Kiwi vernacular

Vernacular construction concerns that which was done before the advent of industrialised building. It was made by hand, in a regionally appropriate style, out of local natural materials.

True vernacular construction in New Zealand occurred before sawmills had been established, or corrugated iron was available here.

There was a long tradition of vernacular construction in Aotearoa, in the form of Māori architecture, and a shorter period of colonial vernacular, before industry was established.

Māori architecture

The community was often arranged into a defensive pā (hill fort) positioned in a strategic location, or a kāinga (village). The village would consist of wharepuni (warm sleeping houses), pātaka (storehouses), kāuta (cooking houses), and wharenui (meeting houses). The umu/hangi was located in the kāuta, or sometimes simply outside in the open.

The wharepuni was often either slightly excavated into the ground for nighttime warmth, or had mounded earthen sides for the same purpose. They often had tree fern log walls, when they were covered in earth.

Initially the wharepuni were round, as they were based on the structures of the South Pacific homelands of the Māori. They became rectangular in time, and a verandah or porch was eventually added. This became a unique Māori innovation, not seen in the buildings of other Polynesian cultures. The verandah is a bridge between the inside and outside, and it would later become one of the defining characteristics of New Zealand colonial, Victorian, bungalow, and state house architecture.

They had a central fire for heating (but not cooking), and a simple hole near the roof allowed the smoke to escape.

Rectangular houses had one or two internal pou (posts). These supported the tāhuhu (ridge beam or backbone). The heke (rafters or ribs) spanned between the tāhuhu, and the poupou (structural wall members set into ground). The buildings were thatched with either raupō (bulrush), toetoe, or nikau, or sometimes covered in bark. The floor was covered in whariki (strong woven flax mats).

The rectangular houses eventually evolved into special, larger wharenui (meeting houses). These had elaborate carvings of the iwi’s ancestors, with tuku-tuku (a woven latticework panel) infill between the poupou. The floor represents Papatūānuku (the mother earth), and the roof represents Ranginui (the sky father).

All these structures were originally made by hand with stone tools, and they were the first natural buildings in NZ.

Further reading

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