Savar, Thane, Delhi- Continuing building collapses and our moral imperative

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.

The Rana Plaza collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history.: Photo courtesy of libcom.org

The Rana Plaza collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history.: Photo courtesy of libcom.org

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.

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About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on July 10, 2013, in Urban Planning & Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “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.” – Equally true of of so many sectors!! We do not have the doctors to serve local communities – and the profession closes in on itself to discourage the alternative. There is no governance – and hence no push to just thrust the alternatives in place!!

  2. Insightful post. see I am no building expert but my logic tells bout sub-standard materials and govt should revise its yardsticks. The lack of knowledge of masons, I feel, is another reason.

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