All about thatch

Thatching is the age-old technique of covering a roof with dry reed or other vegetation, which protects the home from the elements, provides insulation and a rugged charm. Thatching materials range from grasses to palm leaves, making thatching one of the most common roofing methods in history, as the materials are so readily available.

Where does thatching come from?

Thatched roofing is an ancient form of roof covering used by many cultures across the world. When the first farmers and fishermen started to need more durable housing than nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures, building with materials like thatching reed became more common. Some of the first thatched houses were built in what is now Northern Germany and Denmark. In most of Europe, thatch was the only roofing material used by people in rural areas until the late 1800s. Almost every civilization and area across the world had its own material (grass or reeds to palm leaves), style and roof thatching technique. In areas such as Fiji palm, leaf roofs were combined with layered reed walls. The Mayans and Incas on North America also lived in thatched buildings.

In Southern Africa thatched roofs also have an interesting history. Traditional African homesteads were built with materials from savannah grasslands. When European settlers came into contact with this type of housing they incorporated their own thatching and building style with this. Today thatching is used for its historic value or natural beauty and rustic charm.

The advantages of thatch

  • Thatch was traditionally used because it utilized local vegetation as a low-cost building material. In more affluent areas it is a roofing option of choice for those who want a rustic look for their home, an eco-friendly roof, or to maintain an originally thatched building.
  • 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.
  • It also provides natural insulation thanks to air pockets within the thatch which insulate a building, providing cooler shade in summer and retaining heat in winter. African Cape Thatching Reed (which is the type offered at Die Pale Depot) is typically 10 degrees cooler than alternative roofing materials in the summer and 10 degrees warmer in the winter.
  • Thatch also has very good wind resistance when constructed correctly.
  • Because thatch is lighter than other materials, less timber is required in the roof that supports it.
  • Thatch is a versatile material especially for oddly shaped roof structures. Its a sustainable material and also does not need to use standard dimensions to be effective.

How can thatch keep water out?

When rain hits a roof it does not strictly follow the laws of gravity and will happily run across a surface, as long as it’s in a downwards direction. As long as both thatch and roof structures are at the correct angle (at least 50 degrees) water will not penetrate more than about 2cm and the thatch layer will keep the rain away from the rest of the structure.

How flammable is thatch?

Thatch is not as much of a dangerous fire hazard as many people believe. Usually a faulty chimney or wood burner cause the fired to start in the first place, but the roof burns slowly. Ensuring that the chimney is in good condition and possibly removing thatch immediately around the chimney can reduce the risk considerably. Fire retardants can also lower the risk of fire spreading. However insurance premiums for thatched houses are often higher because of the perceptions that they are more risky and because thatched roofs are more costly to replace than other materials.

How long does thatch last?

As nearly every thatch roof is a unique combination of size, shape and location of the roof; materials and thatching skills, it is difficult to predict the roof’s longevity exactly. Basically the drier the environment is the better; the faster the roof dries out the longer it will last. So a windy hilltop location is better than a sheltered valley. Being organic products, all thatching materials will eventually decay in an outside environment. Cape thatching reed has a typical life span of around 30+ years.

If you’re interested in using thatch for your home, building a lapa, thatch rondawel or African gazebo – contact us for thatching reed as well as laths to use in the structure of the roof.

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