Many researchers agree that Nias traditional houses (Omo Hada) are some of the finest examples of vernacular architecture in Asia.  They are built without the use of nails and are able to withstand powerful earthquakes far better than modern houses. Nias houses are elevated from the ground and are built for defense, as Nias villages used to live in perpetual conflict. There are three different styles of architecture across the island.

Many older Niasans were born in houses like these, but the cost and effort of maintaining a traditional house means that they are becoming increasingly rare. But there are still over a thousand traditional houses in use on Nias Island today. Visitors can see many examples of these houses across the island, particularly in the south where several well maintained villages are easily accessed.


The Great House of a powerful nobleman is called Omo Sebua. One of the most impressive examples can be seen in Bawömataluo village in South Nias.

Historical introduction

We know about the development of Nias architecture from oral history, archaeological research and historical records. Thousands of years ago the first tribes on Nias lived in trees and caves. At that time there was no special architecture on Nias. It is believed that the ethnic ancestors of Nias people arrived some 700 years ago and originated from China. Several sources point in this direction:

  • About 700 years ago the Chinese fleet began to dominate the seas of Indonesia. China had colonies and shipyards in Singkuang , Sumatra , 110 km to the east of the of Nias .
  • Archaeological digs tells us that the period of human habitation Tögi Ndrawa cave ended 700 years ago.
  • The genealogy of many Nias clans started at that time , around 1300 AD

Oral traditions and Nias legends also tells us that a new tribe (Ono Niha) arrived some 700 years ago bringing progress to the island by introducing carpentry skills and the use of iron tools. The village Sifalagö Gomo was the center of this new tribe that quickly colonized the rest of Nias.

The new tribe arrived by boat and had advanced wood working skills. It has been noted that specific elements of a ship or boat are sometimes incorporated in the architecture of traditional houses on Nias. There are many references to the link between boats and Nias architecture:

  • The ancient name for boat is Lasara. Many villages in Nias are named Lasara.
  • A type of house in South Nias (Omo Nifolasara) is shaped like a boat.
  • The name of the region Gomo, and the Nias name for home (Omo) closely resembles the word for boats (Owo).
  • Oral history tells us that Nias architecture was brought by immigrants from across the sea.

Traditional houses on Nias, especially in the south, have many features similar to designs seen on a boat. Right: design inspired by the back of a ship? Left: design very similar to the prow of a boat.

Most sources point to the fact that Nias culture originated from the Gomo Region in South Nias.  Most likely the unique Nias architecture was developed here and spread throughout the island, changing and developing different styles over time.

Different types of architecture on Nias

Nias_divisions_arsitektur_EngDifferent styles of houses have developed on Nias, the main difference is the shape of the house and village structure. A simple way to divide Nias architecture would be in a northern and a southern style; northern traditional houses are oval shaped and freestanding, while southern houses  are rectangular and built wall to wall with neighbouring houses.

In fact there are three different styles of architecture on Nias, with some variations within each style;

  • South Nias style: at the southern end of South Nias Regency including Tello Islands.
  • Central Nias style: in the interior and eastern part of South Nias Regency, particularly in Lahusa and Gomo sub-district. A few houses can be found in the south of Nias Regency. There are some distinct variations within this style.
  • North Nias style: North and West Nias regency and Gunungsitoli municipality. Also the northern parts of Nias Regency.

Note: The term North and South Nias do not correspond with current administrative districts on Nias. For example North Nias houses can be found outside of North Nias Regency, and South Nias houses are only found in the southern end of South Nias Regency. Most central Nias houses are located in South Nias Regency.


VILLAGE STRUCTURES ON NIAS. North: oval shaped houses are clustered in small groups. Middle: rectangular houses in small villages. South: rectangular housed built adjacent to each other in large villages. Drawings by Prof. Alain Viaro.

Features common to all traditional Nias houses

All Nias houses are made of wood joined together without the use of nails. They are supported by sturdy log pillars and have large two sided roofs covered in layers of thatch. The interior of the houses are divided into a large public space in the front and smaller private rooms in the back. Many traditional Nias houses have elaborate wood carvings inside and outside the house.


All traditional houses in Nias have a large front room, and there is often many wood carvings both inside and outside.

Due to frequent seismic activity in this region, Nias people have come up with a unique way to make their houses “earthquake-proof “. In addition to the normal vertical pillars supporting the house, there is an intricate system of braced diagonal pillars. The pillars are standing on stone slabs rather than being driven into the ground. This creates a very strong, yet flexible structure that can withstand significant earth tremors. Because the house is not anchored to the ground, it is often weighted down by placing rocks or logs as ballast on the diagonal pillars under the house.  This is to prevent the house from moving during storms and earthquakes.


Nias traditional houses are built on stilts in a way that makes them highly resistant to earthquakes. Left: the huge pillars supporting a nobleman's Great House (Omo Sebua) in South Nias. Right: a system of supporting pillars under a northern style house.


Traditional houses on Nias have thatched roof and a hatch in the roof that can be opened for ventilation.

A similar structure of vertical and diagonal beams holds up the roof. There is usually no inner ceiling, and the house is sectioned off by dividing walls. Household items and other equipment are often stored in between the beams supporting the roof. In the roof there  movable panels (roof flaps) that can be opened for ventilation. This feature is also unique for Nias and is not found in other vernacular houses using thatched roofs.

Nias houses are built for defense. All houses are elevated, in some areas two to three meters high. The entrance is reached with a movable ladder leading to a sturdy door. The façade of the house is slanted outwards and the windows barred, making it very difficult to break in, while at the same time allowing the residents to observe movements outside the house from above. At night the house is firmly looked up, and sometimes there is even a barricade between the public and private areas inside the house, almost like a 'safe-room' within the house.

South Nias Houses

South Nias houses are clearly a development of the architectural style from Gomo. South Nias people left their place of origin in Gomo some 500 years ago. Southern houses are rectangular, often with an extension to the back. They are built wall to wall with neighboring houses and only opens up to the front and back. As they are usually quite narrow the sidewalls carry the weight of the roof.  In the houses of the noblemen the front room is often large.  In the middle of this room there are one or two large pillars with a lot of engravings and ornaments.


Details of traditional houses from Hiliamaetaniha and Hilimondregeraya villages in South Nias.

The façade is slanted outwards and has a long barred opening allowing the residents to look down on the street below. The number of pillars supporting the front of the house is always even; either 4 or 6 beams. On each side of the house there is a long beam on top of the pillars. At the front of the house this beams sticks out and curves upwards. This curved shape is called Ewe, and has no practical purpose but give the south Nias houses a very distinct look. The Ewe beam is usually decorated with engravings or painted in bright colors. Sometimes they are decorated with ornamental figures of animals, such as a rooster or a lizard. The shape of the Ewe resembles the prow of a boat.


A nobleman's Great House (Omo Sebua) in Hilimondregeraya village, not far fromTeluk Dalam in South Nias.

The Great Houses of noblemen chiefs in South Nias are called Omo Sebua and they are much larger and better built than ordinary houses. There are still a few exceptional examples of well-preserved Omo Sebua houses in South Nias today.

Central Nias Houses

Houses of the central Nias style are also rectangular but not built wall-to-wall as in the far south. The architecture of the Gomo style is often quite rustic and the houses have a lot of naive, or ‘primitive’ engravings. Central Nias houses are more decorated than the houses in the south and north. The number of pillars supporting the front of the house is always odd, either 5 or 7. Often there is a sculpture of an arm extending out from one of the pillars, as if greeting visitors. The shape of the curved shape protruding from the front of the house (Ewe) is different in central Nia compared to South Nias. There is also often a long transverse beam placed high inside, exactly in the middle of the house. This beam is formed from a single tree with tree roots still attached. This end usually has a lot of carvings. The chiefs houses (Omo Sebua) in the Gomo region are larger and more decorated than common houses, but not as spectacular as in the far south.


Traditional house of the central Nias style from Sifaoro'asi-Gomo.

Central Nias houses north of Gomo are slightly different from other Central Nias houses. While still being rectangular they are more square shaped. Houses in Lolomatua, Lölöwa'u, Bawolato and Idanoi (Holi) sub-districts show great variation and the carpenters have put a lot of creativity into these buildings. Houses in this region are adapted to the location of the house, whether it's on top of a mountain with colder temperatures or in a valley without breeze. In a hotter location there might be windows on all three sides of the front, something which is usually never seen on south or central Nias houses.


Traditional houses in the Gomo region are often decorated with many sculptures and intricate carvings.

North Nias Houses

North Nias houses are oval shaped, which is very unusual in the world of vernacular architecture. Northern houses are separated from each other and not built wall-to-wall like in the south. The houses have the longer side towards the ‘street’ of the village.  Along the wall in the common room there is a bench running along the entire side of the room. Often there are one or more extensions to the house. At one end there is usually stairs to the entrance of the house with a small veranda. In larger houses there may be two entrances, a large one to the common room, and a simpler one leading to the living quarters at the other end. In the back there is usually an extension or an outbuilding for the kitchen. Today many families who live in North Nias houses have built a ‘modern’ extension to the house. The traditional house is used as a common room and the new part contains the living quarters.


Traditional house (Omo Hada) of the northern style in Te'olo, Tugala Oyo, North Nias district.

 The supporting pillars are arranged in a different way than in the south. The diagonal pillars do not lean against each other on the ground but cross in the middle. North Nias houses are usually ballasted with rocks in the space created by the crossed pillars. There are four large vertical beams inside the house supporting the roof. The walls are not used to support the roof, like in southern houses. There are often many interesting artistic details inside a northern house, but the exterior may be plainer than in the south. The chief’s house is usually larger and more ornate, but they are not anywhere near as spectacular as Omo Sebua houses in the south.


North Nias Traditional Houses are always free-standing and oval-shaped.

In parts of Nias, such as Idano Gawö, Gido, Ma'u and the northern part of Lölöwa'u sub-district it is possible to see the transition from square to oval shaped houses where the two architectural styles meet. A 'fusion' house may have a northern style roof but a southern style square shape of the house itself. In other cases a southern style house may have rounded corners.


omo-hada-southern-style-w3Traditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the South Nias style

omo-hada-southern-style-w5Traditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the South Nias style

omo-sebua_facade_cf-de-boerTraditional Great House of a Nobleman (Omo Sebua) from South Nias

omo-hada-central-style-wTraditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the Central Nias style

nias-tengahTraditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the Central Nias style

tetegewo-gomo-houseTraditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the Central Nias style

central-niasTraditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the Central Nias style

omo-hada-northern-style-w1Traditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the North Nias style

omo-hada-northern-style-w2Traditional 'Omo Hada'  house of the North Nias style

All drawings by Prof. Alain Viaro.

Nias architecture books


TRADITIONAL ARCHITECTURE OF NIAS ISLAND. Author Alain Viaro and Arlette Ziegler. This is one of the most important books about the different types of vernacular architecture on the island of Nias (English).


TRADITIONAL ARCHITECTURE AND ART ON NIAS, INDONESIA. Editor Petra Gruber and Ulrike Herbig. This book provides an interdisciplinary view of the unique culture that has appeared on the island of Nias (English).


GOMO UND DAS TRADITIONELLE HAUS AUF NIAS. Editor Johannes M. Hämmerle & Erich Lehner with contributions from Alain Viaro & Arlette Ziegler. An overview of the unique architecture and building techniques on Nias Island (German).


OMO NIHA – PERAHU DARAT DI PULAU BERGOYANG. Author Nata'aluhi Duha. Interesting facts and stories behind the boat shaped traditional houses of south Nias. (Indonesian).


OMO SEBUA. Author P. Johannes Hämmerle. Stories about the intricacies of the establishment and process of building a Great House (Omo Sebua) (Indonesian).

Nias Architecture

south-nias-villages-wVillages on Nias, especially in the south, are often built on hills for defensive purposes.

lololakha_facadeFacade of a traditional North Nias House

atap-batinInner roof of a traditional house from North Nias

roofing The technique of attaching panels of thatched palm leaves used throughout Nias


Pillar system used to protect houses against earthquakes


Pillar system used to protect houses against earthquakes

eweThe front part of a South Nias house

All drawings by Prof. Alain Viaro


© Yayasan Pusaka Nias 2017. Designed & Edited by Björn Svensson & Shanti Fowler