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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Creating a Thatched Roof

Air Date: Week of August 26, 2011

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One of the world's oldest building materials is being used to transform a 1950's suburban ranch into an Irish country cottage. Host Bruce Gellerman meets a master thatcher at work as he turns a field of reeds into a roof.

Transcript

[SOUND OF CRUNCHING GRAVEL]

GELLERMAN: A gravel road leads to a glade in the forest here in Lincoln, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb just west of Boston.

[ANIMAL SOUNDS]

GELLERMAN: It’s a storybook setting-- light filtering thru a widening break in the trees, blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and farm animals scurrying and squawking about.

BROWN: One of the benefits of the job is that we’ve been getting fresh eggs whenever we come out to do an inspection or add a drawing…


Architect Kieth Malcolm Brown transformed a suburban ranch into an Irish thatched roof cottage. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Keith Malcolm Brown is principle owner of Period Architecture. He specializes in blending traditional styles with designs that fit modern desires. His latest commission calls for transforming this 1950s suburban ranch into a Irish country cottage- complete with thatch roof.

BROWN: This is the largest private residence that has a thatched roof in New England.

[AMBIANCE FROM AREA AROUND THE HOUSE]

GELLERMAN: It looks like a place that the hobbit could live in.

BROWN: Well that’s kind of a nice image. It’s in a setting that’s surrounded by woods. There are chickens and ducks and geese. And, we were looking for something that would kind of epitomize a comfortable place to live.

GELLERMAN: The windows look like mushroom caps.

BROWN: Yes, called eyebrow windows. They’re kind of a traditional window on this kind of house. And, because it’s thatch, you can do curves quite easily. The challenge was learning about the material. There’s about 15 acres of reed on the roof.

GELLERMAN: This is architect Keith Malcolm Brown’s first thatch house and working with the material is a steep learning curve. Thatch is a renewable resource and has great insulating properties or R value.

BROWN: The thatch is a foot thick, so we’re up to about R80 at least. And with some sections with the roof up to R90, R92.

GELLERMAN: Literally, through the roof!

BROWN: It’s exceptionally high. I know of no other structure that would have this kind of R value. And, we’ve raised the roof to 45 degrees from about 14 and a half degrees because you need that for the pitch of the thatch. It needs to shed water- there are no gutters on thatched house, so it needs to push the water down and away from the house.

[SOUND OF THROWING BUNDLES]

GELLERMAN: Workers toss bundles of imported Turkish Water Reed into the air. It’s like building a field on top of a house. Grasses and reeds have been used as building materials for thousands of years and thatch structures can be found on every continent except Antarctica. We have plenty of thatching material here in the United States. It’s an invasive plant called phragmites, but it’s not cut commercially.

Where do you find someone who does thatching these days?

BROWN: Ah, you go on the web like you do for everything else. And we found Colin McGhee- thatching dot come.

[SOUND OF GELLERMAN CLIMBING THE LADDER]

GELLERMAN: Can I talk to you?

I climbed a ladder, and betwixt and between roof and ground, I found master thatcher Colin McGhee….

Well, I’m Bruce!

MCGHEE: Colin, nice to meet you.


Master thatcher Colin McGhee. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

GELLERMAN: Sure footed on the steep roof Colin McGhee holds well worn tools of the thatching trade in hand: a curved metal knife and a flat wood hammer.

[SOUND OF THATCHING]

MCGHEE: It’s called a leggett, it’s what you put the reed on the roof with. It just catches the ends of the reed. So it looks all cut, but actually, it’s dressed in that position. I’ve been thatching since 1977, and thatching in America since 1991.

[SOUND OF THATCHING CONTINUE]

GELLERMAN: How did you become a thatcher?

MCGHEE: Well, my parents are Scottish, so we used to do this Scottish tour every year and Robert Burns’ cottage was being thatched. That was just stuck in me head when I was about seven, and I got, sort of, asked to leave school at 16, and as a joke I said I wanted to be a thatcher. And the next thing I knew, I got a list of thatchers in southeast England, wrote to several, and got a job with one. So that’ll teach me! (Laughs).

GELLERMAN: So, what’s the benefits of this stuff?

MCGHEE: Well, it’s aesthetically pleasing, it lasts a long time.

GELLERMAN: How long will this last?

MCGHEE: Uh, 50 years. It’s a great insulator, it’s a natural product, it’s quite sound. It’s just nice living under a thatched roof. You’ve got a foot thick whole lotta reeds, it’s incredible. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each reed is a different shape so you want different shaped and sized bundles for a particular part of the roof. Like in a valley, you use big bushy topped stuff, on a hip like here, you want nice triangle, tapered reed. So if you get the right bundle for the right part of the roof, it makes it very easy.

GELLERMAN: What are the challenges for you thatching here, in the United States?

MCGHEE: Well, the climate is a lot different, so you’ve got to adjust your thatching techniques to suit the climate. It’s a lot more humid here and so the roofs wont’ last as long if you use the same techniques. You leave the surface of it open so it dries out quicker instead of putting it all on super tight. But mainly the reed, you use the toughest, ugliest reed you can get instead of the finest, prettiest, which you’d use back home.

GELLERMAN: Is there a growing demand for this type of material or this building style?

MCGHEE: Well, hopefully. You know, no one’s building subdivisions like they do in Holland and in Germany. You know, they build whole hundreds of houses with thatched roofs.

GELLERMAN: Today?

MCGHEE: Yeah, it’s just classed as another, it’s nothing weird, it’s just another roofing material.

[THATCHING SOUNDS]

GELLERMAN: How long will it take you to do this roof- finish…start to finish?

MCGHEE: It’s a two month job. And the next job is a pub up in New Hampshire- Epping so it’s not too far away…

GELLERMAN: Master roof thatcher Colin McGhee. For photos of the him, the thatched home and architect Keith Malcolm Brown head to our website: L-O-E dot O-R-G.

[THATCHING SOUNDS]

 

Links

McGhee & Co. Roof Thatchers

Visit the Boston Design Guide

 

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