Environmental Adaptation Of Traditional Building Constructions And Techniques In Nias


“Tano Niha” land of mankind is what the people of Nias are calling their homeland. In ancient days head hunting, ancestor worship, feasts of merit and a stratified society composed on noble men, commoners and slaves shaped the living of the small island.

In former days Nias was a wild place, overgrown with jungle, with only few settlements situated inside the island far from the coast. Today there are many settlements along the shoreline, and you can find large plantations on the island. Only few is left from the original forest and good building timber is becoming scarce. Nowadays visitors of the populated country can hardly imagine that old travel stories describe Nias as an uninhabited island.

1500 years ago settlers from Southeast Asia started to populate the island from its centre. Due to the rough topography most of the settlements were erected inland, in the most southern and most northern parts of the island. The territories were isolated and developed independently. Differences in social organization and village formation divide Nias into three distinct regions: north, central and south. Between the regions you will find linguistic, social and cultural differences, as well as diversities in architecture.

Architecture of North Nias
Traditional villages in the northern part of consist either of groups of 6 to 12 oval houses, which are being oriented longitudinal-side towards the street or single cottages far away from each other, also in oval shape. In former times the settlements where fortified with fences of bamboo or with an earth walls overgrown with trees.

Fig. 1: A Settlement in North Nias

In front of the houses traditionally megaliths are placed. These stones symbolize the connection between the living and the dead. They reflect the social status of the house owner. Nias is famous for its megalith culture, culminating in the elaborate pieces of South Nias.
The houses were entered from the village square, through a bottom flap underneath the house. A staircase has replaced this entrance or a front porch as this defensive preparation is not needed any longer.
The steeply pitched roofs are a notable feature of Nias houses. Still most of them are covered with palm leaves although the use of tin is getting more popular. In North Nias it is a light construction with an unobstructed roof space, which provides upper storage room above the main living floor. Skylight windows allow the daylight to enter the interior of the building and encourage the circulation of air.
This kind of opening is peculiar to the island of Nias and cannot be found elsewhere in the Archipelago.

Fig. 2: Skylight windows of a Nias house

The interior of the North Nias house is surprisingly light. Besides the skylights in the roof, large openings with louvers provide the main source of daylight illumination and ventilation. The louvers and the vast roof space enforce the air circulation in the house, providing a comfortable climate within the building. The living floor is divided into a meeting room, “Talu salo” and a variable number of bedrooms. The kitchen and sanitary rooms are situated in an annex on the backside of the house.
The house is hardly furnished, the inhabitants belongings stored in chests. The most important piece of furniture is a long plank below the louvers, which the tenants use as a bench. From there they overlook the village square and get easily into contact with the people on the street and in other houses. Considering an average of 250 days of rain per year, these views options, together with the big meeting room, enable essential social contact.

Fig. 3: Light interior

The whole building though oval in floor plan, is elevated onto an orthogonal substructure of several rows of pillars and numerous diagonal posts. To maximize the elasticity of the construction the pillars are not settled in the ground but rest on top of stone foundations. This detail is a very common constructive wood protection avoiding the direct contact between wood and earth to make the construction more durable.

Fig. 4: Foundation of a building in North Nias

Architecture of Central Nias
Although the settlement history of Nias has its roots in Central Nias nowadays the architecture of this region appears as a hybrid of northern and southern styles. Like in the villages of North Nias the settlements are a collective of single buildings. But different from the north the houses are situated with its eaves facing the village square. This orientation and the rectangular floor plan are also found in the South Nias villages.

Fig. 5: House in Central Nias

Characteristic features of the architecture especially in Central Nias are decoration and ornamental art. At the fronts samples and animal representations serve as protection for the house and its inhabitants. Other symbols inform about the conditions of the family regarding fertility, for example the number of women living in the house.
The hybrid typology of the Central Nias houses has not yet been fully examined. Research on its origin and influences on Northand South Nias types will form an important part of our project.

Fig. 6: Decoration in Central Nias

Architecture of South Nias
Villages in South Nias are situated on hills and are named after their location. In the past, when warfare and headhunting raids were endemic, an outer palisade of sharpened bamboo stakes fortified the village with a deep ditch behind.

Fig. 7: Settlement in South Nias

The settlements can consist of several hundred dwellings arranged on either side of paved street, which may be up to 100 meters long. Due to the elevated sites grand stone staircases form the beginnings of the streets. The basic linear street pattern can be enlarged to T- or L shaped configuration.
In the covered area in front of the houses along the street semipublic space is used for working, socialising and for transition. A drainage gutter defines the border. The following area towards the street is reserved for the megaliths as representation space. This zone is called “wall of stones” (öli batu) and indicates the rank of the householders. The megaliths are a kind of petrified model of the social hierarchy and feasts of merit. The stones are classified by gender, and come in a variety of forms, which include menhirs, benches and circular seats.

Fig. 8: Nias hosts an important megalith culture

The house of the chief is usually the largest structure and is located at the centre of the village. Besides used to be a meeting house, called bale.
The standard typology of the South Nias house is a rectangular shaped elevated row house construction oriented with the eaves towards the street. The substructure is made of 4 rows of strong pillars (Ehomo), reaching from ground to first level. Diagonal posts like in North-Nias houses support them. But on the contrary to this typology here the v-shaped columns are situated
at the very front, acting as support and as representative element. Again, all house posts rest on foundation stones on one hand to prevent them from rotting and on the other hand to make the construction as a whole more flexible. The space created beneath the house is used for storage and as a stable.

Fig. 9: Facade in South Nias

Between two coupled houses covered entrance terraces are shared by pairs of adjacent households. Neighbouring houses are also connected with doors to provide escape routes, which
were needed in the past.
A central fireplace divides the interior space into a public room in front and sleeping rooms in the back. The front room is lighted by an opening, which is stretching over the whole street facade and is secured by a wooden grid. Like in the north the furniture is sparse. Constructive elements of the cantilevered front facade create different floor levels in the interior space, being used as benches and for storage purposes.

Fig. 10: Interior

The steeply pitched roofs are constructed with a set of inclined rafters, supported by roof beams and numerous horizontal and vertical elements on different levels. Though light the construction is very coherent and stable against seismic movements. Like in North Nias skylight windows provide extra light and ventilation. In former times they also had the function of an emergency exit. 
Decorative elements at the interior show an advanced craftsmanship. Elaborate and detailed carvings at the pillars may show arms to welcome guests and fertility symbols.
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