The House That Can Withstand a Cycloneby Jon Letman
How traditional dwellings are making a comeback in Vanuatu
When Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu and concrete buildings collapsed, their iron roofing blown away, there was no loss of life in the traditionally built structures known as saeklon haos (cyclone house).
Though they normally sleep six, during the 2015 storm up to 30 villagers were able to squeeze in together, physically supporting the house posts from the inside if needed.
Cyclone Pam was the most destructive cyclone the country has seen, displacing an estimated 65,000 people and damaging or destroying approximately 17,000 buildings.
Jean Pascal Wahe, head of the local cultural centre in Tafea province, recalls that after Pam, the saeklon haos in his village still stood, having kept him and other villagers safe, even as others were killed by iron roofing.
“The saeklon haos is enough for us to stay in good times or bad.”
A saeklon haos is a one-room building, built as a place to sleep, and often forms part of a rural living compound that include a separate kitchen, smol haos (pit latrine), and bathing area. Increasingly, these traditional structures stand alongside buildings made with cement, corrugated metal sheet roofing, and other non-traditional materials.
Stepping inside the house, called kwipehe in Nafe, one of Tanna’s seven languages, Wahe points overhead to a low ceiling of thatched coconut palm fronds and waelken (wild cane), a type of Miscanthus grass.
The side walls are built with bamboo strips flattened and woven into cross and diamond patterned panels. The house frame is comprised of posts, beams, and rafters that are buried in the ground for greater support. Each part of the house is fashioned from specific plants selected for their flexibility and durability. Instead of nails, the house is secured with cordage made of vines harvested in the forest.
Despite the advantages of saeklon haos which can be built by two or three people in about a week, they are all but unheard of in Vanuatu’s two cities, Port Vila and Luganville, where more modern Western style homes, fitted with indoor plumbing, electricity, and divided into rooms, are more common. But the buildings also absorb heat and can be stifling, even at night.
By contrast, the natural materials used in saeklon haos and other kastom buildings are effective at insulating against heat and winter chill, while walls that have been thatched, woven, or braided with plant material allowing for the passage of air.
In Vanuatu, where subsistence farming, fishing, and traditional lifestyles are dominant, perpetuating knowledge of the forest and plants within are essential to maintaining the ability to build kastom houses.
Dr Gregory Plunkett, a botanist from The New York Botanical Garden who is studying traditional plant uses, as part of the collaborative Plants and People of Vanuatu project, says that since he began working in Vanuatu in 2003, modern houses built from cement, steel, and corrugated sheet metal have increased in popularity, but since Cyclone Pam, he has seen kastom housing make a comeback.
Within a year or two of Pam, Plunkett noticed every village he visited had built or was building a new saeklon haos.
“Right after the cyclone, people saw how important they were for their survival and that was this rebirth of interest in building them,” Plunkett says. “It’s part of a rebirth of the importance of forests.”
Unlike coconut palms and bamboo which are more widely available, many of the plants that give saeklon haos their strength are found only in the deep forest. “People realise that without maintaining the forest, they can’t maintain their traditional practices,” says Plunkett.
Helping perpetuate the use of kastom houses on Aneityum, Vanuatu’s southernmost inhabited island, are Wopa Nasauman, his brother Anon, and father Tavet. Nasauman is a jack-of-all-trades, skilled at hunting, fishing, subsistence agriculture, plant collecting, and building traditional houses like the one completed by his father just before Cyclone Pam where he and others took shelter.
In the same compound, Nasauman shows how a second round kastom house has no nails but is lashed together with vine cordage softened over a fire and then tied tightly enough to hold the house together.
Nasauman and his father add up all the different vines used to secure the house. They count five types of cordage, some treated with fire, others with sea water.
With his knowledge of forest plants and ability to build strong kastom houses, Nasauman feels prepared for even the most punishing storm, saying,
“In this house, if you were able to be here in the cyclone, you won’t hear any wind.”