In God we trust, while making buildings

As per the CREDAI report, India`s real estate sector is estimated to have a total supply of close to 3.6 billion square feet for completion in 2013.

DNA/Yatin Pandya

As per the CREDAI report, India`s real estate sector is estimated to have a total supply of close to 3.6 billion square feet for completion in 2013, with about 98% of it being concentrated in the residential segment. The total economic footprint generated by construction of this will require investment of about Rs2,54,000 crore. It is expected to generate jobs to about 7.6 million people across the country.

The total contribution of the real estate sector to the national GDP has been estimated to be about 6.3 per cent in 2013 alone. With such a vast magnitude of its volume, the question is, have we pondered about its quality? Especially the prevalent construction practices -- the way we actually build? Do we continue to build with spalling concretes, leaking roofs, cockroach-infested drains, raining toilets, shocking switches, peeling paints, jamming shutters, termite infested carpentry, perpetual maintenance and short circuiting or fire in electrification?

With phenomenally growing volume of construction on one hand, unfortunately, the building industry on the other hand has remained highly primitive. Primitive is not to imply the lack of sophistication, inadequate industrialization, low level of mechanisation or nearly absent automation. But it is rather to observe the alarming level of casualness with which construction is taking place. The first aspect is the lack of training and licensing for skilled labourers and services. "Terrorists" of the construction processes are the plumbers, then the electricians and the masons.

To begin with, there does not exist any formal, systematic or rigorous training for most of these building trade skills. A totally ill-trained person assumes the role of the plumber, electrician or mason. The building practice adapted, and surprisingly commonly accepted, is quite illogical and structurally detrimental. For example, in construction first the masonry walls and concrete frames are built and then they are hammered and chiselled to accommodate the concealed pipe network.

Frame structure in RCC becomes their first enemy. Alarming level of liberties are taken to chisel substantial part of structural mass of the load bearing elements, both weakening the structure as well as exposing the inner steel to moisture and weather.

Toilet traps or piping is invariably accommodated through cutting of structural slabs, if not beams. In addition to crude and dangerously hampering tools for concrete breaking through these holes the plumber now assumes the role of mason for sealing these joints with mortar, with no right knowledge or training of masonry. Not only could these remain faulty, but they seldom get cured with water for required days.

Any cement or concrete application needs initial curing for it to harden and chemically transform into desired component with expected strength. With all these, along with non-congruent material property for bonding, such as plastic pipe and cement, it would be miracle if the joints did not leak. Adding to the woes is the practice of using acid cleaners which eat into cement binders and create gaps in mortar joints.

Basic masonry practices are also to be worried about. Right from precision of bonding to its ingredient quality to post construction care, all are compromised, unfortunately.

These are certain to have long term detrimental effects.

While non-trained persons and non-scientific construction practices are the culprits, inferior site management and improper tools and facilities are equally to be blamed. Over-used formwork, unsafe and irregular scaffolding, raw tools to break concrete structures, inadequate and inappropriate measurement instruments, all leave construction non-scientific and thereby at the helm of the individuals on the site. These practices hamper quality of construction all along its life. In addition, they are hazardous and dangerous for people working on site. There are hardly any safety measures adopted for workers, may it be safely earthed power supply, protective headgears and gloves, glasses for welders, railing to temporary stairs, cover over the envelope, hygienic and safe living quarters or working conditions and so on.

Professionals involved with the construction, such as architects and engineers, are as such to be held accountable for such a state of affairs. They need to invest in training and upgrading the skills, insisting on standard practices and also evolving design and construction detailing to avoid need for unsafe practices.

Authorities have to introduce rigorous licensing practices for skilled workers in their respective areas and government has to seriously invest in formal training and education of construction-related skills to make our construction safe and strong. No wonder we do puja, while commencing the construction to seek heavenly blessings. May God protect us from our self-created shelters!

The author is a city-based architect.

(The story was first published on January 10, 2013 in DNA newspaper)

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