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Cover Story

Structural collapse

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Jun 15, 2013 | From the print edition

The rot has set in the construction sector. A dysfunctional clearance system has led to a series of building collapses in the recent past. Builders find the regulatory process to get approvals far too tedious and convoluted. This has given rise to short cuts and corruption, which have led to construction of illegal and unsafe buildings. Akshay Deshmane from Mumbai, Sayantan Bera from Kolkata and Soma Basu from Delhi report

A house in Delhi that had foundation for single storey fell after six storeys were added to it

Luck runs out

Mumbai Metropolitan Region
Lucky Compound, April 4, 2013

Lucky Compound proved quite contrary to its name. The residential building complex in Shilphata, 26 kilometres from urban Thane, near Mumbai, saw one of India’s biggest building disasters of recent times. Adarsh 1, one of the five buildings under construction in the complex, collapsed, taking with it 74 lives and injuring another 64. Mangal Patil, a witness to the tragedy, says it fell like a pack of cards.

“Construction of buildings had started just a couple of months back. Tall buildings sprung up within no time,” says Patil. That evening at around 6:30, seven floors of Adarsh 1 fell when people were inside them, he says. There were construction workers on the sixth and seventh floors, and the fourth floor had a tuition centre for children.

Thane municipal corporation demolished the other four buildings because they, too, were unsafe. A total of 21 people were arrested. Two of the seven builders were charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Hira Patil, Nationalist Congress Party corporator, was suspended from his post and charged under Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The rest were also charged with corruption.

74 people died in a building collapse at Lucky Compound in Mumbai Metropolitan Region

The Maharashtra government has not given the reasons for the collapse yet. But Alok Avasthy, commandant of the fifth battalion of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) who oversaw the rescue operations, says there were three fundamental causes of the collapse—use of substandard material, poor construction and flouting of norms.

“The land on which the complex was built was marshy. It required refilling before such a high structure could be built,” says Avasthi. Besides, the foundation was about three metres. This is not deep enough for a multistorey building, he says. Avasthy consulted civil engineers after the collapse and found the foundation should have gone around nine metres deep.

The builder had raised building within three months without giving cement the time to bind properly and attain the strength to hold the structure together. Concrete needs at least two weeks of regular watering before it can support load.

NDRF also found the walls extremely brittle. Very little cement was used. The walls were mostly of sand. The iron rods used in columns were extremely thin—less than 16 mm diametre—and may not have been able to withstand the structure’s weight, says Avasthy. The iron rods should have been at least 24 mm thick.

After the collapse, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chouhan admitted in the state Assembly that 90 per cent of the constructions in Shilphata are illegal and have been built on shaky foundations.

Destruction by fire

KOLKATA
Stephen Court, March 23, 2010
AMRI Hospital, December 9, 2011

An ICU patient is evacuated from AMRI Hospital, Kolkata

Professors of architecture often tell their students a joke: “God is kind and concrete is strong, so go ahead and build”. Unless there are major goof-ups in the design and quality of material, concrete structures are safe, they say.

But what about fires? Kolkata, the third most populous city in the country, has brutally learnt that it is important for buildings to be fire-proof. Regular incidents of fire in public buildings have scarred the city in the recent past.

The bustling Park Street area, known for its posh eateries and pubs, bore witness to a crude sight. As rescue teams desperately searched for bodies charred by fire in the Stephen Court building, vultures hovered over the gutted structure. A short circuit had caused the fire. As many as 17 bodies of young call centre workers and residents of the building were found on the stairs leading to the terrace that was locked. The only emergency fire exit was also closed. The fire’s heat caused the fifth floor to crumble, burying people in the rubble. A total of 43 people died.

The heritage building was constructed in 1924. Two floors were added illegally in 1984. Later, construction was regularised after payment of a hefty fine to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Rules were flouted and offices were allowed in the building that also had residences. The offices used staircases to store material, blocking way to the terrace.

The fire minister of West Bengal, chairing the only such ministry in the country, had only one prescription—hydraulic ladders should be kept in and around Park Street to speed up fire-fighting. Clearly, the city administrators had not learnt their lessons. A year later, a devastating fire at the posh AMRI Hospital in south Kolkata claimed 93 lives. More than half of them were admitted in the intensive care unit. The fire spread when a stockpile of cotton in the basement caught fire due to short circuit. Smoke travelled through air-condition ducts, and patients and staff were gassed to death. The modern hospital’s air-conditioned building did not have an escape route for smoke. For two hours after the fire was detected, the hospital staff did nothing about it. They did not even call the fire department. The hospital had not done fire drills as specified in the National Building Code (Annexure E, part 4).

Himadri Guha, former civil engineering professor at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and now a real estate developer, says fire safety is usually not incorporated in a building’s design. “What we have is an active system to douse fires,” he says. The fire department also lacks technical knowledge to assess fire hazards, such as inflammable building material and carry out fire audits. Escape signages even in big shopping malls are not properly placed, he adds. The department issues no-objection certificates to building plans solely on its fire-fighting experience. “In fact, it does not have an architect who can read drawings of a building. Qualified fire safety engineers who are expert in structural design of fire safety are the best people to issue no-objection certificates,” Guha says.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has declared 600 old buildings in Burabazar, in central Kolkata, risky. Between 2005 and 2006, nearly 100 people were injured in separate incidents when five buildings collapsed and 30 buildings caved in. As many as 500 buildings have been identified partially risky and need thorough repair. Most of them use inflammable material such as polythene and plywood to make partitions.

Building collapses are fairly common in the city. In 2011, an illegally constructed five-storey building collapsed in Nayabad, on the eastern fringes of Kolkata. Soon after, another five-storey building developed cracks and tilted in south Kolkata prompting the mayor to instruct the building department to scrutinise plans before sanctioning constructions. Over 3,000 old buildings have been categorised dangerous by KMC. God, it seems, is not kind these days.

Architectural disaster

DELHI
Lalitha Park, November 15, 2010

The building stood on the sandy Yamuna floodplains

Seventy-one people died and another 200 were injured when a building collapsed in Lalitha Park on the banks of the Yamuna in East Delhi. Amritpal Singh built the house in 1988. It was single-storey then. In 1990, he added two storeys to it. By 2005, the building had reached five storeys. When it collapsed, it had seven floors apart from the basement. The building was supported by only walls. There were no pillars. About 200 tenants lived there. Three months before the incident, the basement, which was used as a storehouse, had been flooded with rainwater. Nothing was done about it.

Chandan Ghosh, head of the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), stated in his report to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) that structural fragility and blatant disregard of rules brought down the building.

The building stood on the sandy Yamuna floodplains. Monsoon floods led to seepages in the foundation. The guidelines of the Bureau of Indian Standards and the National Building Code of 2005 were not followed. The building had haphazardly constructed balconies and rooms, which were not sufficiently supported by beams and columns. Irregular pattern exerted disproportionate pressure on the already weak foundation. The 0.3 square metre foundation meant for a single-storey house had become insufficient.

In its 296-page report that was tabled in the Delhi Assembly, a commission of inquiry set up under retired judge Lokeshwar Prasad pointed out a litany of lapses by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). Poor coordination between different departments of MCD, entrusted with licensing and monitoring, was blamed for the collapse. The corporation also charged Delhi Development Authority with approving Zonal Plans and allowing multistorey buildings on floodplains without proper checks. Electricity provider BSES Yamuna Power Limited was hauled up for giving two commercial connections to a residential unit. The Delhi Police was blamed for not acting on complaints of illegal construction.

The building collapse temporarily shook the civic authorities out of slumber. Three buildings in the neighbouring Laxmi Nagar area were evacuated. MCD directed evacuation of 35 more residential buildings. But three years on, with no alternative, the residents are back into these buildings.

AddThis

There is only one sentence with which I disagree, about buildings which have "outlived their designed lifespan". As far as my knowledge goes, there is no such building. The paradox is, modern buildings tend to be more costly to maintain than older buildings (a building built in 2000 is more costly to maintain than a building built for the same purpose in 1950, which is itself more costly to maintain than a building built for the same purpose in 1900 or 1850) and therefore it looks like modern buildings tend more and more to have a "designed lifespan".

However, maintenance is everything. Some of the most successful buildings in the world were supposed to be "temporary", built at a very low cost and in a hurry, but they are still here and useful and loved by people, 50 years or even 100 years later. Like the MIT's "building 20", or the "Grand Palais" in Paris. So I simply don't believe there is such a thing as "designed lifespan". Maintenance and knowledge of the building is indeed everything. The lifespan comes to and end when people stop liking the building. But that is unpredictable!

But it is true that my viewpoint is not shared by everyone in the construction industry, where many people talk about the "lifespan" of a building.

Anyway, congratulation for this thorough and accurate enquiry into the issue of building safety. This kind of issue has to go out of the "professionals-only" discussions, otherwise everything will continue as before, or even become worse as you have noted.

We must all take interest into the buildings in which we live, work, that we sell, rent, purchase or build, including the conditions in which they are built.

Buildings are hugely more dangerous to people who build them than to people who live in them! Asbestos, pesticides (Chloropyrifos), defective electric installations, unhygienic drains, toxic paints, etc. Indeed, construction industry workers have a dangerous life!

5 June 2013
Posted by
Laurent Fournier

Excellent article… One of the biggest problems is that everyone, homeowners, architects and builders are resigned to the fact that bribes have to be paid for permissions to build.

The officials will sign off on anything as long as they are bribed and will not sign off on anything unless they are paid a bribe (even if the proposal follows the rules in every detail). In fact the officials love bigger variations to the law as they get to collect a higher bribe… The state of affairs is that sad. In this environment, the unscrupulous thrive and people who want to follow the law are left with no choice.

Another problem is that the large number of rules and number of agencies involved makes it very difficult for someone to follow all the rules. The officials use this confusion in the process to agonize the applicant and give them the running around until they get tired and agree to pay a bribe, only to find that after the bribe is paid all the problems magically disappear.

The experts in getting approvals are experts in paying bribes and getting approvals. I have still to meet a real expert who knows how to navigate the convoluted process, is educated about the law and specializes in getting plans approved in the legal way.

Architects remove themselves from the process all together when they are supposed to be experts. All architects will make it very clear that they will not be responsible for and be involved with the approval process.

It is always easiest to blame the contractors and builders, but at the end of the day the clean, educated architects and consumers are to blame just as much. How many times do we have buyers who will be happy with delays in construction because the builder refused to pay a bribe…

Conscientious building professionals can control design, construction quality and environmental factors but there is no solution for the mess of dealing with public officials and getting approvals. Many qualified people who can do a lot of good to the building industry stay away from it due to the dirty legal process and interface with the government. We all lose at the end.

6 June 2013
Posted by
AM

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