Anatomy of a Plankhouse

The chief’s house is built in the usual way, of logs and hewn board, with a roof of cedar bark, and lined inside with mats. The floor is boarded and matted and there is a depression in the ground about a foot in depth and four feet in width, extending the whole length of the building in the middle, where the fires are made.”

— John Kirk Townsend, 1839


Line drawing of the plankhouse at the Meier site. It would have taken roughly 55,000 board feet of lumber —52 cedar logs to build a plankhouse this size. By contrast an average three bedroom American home requires only 12,000 board feet of lumber (Ames, et. al. 1992, 286). Drawing by Cameron Smith, Portland State University

Side view of the Cathlapotle Plankhouse, February 2014. The large cedar logs were imported from British Columbia | courtesy Collier Erwin

Builders of a plankhouse started by digging two to three feet below ground to place a floor as long and wide as the intended home. Next, the builders put 12 to 18 foot high poles along the center of the site about 20 feet apart. The length of the house determined the number of corresponding rows of upright poles placed along each edge to support the rafters. At the Meier site, fire-cracked rock and large stones surrounded the posts, most likely to secure them. Outside, two-foot wide planks comprised the exterior walls, with overlapping cedar planks for the roof.

At its center, each house had multiple hearths, usually about 12 inches deep. Women wove cattail mats to cover the floor. Residents made their beds in the elevated platforms or benches along the perimeter of a house, while above them a range of smoked and dried foods and other goods swung from baskets held by poles in the rafters. The overlapping roof and dug out floor protected inhabitants from the cold, wet Northwest winters. Residents could adjust roof planks to allow smoke to escape from the hearth fires. A small oval doorway, covered by a wide section of plank along the shorter wall, usually faced the water. Opening the door required swinging the plank to one side.