Going back in time - Raupo houses

By - , Build 90

Although a young country, New Zealand buildings reflect a long heritage. Over the next few editions we’ll look at some of the many materials that have been used in our buildings, starting with raupo.

Raupo house near New Plymouth, ca 1860, the imported doors and windows would later be transferred to a more permanent home. Photographer unknown, reprinted with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (ref. F-11751-1/2).
Raupo house near New Plymouth, ca 1860, the imported doors and windows would later be transferred to a more permanent home. Photographer unknown, reprinted with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (ref. F-11751-1/2).
This raupo whare at Karaka Bay, Wellington, had wooden extensions and windows added. Photograph from the Henry Wright Collection, reprinted with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (ref. G-20509-1/1).
On landing in Aotearoa, early settlers faced an immediate need for shelter. Caves or natural bush canopy might be suitable for a short time, but a more substantial construction was required. The time and effort required to fell and prepare large trees made this very much a long-term choice. In the short term, more accessible materials were needed.

Later settlers had the advantage of Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge (published in 1883) for advice: ‘In the majority of cases it is advisable to build first a temporary house; this is often built with raupo walls and nikau framework round saplings from the bush’. Apparently only a few days were required to erect a warm, weatherproof dwelling.

Good insulator but highly flammable

Raupo (from the same family as the bulrush) is a swamp plant, particularly common around the shallow edges of lakes. Easy to collect, dry and store, it could be readily assembled into useful buildings. Bunched together, thatched or neatly sewn into rows, the stems repelled water and provided a useful level of thermal insulation. The building may have been constructed with a timber framework, with the raupo then assembled into bundles or mats and used to fill the spaces, then lashed to the timber with flax.

Construction details varied, but there was one common feature – the danger of fire. ‘On the night of 9 November [1842] there was a disastrous fire in Wellington which caused much loss of property and at the meeting of the Council held the following day the matter came under discussion. Mr Fitzherbet moved a resolution: “That fires, candles and all lights should be extinguished in raupo houses immediately after sunset on the pain of a heavy fine for neglecting to do so.”’ (quoted in A.H. Carman’s The Birth of a City: Wellington 1840–1843).

Raupo houses could be of considerable size. Thomas Potts in the 1880s talks of a raupo house 90 ft (27 m) long by 36 ft (11 m) broad being built in 9 days, and sleeping 300 people. Shape was not constrained, with rectangular, circular and oval constructions being found in different locations.

Raupo became brittle after long exposure to the weather, and needed extra protection from damage. Raupo houses weren’t considered as durable or warm as timber houses, although this depended on the amount of raupo used and the construction. For buildings to have a longer life, improved construction materials would be required.

This raupo whare at Karaka Bay, Wellington, had wooden extensions and windows added. Photograph from the Henry Wright Collection, reprinted with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (ref. G-20509-1/1).

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Raupo house near New Plymouth, ca 1860, the imported doors and windows would later be transferred to a more permanent home. Photographer unknown, reprinted with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (ref. F-11751-1/2).
Raupo house near New Plymouth, ca 1860, the imported doors and windows would later be transferred to a more permanent home. Photographer unknown, reprinted with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (ref. F-11751-1/2).
This raupo whare at Karaka Bay, Wellington, had wooden extensions and windows added. Photograph from the Henry Wright Collection, reprinted with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (ref. G-20509-1/1).

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