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Tall Buildings: An Overseas Perspective

February 2011

Three international architects talk to Charu Bahri about all the issues surrounding high-rise construction in Mumbai.

Going up’ is the buzzword for realty firms in land-starved Mumbai, which is witnessing increasing demand for high-end residential and niche mixed-use properties. In this scenario, developers pulling out all the stops to come up with the best address in town are seeing merit in roping in internationally renowned names in architecture to design their tall offerings. In our perspective, the influx of leading names on the global architectural scene bodes well for the industry - it will help usher in higher standards and better technologies. But what do these stalwarts make of the state of real-estate development in India?

In conversation with Russell Gilchrist, Director, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; Stephen Jones, Managing Principal, Asia, Woods Bagot; and Mark Igou, Managing Director, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill India, Charu Bahri learns more about their perspective on tall buildings in the city and other issues.

Are there any precautions that Indian town planning authorities need to heed as the construction of tall buildings gathers momentum?
Jones: The current push towards tall buildings can help ease the pressure on land for development and has the possibility to provide more affordable housing through bonus offsets. Essential for the growth of cities and sustainability is the appropriate provision of infrastructure to accommodate the increase in traffic, service and waste that 'going up' will generate. This is perhaps India's greatest challenge and the country for the most part struggles with its current condition.

Gilchrist: If we accept that building tall in high-density cities is a good urban and financial model, I think it is a good approach for India to be outward looking and seek help especially in the context of high-rise expertise. However, Mumbai has a unique urban setting and that level of development needs (planning) controls. Although by international standards London is a low-rise city, it restricts the concentration of high-rise development to specific districts, those served by good public transport infrastructure, to protect the quality and nature of the remainder of the urban fabric that is not high rise. I am not lamenting the development of the high rise in India. Rather it can't be the only tool in the development of the city's growth and should be considered alongside a mixed-use urban environment rather than create a monoculture of high-end, high-rise residential development.

Is India using appropriate and internationally acclaimed technologies and best practices used for tall buildings?
Gilchrist: It's difficult to say because it's still too early in the current, booming construction cycle to see what environmental and high-performance strategies are being employed. It is not difficult to see the change in skyline over the past 10 years or so but it is less apparent to know whether the current high-rise construction projects are any more sustainable than their predecessors at present.

Jones: Predominantly traditional building technologies are being utilised in tall towers in India with very little innovation taking place. We like to think this paradigm is on the verge of change though, with local developers increasingly looking for design solutions that incorporate world's best practice. High-strength concrete, composite construction and steel construction are being explored by some of our clients to reduce build times and speed up their sales delivery.

What are some of the challenges that are likely to be faced by tall building projects in India?
Igou: Factors such as a lack of design and construction standards and procedures and a shortage of skilled labour are issues that need to be addressed.

Jones: Verification of quality of the build materials and installation is challenged in the Indian context. Supply and installation of suitable locally available façade systems and maintenance of external envelope are a challenge for many inexperienced developers and site safety and the training of labour to support better building practices are needed. Last, the process of actually constructing a super high-rise building is little understood by many less experienced developers. There are, by my count, over 34 super high-rise buildings planned or in the process of construction in Mumbai currently and this requires a level of experience from building companies that is hard to find in India, indeed in the world. The sites tend to be very constrained and lacking staging areas - we are used to this in Hong Kong but it is a new phenomenon in the India building market. This is a risk to the programmes, safety and quality of projects in this fast developing market.

In your opinion, are Indian building codes suited to current developments with regard to tall buildings in real estate or could they be bettered?
Jones: In general, codes are not keeping pace with the dazzlingly fast rate of change to the development context of Mumbai. As with many developing markets, building codes rely strongly on prescriptive measures and the mechanisms to deal with performance-based solutions lack critical development. It is performance-based design solutions that often allow true innovation. As the market matures and more confident and ambitious projects evolve, one hopes the system will quickly evolve to accommodate the ambitions.

Igou: Indian development rules, regulations and codes are some of the most dynamic in the world. We are seeing them becoming much more robust. The current NBCI regulations are primarily focused on a prescriptive approach while international codes are trending to a performance-based approach. Performance-based codes allow architects and engineers to provide more innovative design solutions that typically increase public safety and create more value for building owners.

Gilchrist: They absolutely could be bettered, but then most building codes could be. I think our experience and observations over the past two to three years results from a combination of spiralling land prices and ever increasing supply/demand for residential development. At the moment particularly, it is so fluid that planning/zoning laws are changing daily, and not for the better, allowing more built-up area for your development the longer you wait. Hopefully, that will sort itself out and planning authorities will take a district or city view as opposed to the site by site view they currently appear to be having.

Could you please share a few salient improvements in Indian building codes that you'd suggest?
: To continue India's regulatory evolution and integrate it further with international codes, India should evaluate adoption of the International Building Code (IBC). India should consider reviewing completeness of Indian Standards (IS). Internationally recognised standards such as the British Standards (BS) or ASTM standards used in the US are good models to evaluate. Finally, enforcement of existing standards is important. India's municipal corporations need to ensure buildings are being built to the standards that currently exist.

Jones: Although codes allow developers to maximise saleable area, parking and non-FSI related areas, the specifics of safety for high-rise residential developments are not strongly addressed. We are looking towards the design of safety systems based on IBC rather than local codes to address these issues. We are designing all our projects to meet LEED accreditation and sustainability is an area where codes could also drive higher performance through adopting into legislation the India Green Building Code or other international standards to support the reduction of carbon emission, emissions and energy usage.

Gilchrist: Mumbai in particular - other Indian cities must also take heed - should resist the current practice of providing municipal car parking in exchange for additional FAR (Floor Area Ratio). It is already increasingly difficult and time-consuming, therefore expensive, to travel even relatively short distances in Mumbai without increasing traffic volume. In fact, although painful to accept in the first instance, developers/land owners should be rewarded with more FAR for less parking accommodation or should be encouraged to provide social housing or some contribution towards the district or city wide infrastructure (public transport/utilities/ road/pavement improvements or green space provision) in exchange for increased density. The problem with the current development boom is that it is so heavily weighted to satisfying residential supply rather than a commercial one that it is difficult to put the brakes on parking provision and gain acceptance. Increased density is good and should be encouraged, but you need alternative transport systems apart from the car, among other things, to support this approach.

How would India benefit from bringing international expertise onboard for tall building projects?
Igou: As the Indian real-estate market continues to mature, we are experiencing dramatic positive changes in the Indian construction industry. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's international experience allows us to use our global experience to help emerging economies adopt the appropriate building technology and processes to help our clients maintain a market advantage.

Gilchrist: Architectural and engineering projects carried out by international consultants and constructors are still in their infancy. The amount of design development and construction documentation required to execute a 300 m+ high project is not always understood; we have seen projects that are large by any international standards having been constructed from pretty scant information or documentation for projects of this size. Traditionally this wouldn't have been a problem because construction was relatively low-rise and could borrow construction techniques passed down through generations of builders and craftsman. Building tall requires time and expertise; furthermore, high-rise design is and has been entering a period of optimisation, whether from an environmental or structural perspective. By that I mean using new technologies as well as using fewer materials (concrete/ steel) through design innovation. At this point in time that expertise still resides largely outside India as do the project management and construction skills of high-rise design. However, this is no different to China and even Vietnam who are seeking construction management from firms like Turner International (US-based) and Korean construction companies to carry out tall projects in their country. It only takes a short cycle for this experience to then reside within India itself.

Major areas of concern:

  • Lack of design
  • Construction standards
  • Shortage of skilled labour
  • Prescriptive approach
  • Safety specifics for high-rise
  • Parking provision

What they suggest...

  • Provision of infrastructure
  • High strength concrete
  • Composite construction
  • Steel construction
  • Performance-based codes
  • Adopt the International Building Code (IDC)
  • Review Indian Standards (IS)
  • Adopting IGB code into legislation
  • Reduction of carbon emissions
  • Heed towards additional FAR
  • Provide social housing
  • Time and expertise
  • Appropriate building technology
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