Sunday, April 7, 2013

Collapsing buildings: who’s to blame? (September, 1997)

This short opinion piece was published in the Sunday Times of India, September 21, 1997
(in Black and White)

Collapsing buildings: who’s to blame?
Exorbitant prices lead to unscrupulous and unsupervised modifications to interiors, putting intolerable stress on the structure

Living in a city with the world’s costliest real estate, the ordinary Bambaiwalla has increasingly found his slice of floor-space pie getting smaller and smaller. And yet, there has been a copious increase in the availability of consumer appliances, all within reach of his slowly bulging pocket. These many articles have to fit into the tight spaces of his home or work-place. When all options of using the floor are exhausted, the occupant has no recourse but to use the volume of inhabitable space, the meager nine-and-a-half feet evenly spread over the total area of the flat or office. Increased affluence leads to the acquisition of wealthy status symbols: the lofts and mezzanines, the personal safes, a number of steel cupboards, false ceilings with concealed lighting (which also conceal the structural systems and services) and split air-conditioners.

In the fixing of many of these systems, there is a tampering with the RCC frames that form the structural components of the building. Altering or chipping away at the reinforcement (also pulling down the columns as in the Navare building collapse in March 1996, or punching holes in beams to conduct air-conditioning ducts or plumbing) with impunity seriously weakens the structure.

Commercial structures like the Poonam Chambers are designed for specific live loads, which means the combined weight of the furniture, fixtures and human occupants expected, given the nature of use. Live loads caused by accumulated paper (file records, books, publications) are the heaviest, as is the load of water (tanks, cooling towers). Mezzanines and lofts are created inevitably for storage rather than in-habitation  and this is where most of the paperwork or the extra Sintex tank goes. Small goods dealers or manufacturers stock their limited cubicles blindly, causing intolerable stresses on the structures.

The terraces of man buildings are virtual junkyards. Air-conditioning systems include water cooling towers are built on older terraces not designed for these technologies. These may, over a time cause stresses in the structural frame with incessant vibrations. Buildings get taken for granted these days and are added, subtracted, multiplied and divided far beyond the modest expectations of the modest design.

Concrete being a rigid material is unlikely to show excessive physical deformation that could act as a harbinger of imminent failure, at least to the untrained eye. The occupant of a distressed building may not be able to differentiate between cracking plaster and crumbling concrete. Faithful to the very end the RCC frame tolerates all atrocities meted out on it, and then fails, suddenly and spectacularly. There are innumerable structures all over the city that are waiting for the proverbial straw that will break the camel’s back.

Collapses like the Poonam Chambers are symptomatic to be paradigm. The collapse of Mumbai’s Akashdeep building in August 1983 in which several lives were lost had similar reasons for its failure cited by the Tembe Committee. Investigations revealed unauthorized mezzanines and their over-loading with heavy parts and packages by the dealer tenants on the lower floors. The recent tragedy has shown that nothing has been learnt from bitter experiences and what the future portends is also disturbing.

There has been a recent move by the BMC to regularize all lofts and mezzanines built illegally all over the city. And in Navi Mumbai, an illegally enclosed balcony can be regularized by paying a small fine/fee even before it is built. This is typical of developmental authorities getting over a problem they cannot solve by escapism rather than by applying their mind. This attitude of ‘indulging’ wrongdoers by a farcical ‘payment’ for their sins has consequences that are only obvious.

Perhaps the most pathetic testimony in the Poonam Chambers tragedy came from the security guard who ignored falling debris because he thought that happened all the time. A high level of acceptance of the lowest standards of maintenance, and an almost total desensitization to the environment that surrounds us could blind us to impending tragedy. This should also be a lesson for the future.

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