Each time a building collapses, our team at micro Home Solutions is severely pained. In the early years, each collapse meant long discussions about the possible causes and solutions. Now we know that the reasons are obvious–poor construction quality, no structural precautions, low lying areas prone to flooding, overloading, etc.
As I read last night about the latest 4-story building that has collapsed in north-east Delhi that has killed one and injured 14 people, I remembered this excellent post by Architect Marco Ferrario, co-founder of mHS on the company blog that reminds us (professionals, government, citizens) of the moral imperatives of building unsafe structures and putting lives at risk. Am reproducing it here and the original can be found here.
I must put in a word here for how impressed I have been with Marco’s sense of empathy and dedication to the cause of building safety. Far away from his home in Italy, he has spent several years in India, documenting and finding solutions for self-built settlements that represent perhaps the most pressing challenge and opportunity for Indian urbanization. Thank you, Marco, for teaching me so much 🙂
Savar and Thane highlight a moral imperative we cannot ignore
May 1, 2013 by Marco Ferrario
In the last month we have been witness to two building collapses. Or at least two have been widely covered by the media. The first one happened in Thane (Mumbai), with a toll of 74 lives. The second one happened last week in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over 400 people lost their lives, and the death count is still rising.
These events happen quite regularly in rapidly growing South Asian cities, often involving small buildings in low-income, semi-formal and informal neighborhoods.
There is not an official record of such events, but a graph recording their incidence over recent years would inevitably show an upward trend, with an increasingly exponential shape.
These collapses are not usually investigated and their causes are explained with generic reasons. In Mumbai the media reported ‘use of substandard materials’ as the cause. In Dhaka they are simply talking about ‘bad construction’.
‘Bad construction’ is not far from the truth. But what the media must realize, and what communities in informal settlements may or may not be aware of, is that this ‘bad construction’ is the rule rather than the exception.
Normally, buildings in the same settlement are built in the same way. It is likely that only marginal variables (level of use and degradation, slight differences in amount or quality of materials) leave buildings around the collapsed garment factory in Savar or the collapsed apartment building in Thane still standing. It is alarming how minimal these differences really are.
Collapses caused by heavy vertical loads, as in these recent cases, are relatively rare. But how will buildings in these types of settlements behave in the case of horizontal loads (i.e. earthquakes)?
In India there are many examples of earthquake-resistant structures, especially in the Himalayas, where timber and stone have been used together effectively. However, India’s current urbanization, with the cost of land rising and only tiny plots available for low-income dwellers, leaves only one option: going vertical. Settlements one storey high 10 years ago are now full of three- and four-storey buildings.
The other critical factors are materials used and construction method. Poorly designed RC (reinforced concrete) frames, with fired clay brick walls, constitute the majority of these buildings. The problem is that RC structures require design input from engineers, who, along with architects, are not working in low-income settlements.
There is a dramatic difference between a well-engineered structure and one that is not. Sometimes adding one column in the whole structure can make the difference. These units are built by masons and builders without technical knowledge. Often the basics of construction are not respected.
Because for different reasons—social and economic being the most relevant—architects and engineers are not serving these neighborhoods, we all need to find an alternative solution to address the problem. Especially given that these self-built settlements house over 60% of people in Indian cities. Cities, in particular informal settlements, are growing at steady peace with higher and higher multi-storey buildings.
One positive note is that large-scale impact could come from simple interventions: dissemination of information on safe building practices, and more mason training for construction teams that work in informal settlements. The government should play a key role in this. Furthermore, a simpler building code and monitoring system should be implemented, since the current system doesn’t even work in formal settlements. All this requires an accountable government willing to take responsibility and invest in safety.
The cost of inaction is almost impossible to estimate.
I browse through BBC News on my newly acquired iPad mini, and my glee at trying out my new toy abates as I read about the horrendous building collapse in Thane, Mumbai that has killed 45 and injured over 70 people. It’s one of those aspects of the construction industry hardest to reconcile, this widespread prevalence of low quality and illegal building practices that goes unnoticed across India, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Whereas preventive measures have been accepted as necessary by citizens in the field of health (think immunisation, health check ups) to some extent, an investment in quality and safety while constructing a roof over their heads does not seem to command high priority for the masses in India. This has been the experience of many organisations like mHS that work in the field of mass housing. Increased pressure on urban land and rising home prices make it imperative to find policy measures that enforce minimum standards for construction but also find ways to offer cheap and widely accessible technical assistance to all those who build their homes. Plus strict penalties for contractors and builders who indulge in malpractice.
On another note, I was amused to see in this morning’s paper that Google is facing a police enquiry basis a complaint from Survey of India because they consider their Mapathon contest a threat to national security. As planners, community-driven mapping is a powerful tool we use to help prioritise and even design interventions. If calling upon people to map their neighbourhood is illegal, then the profession of planning is illegal too! And if city maps that mark landmarks and buildings of national importance like the Parliament House are illegal, then the same goes for all those involved in tourism, business development, marketing or indeed anyone who needs to use a map to get around! Bizarre, to say the least!
Not a day goes by when I don’t find one or the other news item in the general news that directly pertains to the work I do as an architect-planner working on affordable housing. Yet it takes me several minutes to explain what I do to most people outside of my profession. Ironic!
We are finally braving a road trip with the kids. In a Mahindra Xylo, the kids enjoying having the rear row all to themselves.
I say finally because after years of traveling with Udai, who was a placid baby and a happy traveler, Aadyaa’s restless nature was hard to deal with. She did not settle easily in the car seat as a baby and was easily bored. We stopped going anywhere by road if we could help it.
So today had been a good day with the children quite enjoying the drive, except for poor Sushma, the maid, who is motion sick every so often.
I don’t blame her. The roads have been patchy indeed. The Gurgaon to Jaipur stretch of NH8 has a series of half constructed flyovers. Traffic crawls along narrow slip roads and passengers stare at the numerous seemingly inactive work sites.
Though the latter half of this route gets better, crossing Jaipur is a challenge as well. The bypass is under construction and traffic passes a large slum area, close enough to literally glimpse the routine activities of the residents here.
The first hour on Tonk Road after Jaipur towards Kota was another stretch of road construction. Bumpy as hell. It was alarming to see how far out from the city real estate projects are bring built. Jaipur is growing fast, like many tier 2 cities across India. But we fail to grasp the ground reality of this. While the main city of Jaipur fights hard to preserve its identity and heritage, in contrast these outlying suburbs are being built with little sense of design or relevance to the context of this region, historical or climatic.
For a short while now, starting shortly before Tonk, we have the fortune of smooth roads. Here too, only two of the four lanes are operational so it’s not easy driving. Like countless infrastructure projects across India, we can only hope this will be a dream ride some day in the future. Till then, we bump along!
The funny thing is, the road expansion means all those endearing little milestones are gone, as is the quaintness of those tree lined two lane roads of yore. The pleasure of seeing the names of the places we pass and the distance remaining lost, we must resort to google maps!
At work, I’m part of a team working to set up a system for certifying affordable housing projects. The initiative is that of the Ashoka Innovators for the Public and we at mHS are working on the aspects of the rating system that would impact the low-income community.
Anyway, during our discussions, we often come to the point where we wonder if the rating should consider whether the contractor uses ethical and legal practices for treatment and payment meted out to labor working on the project. If they use child labor, for instance, or use sub-standard shelter to house their labor, they should drop lower in the ratings, we think.
Today, on the occasion of Labor Day, The Hindu carried an excellent editorial written by Moushumi Basu on the subject. She spells out clearly the Acts contractors and construction companies violate when they pay lower wages, do not build decent shelter, do not ensure safe conditions for work, etc. Moreover, developers and construction companies who have ridden the wave of India’s GDP growth (and continue to do so despite slower growth) have no business to do this at the cost of the labor that works for them. It is a sad tale of mistreatment of those who have no voice. Besides the legality, where’s the humanity here? Would it really hurt to pass on a tiny bit of your profits towards improving the lives of those that made your projects possible, often risking their lives, migrating far from their homes?
So in our ratings projects, we’re really wondering….how do we factor in the humanity/ethics (or lack of these) of developers into ratings for affordable housing, where profit margins are lower than regular projects, when they fail to factor in regular projects where profit margins are decent?
An obsession for building meaningless structures in the most inefficient way! Asli India- Feb 16, 2012
Coming from the land of Mayawati in the midst of election fever, I cannot help dwelling on this megalomaniac business of commissioning huge parks, statues and buildings. Lucknow has been transformed since I lived there and the elephants hiding under the Election Commission’s drapes made for an entertaining sight. Interestingly, while the main park at Gomti Nagar is open to public, many of the facilities built under Mayawati’s rule are gated and inaccessible. So what purpose do they serve really, I fail to understand.
As we’ve discussed often in our home, generations after us will remember Mayawati for the legacy of buildings and landscaping she will leave behind, while the Mulayam’s of the world will be forgotten except in the Saefais of the world!
It’s not only megalomania that drives this sort of meaningless construction. Erecting structures that serve no particular function is a national obsession and we’re seeing it play out right in front of our office.
Picture this. GK I Enclave. A Posh South Delhi colony, some of the most valued residential real estate in India. A common green area meant to be a park has some derelict swings for children and a lot of unmaintained patchy lawn. And some concrete benches. One day, we observed a small construction crew begin to erect an entrance gate. A completely out of proportion tall and broad gate for a pocket-sized park. First they built this gate brick by excruciating brick, then they plastered it, then they scraped off the plaster to clad it with opulent granite. The whirring and clanking still goes on. The park is now littered with construction material. The debris outside the gate spills out onto the colony road creating a mini traffic jam several times a day. It’s been some two months now and our design team in office cannot stop laughing about the-gate-that-never-gets-done!
Now there are several disturbing things about this gate. Why spend money on an entrance gate, an ugly one at that, when the parks aren’t maintained? Don’t all the rich people living in this posh colony want a park where their children can play, they can walk etc right outside their homes? Who takes this sort of decision and who are they hoping to please by building an unaesthetic flashy gate in an up-market residential colony? Is this something political, perhaps a contractor mafia at work? Do the residents have a say in their surroundings at all? Shouldn’t they? And why built it in this haphazard, wasteful, time consuming manner, inconveniencing residents and creating a nuisance? Most disturbing of all, I discovered there are gates like that one being built in many parks in south Delhi!
The entire process speaks of the apathy private property owners have for their public spaces, even among the well-to-do. This is what translates into spitting on the roadside and dug up sidewalks, stinking toilets and open manholes that people fall into and die. Why blame the government when we sanction this sort of meaningless nonsense inside our neighborhoods?