Frontlines

Settling in — under straw

Merilyn Read December 10 1979
Frontlines

Settling in — under straw

Merilyn Read December 10 1979

Settling in — under straw

Frontlines

In England Mike Dawson would be a wanted man. In Canada he’s anything but. Dawson is a professional thatcher who has decided to go for broke to convince Canadians that a thatched roof isn’t only the most beautiful roof in the world—it’s also the most practical.

The 30-year-old Ottawa-born thatcher (with the financial help of a bank loan and the physical help of a professional thatcher from England) is building a two-storey log house, 20 miles south of Ottawa. “I wanted to do the finest roof a man can make and this is it,” says Dawson with pride.

His roof, which looks like soft sculpture, is as practical as it is sensuous. Made of hand-threshed wheat straw, it will last some 40 years, 20 years longer than a standard shingle or asphalt roof. At least a foot thick, it provides its own insulation—thatched roofs have been used for centuries in Siberia—and rarely needs repairs. And it’s not even a fire hazard. “It’s so tightly packed there’s no chance of flames spreading,” says Dawson.

After spending 21/2 years in England learning the trade, Dawson went to work for a conventional roofing company in Ottawa two years ago. But the dream of thatching was never far away. He eventually persuaded master thatcher Adrian Ward to come from England for a six-month trial period. Starting last June, with the help of two log-house craftsmen from Ottawa, he began to work. The demonstration house has cost $30,000 so far, and Dawson estimates that the finished building will cost double that amount.

About 1,000 potential homeowners have trekked to the log house but, as yet, there have been no offers to buy— or even to have a thatched roof built. In spite of the advantages of bedding down under straw, initial costs are high, which Dawson says explains the reluctance. His straw handiwork costs $750 per 100 square feet of roof area—between $10,000 and $12,000 a roof. That’s about eight times more than the average asphalt or shingle roof costs, according to Dawson.

The money from the bank loan has run out, Adrian Ward is returning to England for steady employment and Dawson’s house remains an unfinished dream. But Canada’s lone thatcher is still convinced that thatch will catchin time.

Merilyn Read