.
While grass thatches last for quite a long time even under tropical conditions (20-30 years), palm leaf thatch is usually
more short-lived (3-10 years) and used for more temporary constructions (small huts, etc). However, as palms are grown
in nearly every garden and settlement there is plenty of material available nearby – it is easy to gather and abundant.
To preserve palm thatch, in Indonesia nipa (Nypa fructicans) or rumbia (Metroxylon sagu) palm fronds are soaked in
water until turning sour, afterwards dried and cured over smoke before applying them in construction (-
are plaited together.
lasting. It is used especially on the island of Bali, where houses and even temple roofs are covered by it, and it is said
to be the best available material for this purpose. Alang-alang is regarded as second best material, which is a kind of
grass. Ijuk is also used on the famous houses of the Minangkabau in Sumatra, with their upwards-curved gables. Latter
thatch is said to last 100 years.
3.2 Tree leaves
The covering of houses with material taken from trees is most unusual, as when twigs are broken off from the plant, the
leaves fall off after some time. This is the case with almost every tree species (palm trees have been discussed in the
former section, as their leaves differ completely from those of usual trees). Interestingly the only tree specie known to
us, who retains its leaves after branches are broken off and can be therefore used in traditional building culture, is Atuna
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
racemosa, called “makita” by its local Fijian name. It can be found from Malaysia to the Caroline Islands, Fiji, Tonga and
seeds of this tree are used in scenting coconut oil (a practice also existent on Fiji). It grows 5 to 20 m high, with leaves
10 - 35 cm long and 2,5 – 13 cm broad .
thatching material. The houses are built of wooden posts dug into the earth, on top of this wall frame a hipped roof is
constructed. On the rafters a layer of woven bamboo is installed. These mats are composed of split and hammered
eaves and is secured by a stick (“nakawi”), which is cut from guave-wood. The nakawi-stick is sewn to the substructure
with a kind of liana (“vau”). Two men are executing the process - one stands on the inside, the other is sewing from the
outside. Sometimes also walls of a house are thatched. In the mountain regions this extra thatch, if present, is usually
executed as a thick layer against the relatively cold conditions during nighttime. In coastal regions walls are thatched in
much thinner layers ().
with watigiri-lianas, incorporating also the trunks of tree-ferns (“balabala” - Cyathea lunulata ) on each side of the ridge.
These trunks protrude from the ends of the roof to some extent, giving the roof a special, easily recognisable shape.
These fern trunks strengthen the uppermost ridge. It can be said, that the most typical feature of a Fiji house is this spe-
cial treatment of the ridge - it has become the “hallmark” of the architecture of these islands. Roofs thatched with reed
are said to last 10 years without repair, roofs made of grasses last considerably shorter.
In the coastal regions of Fiji sometimes sugarcane leaves (“duruka”) have been used as thatching material. The leaves
are utilised separately from the stem, folded and stuck together on a short length of bamboo or reed. In this way they
form “shingles” which are applied mostly to ridge regions. On roof regions not exposed to wind and weather sago-palm
leaves were used in the same way, stuck together on reed as shingles of 1,5 m length (“bati-ni-sogo”). In ethnographic
literature the lifetime of such a house (if smoked properly) is given with 20 years. We believe this might include also
started after a few (2-3) years. It may also be, that the comparably short lasting time given for reed thatch in the highland
areas of Fiji by informants (Navala village, Viti Levu) is on one hand due to the fact, that in the living houses no open
humidity of the geographic region can vary within the tropics also considerably and alter these estimates (for example
some Indonesian Islands like Timor do have much drier climates than Oceanian Islands).
In most parts of Indonesia the climate is also humid, comparable to that of Oceania, with the exception of Lombok,
Flores, Timor and a few other Islands clustered around or in between these mentioned ones. Sumatra, Java, Borneo
Fig. 3 Fijian house with characteristic roof shape and thatched walls, Navala, Viti Levu, Fiji Islands, 2002.
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
and Sulawesi have no real dry season, whereas the islands around Timor and Flores do possess a few months with very
of materials. In Indonesia, contrasting to Oceania, where reed is frequently used, the preference seems to be towards
grasses, namely the alang-alang (Imperata cylindrica), which is used more often than any other material. Alternatives
are the already mentioned palm leafs of different palm species, usually called “atap” (atap is also an Indonesian word
referring to the roof as a whole) or the more expensive, rare (and therefore seldom used) but longer lasting sugar palm
The lifetime of houses lasts from over 100 years in Borneo, where large long-houses built with ironwood piles and iron-
wood shingles have an extreme long durability, to small houses built of bamboo and palm leaves with a durability of only
where in the middle, with alang-alang roofs to be changed in 10 - 15 years and palm leaf roofs lasting approximately 3
years. Although the substructure of these houses made of bamboo and comparably small palmwood posts may not have
a very high material quality, they might quite well be a representative example for the average lifetime and durability of
trunks and possessing thick layers of thatch. However, also in these cases usually the wooden substructure is lasting
quite a long time, the thatch has to be renewed more often.
adays even small pieces of corrugated iron are applied to the area in question and often secured by wood pieces joined
at the ridge. These wooden parts are lying on the upper part of the roof, holding it down by their own weight. Sometimes
they are also projecting over the ridge (e.g. Mentawai), in this case the upper ends can be decorated (similar practices
ala Village, Viti Levu, Fiji Islands, 2002.
Fig. 5 Re-thatching of a rooftop on Fiji. The ridge
is secured with lianas. Navala Village, Viti Levu, Fiji
Fig. 6 House on Adonara Island, Indonesia (Lowobunga Village). The roof is thatched with alang-alang grass, its upper part made
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
are known also in Europe). In Timor and the Islands of Adonara, Solor and Lembata for the same purpose the ribs of
large palm leaves are used.
On Adonara also another treatment of the ridge is known: here extra thatch is applied, and into the ridge purlin vertical
short vertical pieces of bamboo are attached to the ends of the stakes protruding from the bamboo cane. The ridge is
side of the house), giving a marked contrast to the tapering roof below. Interestingly this again seems to be regarded as
an essential feature of this local architectural form, as houses possessing corrugated iron roof are given the same roof
roof completely. Experimentation with roof forms is a typical feature of traditional architecture in Indonesia, and also
fact that in many areas the wall is hardly to be noticed compared to the giant bulk of the roof. In the Timor highlands the
The application of thatch material is similar to other areas of the world, layers of grass are held down by bamboo or
Fig. 7: Schematic roof structure of a house on Adonara Island, Indonesia.
Fig. 8: The roof ridge is heightened and different structural
elements are giv-en a decorative appearance. Koli Vil-lage,
Adonara Island, Indonesia, 2005.
a strenghthened roof ridge like the traditional thatched roof, the
form is not only rebuilt in the modern material, but also made
more prominent by enlarging the proportions somewhat. Bungala-
wan Village, Adonara Island, Indonesia, 2005.
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
sticks and tied to laths, or even the rafters. In the case of small houses of the Atoni on Timor, alang-alang grass thatch
is directly bound to the round, basket-like substructure made out of rather small sticks. The Balinese in comparison wind
the alang-alang onto a rib of a coconut-palm-leaf and secure it then with a lashing. The whole rib is then attached on
the roof, in much the same way, than the shingles of sago-palm leaves in Fiji. These elements are always bound to their
substructure, never attached with nails or screws, what maybe a modern European carpenter would suggest. For one
reason iron nails (although easily available) are still too expensive in many areas to be used on large scale, on the other
hand in Southeast Asia there is no real tradition of employing wooden nails in house building, which can be said seems
to be a purely European tradition (albeit already originating from the iron age). The availability of a wide range of organic
binding materials facilitated the use of bindings and lashings, and especially in areas (e.g. Oceania) where iron tools are
a comparably recent introduction; they are also the more economical joining technique of structural parts within a house.
Although Java and Bali are regions within Indonesia of intensive rice production, the use of rice straw as thatch is very
research or whether in reality rice straw is seldom used. Of course, as alang-alang grass has very good thatch qualities,
and grows excessively everywhere (often being already regarded as nuisance and a pest plant) this could explain why
rice straw is not used (Rice straw has adequate qualities as a thatching material, as it is also used outside of Indonesia,
e.g. in certain parts of Iran as an important thatching material.). This situation would then be quite the reverse than the
situation which existed in Europe a hundred years ago: In Europe rye straw, a bye-product of agricultural production was
often preferred to reed, the thatch material which could be obtained from nature. In Indonesia it seems that a natural
grass is preferred to the agricultural product.
4 Egypt and Mesopotamia
The use of reed in Mesopotamia and Egypt differs completely from tropical countries: Whereas in South-East Asia and
Oceania the material is used with a few exceptions as thatch, the availability of the larger papyrus-reed in Egypt and
the lack of wood condition its much wider use. Not only the whole outer skin of early Egyptian huts is made of reed
mats, but also fences and walls (albeit not necessarily load bearing ones) are made from reed (). The
formal appearance of these fences, to which later on in their evolution a coating of mud is applied will eventually also
structural part of quite large huts. Their layout is similar to the early Egyptian buildings, but instead of a wood latticework
substructure reed canes bound together in sheafs are used to form arches and pillars giving stability to the building.
This technique was not only used in ancient Mesopotamia (as pictograms in archaeological record clearly show) but has
survived in southern Iraq until recent times as a form of vernacular architecture ().
temples did not differ much from the huts common people lived in, and thus from general built forms. In the traditional
differ from common living houses. As a second step special attributes are applied to them. They are placed on higher
elevated platforms, are better decorated or given larger dimensions than usual building. However, while the quality of
Fig. 10: The roof ridge is not only given extra layers of thatch, but
this extra thatch is some-times secured by either pieces of wood,
or as in this case by interlocking palm leaf ribs. House of the Tetum
tribe, south of Atambua, Central Timor, Indonesia, 2005.
Fig. 11: The roof determines the house shape, walls and stilts
are completely hidden under it. Bunaq tribe, east of Atambua,
Central Timor, Indonesia, 2005.
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
built structure is higher than of other houses, the form tends to be more conservative. So while the form of living houses
is changing, temples usually more truly preserve aspects of their original shape and form. However, architecture moved
on, but preserved the archaic from as the written “idea” of the ancient religious building.
The hieroglyph of the upper Egyptian kingdom’s temple shows in fact a domed reed hut and the hieroglyph of the lower
Egyptian kingdom’s sanctuary a barrel vaulted rectangular house covered with reed mats (). It is inter-
esting to note, that the Afar, a nomad tribe living in Ethiopia’s Danakil desert and claiming descent from the people of
ancient Egypt also live in half-domed huts possessing a frame made of wooden sticks (not unlike the substructure of
ancient Egyptian huts, albeit much smaller). These huts are also covered with mats. These mats are made not of reed,
but of the leaves of a special palm.
Of course similarities may result from pure coincidence and the relation to Egypt may be a story only, but it proves the
fact that this kind of construction was and is known in a larger area of Africa. Considering the data from Mesopotamia
we can state, a kind of building type with sticks as substructure and palm or reed mats as covering was quite frequent in
or marshes) it tended to replace wood as load-bearing structure and people ended up with huts (often of considerable
terial, but forms also the load-bearing structure (after LEHNER
Fig. 15: Reconstruction of the archaic Egyptian shrine utilising
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
5 South America - Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountain range is the largest lake in South America and also to be found on a relatively high
for a defensive purpose. Everything built on these Islands has to be of course a lightweight construction, so the houses
consist of a wooden frame (made up of small wooden beams and posts) and a covering of reed mats. It is interesting to
note, that both walls and roof are made with reed mats and the roof is never thatched in a conventional way. However
as everywhere in developing countries, corrugated iron roofs have started to be used to some extent.
Fig. 16: Archaic Egyptian wattle building and its restored perspec-
Fig. 17: Substructure of a Somali hut in Ethiopia with-
structions of the Afar mentioned in the text. Note the similarities to
University of Addis Ababa, Donat, D., 2010).
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
6 Historical European Traditions - Reed
where around 30 m long and approximately 8 m wide, possessing a frame of massive wooden posts sunk into the earth.
The walls consisted of wooden boards split by stone tools. We can assume that as thatch material reed was used. How-
level” direct evidence of details of roof construction is missing.
In a German settlement from the 2nd - 3rd century AD reconstructed at the Museum of Elsarn in Lower Austria the main
building possesses a reed roof, smaller buildings are built with rye-straw roofs. According to the archaeologists opinion
at this time the use of rye-straw as thatch was already quite common. ()
Houses with reed thatch from the middle ages have been reconstructed at the open-air museum at Museumsdorf Düp-
Apart from use as thatch proper on house roofs there are many examples of more archaic utilisation of reed. During and
the 16th to 19th century also there were no regulation measures, cutting river bends and also no drainage of swamps.
Large marshy areas with reed growing nearly everywhere were quite common, and as trees and forests were rare on
These shelters were usually for temporal use (as the cattle had to be moved frequently) and were erected with little
expenditure in energy and effort. Usually a reed hut for the herdsmen was built, with a U-shaped reed fence (“vasaló”)
area were meals were cooked and everyday life could take place. The main purpose was the protection against wind.
In the case of the cattle also the protection against strong wind was essential, but also shade and protection against the
four “wings” radiated in different directions. These directions were chosen in accordance to the main wind directions. So
depending on the weather and the prevailing winds the cattle had always a protected area. In winter a closed, circular
coral was build, also out of reed ().
If we examine German traditions in the 18th - 19th century (today this region being one of the largest importers of reed of
the Lake Neusiedl area) - rye straw and reed have been historically both viable alternatives. The techniques are quite
similar - they can be applied to the same substructure and the material used depends on which one can be afforded or
stems or laths. Sewing the thatch to the laths is a technique encountered more and more often from the 17th century on,
as coconut ropes were available through the intensifying sea trade. These ropes are especially well suited for binding
Fig. 20: A reconstruction of a German house from the 3rd century AD, open-air muse-um Elsarn, Lower Austria.
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
Typical for the German areas are often big roofs (as stables, living quarters, grain storage and work area are often
combined in one large house - e.g. the Hallenhaus type) (). As there are such large amounts of thatch
tremely dense heath turf which is cut out in tiles and placed on top of the roof. As one of these tiles weighs around 35
process (). However, usually nobody knows the original meaning of the word any more. Another way to
protect the upper region of the roof is to apply an extra amount of thatch and secure it with two wooden members joined
at the ridge. These wooden parts are called “angelische Reiter” as they sit like they would ride on top of the roof, the
term “angelisch” refers to the geographical area they are used in northern Germany. A third alternative was to apply a
special kind of thatch to the upper region, which consisted of heath plants and herbs. Today a net is used, below which
the plants are densely stuffed, forming a thick protecting “cushion” on top of the building.
On the roof ridges employing turf also some plants could thrive, and the “Dachkrut” (Sempervivum tectorum), was
regarded in folk wisdom as auspicious, and called “Donarbart” referring to the beard of the thundergod Donar. It was
after BALASSA (1980)).
struc-tion as a shelter against wind for herdsmen. It was also
used as a cooking place and for storage of equip-ment and
utensils (after BÁRTH (1982)).
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
believed, that a house, which possessed these plants, was not struck by lightning.
buildings with saddle roofs predominate. The thatch is interestingly not made out of reed, but of reedmace (bulrush,
lat. Typha) (). This and some rare examples in the Carpathian basin are the only cases known to us
in European context were this plant is used as thatch proper. Usually it is processed to ropes and used to tie down the
reed covering the roof.
If we turn to traditions in the Carpathian basin in the 18th - 19th century, we will notice that building types are quite different
from those in Germany.
where rather small with two or three rooms (usually front room - kitchen - back room) and stables, storage rooms and
workshops built behind the back room as annexes in the longitudinal house axis. Also an open porch with pillars on one
In the plains (and of course also in the area of Lake Neusiedl) reed was used as thatch, as rye was not a common crop.
As wheat-straw (wheat was mainly cultivated) was not suitable for thatch and reed available anyways in abundance due
to large marshy areas and unregulated rivers, it was only natural to use it extensively.
The thatch was held down by sticks, which in turn where bound to the battens below, a technique we already have en-
countered. Sometimes also ropes wound out of the leaves of the reedmace where used, either to bind down the sticks
or to sew the reed directly to the battens. The areas near the roof ridge where also protected in special ways: either
Fig. 25: House in northern Germany possesing a “Friesengie-
bel”, to ensure a safe escape and protection against burning
Fig. 26: “Angelische Reiter” – pieces of wood to secure the
roof ridge. (after SEIDEL (2007))
Fig. 27: “Dachkrut” or “Donarbart” thriving on a roof ridge. It was
believed, that the plant provided protection for the house. The
term “Donarbart” is an explicit reference to the (red) beard of the
mythological thunder-god Donar. (after SEIDEL (2007))
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
the reed thatch was made stronger, with extra layers, or tiles where used to cover this area. Sometimes also wooden
battens where applied over the reed thatch to hold it down, or pieces of wood connected by a wooden nail on the ridge.
This method is very similar to the „angelische Reiter” in the German areas, although the wooden parts extend only a
little bit over the ridge.
7 Historical European Tradition - (Rye) straw
As rye straw was cultivated extensively in the more mountainous and more northerly regions of Europe, it is only natu-
thatch, and also the way how it is applied, is sometimes quite similar. Usually winter-rye was used (planted in autumn)
as it was stronger, and a variety with durable, long stalks where favoured. The rye was processed by hand, cautiously
threshed, not to break the stalks. Afterwards it was combed and bundled. With the advent of modern harvesting and
threshing machines and the change of the cultivated varieties the era of the rye straw roof ended abruptly, as the new
methods of cultivation produced no strong stalked rye, and during the harvesting process the stalks were broken any-
way, which resulted in material completely unusable for building purposes.
case of stables, where straw was at hand anyway. This kind of roof was called in the Hungarian areas „beetleback roof”
bricks tied to their ends and were placed across the ridge.
Another way of applying the straw was the so-called „trodden straw roof”. In this case a rather steep roof structure was
erected, with wooden sticks and nails protruding perpendicular to the roof plane. The straw was placed on this substruc-
by the wooden sticks mentioned above. Wooden poles connected by rope and hung on both side of the ridge weighted
In certain areas rye was used exactly the same way like reed, in the Carpathian basin these were mostly areas were
lowland regions with plenty reed changed to more mountainous landscape, where rye was the main cultivar. This
distributed in each thatching layer.
However, there are also other techniques, in which rye-straw bundles are tied down directly to the battens with a rope
wound from the same rye straw. We encountered a similar reed processing method in Germany becoming increasingly
popular from the 17thth century on in the area of the
Carpathian basin. However we can assume that similar methods existed even before this date. The techniques currently
used in the Carpathian basin area seem to have originated from German speaking areas, as for example the Hungarian
Fig. 28: House in the protected heritage part of the town Csongrad,
south - east Hungary. It is a good example of the Hungarian plains
the roof is secured with wooden boards and pieces of wood joined at
the ridge. (2003)
Lake Neusiedl area. Note the double layers in the ridge region
and the braiding on the roof top. (Sopron, 2008)
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
„Schab – Deckung”). Several varieties of this method are known, the main differences being whether one sheaf of rye
is used as a single bundle or split in to several smaller bundles while „sewing” and binding it on the battens. This results
ridges are always treated specially. Usually an extra layer of rye is applied, at the endpoints of a roof specially braided
ornaments are put up. These are sometimes shaped like a man and called „priest”, sometimes they have conical form
and are topped with an upturned ceramic jug.
As we have seen, there is a wide variety how organic thatch can be used, the principles of applying it are very constant
and are mostly the same. Even if the material changes (be it reed or rye straw) certain rules have to be followed, which
are not dependent on the plant species used, but apply generally to most varieties of organic thatch.
Fig. 30: Archaic roof on a stable made of rye straw. No sloping
beams. (after SABJÁN (2007))
Fig. 31: Barn in the Rumanian mountain region near the valea
draganuj with a trod-den straw roof (2011).
Fig. 32: House with rye straw roof in an open air museum in south-west Hungary (2008).
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
The present European situation with a special emphasis on Lake Neusiedl
which is nearly half of Lake Neusiedl, is covered with reed. It adjusts the microclimate, functions as wind protection,
times all houses and barns where covered with reed. Nowadays thatched roofs are rarely seen. Reed became an ex-
the appearance of the settlements and the cultural landscape.
Today there are only a few craftsmen left who know to cover roofs with reed. They are aware that cutting the reed is still
hard manual work. Mr. Erwin Sumalowitsch, one of the remaining reed cutters says: “In former times the harvest of reed
was real hard, manual work. In winter people walked 3 or 4 km to the lake early in the morning. The reed was cut and
bundle tied by hand. Then the bundles where put on sledges and hauled them to the storage areas. There the bundles
where put together in form of cones. When there was no ice layer on the lake the work had to be done using boats. The
harvesting of reed was hard labour for the people, it was really tedious work.“ ()
The laborious work of harvesting and processing reed make it costly compared to other building materials for roofs. But
some people like the heat insulating characteristics and the room climate of a reed thatched roof. Reed carpenter Julia
Nekowitsch is working with Hungarian employees, who have the knowledge about working with the material. She tells:
„Throughout the summer our Hungarian employees bundle up the reed. It is enclosed by hand and tied together with
a machine. Thereafter, the bundles are packed together in large packages and led to the construction sites. Finally we
use the material to cover the roof. But the important preliminary is done by our workers.” ()
Julia Nekowitschis working on many construction sites in the area of Seewinkel and also knows about special legal
regulations concerning reed roofs: „In this area it is complicated to get the permit to cover roofs with reed, as the house
are built close to each other. Only if the building is elder than 30 years or protected by monument conservation it is no
problem to cover a house with a thatched roof.“ ()
The legal restrictions are the result of historic developments. Erwin Sumalowitsch knows about the fear of people of
burning reed roofs:” Reed has a negative image in this area. Many people believe that if you throw a bundle of reeds it is
like a hand grenade, because of huge res in the past. Most of these res where set by the people themselves, because
res don’t start at the roof easily. It had nothing to do with the reed roof. When you try hard you can burn everything but
reed has the same re rating as wood.” ()
Mr. Arie Van Hoorne from Netherland, who is working as reed carpenter in Seewinkel describes how to make reed roofs
„I am living here in a wooden house with a thatched roof. I mounted the reed directly onto a full casing of 5 cm
solid wood. In this way the reed can hardly start to burn.
At this house there was air between the reed and the construction underneath. Without this space the re rating and the
isolation is much better.“ ()
The thatched roof has a negative reputation in Austria, whereas in many Western countries the prestige of the reed roof
is closely linked to tradition. Therefore around 98 percent of high-quality reed around Lake Neusiedl is exported to the
Netherlands, Germany and England. There it ends up on the famous thatched roofs. New buildings could have already
pointed out that the image of the reed to pursue a new path. The potential of this domestic construction material is far
Fig. 33: Traditional house in the area of Seewinkel (KUHN & NEU-
Seewinkel (KUHN & NEUHAUSER, 2010).
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
8 The Importance of Documentation and Education in the process of
preservation of traditional techniques
The knowledge about vernacular architecture and building traditions is stored in the minds of the people living in the
built environment developed over centuries. For a sustainable preservation and a futher development of architecture
this knowledge has to be taken into account. So it is important to raise the awareness about the value and the potential
of the cultural heritage in architecture.
Considering World heritage as ‘living memory’ may encourage us to become our own storytellers of past present and
In this creative and constructive process we are inextricably linked to our way of perception as process in time and
space. We establish a ‘murmuring dialogue’ with those different voices, faces, atmospheres, of our ancestors.
Sensing traces and bits of these construction ‘events’ in former times (e.g. in documents, remaining buildings, plants
or stories) we evaluate some of these traces as authentic pieces, as material or immaterial evidence. From these we
start our interpretations, aiming at reconstructing the original context. Thus we construct a continuous story, recreate an
A general human principle in establishing life and orientation and meaning in our human limited time span is develops
along the questions: ‘who are we?’, ‘where do we come from?’, ‘where are we right now?’ and ‘where are we going?’.
In world heritage as ‘living memory’ we may keep up a vivid potential of natural and cultural singles, ensembles and
sites, in order to develop future perspectives and strategies in terms of a universal dialogue along similar principles.
may use this creative capacity and become aware of our individual and common human potential.
Fig. 35: Reed harvesting is still a hard work (KUHN & NEUHAUS-
Fig. 36: Julia Nekowitsch works as reed carpenter (KUHN &
Fig. 37: In the Netherlands reed roofs are still common says Arie
van Hoorne (KUHN & NEU-HAUSER, 2010).
Fig. 38: Using a reed roof on a supermarket (KUHN & NEU-
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
Thus we would establish world heritage as a connection between our own sphere and other spheres, as natural and
cultural dialogue toward a living heritage. To implement these ideas within the education enables a better understanding
for traditions, traditional techniques and their potential for future planning’s taking preservation into account.
Reed has been used as building material in many traditional building cultures all over the world. The popularity of the
material changed by the times but still many people appreciate its material properties. And for many people reed is the
characteristic feature for certain traditional buildings. Whereas the techniques vanished or nearly vanished in some
places it still in the minds of the people. A rainessance of reed as building material can be observed in parts of the world,
The recollection on building traditions may start a revival of reed as a building material not only for covering roofs but
With recording and documenting the techniques of roof thatching and using reed for other building purposes we can help
to keep to keep an important part of world’s cultural heritage alive.
4) Brunskill, R. W. (1971): Illustrated Handbook of Vernacular Architecture, Faber and Faber, London.
7) Kuhn, C., Neuhauser, A. (2010): “Der Weg des Schilfs im Seewinkel” for Trans- EcoNet, Wien, published on:
Instituts für Baukunst und Bauaufnahmen, Technische Universität, Wien.
9) Lehner, E. (1995): Südsee Architektur: Traditionelle Bauten auf Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Neuseeland und den Fid-
11) Lehner, E., Mückler, H, Herbig, U. (Hrsg.) (2007): Das Architektonische Erbe Samoas, Neuer Wissenschaftlicher
14) Schrader, M. (1998): Reet & Stroh als historisches Baumaterial – Ein Materialleitfaden und Ratgeber, Edition :an-
15) Seidel, B. (2007): Unterm Reetdach, Husum.
F. Zámolyi, U. Herbig
11 Source of Figures
Fig. 5: Josef Schuller, 2006
Fig. 12: Erich Lehner
Fig. 13: after (1990)
Fig. 15: after
Fig. 16: after
Fig. 17: University of Addis Ababa, Dirk Donat, 2010
Fig. 18: University of Addis Ababa, Dirk Donat, 2010
Fig. 21: after (1980)
Fig. 22: after
Fig. 23: after
Fig. 25: after )
Fig. 26: after )
Fig. 27: after )
Fig. 30: after
Fig. 33 - 38: