Conservation and Preservation

3jpgConservation has many facets to it and derives its strength from community values. Development, on the other hand, is seen as something fuelled purely by economic forces; and urban development, apparently, is solely motivated by profit. On the face of it, conservation and development seen mutually exclusive, but it is possible for both to coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship. While most of us have first hand experience in the way cities grow and develop, many do not have a clear understanding of what conservation is. In its simplest form, it is the “preservation of ancient monuments.”

But its meaning is not limited to restoring ancient monuments for curiosity value. It is the preservation of tradition and history in a manner that can be experienced by all in the normal course of events. Buildings and neighbourhoods of value can be rehabilitated and brought into mainstream activity without having their historic associations destroyed. In a rapidly changing world, conservation provides the means to create a tradition based frame of reference to assess current values and importantly to make projections for the future. Conservation is not to be mistaken for archaeology. While archaeology is based on antiquity, conservation generally deals with out more immediate past.

While archaeologists may `discover’ our past ruins, conservationists aim to ensure a continuity which preserves our past from being lost only to be rediscovered by some archaeologist in waiting. Again, conservation is not just preservation of art or architecture of note. It is the restoration and re use of anything of historic or social value be it an open space any other structure or thing commemorating events, symbolising ideals or representative of an identity. IN Madras, our carelessness in the past has created large gaps of information in our urban fabric, especially in the loss of two notable structures viz. Moore Market and Spencers. These two buildings represented two different life styles and cultures which coexisted both before and after independence and could as easily have fitted in the current economic context. While Moore Market created to the low overheads, high volume bazaar made of retailing, Spencers was on the other end of the scale. With their destruction, the former activity has been driven to the streets while the latter has been replaced by high cost glitz which lacks the character of the original.

Some may believe it was fire that ultimately destroyed both Moore Market and Spencers, but facts points otherwise. It was only the timber roofs of both buildings which burnt down; the masonry walls were very much in repairable condition. In the case of Moore Market, replacing the wood and restoring the building would have been cheaper than the six crore the government spent on the new market building. The fire also somehow coincided with the efforts of Southern Railway to construct their new suburban terminal at this site. Spencers case was different. Rising land costs, increasing returns on investments in commercial property, ailing finances, of property owners, and sheer apathy of the planning authorities were responsible for its destruction. In this context, it is interesting to note how the Grand Central station in New York city in an identical situation, was saved by the timely intervention of the city authorities. In the early 60s Penn Central Rail Road, the company that owned the station, faced liquidation as railways in America were a dying business. The building was located on Park Avenue a prime location in Manhattan. Office space was in great demand and several major developers were bidding for the property. At this stage, under pressure form community action groups, the city authorities had the building listed as a landmark.

They were also wise enough to realise that unless economic factors were also addressed, there would be long drawn out court battles to be faced which would put the future of Grand central in balance. Thus they allowed developers to build in the air space above the station utilising the full FSI available. The result was the landmark Pan Am building designed by Walter Gropius. This project was a milestone in conservation. While the old Grand central building was preserved for posterity and restored from project funding, the owners were able to benefit financially to the fullest.

The growing commercial needs of the city too were not restrained. So why was there no such concerted effort in the case of Moore Market and Spencers and more recently, in respect to the DGP’s office? Probably, it was lack of leadership and there is no escaping the truth that this leadership has to come from the planning authorities. While community action groups can pressure the government it is for the latter to create an atmosphere of open dialogue in a bid to understand the aspirations of the community. Formulating the proposed Heritage Act could well be the starting point. In Madras, as in most other Indian cities, it is not only ancient structures or large public buildings which are under threat of destruction. Several other architecturally less important structures, built more than a 100 years ago but which have become irrevocably linked with their neighbourhoods, are on the edge.

The traditional row of houses surrounding the Mylapore and Triplicane temples are such examples. While the houses facing the main streets have fallen prey to commercialism, those on the by lane still survive. Commercialism around the temples has disturbed the ambience of the temple itself. The question is not whether commercialisation can be stopped we all know that it cannot be but whether these energies can be diverted to areas to reduce environmental conflict. The answer is yes, but with a little help from the government. Most of the properties in question are being privately held, and the owners could be influenced through a package of incentives not to re develop them. While this is easier said than done, several such efforts have worked in India and abroad. IN UK and the US, the incentives have generally been in the form of tax exemptions.

Owners of “listed” buildings are given tax holidays from city taxes and even low interest as well as long term financing from special funds created for upgradation and restoration as approved by the city engineers. City taxes in Madras are still low in proportion to the real land value and there fore its effectiveness as a sole incentive is questionable. But with the on going reassessment property taxes are expected to rise steeply and could ultimately form part of a package which includes other palliatives such as the transfer of unutilised FSI from “listed” sites to other approved zones. This means that the owners of a site listed for preservation could sell his unutilised FSI (the total building area that could be built on his site minus the area of the existing building) to a developer who would put it to good use elsewhere.

While the property owner benefits from rising land value, he is also able to continue living in his own neighborhood without becoming an urban refugee. The city authorities can then insist upon certain standards of maintenance of the property in question. The objectives of conservation can be fulfilled without acting as a deterrent to development. Such transfers of FSI have been in operation in Bombay for environmental reasons. This concept has potential, especially in the context of conserving whole neighbourhoods around temples preservation of temples. Apart from private owners the number of our heritage buildings are owned and operated by the government. One would normally assume these buildings to be safe, but in the present context they are equally endangered for the following reasons:deplorable maintenance resulting in serious structural deterioration and the tendency of government agencies themselves to enter the field of real estate development instead of being its regulators.

As a general rule we do not seem to believe in preventive maintenance. We wait for things to bark down before attending to them, being responsible for a steady erosion of assets till it crosses the threshold of maintainability. The approach should be to rehabilitate the building and pout it to such compatible use as will pay for its upkeep. Such an exercise is currently in progress in restoring the Madras University Senate building. Many many wonder whether all this will lea to an erosion in the tax base and loss of revenue to government.

The reality is that conservation saves old parts of the city from becoming blighted and therefore stabilises the tax base in the long run. Further surrounding neighbourhoods will experience a surge in land value due to improvement in environmental quality which could be capitalised upon. Funds from building taxes, the main source of revenue, will remain unaffected for the transfer of FSI will facilitate additional built up space in other approved ones to make up for the restrictions in listed zones. The taxman need have no fear. Conservation will strengthen his existing tax base by preventing deterioration in old neighbourhoods while allowing higher collections from new developments.

The spin offs from successful conservation projects are many commercial benefits from increased tourism, apart from its positive effects on the social and cultural fronts. The character of entire cities can change through the effective cooperation between conservationists, developers, government and community groups. Let us hope that the proposed Heritage Act will be a starting point in this cooperative effort in Madras.

Picking up the pieces Retrofitting offers a cheaper option to rebuilding, using traditional material and local expertise Retrofitting and strengthening (R&S) of damaged houses forms the largest component of the Latur rehabilitation programme, with nearly 200,000 houses identified in an area of about 100 km (covering regions affected by earthquake intensities of VII and VI).

A programme of this scale has never been undertaken anywhere in the sub continent. Though the implementation has been slow, scientists and NGOs believe that 55 per cent of the target should be completed by December 1996 and 75 per cent by October 1997. That is four years after the earthquake and that too if the MEERP accepts the retrofit technology package. The Report of the Advisory Committee (December 1993) showed two generic types of houses:

Houses with wooden columns, wooden beams the khan system and either wooden planks or Shahbad tiles forming the roof deck, bounded by stone masonry walls built in mud mortar and roof covering consisting on earth laid on top of wooden planks or Shahbad tiles (the Malvad roof).

Load bearing stone masonry walls with wooden beams supporting earthen roof through wooden planks or Shahbad tiles. There is no wooden frame in these. Most of the los of lives occurred due to the collapse of the walls along with the wooden frames which resulted in people being buried under heavy roofs. It was also observed that where only walls collapsed but timber frames did not, people sleeping inside came out alive and uninjured. Based on the above observations, which are very similar to what has been observed on the behavior of non engineers constructions during earthquakes worldwide (North Yemen, Iran, Dharamshala in Himachal and Uttarkashi), some basic features of repairing, seismic strengthening of damaged and threatened buildings, using local raw materials and skills of local artisans, were identified by Prof Arya and his team. The main components of the retrofit scheme for category 1 include:

Strengthening the wooden frame to increase its lateral strength, by installing knee bracing using angles or tubes.

Stitching the outer and inner stone layers of the walls by the installation of stones or bond elements. (It is the absence of these header stones that led to the splitting of the walls in the middle and their subsequent collapsing).

Providing a RC seismic belt (called band or bond beam) around the house using wire mesh overlaid with concrete or cement mortar. (This is the fundamental requirement for integrating the walls together to resist the lateral seismic shaking effect. it `interlocks’ to prevent the separation of the walls at the corners).

Reducing the weight of the soil on the roof and water proofing. This will reduce the earthquake force acting horizontally. About 20 cm thickness of the soil is required for thermal comfort in summer. Black polythene is embedded in the soil for waterproofing.

Installation of cross ties across long rooms connecting the bands on the opposite walls. (These help to improve the integrating action of the seismic band further). For Category 2, everything else is the same except that no knee bracing or cross ties are necessary. Instead the complete roof over the seismic band is relaid along with polythene sheet and reduced soil on the roof. The main roofing elements, like wooden joists and planks, are tied to the seismic band so as to transmit it to the cross walls through its own bending action. The retrofit houses were subjected to two different kinds of tests resonance to measure the increase in stiffness and shake table to examine it for realistic horizontal accelerations likely during an earthquake. Resonance tests showed that the sitffness was five times more than a typical rural construction, partly due to the seismic belt and the reduced roof mass but mostly due to knee bracing of the inner wooden frame.

The Advisory Committee had originally recommended that tests on the retrofit should be done on the railway wagon shake table facility at the University of Roorkee. But with time running out, transporting all the material to roorkee and constructing a realistic rural Marathwada house for testing did not seem an attractive proposition. This led to the ingenious `tractor’ shake table. The shake table tests have so far been carried out only on Category 1 houses. These show that, while unreinforced models developed severe damage under simulated shocks of the intensity experienced in 93, the retrofitted model only suffered some minor cracks. In sum, the tests have conclusively demonstrated that retrofitting can ensure that houses, even built with traditional locally available raw materials, will not just buckle and collapse in the event of an earthquake. Only the idea of retrofitting remains to be widely accepted and implemented. Sadly, that does not seem to be happening to the desired degree.

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