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Modern Roofs From Traditional Craftsman

The ancient craft of thatching nearly disappeared in America. It's the goal of an Englishman to bring it back. Mary Saner has the story.

On a quiet, tree-lined street in Upper Brookville on Long Island, New York, it's easy to find Colin McGhee. He's atop the house with the golden roof.

McGhee points to the work he's done so far, and explains, "This roof here is [a third of a meter] thick – very steep, as you see – and all you see are the reeds, the ends of the reeds, and the water just drips off them."

The 48-year-old Englishman is a thatcher. He began thatching roofs when he was 16 and worked as an apprentice in Essex, England.After taking on a project in the U.S. in the early 1990's, McGhee decided to settle in America, and now runs a thatching business in Virginia.

From wetland to rooftop

The thatch on McGhee's roofs is a tall, wetland reed called phragmites. "It grows in the water, so it's got a waterproof coating," he says, adding that it's very durable, lasting up to 50 or 60 years. But there is no market for the reed in America, and so no one to harvests the huge stands of phragmites that grow in marshy areas in much of the eastern U.S.

McGhee imports his thatch from China. He laments, "In America, it's more of a novelty item." Not so in the 1600's, when European settlers came to the New World. "They used thatch because it was available and what they were familiar with. As they went inland, they started using clapboard boarding in the woods, because it was easier to get and quicker to do."

On this small roof, McGhee will use reeds that once covered 2-1/2 hectares. He starts by sorting it into bundles, 60 centimeters around and 1-1/2 to two meters long. He then attaches the bundles to a wooden lattice-like frame of the roof using special thatching hooks and screws. The bundles are compressed to about 30 centimeters thick. When he's done, McGhee says, "It's smooth. You can walk on it. It's tight. There's a lot of reed on it, so it's a fantastic insulator."

Thatch resists water and fire

And McGhee says while many of his customers want their roof sprayed with a chemical so it's fire retardant, it's not really necessary. He recalls what happened to a roof he'd thatched several years ago. "It was struck by lightning, and it set fire to the interior of the roof – the woodwork – and it burned for three hours.Somebody noticed a puff of smoke coming up. And the fire brigade got there and put it out. The fire chief said any other roof after a three-hour burn, the whole building would have been razed. [A thatched roof] just smolders. It's like trying to burn a closed book. "

Thatch roofing is expensive, says McGhee, in part because it's labor intensive. There are usually thousands of bundles to lay, and many trips up and down from a roof. It often takes McGhee a month or longer to complete a thatched roof, where a traditional roof can be put on in one or two days.

Roofs for homes, barns, shops

Since opening his business in Virginia, McGhee has thatched 50 roofs. While he does mostly homes, he's also worked on buildings in theme parks, zoos, and historic reproduction sites like Jamestown Settlement.

The house he's working on now was built in the 1970's and resembles an Irish cottage. Alice Gunther, whose family is from Ireland, says her soon-to-be finished guesthouse is very special. "I've always loved thatched cottages," she admits with a laugh. "I remember as a child staying in one in Ireland. I remember having a thatched cottage music box from my grandmother. I guess it's just a romantic dream that I've always had, that luckily, my husband has understood."

Colin McGhee's next job will be in DeWitt, Iowa, where a 500-year-old house has been relocated from Germany and renovated.