This nuclear physicist wants to give new life to cottages
Only one left Austriasymbol of the disappearance of thatch: Jacobus van Hoorne, ex-scientist of the CERN converted roofer, fights to revive this material with many ecological virtues. Vegetal but super modern, his house clashes. Its 200 square meters of roof feature a beautiful thatch with a compact pose, obtained thanks to reeds that it cultivates locally on the edge of the superb lake of Neusiedl (east), in a landscape classified by Unesco.
“It only takes two weeks of work to cover a house like this”, explains the 37-year-old physicist who did not hesitate to abandon his profession within the prestigious European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Switzerland, in order to take over the family business. After the winter harvest, he clears the straw of weeds and binds it into bundles, using a technique passed down from his father, a Dutchman who emigrated in the 1980s.
Thermal and sound insulation
Jacobus van Hoorne does not regret his choice, but he is worried about the difficulties on the production side, evoking China which offers unbeatable prices and has arrogated an 80% market share in Europe. For buyers of reeds, concentrated in the Netherlands, Germany, England or France, bringing the goods from Shanghai is no more expensive than getting them on the Old Continent, he complains. And with inflation, it is even harder to match these low prices.
The emergence of drought in Europe further complicated the equation. The harvest is not good, the stems are not mature and painful discounts have to be conceded. Once common in this region close to Hungary, thatch worthy of postcards was abandoned in the 20th century in favor of tiles and slates, construction materials considered more modern. And much less flammable, which has an impact on insurance premiums. In recent years, it has experienced a revival in Europe due to its rustic qualities of thermal and sound insulation.
Faced with climate change and the scarcity of resources, “the return to ecological building materials”whose origin goes back to prehistoric alpine dwellings on stilts, is “inevitable”, assures Azra Korjenic, an expert from the University of Vienna. Biodegradable, thatch has a negligible carbon footprint, considering “the entire life cycle, from production to disposal”. Light and of a cost similar to tiled roofs according to the craftsman, it does not require a very strong frame and can resist for forty years. Not to mention its CO2 storage capacity through photosynthesis, which is greater than that of forests.
“What is problematic is not the material but the training of craftsmen and the pressure from large groups”emphasizes the Franco-Austrian architect Raphael Pauschitz, a specialist in these themes. “Thatch, straw, raw earth… all these materials that have no transformation process, where the value is created by the craftsman and his skills, do not interest industrialists.” Yet reed lovers want to keep their spirits up. The architect evokes “projects that flourish everywhere, in small touches”.
Marine Leparc, coordinator of the French Association of thatched roofers, also welcomes “a new interest in thatch and in natural materials in general”. As for Jacobus van Hoorne, his quotes are snapped up like hot cakes by the owners of the few thatched-roof houses in the area in need of a refresh.