The History of Thatching
Providing a perfect bridge between heritage and modern architecture
BY ANDRÉ VAN HEERDEN, MANAGING PARTNER, CAPE REED GROUP OF COMPANIES
Thatched roofing is a familiar sight in the UAE. From gardens to beachside F&B outlets, it’s used to provide shaded structures both large and small. And it’s easy to see why: thatching is environmentally friendly, it’s aesthetically pleasing and, when properly looked after, can last as long as 35 years.
What many people don’t realise is that the origin of thatched roofing lies a long way from the luxury properties it is associated with today. And not only that: the Gulf has its own rich history of thatching, one that is often overlooked.
The style of thatching most commonly seen in the Gulf today, and indeed around the world, has its roots in European communities such as England, Holland and Germany, where it was used in poor communities as a cheap and readily available roofing material. The majority of the population were engaged in subsistence agriculture, so it made sense to use the leftover straw to keep their houses warm and dry.
From a moderate agricultural start, thatched roofs became part of an imagined rural ideal popularised by some of the most popular artists of the day, making them increasingly desirable to the newly wealthy, a trend that has continued into the 21st century. Indeed in today’s Europe thatched roofing is largely confined to the affluent with many thatched buildings that have heritage status.
German missionaries introduced the skill of thatching to the South African landscape during the early 18th century, while simultaneously ‘discovering’ the world’s most durable thatching material : Cape Reed (Thamnochortus Insignis) which grows naturally along the southern tip of the African continent. The quality of this unique material has since been praised by the English Master Thatcher’s Association and other European thatching industries.
When Cape Reed introduced the European style of thatching to the Gulf, it also brought the world’s finest and most acclaimed thatching material with it – giving the Gulf nothing less than the world’s best. Since its introduction in the late nineties it has certainly lived up to expectations , proving that it is the ideal roofing material for the region, with an expected lifespan of anything from 35 to 50 years and the ability to cool off shaded areas with as much as 10°C.
While thatching made its impact on architecture and life style in Europe, the Gulf developed their own technique, known as barasti, using palm fronds to provide shelter from the sun. The region’s limited resources meant that people had to use whatever they could get their hands on, with walls made of stone, mud or even oven palm leaves woven into a rudimentary frame. On top of this would sit a thatched roof, also made of palm leaves, which would sometimes be treated with pitch.
Cape Reed has taken on the challenge to marry its unique European skills and high quality African materials with local heritage. Proof of this can be found in Cape Reed’s recently completed project for TDIC at the Anantara resort in Abu Dhabi, which uses a new thatching method designed to imitate the barasti style. Perhaps the biggest injection of modern technology is that we have woven a fire blanket into the roof, ensuring it combines old fashioned looks with modern safety standards.
It’s good for the environment too: the materials are sourced from around the region, provided that the suppliers can prove its sustainability. In fact the project exceeds the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s Estidama standards (Arabic for sustainability). Among other things, the standards measure an outdoor structure’s Solar Reflective Index (SRI), which is determined by the roof’s ability to reflect solar heat without absorbing it (stored heat adds to global warming). Estidama mandates an SRI of 29, but Cape Reed thatch achieved a score of 54.52 and our Eucalyptus timber scored 80.31.
While barasti style thatching is popular with customers who want a more traditional feel, the Gulf’s emphasis on modern technology and construction techniques are also providing excellent opportunities for Cape Reed to display its design and construction skills by creating constructions where traditional thatch joins modern steel and metal in the construction detail.
It’s also possible to create quite intricate patterns on a roof – and that’s before the addition of modern lighting and high quality electronic and audio visual systems that are popular with many clients!
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