A trip to Barbados, Grenada, Carriacou and a few other Caribbean islands will reveal a small wooden house sitting on a rocky foundation. This type of house is called a chattel house. In the Caribbean, the chattel house is a symbol of freedom, innovation and home ownership. Central to the theme of the chattel house was the fact that the houses were owned by the plantation workers but the land was rented. This concept is prevalent today in the chattel mortgage.
What is a Chattel House?
The term chattel house simply means movable house. It refers to a historic Caribbean architectural wonder which was conceptualised on the cusp of emancipation from slavery. The chattel house was the house of choice for plantation workers in the Caribbean (especially in Barbados and Grenada) who need somewhere to live. Plantation workers rented land from the plantations that they worked on and were given permission to build homes.
Because they frequently moved from plantation to plantation, workers would have been better off with homes that could be easily moved. So, the concept of the chattel house was created. These homes were made of wood and placed on tightly packed soft stone, coral block or rubble rock foundations. This allowed them to be easily deconstructed and moved to another location.Barbados Chattel Houses
Basic Chattel House Design
The earliest model of the chattel house was of a basic design that featured a central door at the front, a wooden window at either side and another door at the rear. Houses were small with one or two rooms -one for sleeping and the other for living. Cooking was done outside on wood fires and water was fetched from wells. Bathrooms were also located on the outside and were simple.
This symmetrical design was capped off by a gable roof with two slopes or a hip roof with four slopes. Roofs, which were made of corrugated iron sheets, were designed with a specific purpose in mind. The pitch of the roof was deigned with attributes of hurricane related weather in mind. These angles were reinforcements against wind and rain.
Chattel houses were built on impermanent foundations which consisted of stones and coral blocks packed together. This allowed the houses to be raised off the ground thus creating a cellar through which air could flow. This feature and the hanging floor concept was a key factor in how chattel houses kept cool in the hotter months.
Exterior walls were constructed with planks of pine and covered in cedar shingles. Later models were constructed using pine, purple heart and green heart which are all easily available in the Caribbean. Windows were also made of wood and framed with shutters.
Another defining feature of the early chattel houses were their fine details which added to their charm and exterior decor. Wooden window hoods and windows, jalousies, fretwork along the edge of the roof, porches and wooden columns are beautiful features that showcased the creativity of the artisans who constructed the homes.
Newer Chattel House Designs
Over the years, newer chattel house designs were conceptualised that incorporated additional rooms thus changing the shape. And, as families expanded, so did the chattel house. Sections were usually attached to the back of the existing structure and are easily distinguishable to this day. The newer section was sometimes built a bit wider than the original home and had its own roof.
In terms of the foundation, this was improved upon and concrete blocks, steel and cement replaced the tightly packed stones. Another notable change was the shift away from the traditional beige and brown colour schemes. Chattel house owners began experimenting with bright exterior paint colours which are still popular to this day.
Cheaper sash windows made from plastic and metal, have replaced wooden windows. Similarly, some doors are also made of metal. Also, decorative features like fretwork and the functional shutters and window hoods have disappeared. Modern recreations may include these features, but they are expensive to replicate. Indoor kitchens and bathrooms have been incorporated into the new designs.
The Future of the Chattel House
Many people are opting out of the chattel house for their new home construction. They prefer to build concrete homes reinforced with steel. It is rare to see modern chattel houses constructed even though they cost less to build. Thankfully there is growing international interest in the Caribbean chattel house. Let’s hope that it can create renewed interest in this iconic architectural symbol.
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