One of the more notable architectural features in Barbados are the so-called Chattel Houses. These are—depending on whom you ask—a legacy of slavery or of freedom. Essentially, these are very small rectangular wooden homes designed to be light and mobile. The “Chattel” refers to, again, depending on whom you ask, the houses themselves or the people who lived in them. The real story is that they address the needs of poor landless people–tenants or sharecroppers–who often had to move from land plot to land plot. Having a small and easy take down. move, and set up again home as their own “chattel” made good sense and made this distinctive house form an early form of mobile home. They are all over the place and are the defining Bajan architectural statement.
Two variations on the theme just outside Bridgetown. Note how the one on the right is really a pile of houses.
The basic design is simple and easy to move from one place to another. Many houses sit on stone foundations, some sit on pillars, others only on rocks at each corner. Eighteenth-century Virginia documents talk about dragging cabins from place to place as the planting rotation changed and workers or overseers were needed in other parts of the acreage. Rather than having multiple homes with some in use and some out, moving a home once in a while was more preferable.
The chattel houses though have stuck and taken on a vernacular life of their own. They are everywhere—often two set side by side to make a single M roofed building, or equally often with a shed on the back or some amazing sprawl of boxes and sheds all piled up together. You can see them in bright colors or not even painted and all weather-work.
I have seen them with new Pella windows installed and others with no glass windows at all—just a slatted closure held open at the bottom with a propped stick. Most are about 15 feet by 6 feet and and I have seen center ridge roofs set high and some with very low pitches. I have seen them with hipped roofs and some with shed roofs. Most have center entrances but I have seen some around Bridgetown’s outskirts that have gable entrances like shotgun shacks.
Out on the north eastern coast near the town of Coach Hill, I came across a lone chattel house in a clearing next to the road. The ground had been burned and there was some trash nearby—but the door was gone and it was clearly unoccupied. I pulled over and hopped out. The house was made of very small light wood—no heavy framing and all wooden strips inside (no sheetrock for example). This one had a small shed addition which contained a toilet and a sink, but no evidence of plumbing. Here was the Tiny House par-excellence and I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in one—alone or with a family, this is a very small space. Obviously, much of one’s life would be lived outdoors or elsewhere. But having loved many an AT shelter, it was easy to imagine being quite happy in one—especially with the Atlantic stretching blue to the east within sight. Of course a good wind storm would knock my little domicile around like a cardboard box. But Barbados is spared most storms as a result of being outside the actual Caribbean basin, perhaps accounting for why these houses abound.