Building the Tristan Thatched House

A new live museum built using traditional materials and methods by Tristan Islanders
A new live museum built using traditional materials and methods by Tristan Islanders

“Since all Tristan houses have now been housed with zinc, it was decided to build a replica of a traditional thatched house typical until 1961 and which continued until the late 1980s but were then replaced by various solid roofing. This house will become a live Museum for visitors but also a monument for the younger generation to see how their ancestors lived so many years ago.

The “Thatched Tristan House Project” began in January 2009. Retired pensioners were employed to build the house as they had the most expertise in soft stone building. The work gang consisted of Herbert Glass, Ches Lavarello, Donald Hagan, Piers Hagan and Anthony Rogers who were later joined by Eric Glass and Joseph Green. Unfortunately Piers Hagan had to retire early from work on the house for health reasons. As well as the men mentioned, other Government and Factory Workforce have also helped with work on the house when required.

A site was picked for the house in the East Field beside the 1961 Volcano. We wanted a site which was away from modern Tristan surrounded by open space, livestock and the noise of the Big Watron (small stream) running nearby.”

(lots of photos of each step)

Interesting background story about Tristan da Cunha, a remote island in the Atlantic.

Thanks to Leslie G. for sending these links to me.

9 thoughts on “Building the Tristan Thatched House”

  1. No one yet has mentioned the privacy wall around the house. That’s quite a project in itself. Very well done.

    The larger lesson is using what is available and what makes sense. Volcanic rock is the best choice of material in this case.

    • Yes, that wall is awesome as well, and very beautiful.

      Never have to worry about whitewashing that fence, Aunt Polly. ;)

      In an effort to split semantic hairs… I’m not sure I’d call it a privacy wall, though. It looks to me more like a protection wall from animals grazing out in the meadow, but then again, that too might be considered a form of privacy. Ehhh… who cares?

      In any case, it’s a stunning wall. It makes my back hurt just to look at it and think of the number of man hours involved in building it. Thank goodness for many hands making light work on that job.

      • There are very few people on the island, so the wall is probably to keep cows from looking in their yard. Who wants cows looking at you all the time? Just kidding. It’s probably to block wind and rain (the weather in that area of the Atlantic is very harsh) and blocking any lava flows. The wall would also help keep livestock and other critters out of your kitchen garden, help safeguard small children and make it a little quieter inside the house.

        Just gathering and transporting all those stones probably took weeks of hard work. Stonework takes a long time.

        • Well, the wall builders did cheat a little, but it’s a cheat I would have taken advantage of too.

          From the original photo gallery page you linked in your blog post:

          “Photos show men on 23rd October 2012 drawing stone by re-cycling stones from old wall remains around a former potato patch, then loading on a trailer used to transport to the village and finally constructing a wall around the new thatched house.”

          It appears that some, if not all, the smaller stones used in the wall were salvaged from another abandoned wall. That saved the effort of quarrying. It also helped a great deal that they had heavy equipment to help move and haul the stones.

          Imagine what it was like for the original ancestors of the island, moving all the stone by hand, or by using draft animals!!!

          Suddenly selecting a location for a villiage becomes a matter of finding a place where the stones are nearby so you don’t have to haul them very far, and that the quarry site is UPHILL from the town, but only uphill on a gentle slope, not a big drop, so that gravity becomes the builder’s friend.

          Transporting stone has been an engineering problem for the ages. There is a reason that rivers and canals were so important before industrialization. A barge is a very efficient way to move heavy stuff. Clearly that doesn’t apply on Tristan, but the concept of minimizing the energy required to move stone is clearly a commonality. It’s just a matter of selecting a site where transport issues are minimized.

          Lots to learn from that.

          Also, since the stones originated as a border around a potato patch, it seems clear that the original wall was used to protect their potato garden from animal potato poachers. Clearly there were either wild animals, or domesticated livestock that were allowed to roam and feed on the surrounding grasses.

          Plus, that stone wall probably made a great place for a horse or a cow to scratch it’s butt. Everybody loves a good butt scratch now and then. Even if we try to have some manners and scratch our butts in private.

          • The original inhabitants of the island had limited options as far as building materials. They used what they had available and they certainly did an outstanding job of utilizing the natural resources.

            And as far as being labor intensive, they had to work with what was available. Hard work, fresh air, healthy food, sound spiritual compass and they probably lived to very old age. So yeah, stonework is slow, but so what. Over all they seemed to have a good life.


    That is seriously awesome. What an amazing structure.

    Good grief. Building with stones much bigger than the men cutting, moving, and placing them. I have a crazy amount of respect for those guys.

    Great great great blog post.
    I offer a big High 5 to Leslie G for suggesting this post. Thank You.

    There just aren’t enough “A’s” in AAAAAAAAAAAWESOME to describe that building and the people who built it.

    • This house could last 1,000 years with proper maintenance. Even if the roof burned down for some reason, the rest of the house would be mostly intact and the structure could be restored. The downside with stone building is it’s extremely labor intensive. Look at all those workers. And consider some temporary workers may not be in the photo.

      • I agree.

        This is one project where a single photo posted in a blog post simply doesn’t tell enough of the story. You chose a nice photo for your blog post, but unless the reader looks through the whole photo gallery, they cannot even begin to appreciate the magnitude of this structure, and posting all the photo goes beyond the scope of a blog post.

        I actually wonder if it’s possible to truly appreciate it via the internet at all. Too bad it is on such a remote island. It would be a fun house to go visit.

        I strongly encourage your readers to visit their website.

        Make sure to check out the Tristan Thatched House News page on that web site too.

        That is the page that shows the finished interior.

        It also shows the separate toilet structure outside the main building.

        You make an excellent point about manpower, Owen. The embodied energy of the building materials may not be very high, but the embodied manpower energy required to erect the structure is very large.

        However… if one considers the expected lifespan of the structure and amortize the manpower required over that time span, it probably will become an extremely economical structure over the long term.

        You mentioned a 1000 year potential life span.

        That must assume that the volcano doesn’t bury the structure in lava or ash within that time frame.

        • Of course the stones will last over 1,000 years, but sooner or later something may destroy the structure as so often happens — volcanoes, earthquakes, war, etc. But even then you could probably salvage the stones and craft them into another structure.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.