Traditional dwellings (hale pili) were constructed of native woods lashed together with cordage most often made from olonā. Pili grass was a preferred thatching that added a pleasant odor to a new hale. Lauhala (pandanus leaves) or ti leaf bundles called pe‘a, were other covering materials used.
There were many loina (rules) associated with the construction of hale. The kahuna ku‘iku‘i puʻuone, priest who chose the location for a hale, had the final word on the important decision of site selection. The building of a new house was marked with ritual and a feast of dedication. (Bishop Museum)
The “birthing” ceremony of a new dwelling centered around the doorway of the house with the cutting of the piko (center, symbolizing the umbilical cord) of the house and offerings of fish. The kahuna o Lono recited a Pule Ho‘ola‘a Hale (House Dedication Prayer). (Bishop Museum)
During a tour of the Island of Hawaiʻi in 1823, missionary William Ellis noted the following, “The houses of the natives whom he had visited today, like most in this part of the island [Hilo district], where the pandanus is abundant, were covered with the leaves of this plant, which, though it requires more labour in thatching, makes the most durable dwellings.”
There is also less variety in the form of the Sandwich Island dwellings, which are chiefly of two kinds, viz., the kale noho (dwelling house), or halau (a long building) nearly open at one end, and, though thatched with different materials, they are all framed in nearly the same way.” (Ellis)
“The size and quality of a dwelling varies according to the rank and means of its possessor, those of the poor people being mere huts, eight or ten feet square, others twenty feet long, and ten or twelve feet wide, while the houses of the chiefs are from forty to seventy feet long. (Ellis)
Unlike our housing today, the single ‘hale’ was not necessarily the ‘home.’ The traditional Hawaiian home was the kauhale (Lit., plural house;) this was a group of houses forming the homestead – spatially separated – each serving a specific purpose, but paired male and female activity areas.
“Their houses are generally separate from each other: even in their most populous villages, however near the houses may be, they are always distinct buildings.” (Ellis)
A kauhale could consist of a cluster of dwellings in the mid-elevations for cultivating food, another cluster of dwellings on the shoreline for fishing, and perhaps even more higher up on the volcanic slopes for hunting and harvesting wood products.
For the fairly well-to-do family, these consisted of hale noa (house free from kapu) where all slept together, hale mua (men’s meeting/eating house, hale aina (women’s eating house,) hale pe‘a (menstruation house) and other needed dwellings (those for canoe makers and others used to house fishing gear.)
The two basic functional units were the common house or hale noa and the mua. Apparently, only a few households ever exhibited the full complement of structures, although sleeping and cook houses were present within most household complexes. (Handy & Pukui)
The main structure within the kauhale household complex was the common house, or hale noa, in which all the family members slept at night. It was the largest building within a family compound and the most weatherproof. (Loubser)
The house in which the men ate was called the mua; the sanctuary where they worshipped was called heiau, and it was a very tabu place. The house in which the women ate was called the hale aina.
These houses were the ones to which the restrictions and tabu applied, but in the common dwelling house, hale noa, the man and his wife met freely together. (Malo)
In most cases, the hale noa was mauka of the hale mua. Where this is not the case, the hale noa is nonetheless still on higher ground than the hale mua. This mauka-makai or high ground-low ground opposition might be significant in terms of the traditional Hawaiian divisions of space along gender lines. (Loubser)
This arrangement, under the kapu system, was very burdensome on the husband and wife. For instance, the husband was burdened and wearied with the preparation of two ovens of food, one for himself and a separate one for his wife. (Malo)
He would first prepare an oven of food for his wife, and, when that was done, he went to the house mua and started an oven of food for himself. He’s return to the wife’s oven peel the taro, pound it into poi, knead it and put it into the calabash for his wife. Then he’d return to do the same for himself. (Malo)
A huge change that came with the end of the kapu system (in 1819) was the mixing of the previously separate places for eating and sleeping. The book Native Planters describes:
“The simplicity and orderliness of the hale noa, and with them the sound, normal living of families, were destroyed when the kapu requiring men and women to eat separately was abolished. This meant that food was brought into the living quarters.”
“What had been a clean and neat sanctum for man and wife and their offspring became a free-for-all gathering place for all ages of both sexes.” (Handy & Pukui)
“The house was esteemed a possession of great value. It was the place where husband and wife slept, where their children and friends met, where the household goods of all sorts were stored.” (Malo)
“To act justly without trespassing or deceiving, not frequenting another’s house, not gazing wistfully upon your neighbor’s goods nor begging for anything that belongs to him – that is the prudent course.” (Malo)