Ahto Raudoja is a carpenter with an education in forestry and he is a spokesman for the tiny cultural nation of the Seto people. Traditional wooden architecture has been his interest since his university days, when he studied forestry and made an inventory of and investigated the methods used for Seto traditional buildings. Wooden roofs, as an important part of traditional architecture, have been part of his work for the last 20 years. Mainly, he has constructed and been an instructor on the construction of shingle roofs, and he also has taught it to young masters. During his time at university in 2002, he already founded a small enterprise – Katusõkatja, whose main area of work is building shingle roofs and renovating wooden houses. The roofs constructed under Ahto’s supervision range from tiny 4 m2 shelters to huge 1400 m2 barn-dwellings all over Estonia. His most outstanding projects have been installed in the Estonian Open Air Museum and the Seto Farm Museum.
In addition to his architectural experiences, Ahto is also a spokesman for Seto culture. The Setos are a small Finno-Ugric nation close to the border between Estonia and Russia. They have their own language and clothing, cooking, music and architectural customs, but their territory is found in both Estonia and Russia.
Amongst other things, Ahto has investigated and renovated Seto tsässons, orthodox chapels which have a significant role in Seto rural architecture. Unlike churches, the tsässons are established by village communities and built by local men with their own resources and willpower, using local traditional building techniques. These buildings are therefore essential sources of information for architectural heritage research.
Ahto has compiled the voluminous anthology, “Tsässons of Setoland” (published in 2011, authors: Ahto Raudoja and Tapio Mäkeläinen), which gives an overview of the research carried out over last 10-12 years and allows an understanding of the essence of the tsässon in Seto culture. He has also written the review “Setoland: the basic features of the traditional architecture” (published in 2014 by Vanaajamaja), which gives an overview of different types of buildings and the character of Seto rural architecture.
Building shingle roofs
Wood, as the most easily obtainable building material, has been in use in Estonia since prehistoric times. Until the stone roof started to become popular in the 15th century, roofs of dwelling houses and churches were covered by pieces of wood hacked from timber logs using a wedge.
The growth of wooden roofs accelerated again at the end of 19th century cooinciding with changes in agricultural production. When the use of threshing machines overtook manual harvesting, the straw processed by these machines was not suitable for covering roofs anymore. Different kinds of shingle roof (in Estonian: pilbas, laast, sindel, kimm) began to appear alongside boarded, torn log and thatched roofs.
After the Soviet Era, when different kinds of industrial materials were used for roof coverings, wooden roofs rose to prominence again within rural architecture and spread to use in renovation projects as well as in building new houses.
Shingles are cut from a raw block of spruce, pine, aspen or alder using a special shingle-cutting machine. The most durable species is spruce, but it is also the most knotty, which makes the shingle-cutting quite complicated. Logs for shingle-cutting have to be straight and knot-free. The average thickness of a shingle is 3-4 mm, the width 7-12 cm and the length can be up to 75 cm.
The most suitable roof for a log building,which is the most common rural architectural building type, is a roof made of natural materials. Shingle is flexible and mouldable; it is suitable for different shapes of roofs and a shingle roof is relatively light – often historic log houses are not able to carry the load of a heavy stone roof.
The Revival of Ancient Skills
To build a house with a roof for your own household was an obvious necessity for most peasants at the beginning of the 20th century. Little boys learned the skills by their father’s sides and in turn passed them on to their sons. During the Soviet Era building traditions were interrupted and many traditional building skills were in danger of disappearing. After Estonia regained independence, the renovation of historic buildings and the erection of new ones in a traditional style gained popularity and alongside that there has been a growth in interest in traditional skills. Nowadays it is possible to learn how to build a wooden roof on short term courses, mainly organised by societies who are promoting traditional building skills, or by practicing under the supervision of an experienced master craftsman.
There are many wooden master roofers all over Estonia, but Ahto is considered not only a craftsman, but also a ambassador for traditional skills and conveyor of cultural heritage.