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Structural Genius of Indigenous Nias House Architecture

Hafiz AMIRROL (25209022)


Department of Architecture
Institut Teknologi Bandung, Indonesia

Abstract

Indigenous knowledge in traditional architecture have been addressing the subject of


designing and building structures within the context of native cultures and practices,
and covers a broad range of building types, forms and uses. This paper will try to
examine the structural genius found in the traditional Nias houses, located in the
remote island of Nias, North Sumatera, Indonesia. The focus of this research will be
traditional houses of North and South Nias, as they resembles many unique
indigenous architectural and structural systems. The houses studied here are
outstanding examples of the adaptation to specific environmental condition of the
island that modern generation architects and designers can learn from. This paper will
also explain how these indigenous structural features of the houses successfully
prevented the houses from being damaged or collapsed during the devastating strong
earthquake that hit Nias Island on March 28, 2005. It is hoped that this paper will
help in disseminating indigenous knowledge practiced by the people in North and
South Nias for the betterment of the built environment, particularly in Indonesia.

Keywords: indigenous knowledge, traditional house, Nias, structural adaptation,


base isolation, earthquake resistant

Introduction
Indigenous knowledge in architecture is a very important scope of studies since they
represent specific long-standing traditions and practices of certain regional or local
communities. Knowledge that is based on the locality and condition of the living
environment are often the best approach in responding to good architectural practice
and design. The building knowledge in indigenous architecture is also often
transported by local traditions and spiritual believes and is thus based largely upon
the context or the genius loci of the environment (Antar, 2010). This kind of local
wisdom were achieved over time through the long process of trial and error, and
handed down through many generations. They evolve over time to reflect and suit the
environmental, cultural and historical context in which it exists.

This paper will try to examine the magnificent indigenous knowledge applied to
houses found in the remote island of Nias. The unique and local characteristics of
architectural and structural elements found on these houses reflect the practice of
local knowledge that specifically represents the architecture within its local context.
This study will focus on traditional houses found in the area of North and South Nias,
and will explain much on how does the application of traditional construction
methods also act as earthquake-resistant elements for the houses. While many modern
buildings constructed with conventional reinforced concrete structure collapsed
during the strong March 28, 2005 earthquake, and caused many casualties, these
traditional houses survived without any damage.

Nias Island
The island of Nias lies off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Its mountainous
geographical condition with heavy forest is about 150 km long and 50 km wide, and
is generally divided into three areas – the North, Centre, and South. Big rivers and
valleys, making the island not densely populated, also characterize the topography of
the main island. The capital of Nias is Gunungsitoli, while the largest town in the
South is Teluk Dalam. Traditionally, villages were built inland, away from the sea.
High and deliberately inaccessible places were favored, and many villages
incorporate the word hili (hill) or bawo (mountain), with varying layouts
characterized with unique construction features that represent the cosmological
believes of the community. Besides from symbolizing spiritual meanings, these
features also act as earthquake resistant elements for the houses.

Nias is located on a very active tectonic area, lying on the fracture zone of the
Eurasian and Indo-Australian tectonic plates, making it prone to earthquake. In the
aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake, 80% of modern buildings and
houses collapse and caused 900 people to lose their lives. The strong lateral forces,
inadequate reinforcement detailing and heavy materials are the main factors for the
structural failures of these modern buildings. On the other hand, equipped with
unique structural features such as the traditional system of base isolation, X-type
bracing, complex arrangement of wooden columns and lightweight roofing materials,
traditional Nias houses proved to be earthquake resistant. (Pudjisuryadi, Lumantarna
and Lase, 2007)
In the indigenous architecture of Nias houses, special constructions have been
developed over many generations, learning from the local conditions and
characteristics of the island. One of the most interesting building element found on
these traditional houses are the foundations and the elevation that have unique and
complex arrangement of vertical and diagonal columns. Although the vernacular
architecture of Nias is slowly being left out due to the impact of modernism, little
interests shown by the younger generation, and high maintenance cost (Silas, 2007),
the genius of the local knowledge in constructing these houses must be preserved and
disseminate for later generations.

Typology of Traditional Nias Houses


This paper will focus on two areas of Nias Island – the North and South:

North Nias
Traditional villages in the northern part of the island consist either of clusters of six to
twelve oval-shaped houses. These clusters are oriented longitudinally towards the
street and are located far away from other clusters. On the front part of the houses,
megalith structures are commonly placed, and these stones symbolize the connection
between the living and the dead. They also reflect the social status of the house
owner. Houses were entered from a village square – an area which now serves the
purpose for mitigation during the event of earthquake. The design of the settlement
adapted well with its environment, and all elements were formed and placed to
function with specific purposes.

Most traditional houses found on the northern part of Nias, known as Omo Hada, are
made of light construction methods. The whole building is elevated onto orthogonal-
shaped substructure of several rows of wooden beams and planks supported by a
complex arrangement of posts (ehomo) and X-type bracings (diwa). One factor that
might made these houses survived the strong earthquake is probably the non-fixed
base support that provide maximum elasticity (Lase, 2005). These structures do not
settled in the ground but rest on top of stone foundations, thus act as base isolation.
This kind of detailing is also efficient to protect the timber structures from direct
contact with earth, making it more durable and long lasting.
Figure 1: Overall configuration and floor plan of Omo Hada
Source: Lase, 2005

The platform of the house is relatively stiff if subjected to lateral force. The lateral
resisting components of the house are the vertical posts and diagonal bracings, placed
below the floor. Six members of these vertical posts were lengthen to support the roof
structure of the house. The oval-shaped floor of the house measures about 12m x 8m,
with orthogonal beam grids used as the floor structure, covered with 3 cm thick
wooden floor. The average height of the wall is about 1.6 meters with many openings
for natural ventilation. The structure of the roof consists of vertical members (taru
mbumbu and silalo yawa) and horizontal members (alisi). The roof is covered with
dried thatch leaves, making it very light. Skylight window flaps on the roof allow
daylight to enter the interior of the building and also encourage natural ventilation.

Figure 2: Skylight and lush openings of Omo Hada (left) and frame system (right)
Source: Amirrol, 2006 (left) and Lase, 2005 (right)
South Nias
Villages in South Nias are situated on hilly areas and the settlements may consists of
several hundred dwellings arranged on either side of paved street, which may stretch
up to the length of 100 meters long. The basic linear street patterns are of T or L-
shaped configurations. Due to the elevated sites, grand stone staircases were
constructed to arrive at the village settlements, and marked the beginning of the long
street. The typology of the traditional houses here is constructed as rectangular-
shaped row houses. These row houses are elevated above ground, with the roof eaves
projecting towards the street. Everything within the village – its layout, style, and
positioning of the houses demonstrate differences in social rank, with the chief’s
house (Omo Sebua), and the council’s house (Bale), positioned at the centre of the
village intersection. (Waterson, 1990)

The substructure of the houses is made of four rows of strong pillars (ehomo),
continuing from the ground level up to the first level. As with houses found on North
Nias, the houses here also have diagonal posts supporting it. But what made houses in
the south particularly different from those in the northern part is that these V-shaped
columns are located at the very front part of the house unit, functioning as structural
support that offers great resistance and have the required elasticity because they are
not fixed to the ground (Gruber and Herbig, 2005). The separation of the house from
the ground is the most important concept for earthquake resisting building in
traditional form. The space created beneath the elevated house is used for storage and
also as stable for pigs. Constructive elements of the cantilevered front façade create
different floor levels for its interior space, doubling the function as benches and for
storage purposes.

Figure 3: V-shaped columns and


megalith of South Nias houses
Source: Amirrol, 2006
The construction of the houses evolved from generations, reflecting the tectonic
situation of the island. One of the most interesting characters of the houses here is its
tripartite structure and zonings. Each vertical zoning of the three different levels have
its own structural system and serve different, specific function. If being referred from
the spiritual belief point of view, the tripartite zoning represents spiritual
differentiation – the underworld (ground level), the present world (middle level), and
the upper world of gods and the ancestors (roof level). However, besides its spiritual
representation, this clever concept of three layers of zoning and structures helped a lot
for the earthquake resistance feature of the houses. Each layer is separated from one
another, and is self-supported with its own bracing system, making the whole house
to behave elastically to resist strong earthquake shakes. (Amirrol and Zubir, 2009)

Figure 4: Overall structural system of Omo Sebua


Source: Gruber and Herbig, 2005

Material Selection
One of the most important features of vernacular architecture is that materials used
are locally resourced. This concept of sustainability makes vernacular architecture
unique and really response to the genius loci of the site. For traditional Nias houses,
only locally grown plant materials were used for construction (Gruber and Herbig,
2006). Different kind of woods were selected and being used according to the
position of the components in the overall construction. For houses in North Nias,
local hardwood called Manawa Dano was used for the posts of the houses. As this
kind of wood is very hard and strong, the posts of the substructure often comes in
different shapes, giving interesting design for the houses. Houses in South Nias uses
huge plates of ebony, which are grown locally.
Besides hardwood, other locally resourced materials were also used such as bamboo
and palm leaves for the roof structure and covering, coconut fibers for bindings and
megalith for its stone base. The wall panels of these houses are made of timber
panels, slotted into the huge side beams (siholi) of the house using tongue-and-groove
joins. These joins are very flexible and do not break in the case of earthquake, and
loosened connections can be fixed easily. The side beams are often made from a
single tree trunk. Minimizing materials usage is an important issue for this intelligent
construction, and only through indigenous knowledge of local materials and
construction techniques that this concept of efficiency can be applied.

Figure 5: Usage of Manawa Dano hardwood as columns


Source: Amirrol, 2006

Below is the summarized description of materials used for the structural components
of traditional Nias houses:

Structural
Materials Description
Components
River stones carved into box Flat surface stones used to
Batu Gehomo
shape support the posts (Ehomo)
Flat surface stones used to
River stones carved into box
Batu Ndriwa support the Ndriwa
shape
columns
Round-shaped beams made from Diagonal round-shaped
Ndriwa
Berua or Manawa Dano timber beams
Vertical post supporting
Round-shaped post made from
Ehomo the main structure of the
Berua or Manawa Dano timber
house
Ehomo Mbumbu Round-shaped post made from Vertical post supporting
Berua or Manawa Dano timber the roof structure
Fafa Berua or Manawa Dano timber Timber planks
Fafa Daro-daro Berua or Manawa Dano timber Timber planks for seating
Fafa Gahembato Berua or Manawa Dano timber Floor planks
Timber beam that formed
Laso Timber the roof structure of South
Nias houses
Timber clamp that
function to hold the thatch
Jepitan Bumbu Timber
roof covering, arranged in
X-shape formations
Horizontal structural
Kapita Timber members supporting the
roof
Thick timber planks at
both sides of the house
Lago-lago Berua or Manawa Dano timber
used to hold the overall
house structure
Longitudinal beam
Round-shaped beams made from
Lali’owo supporting the floor
Berua or Manawa Dano timber
structure
Function as base support
Oto Mbao Megalith to enhance the seismic-
resistant quality of Ehomo
Sago Sago palm Thatch roof
Longitudinal thick plank
Sikholi Berua or Manawa Dano timber
to clamp the floor structure
Transverse beam
Siloto Berua or Manawa Dano timber
supporting floorboards
Sirau Timber Trestlework
Tangga Timber Stairs
Transverse beam covering
the end tip of Lali’owo and
Toga (Balo-balo) Berua or Manawa Dano timber
supporting the position of
Laso

Table 1: Material description for structural components of traditional Nias Houses


Source: UNESCO, 2006

Conclusion
Analyzing the indigenous logic of the traditional Nias houses that pose structural
intelligent in its design, it is important for younger generations, particularly
architects, to learn from this local wisdom for the continuation and development of
the knowledge in the future. Traditional knowledge and the qualities found from the
designs should not be forgotten and left out, and it is crucial for us to find and
develop new interpretations to be applied in modern design approaches. This local
knowledge is similar to traditional customs or adat. It is not something obsolete but
are potentials that might contribute to the betterment of our built environment, since
this kind of knowledge have been studied, practiced and improvised over years and
generations in order to suits the specific character of the area (Saliya, 2003). In this
case of traditional Nias houses that were proven to be earthquake-resistant, it is
recommended for scholars, researchers and designers to learn and pick up these local
wisdoms before it disappear due to the lack of proper documentation and studies.
Currently, there are not many people in Nias, especially the younger generation,
know about the construction of these traditional houses. The definition of traditional
houses that has been adopted for years is no longer relevant for them, but the recent
catastrophe may start a process of reconsidering the traditional methods in
constructing houses. From the experience of the earthquake, traditional Nias houses
are considered to be very stable and structurally sound because of its structural
features such as the base isolation system, bracing components, flexible joints,
lightweight roof and maximum elasticity of the overall house components.

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