Renewable, reliable, available and recyclable, thatch roofing is an ancient technique that may find new uses in a demanding niche market.

For those who are nostalgic about traditional roofing techniques, it's hard to get more basic than thatch. Reeds, grass, palm fronds and other vegetation have provided reliable roofs over the millennia.

In an age of highly engineered membranes from sophisticated manufacturing facilities, the thatch roof remains a throwback to a time when roofing was a handmade craft that required a deeper understanding of the natural processes.

From hotel tiki bars to small huts in backyards, the image of a palm frond roof can instantly create a tropical setting in virtually any location, including those in snowy climates. These structures can also be very practical, offering durability, insulation and storm resistance. After all, individuals in many cultures have been perfecting their techniques for generations and handing down the craft to their offspring, just like the professional roofing contractors that grace these pages.

Traditional Craft

Mickey Barr has been installing thatch roofs since 1973. The licensed roofing contractor had his own company for 12 years before he entered the thatch business full time three years ago, founding Florida Tiki Huts in Spring Hill, Fla. The company builds bars, huts and other structures on site using a variety of methods, depending upon the authenticity required by the owner.

Business has been booming lately, as every swimming pool or waterfront property seems to require some kind of primitive-looking hut. Modern hotels, particularly those along Florida's coast, are installing large outdoor structures that can span 100 feet and cover large dining areas. The company recently constructed a huge chickee for singer Julio Iglesias using over 200,000 palm fronds from the sabal palmetto.

The palm thatch roofs do an excellent job of shedding water and can even weather big storms.

"If the huts are constructed right, they should hold up to a storm," says Sue Landry, office manager of Florida Tiki Huts. "The big joke after Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead was that the only thing left standing were the chickees."

Tiki refers to Polynesian-style buildings, while chickee is the Seminole word for "house." Native Americans perfected the construction of the chickee after being driven into the Everglades during the Indian resettlements of the 19th century (Seminole actually means "runaway" in Creek). There is also archaeological evidence of thatch constructions by the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Florida.

Today, without architectural drawings or heavy equipment, the Seminoles contracted by Florida Tiki Huts use the skills their parents taught them to create a solid structure that often does not require a building permit.

"If Seminoles build your hut, you don't have to get a building permit," says Barr, adding that codes are another matter, so it's wise to check with local authorities. "It's something that's up to the homeowner," says Barr. " All we do is build the hut."

Building codes are something of a gray area when it comes to chickees, and there have been some snags. Ten years ago, Collier County officials cited a Seminole family for code violations because their chickees didn't meet county codes and were deemed unsafe. The homes were not on a reservation and had modern conveniences (Collier County borders the Everglades), but the chickees came into conflict with building requirements that were updated throughout Florida soon after Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992. It took a year before the county agreed to allow for "cultural exemptions" of such structures, provided they are constructed using the old ways.

"The Seminoles have always exceeded code with their traditional techniques," says Landry, adding that the chickees offer superior insulation, too. "Go to a bar on the beach that has a standard tin roof and then go to one with a chickee. They're about 20 to 30 degrees cooler."

Not all of the process is traditional. Stainless steel carriage bolts hold the headers onto the poles. Each palm frond is hand nailed with a galvanized nail. Some projects even have custom-built tables and cabinets to house appliances for an outdoor bar. Pressure treated pilings are being used more now that arsenic has been removed.

The company recommends a water-based fire retardant that also fights bugs and mildew. Since the fronds are harvested and installed while they're still green and flexible, the chemical won't adhere to the waxy surface. Building owners must wait until the roof turns brown - usually in a week or two - before applying the treatment, a task that should be performed annually. The coating is made exclusively for thatch roofs and gives it a Class A rating. A more permanent solution using an oil-based chemical doesn't suit the Seminole preference for environmentally friendly practices.

This chickee hut graces the beach at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne, Fla.

Renewable Resource

The roofing material itself has several advantages. The sabal palmetto, Florida's state tree, is so abundant in Central and South Florida that nurseries don't even grow it. Those used in commercial landscaping are up to 40 years old, harvested from private ranches. Besides, cutting the lower fronds doesn't threaten the tree and it grows back to a full crown within a year. No material shortages or allocations here, and the trees even survive hurricanes rather well.

A chickee roof could last 10 years or longer, depending on the slope of the roof and density of thatch. Landry says that bugs have been a problem only recently, with the appearance of the powder puff beetle this year. The low-tech roofs reportedly performed well during the four hurricanes that struck Florida last season; it seems that fronds allow some of the high winds to pass through the roof.

The performance of the chickees during inclement weather has encouraged Landry to approach federal and state officials about the merits of such indigenous construction. From temporary shelters to coverings for mobile homes to airplane hangars, she feels that these low-impact, high-performing chickees can solve a number of construction problems. Only one customer called last year to report damage - the loss of six fronds.

Florida Tiki Huts offers a five-year guarantee on its workmanship.

Shaman Roofer

One fixture of the company is Bobby Henry, 69, a third-generation Seminole medicine man who not only installs traditional thatch roofs but can offer a blessing of the structure as well, something he recently did for actor Tommy Lee Jones. He's slowed down a bit after two falls this year, but he follows through on every commitment, as long as it doesn't interfere with his duties as shaman for the Green Corn Dance during the spring harvest.

"I just want the non-Indian people to know that the Seminoles are still here," says Henry. "We've been doing it all these years, and we don't want the culture to go away."

He travels around the country doing his dances and blessings. His believes his ceremonies are part of the reason his chickees have survived countless hurricanes - that and their traditional construction.

His mother still lives in a chickee, but his own children haven't shown much interest. It will be up to his grandchildren and a nephew to learn the old ways. That's getting harder as the land surrounding their reservations is being developed.

"We have a hard time getting the wood because it's not on Indian land," he says, but there are still areas in the Everglades left under their control. "We've got a camp, and we just go back and hunt and harvest."

Much of the cypress wood is trimmed so that the trees remain alive for future use. And the poles are sturdy enough to last through several reroofs, thus enhancing the sustainability of the materials. Besides, this is one roofing system that can be composted right back into the earth.

Family Tradition

Nancy Billie was born in a chickee in the Everglades. She and her husband, Mike Cypress, learned many traditional crafts, and their fathers taught them how to build a proper chickee. While the profits from casinos have introduced modern conveniences to the Seminole people, the chickee remains a focal point in family life. Billie lives in a modern house, but, like many of her neighbors, she has a cooking chickee (24 feet by 30 feet) and an eating chickee (24 feet by 40 feet) for family meals.

"I grew up in a chickee," she says. "You can build it every size and shape."

The sabal palmetto, which grows as far north as South Carolina, has always played a vital role in the life of Native Americans in the Southeast. In addition to shelter, the tree has been used for tools, rope, weapons, decorations and musical instruments. Even the heart of the tree is harvested for a tasty meal called swamp cabbage.

Billie is teaching her children traditional crafts, but, as roofing contractors everywhere have found, the next generation is sometimes reluctant to embrace tradition.

"Yeah, it's kind of hard, but we push them to learn," she says. "They come around."

Hut One

Richard Cooley learned how to thatch roofs from the Seminoles. He built his first palm hut in 1997 out of materials he obtained in South Florida.

"I just built it, and everybody liked it," says Cooley, owner of Palm Huts and More in Lake Charles, La. "I had some palm fronds left over and made another roof."

He took off for the beach and sold it right away, launching a second career for the marine contractor who was building seawalls, docks and bulkheads throughout southern Louisiana. He's been making and shipping his tikis full time for the past four years, with customers as far flung as Canada, Ohio, Michigan and California.

Cooley prefers to stack the finished huts like cups, truck them directly to his customers and install them on a standard pressure treated pole with a 6-inch diameter that's provided by the customer. Through Internet sales, referrals from pool companies and word of mouth, business has grown to the point where four employees do nothing but weave the green fronds into the cypress rafters and staple them in place. The hut is his own design - a blend of Cajun and Seminole techniques - and he estimates that 99 percent of his units go to homeowners.

"People up north are staying home more than they used to," he says. "And I just have what makes it tropical."

Experience has shown him that the roofs actually last longer up north where palms trees don't exist. The company offers a one-year warranty on the roof and two years on workmanship. Cooley offers replacement roofs for shipment that homeowners can apply themselves. Since they're considered outdoor patio furniture, they are generally exempt from building codes.

Renewable, reliable, available and recyclable, thatch roofing is an ancient technique that may find new uses in a demanding niche market.