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 orthogonalshaped 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 Lshaped 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 rectangularshaped 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 Components Batu Gehomo Batu Ndriwa Ndriwa Ehomo Ehomo Mbumbu

Materials River stones carved into box shape River stones carved into box shape Round-shaped beams made from Berua or Manawa Dano timber Round-shaped post made from Berua or Manawa Dano timber Round-shaped post made from

Description Flat surface stones used to support the posts (Ehomo) Flat surface stones used to support the Ndriwa columns Diagonal round-shaped beams Vertical post supporting the main structure of the house Vertical post supporting

Fafa Fafa Daro-daro Fafa Gahembato Laso

Berua or Manawa Dano timber Berua or Manawa Dano timber Berua or Manawa Dano timber Berua or Manawa Dano timber Timber

Jepitan Bumbu





Berua or Manawa Dano timber Round-shaped beams made from Berua or Manawa Dano timber Megalith Sago palm Berua or Manawa Dano timber Berua or Manawa Dano timber Timber Timber Berua or Manawa Dano timber

Lali’owo Oto Mbao Sago Sikholi Siloto Sirau Tangga Toga (Balo-balo)

the roof structure Timber planks Timber planks for seating Floor planks Timber beam that formed the roof structure of South Nias houses Timber clamp that function to hold the thatch roof covering, arranged in X-shape formations Horizontal structural members supporting the roof Thick timber planks at both sides of the house used to hold the overall house structure Longitudinal beam supporting the floor structure Function as base support to enhance the seismicresistant quality of Ehomo Thatch roof Longitudinal thick plank to clamp the floor structure Transverse beam supporting floorboards Trestlework Stairs Transverse beam covering the end tip of Lali’owo and 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. References Amirrol, H. and Zubir, S. (2009) MERCY Malaysia’s Experience in Recent Response and Rebuilding of Disaster Areas, Southampton: Management of Natural Resources, Sustainable Development and Ecological Hazards II, WIT Press. Antar, Y. (2010) Learning from Genius Loci, Jakarta: The Jakarta Post. Gruber, P. and Herbig, U. (2005) Settlements and Housing on Nias Island: Adaptation and Development, Vienna: Institute for Comparative Research in Architecture. Gruber, P. and Herbig, U. (2006) Research of Environment Adaptation of Traditional Building Constructions and Techniques in Nias, Vienna: Institute for Comparative Research in Architecture. Lase, Y. (2005) Kontrol Seismik pada Rumah Adat Nias, Jakarta: HAKI Seminar. Pudjisuryadi, P., Lumantarna, B. and Lase, Y. (2007) Base Isolation in Traditional Building: Lesson Learned from Nias, Surabaya: The 1st International Conference of European Asian Civil Engineering Forum.

Saliya, Y. (2003) Traditional Architecture in Indonesia, from Perjalanan Malam Hari, Bandung: Ikatan Arsitek Indonesia dan Lembaga Sejarah Arsitektur Indonesia. Silas, J. (2007) The Transition Process of Traditional Nias Houses, Jakarta: Asian Development Bank and Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi NAD-Nias. Waterson, R. (1990) The Living House: An Anthropology of Architecture in SouthEast Asia, Oxford: Oxford University Press Pte. Ltd.

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