Architecture – Hawaii History

Hawaii’s benign climate meant ancient Hawaiians lived their lives mostly outdoors, pursuing everyday activities in the midst of warm sunshine and gentle breezes. House structures and other buildings were used primarily for storage or as protection against rough weather.

Commoners generally had a single house while chiefs had a complex of separate houses used for different purposes. The grass house, or hale, followed the basic construction pattern common throughout Polynesia. The wooden framework consisted of ridegpole, rafters, and purlins or horizontal supports running between vertical wall posts. Thatching material – most commonly sweet-smelling pili grass – was tied to the purlins in bundles with thatch at the ridgepoles carefully layered and braided to prevent rain and wind from entering the house. Other thatching materials included various grasses, pandanus leaves, ti, sugar cane leaves and banana trunk fiber. Lashing was done with braided `uki`uki grass, coconut husk fiber or `ie`ie; no nails were used. Hale typically had a small door opening and no windows.

Hawaiian architects – members of the kahuna class with special building knowledge – were called poe kuhikuhi pu`uone. It’s believed they designed fishponds, irrigation systems, heiau and other significant structures. These large projects were often sponsored by a chief and construction involved the whole community.

Decades after Western contact, grass hale continued to be built and used. In 1816, traditional grass hale were still prevalent, though adobe and coral block houses were also being built near Honolulu harbor. By 1837, pili grass and local woods were still the main materials, but buildings began to incorporate Western design elements such as windows, high ceilings and large portal entrances. New materials also began to be used. In 1795, John Young and Isaac Davis built the first Western-style masonry buildings in Kailua-Kona. Three years later, a brick palace was built at Lahaina.

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