Traditional and modern house construction on the Marshall Islands

compiled by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

Scholars classify the Marshallese house as a transitory form between a house built on level ground and a house built on stilts. The traditional house consists only of a roof structure which is set on four main posts, which protrude between 1.3 and 2m above the level ground. Walls are commonly absent and the area underneath the roof is utilized as the living area. It is covered with a coral gravel spread in a manner like the area outside the house. To make the area more comfortable, it is then covered with mats.

The roof has a loft, which can be accessed through a hatch from below. The loft was used as a sleeping area and to store the precious things such a good mats and the like. Since it was sat on posts with a very smooth surface it was almost rat proof (hence the name: im kidjerik -rat house).

As mentioned, traditionally there were no walls. With the arrival of the Europeans and the advent of Christianity, the houses were increasingly furnished with walls, either only on the wind (weather)-side or all around

The roof rests on a frame made from two roof plates and two cross-beams which have been tied to the plates. This frame forms both the base of the roof and the frame with the floor of the loft. In the middle of each of the crossbeams a king post is placed, which supports the ridge pole. The rafters are set out in pairs, and meet at the ridge in such a fashion that they pass underneath ridge pole, thus partially supporting the weight of the ridge pole. Across the rafters tile battens are tied horizontally onto which slats are attached to which the individual Pandanus thatch units are fastened. Then a central ridge batten is attached on top of the pole. The ends of the roof at the gables were completed with gable battens. In some cases the roof structure could be reinforced by diagonal battens.

Marshallese house. Construction details

The gable itself was also constructed by rafters running from the ridge pole to the cross beam, by batten attached perpendicular to them and by tile slats tied on top. The roof thatch units consists of brown, fallen Pandanus leaves which had been wrapped around a "backbone" of a wooden stick and tied with the central ribs of coconut leaves.

Traditional Marshallese house seen on Maloelap in 1910.

Traditional Marshallese house seen on Majuro in 1910

Traditional Marshallese houses of deviating construction seen on Majuro in 1910.

The thatching begins at the bottom and by tying successive layers of thatch units to the tile slats the ridge is reached. The ridge itself is covered with old mats or woven coconut fronts. Such a roof is said to be watertight for 1-2 years, but longer on the northern islands which have less rainfall. The attic or loft rests on the roof frame. Several cross beams have been tied onto the longitudinal beams (roof plate).

In the 1910s some houses had their posts not buried in the ground but sitting on large stones which had been partially buried in the ground. The living area underneath the roof was also bordered by stones. At the turn of the century more recent houses had bottom plates with a floor made of thin planks and round pieces of wood.

The descriptions as well as the pictures available for the traditional Marshallese houses clearly indicate that the entire area underneath the roof had been covered with the coral gravel spread.

There were a number of different house types at the turn of the century. The main houses were the living houses (iem). Apart from these we know of cooking houses, commonly covered with coconut thatch and without a loft, houses to scrape Pandanus and houses for menstruating women. Tattooing houses, meeting houses and boats houses were rare. To dry Pandanus preserves and protect them against rats small houses were built on four high posts which consisted of two open platforms and a saddle roof. Small houses were built for the spirits of the deceased, in which magicians and sorcerers kept some belongings.

Adze blades made of the shell of the giant clam (Tridacna) hafted in a knee-shaped handle and tied with coconut fibre (sennit); collected in the 1880s in Jaluit (Knappe Collection; photographs Courtesy of Museum für Thüringer Volkskunde, Erfurt).

Marshallese terms for parts of the house

                             Steinbach-Gr    Erdland     Krämer &      Abo et al.     
                                össer                    Nevermann                    
House Part                       1902      1914          1938          1976           
Coral spread                      --       --            edjeman       Lã             
Cross battens for loft            --                     djädädje,     --             
Cross beam                       tur       jä            durr djä      tur            
Cross beams for loft                       lon in iem    ra            --             
Diagonal Battens               aunwölle    aninwólä      --            añinwolã       
Floor of Loft                    bwo       böo           bo            po             
Frame                             --       --            --            kãdikdik       
Gable                           djabbo     kijmen,       --            --             
Gable batten                    tortor     dordor        tortar,       tortot         
Kingpost                        ruling     rullin        druleng       --             
Loft                              --       --            im kidjerik   --             
Longitudinal battens for          --                     wádädje       --             
Longitudinal beams for loft       --                     moe & moerik  --             
Open part below roof              --       --            lóau          --             
Post                             jur       jor           djur          joor           
Rafter                            --       --            katal         jekpad,        
                                                         (keerer       kattal         
Ridge batten                      --       lajogemen     lädjókemen    --             
Ridgepole                       burwoj     borwaj        borowadj      bõrwaj         
Roof                              --       --            --            maltu, tõrak   
Roof batten                    djekeber    jekeber         djokeber     jinniboor     
Roof plate                        --       --               kaelep          --        
Saddle roof                   älik in im   älig in iem        --            --        
Stick in thatch unit              --       --              keinadj          --        
Thatch unit                       --       --            adj, adj, ad       aj        
Tile slat                         --       kärikrik       kerikerik         --        
Wall                             jojö      jojö             djädji          --        
Window flaps                               rönel bällok                --             

Glossary of terms for different types of buildings

Type of building               Steinbach-Grö  Erdland          Krämer &      Abo et al.     
                                   sser                        Nevermann                    
Boat house                          --        --             --             --              
Chief's house                       --        --             imalablab      --              
Church                              --        --             --             mõn jar         
Cook house                        bellak      belak          bellak, iman   mõn kuk         
Hospital                            --        --             --             mõn taktõ       
House for the demented              --        --             --             mõn bwebwe      
Hut used to dry Pandanus            bui       bui            bui            --              
Latrine/Toilet building             --        --             --             mõn bwidej,     
                                                                            mõn kõppojak    
Light house                         --        --             --             miade           
Living house                        iem       im             iem            em              
Meeting house                       --        --             imalablab      mõn kweilok     
Men's House                         --        --             --             ja              
Menstruation house                 juken      jugin          djuken         --              
Pandanus scraping house             --        --             iem an kilok   --              
Restaurant building                 --        --             --             mõn mõnã        
School house                        --        --             --             mõn jikuul      
Store House/Ware house              --        --             --             joko            
Tattooing house                     --        --             imalablab      --              
Temporary House                     --        --             --             imon kõppãd     
Town Council House                  --        --             --             mõn kweilok     
Trade store                         --        --             --             mõn wia         
Two Storey House                    --        --             --             nikai           
Whore House                         --        --             --             mõn utlam       

Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000). Historic Demographic Information for the Marshall Islands -- Majuro Atoll . Albury:
URL: http:/

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) Dirk H.R. Spennemann 2000