Canadian Urban Planning Grad Student Asks About Barbados Chattel Houses


Chattel House or High Rise?

Hi. I am a Canadian grad student in Urban Planning. I spent some time on the island last year. I recently turned in my thesis on affordable housing in Barbados and the relevance of the chattel house.

chattel-house-barbados.jpgI was wondering if I could get some Bajan opinions. In my paper, I make a case for the chattel house. I argue how strong the need for affordable housing is and show how financially and environmentally appropriate the chattel house may be as a low-cost housing solution.

barbados-chattel-housesI think highly of chattel houses, but I want to know how Bajans perceive them. Is there a strong social stigma associated with living them? Are they a desirable form of existing housing / new housing? How are chattel houses viewed culturally, symbolically, and socially, by different segments of the population, especially low-income households? Would low-income households to respond positively to a programme that subsidizes the self-help construction of chattel houses?

Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Banks chattel house photo by Shona

Other chattel house photos courtesy of Stephen Mendes’ Barbados Photo Gallery


Filed under Barbados

33 responses to “Canadian Urban Planning Grad Student Asks About Barbados Chattel Houses

  1. Please

    Hi BFP, I’m a local architect (previously from overseas) I’d be happy to correspond with this student…how can I get in touch w/ he/she?

  2. BFP

    We have the author’s email address, but no permission to publish it or their name… so if they are reading this, please let us know!

  3. victor

    Though charming, universaIIy admired and characteristic of Carribean styIe, the chatteI house is not impervious to hurricane, fire and termites . Have you heard of the Katrina House, an inexpensive soIution to hurricane probIems designed by a young architect in the wake of hurricane K ? GoogIe Katrinahouse, Iike a chattIe house, is hugeIy fIexibIe and just as good Iooking. If I recaII, the basic unit is stiII $10,000 though. But it CAN be moved from spot. You need to research how much to buiId a new chatteI house compared to a waII house. I know somene who just spent $20K US on buiIdin a one bedroom chatteI house.

  4. Urban planning and renewal must bear in mind issues of environmental sustainability which will & MUST include the depletion of our forestry resources in the Caribbean – especially in Guyana and throughout S. America.

    Many “so-called” urban/rural planners, architects and developers have been cutting down trees and planting housing without giving any thought to the effects on the ecology. Our environment in the Caribbean is getting noticeably hotter year on year with more and more devastating hurricane seasons – all because of excessive amounts of “greenHOUSE” gases.

    If we are to lower our “carbon” footprint – be ecologically sustainable and still continue the postmodern thrust to give people affordable housing – then government and private-sector partners must act in a resourceful manner that will dampen the effects on climate change while preserving our glorious paradise environment in Barbados and throughout the Caribbean.

    Europe is taking the lead in the forefront even before North America in respect to environmentally sustainable housing and development. If Barbados is looking for “green models” to implement, then it may need to look further afield and take the debate beyond the confines of a “talk-shop” to a platform of social and economic implementation.

    Sooner or later Caribbean governments MUST address this niggling issue – i.e, how to preserve the legacy of our historical heritage as against the contemporary issues of urban sprawl and renewal, green accountability, carbon neutrality and ecological sustainability.

    These are the ISSUES!!!

    I am willing to offer my wealth of academic research and resources along with our Associate Consultancy Advisory Program (ACAP) for companies, governments and institutions who need a turnkey empowerment plan to help shape their “GREEN” infrastructural development models…

    With the world economy in serious flux – climate change bearing an apocalyptic insignia and the global era entering a period of “moral hazard” governments alone cannot be allowed to make unilateral decisions without the agreed consensus of its citizens.

    Now is the time for all of us to act….

  5. Analyzer

    If you live in a ‘wall house’ you are probably considered middle or upper income versus than if you live in a chattel house. Although they are charming and adorable and people have nick nacks and paintings of them, I think most people would prefer to live in a ‘wall house’ especially when hurricane season comes around, although it must be stated that most hurricanes go north of Barbados, we have not had a major hurricane here since Hurricane Janet in the 1950s.

  6. Please

    Analyzer, would that be a finished or unfinished wall house???

  7. Lady Anon

    I live in a chattel house…very charming one built in the 1940s with the gabled roof etc…looks quite similar to the brown one in the pic in shape and size.

    I prefer chattel houses because they are cooler, especially in this climate, the heat coming off a wall house can be unbearable.

    But the maintenance costs on a chattel house is a b***ch. Yes, hardwood houses are a solution, but right now, rather than repair this house (again and again and again) I am looking to purchase…yes a wall house.

    Nostalgia vs practicality. In my experience, I would have to go with practicality.

  8. Erin


    I am the anonymous grad student. My name is Erin. Please feel free to email me:

  9. Sandra

    First off, I do believe that the reason that chattel houses have survived in Barbados is because the island hasn’t had a major hurricane since Janet in 1958. If the island was struck as regularly as Jamaica or Haiti, for example, there would be far less chattel houses. While they may be quickly (and cheaply) constructed after a hurricane, they are the least likely to survive one.

    It seems as if you’re looking for opinions of Bajans to chattel houses. So, I hope that this story helps. I grew up in a lovely chattel house in St. Michael. It is much more charming and pretty than most wall houses that I see when I visit Bim now. I am an American/Barbadian dual citizen living in New York City. I own a spacious condo in a lovely neighborhood. I am the first in my family to be college educated and I have two master’s degrees. When I told my family about plans to build (or purchase) a chattel house, renovate it and rent it to vacationers, they couldn’t understand why I would do such a thing. In their opinion, I was “beyond” a chattel house. My grandmother was the last in my family to own a chattel house. All of her children own large wall houses. So, it was seen as a “step back” for me to purchase a chattel house. While there is no overt stigma attached to living in a chattel, I would say that a wall house (even a dreadfully, ugly, unfinished one) is seen as a step up.

    Another practical inconveniences to living in a chattel is that it is not impervious to mice, TERMITES and roaches like a solid wall structure. I remember clearly running from mickey and his friends at night as a child. This is a very practical hygeine/health issue. In fact, as I ponder the decision to build/buy a chattel I always pause as I consider the costs of termite treatments and battling vermin invasions. I also wonder what would happen if another “big one” hits the island.

    My brother is in the process of building a wall house and he will eventually demolish the chattel house where his family currently lives. As he does this I do feel a sense of loss regarding his chattel house. These structures are an important part of Bajan culture and history. They are a living tangible testament to industriousness and ingenuity of our ancestors. As I watch my brother make plans to demolish his home, there is no practical reason for me to argue against it. He has to house his young family as best he can and a chattel is not the best practical solution to this.

    Clearly I am biased here. I love the chattel house and I hope that your research can offer some practical reasons to preserve them and construct more for low-income housing. I hope that your research can inspire private investments and governmental aid in this direction.

    I do have to note though, that I spend most of my time living in New York City. I visit Bim twice a year or so. It is so easy for me to visit and see the chattels as “quaint” and “historical.”

    If you haven’t done so already, you should visit Bim and interview some chattel-house dwellers in person. You may get a better variety and depth of opinions. I think that your research can prove to be very valuable and would certainly be worth the trip. Perhaps you can stay with a local family in a chattel? This would provide you with much more insight.

    Good luck with your research!

  10. Tell Me Why

    A chattel house is basically a wooden house that can be dismantled. These houses were usually built on rented lands and can be removed if the owner need back the land. You will be surprised that these chattel might withstand hurricanes better than the monstrous wall house with overhanging roofs and pockets that can strap winds. The chattel house with its high gable allows the wind to flow over the roof, thus protecting the house from feeling the full force of the wind.

    Canadian and American homes are made mainly from wood that’s why devastation are high during a hurricane. Maybe, Barbadian craftsmen can teach them a thing or two regarding construction of a hurricane resistant chattel.

  11. Hants

    Wall house is safer if a hurricane hits.

    It is better to stay in your own “wall” house than with 187 new best friends in a Hurricane shelter.

  12. Hants

    In the tropics no structure is impervious to mice, TERMITES and roaches.

    They will enter your building through doors,windows, in grocery bags etc.

    A properly constructed wall house is better protection during a hurricane than a chattel house.

    Anyone who can afford to build a wall house in Barbados should do so.

    cause wen de hurricane come……

  13. Robin Hood


    Is it possible to include a pic of a wooden house with a regular comment via this submission platform? If so how would one have it done?

  14. Anonymous

    I believe the last hurricane, Janet, which hit Barbados was in 1953

  15. Tell Me Why

    anonymous. it was 1955

  16. Paradox

    I am not sure how the name ‘chattel House’ came about. In the early days most people did not own land. If one could afford to build a chattel house,he could rent the land . The land was often owned by someone else. If the land owner needed the land for any reason the person who owns the house must be able to move it as soon as he could. The toilet and bath were unattached from the house. The chattel house could be dismantled at the four corners and moved like a ‘flat-pack’. Often one had to apply to the court for permission to move it and a time limit was given and the house was moved on a Sunday morning. The house could then be erected on stones at the four corners and at certain points in the middle under the beams to give the flooring for extra support.
    In those early days people were limited to materials for building. Wood mainly pine and galvanise for the roofing. Two other types of roofing materials could be had; (1) shingles made from wood and (2) a type of asbestos which was referred to as ‘everite’
    The other type of house available was made from stone and soft clay was used for mortar to hold the stones together, until cement was available to mix with sand. The materials for the roof was the same as the chattel house and the shape of the roofs were similar—“pointed”.
    Later coral stone was mined by hand, using a ‘hand drill’ about 8 to 10 feet long with a flat point at one end and a rounded point at the other end. By using coral stone, the walls of the houses were flatter than those made with stone. The interior walls were sometimes decorated with paper(all kind; newspaper,brown paper), and the paste was made from flour to hide the imperfection. This flour often encouraged unwanted insects which would eat the flour and the paper.
    The chattel house on the other hand, was basic, like a car without upholstery. If a piece of the board (side or floor), needed replacing it was easy to remove and replaced.
    Later carpenters became more adventurous; the pointed roof was fitted almost flat, ‘sloping roof’.
    As more material became available and more Bajans were able to buy land; the concrete block became the ‘norm’, to build houses for strength. Steel rods are used to reinforce the concrete. The latter can last much longer and are less prone to termite infestation and high winds. The block or wall house is a form of investment and can be used as collateral. If one owns a wall/block house, it is most likely he owns the land it is built on.
    The difference between a chattel and wall/block house is like, the difference between a skoda car and BMW/Merc, perhaps a Rolls Royce, depending on the size and decor.

  17. J

    Dear Erin:

    A chattle house is movable property, much like pots, pans, beds and such like.

    Since the law in Barbados was changed in the late 70’s or early 80’s to permit plantation tenants to purchase a house building lot from the plantation fairly cheaply more people have decided to “build wall” since they now own their land, instead of renting it as previously.

    Chattle houses especially if made of pine or other “soft woods” are attractive to termites and so expensive to maintain. The termite poison is probably not too good for the environment either.

    Wall houses are believed to be more hurricane resistant.

    I believe that the covenants which govern land ownership in most modern housing developments do not permit the building of chattle houses. So yes while I was raised in a chattle house, I do not now live in one.

    Wall houses have come to be seen as evidence of a family’s economic (and perhaps social?) progress.

    Chattle houses because the are made almost entirely of wood are more vulnerable to complete destruction by fire.

    It may be more difficult to adequately insure a chattle house against fire and wind damage/destruction.

    Even though the old time chattle houses were built without window and door screens there is no reason while modern chattle houses cannot be adequately screened.

    Some modern chattle houses are also build and anchored to a concrete foundation to reduce the risk of damage/destruction by storm winds.

    Some modern chattle houses are built with the toilet and bath and oftentimes the kitchen out of wall (concrete blocks). This may mean technically that it is no longer a chattle as the family does not intend to move the house. In these cases either the family owns the land or more rarely the landlord (who is often a landlady) has given permission for the family to build a concrete structure on the land.

    Best wishes as you carry out your research project.

  18. J

    If I had to choose between chattle houses and high rises for low income housing I’d be inclined to choose chattel houses especially for families with young children. The yard or a quiet street in front of a chattle house can provide necessary supervised playing space for young children and teens. It is almost impossible for parents of young children and teenagers who live in high rises to properly supervise the outdoor play of their children. I believe that poor or absent supervision of children’s outdoor play and or the lack of outdoor play might be some of the causes of some of the pathological behaviors seen in dense high rise neighborhoods such as in Jane/Finch.

    to properly supervise outdoor play wehn families of young children live in high rises.

    However high rises might work best for singles, the elderly (with elevators) and for rich people who have access to golf clubs etc.

  19. Erin

    For a draft of my thesis:

    Click to access DRAFT.pdf

    Thanks for all the comments. I will integrate them into the revised version.

    PS. I did spend time in Barbados. I stayed at Bellairs in Holetown for 6 weeks last summer.

  20. The Scout

    The modern version of a wooden house makes it much weaker than the older version. As a young man in 1955 when huricane Janet struck Barbados, there were some wall houses that fell right next to wooden houses that withstood the fury. There is a difference between a wooden house and a chattel house; the difference is in the construction. That is a technical issue. While the wooden house is cooler, the wall house is easier to maintain, however wooden houses are becoming popular in Barbados again but most built out of a termite resistent hard wood mainly from Guyana. The stigma, once associated in living in a wooden house is deminishing, as stated before there are some beautifully designed and constructed wooden houses in Barbados. The most huricane resistent roof whether, wooden or wall structure is the HIP ROOF or commonly referred as the FOUR HIP roof. There is also the PARPIT roof at if properly constructed will be even more huricane resistent than the hip but unfortunately, they are very technical to build and if you get it wrong you can have problems with leakage. Also there is little difference in constructing a low-cost wall house or wooden house, in fact, there is a new system now in Barbados, where the low-cost wall house is built of solid concrete slabs that are then bolted together, thus reducing the labour and material wastage which accounts for approx 40% of constructing a conventional wall house. This is a very complexed and indepth subject. I was a building contractor for many years, I have only touch the surface of the subject you mentioned. If what I have posted makes any sense to you, please respond and I would be willing to be more indeth in my explanation

  21. The Scout

    The precast concrete slabs are more interlocked rather than just bolted together, as stated above. Sorry for the misinformation.

  22. Hants

    We spent $300million to build a cricket stadium.

    We spent $300million to build a prison that is arguably the best hurricane shelter in Barbados.

    Surely we can build near hurricane proof housing for the poor.

    The alternative is to build more hurricane shelters and import a few hundred portable toilets.

    cause eventually…de hurricanes gine come.

  23. Duppy Lizard

    One only has to take a look at the commercial chattel houses at Sunset Crest in St. James to appreciate how attractive they can be. Situated in landscaped gardens with meandering walkways, they are far more pleasing to look at compared with some of the monstrosites built today. But of course everyone now has to announce that they have “arrived” – the bigger the better, and lets not forget the arches – more arches = more status.

    I grew up in a chattel house and remember the stigma and embarrassment when my friends or school mates saw where I lived.

    However, today I appreciate their uniqueness. With a little imagination a green heart chattel house fits into the landscape of a tropical island.

    In the not too distant future the entire island will be covered by houses crammed into small lots similar to those under construction just off the highway on the way to the airport.

  24. yatinkiteasy

    I hate to see the list of “properties to be demolished” by the MOH every now and again, in the press..about a hundred ..most are all wood (read chattel) houses…why should one individual at MOH decide on the fate of these sometimes charming and tourist attracting be left with a vacant lot instead? There must be some lucrative contracts going out for the razing of sometimes perfectly good and restorable buildings.. I smell a rat!

  25. Lady Anon

    Because…sometimes these chattel houses that are demolished need to be demolished!

    Many of the uprights are just shells because the termites have eaten them through and all it needs is a good medium wind and it all comes down.

    Many of the houses themselves are just shells and have been left vacant for so long that they are home to vagrants and vermin.

    Many of them are so overgrown with bush that only the roof could be seen.

    Most of them are not perfectly good or restorable…and I have no knowledge of MOH demolishing a perfectly good, restorable structure.

  26. 119

    you’re right! It was 1955. Thanks

  27. victor

    Did anyone check out the Katrina house website yet? You end up with a fIat pack but not made of wood and abIe to resist hurricanes yet Iooks Iike a chatteI house and has the same add-on fIexibiIity.

  28. F

    Hmm.. wonder if you should have talked to some Bajans BEFORE you submitted this thesis?

  29. karin

    i loved that. it was not useful but it was intresting.
    i wodere if there is anything else you have. thank you for letting me read this, unknown person *smiles*

  30. sakura

    i NEVER have been to barbados before……but i have been to trinidad and jamaca, espically since im half jamacan

  31. Sandra


    Thank you for sharing your thesis with us and for honoring the legacy of the Barbadian Chattel house.

  32. SDFireSystems

    Would want to be there some day…