Every traditional Ossetic settlement ( qæw ) is subdivided into several quarters ( sykh ). In the past it was common for all inhabitants to be members of a single family or of closely related groups. Although this tradition has been more or less maintained in the rural parts of central and southern Ossetia, a more mixed settlement was predominant in North Ossetia (with the exception of the high-mountain regions) by the nineteenth century; there each family had a quarter of its own. The ground plan of the mountain settlements almost always had to be adapted to suit the topography. To save land for agricultural use, the living quarters and farm buildings normally occupied different floors under a single roof. In the valleys and foothills, better conditions allowed separate buildings under separate roofs, aligned horizontally. Houses often had two or three stories and were 20 or more yards wide and deep. In the mountains, the main criteria for choosing a settlement site were the proximity of fresh-water springs, arable soil, and hay fields. In the higher regions, relative safety from avalanches was an important factor as well, leading in some cases to situating the village far from the nearest spring. Otherwise, Ossetic settlements used to be built on one or both sides of a watercourse. There are no streets in the mountain villages, only tortuous narrow lanes connecting the houses to one another. The center of social life in such a village is the square ( nykhas ), where all community issues are discussed. The cemetery, and often the family vaults, are found close by the settlements. In the past nearly every village had its own watchtower, many of which still exist today. The defense and residential towers were always located in the center of the village. Nearly every village had its own holy shrine or temple ( dzwar ), which could be in the shape of an altar, a small hut, or a pile of rocks.
There are several traditional types of houses ( khædzar ). Differences in construction and material (stone, wood, and later also brick) are found not only between the mountain and foothill types, but also also between northern and southern Ossetia. Originally, the khædzar consisted of one large room that was divided into two parts, one for men and one for women. Domestic and familial life were concentrated in this room. The most important object was the fireplace ( k'ona ), with a continually burning fire and a heavy chain ( rækhys ) hanging above. This chain was traditionally the most sacred object for every Ossete; they even used to swear by the raekhys, and theft of the chain called for murderous revenge. Ossetic families took their rækhys with them when they moved from the mountains to the plains. Another important, sometimes even mystical, place in the Ossetic house was the larder ( k'æbits ), which guaranteed survival in severe winters. During recent decades the rural style of life has become less important; economic motives and a desire for more education have led to the migration of thousands of country people into the towns of Ossetia (Vladikavkaz, Mozdok, Tskhinvali, Alagir, Beslan, Ardon, Digora) and other republics.