Story: Māori housing – te noho whare

Page 1. Wharepuni to European house

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Pre-colonial housing

Archaeological evidence from 14th-century sites in Palliser Bay, south Wairarapa, shows that Māori lived in whānau- or family-based kāinga (villages) near to food-rich rivers, beaches and forests. Their dwellings were rectangular in shape and resembled those of their former homes in Polynesia. This basic form became the wharepuni (sleeping house). The Palliser Bay settlements were permanent, but groups also occupied temporary settlements as they moved from one seasonal resource to the next, returning to a permanent base in winter.

English explorers James Cook and Joseph Banks, visiting in 1769, observed some Māori communities living in fortified settlements or . Such were the size of some of them that they were described as towns – in one pā there were reportedly 500 dwellings. However, the hapū- or whānau-based kāinga remained the norm in most parts of New Zealand. These featured a variety of building types such as pātaka (storehouse), kāuta (cooking house) and sometimes a wharenui (meeting house). The most common type, however, was the wharepuni.

Sacred entrance

The passing through kūwaha (doorway) and pare (carved lintel) of a whare has great symbolic importance. The pare carvings often represent the separation of the originators Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, and relate to the cancelling of personal tapu by a female figure on entering the whare. Other pare figures include particularly tapu ancestors, who are the protectors of the whare.


Traditional wharepuni had a proportion of length to breadth of 1.5–2 to 1. Roofs were gabled (with a sloping pitch). Some had a whakamahau (porch) and an interior hearth. Kūwaha (doorways) were low and while some had a matapihi (window) others did not. Most were constructed of timber, raupō (bulrush), ponga (tree fern) and kiri (bark) with a thatched roof. They had earth banked up against the walls and some had earthed-over roofs. The earth floors were sunken. There was a single space inside with a central passage and hearth; sleeping places lined either side. Smaller wharepuni had no central passage. The whakamahau was a work and social space, a place to receive visitors and engage in activities that were tapu inside, such as eating.

A second type was free-standing wharepuni without earthed-up walls. These were constructed of less-durable materials such as raupō and kiri, and became more popular after the arrival of Europeans.

European influences

From the early 1800s settlers introduced the European house to New Zealand, where internal space was divided into rooms with different functions: kitchen, living room, bedrooms and so on. Some Māori chiefs were early adopters of European-style dwellings. Ngāpuhi chief Rāwiri Taiwhanga was the first prominent Māori to live in a European-style dwelling, erecting a large cob cottage with a shingle roof in Paihia in 1831. In the early 1850s Te Āti Awa chief Wiremu Tako Ngātata (known as Wī Tako) lived in a small cottage at Ngāūranga pā, near Wellington.

Ill at ease

In 1892 a Waikato government official reported that of those Māori who had built wooden houses, few actually occupied them. ‘There is a want of sociability about a wooden house that makes it unsuitable for the Maori mind (and body) for permanent residence. They cannot sit all round the fire as in the case of the fire in the centre of a Maori whare. They do not feel at home, or at ease, on the boarded floor of the pakeha house as on the fern and mat-covered floor of the Maori whare.’1

Most Māori however continued to live in wharepuni. From the 1870s some of these included European materials, such as door knobs, nails, sawn timber, sheet metal (for roof ridges) and glazed windows. From the mid-1880s free-standing whare began to incorporate chimneys and have higher walls and doors. Chimneys allowed smoke to escape, paving the way for internal cooking. At the same time the side-entrance whare with a verandah became popular. This resembled a European cottage, but was based on the side-entrance wharau, a temporary wharepuni.

Regional variations

From the 1870s the government encouraged Māori communities to build wooden houses in the European style as these were seen as more civilised and healthy. In 1882 an official reported that most houses in Māori communities in Canterbury and Otago ‘are now built of wood and contain three or four rooms, besides a kitchen … some of the dwellings are comfortable, commodious and well furnished.’2 By 1886 the Wairarapa settlements of Te Ore Ore and Pāpāwai both had ‘very good’ timber houses.3 In other regions the shift to European-style dwellings was slower or even resisted until the early 20th century.

  1. Timaru Herald, 31 Aug 1892, p. 4. Back
  2. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1881, G-8, p. 16. Back
  3. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1886, G-1, p. 17. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Māori housing – te noho whare - Wharepuni to European house', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 March 2023)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 Sep 2013