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That Ain't Hay

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Shakespeare's wife had one. Miles Standish had one. Thousands of European peasants had them. And now, thanks to a 48-year-old Califronia enterpreneur, you can have one, too -- a real thatched roof.

Attractive and snug, the thatched roof has been a common sight throughout Europe for centuries, but no one had thought about seriously marketing thatch in the New World -- until Weston Warwick, that is. About two and a half years ago, Warwick, a capital equipment salesman, was traveling through Europe, admiring the architecture. He was also thinking about starting his own business. "It occurred to me that, if I could pick up one of those beautiful thatched-roof cottages and plop it down in the U.S., I would cause quite a stir," remembers the founder of Warwick Cottage Enterprises in Anaheim, Calif. "The market for this stuff is admittedly very small, but absolutely nobody is in it here."

There are, Warwick estimates, only a dozen or so thatched-roof structures in the United States now, most in historical settings like the re-created Pilgrim settlement, Plimouth Plantations.

The main challenge was to fashion a material that could get past U.S. building codes, which were not set up to deal with roofing made from swamp weeds. After rejecting the idea of using plastic ersatz thatch (it would deteriorate too quickly) and fiberglass (too expensive), he settled on importing the water reed from Europe, where it is harvested commercially, and having it pressure-impregnated with fire-retardant chemicals.

Warwick began marketing his product in November 1982, promising to "add rustic charm to a theme restaurant or custom estate . . . create a special atmosphere for a unique shopping mall or quaint hotel . . . develop a distinctive ambiance for an entire master planned community." So far, he has received some 2,500 inquiries; he is expecting to break ground for a prototype house in Laguna Hills, Calif., and another half-dozen southern California projects are on the drawing board.

Five professional thatchers are scheduled to arrive from England this spring to join Warwick's operation. They will help to install roofs and will train four U.S. apprentices who want to learn the craft.

All that quaint, rustic ambiance doesn't come cheap. While the reeds themselves are inexpensive, the cost of importing and treating them -- not to mention the cost of installation by imported British thatchers -- pushes the price to four or five times that of conventional roofing. But price, Warwick insists, shouldn't stop people from using thatch.

"It's the most beautiful roof in the world," he says. And what can stop an idea whose time has come, even if it first came some 2,000 years ago?

Last updated: Mar 1, 1984




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