Encounter With Engineers

The Building Doctor

June 2011

As part of a series of interviews with prominent civil engineers, Janaki Krishnamoorthi meets Imran Merchant, Senior Partner, Painterior (India)

"I believe that in repairs and renovation, we civil engineers are being given a second chance to set things right, to rectify errors committed earlier in buildings that have not been constructed properly wholly or partly for whatever reason," asserts Imran Merchant, Senior Partner, Painterior (India), a leading civil repairs, rehabilitation and painting contractor in Mumbai. "That's why I'm extremely particular about our quality of work. It is tempting to take short cuts but in the long run it doesn't work for the client or us."

He speaks from experience. Painterior has handled over 2,500 projects, from residential and commercial to educational and heritage buildings, some of which have won international and national accolades. Jeevan Manek, Deutsche Bank, Shipping House, St. Xavier's College and Sun N Sand Hotel in Mumbai; The Oberoi in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata; The Trident in Mumbai; and Hotel Taj Mahal in Delhi are just some of the major renovation projects the company has taken on. And it has successfully executed each one with ingenuity and dedication, irrespective of whether it is a high-profile structure like Hotel Trident or an unfussy community building in Praja Kabarstan. The latter incidentally won an international award.

Merchant says his passion for construction and obsession for perfection are both inherited. "Construction, cement and sand are in my blood," says the 50 year-old. "My father was a building contractor and developer and my maternal grandfather was a building contractor. My father and uncle used to discuss construction activities over meals. During school holidays, I used to visit my father's construction sites." After hearing, seeing and breathing construction, civil engineering was a natural corollary though repairs and renovation was accidental. But in no way incidental, as Merchant and his brothers Aasim and Firdaus have taken repairs and renovation to a higher plane.

"Repair is pure workmanship using appropriate methods and materials," explains Merchant, who has introduced several innovations in guniting, joint fillings, fixing aluminium windows and ferro-cement chajjas (weather shades). "We have an excellent team of masons and craftsmen who do exemplary work slowly and skilfully. Our masons do 125 sq m of work per day while others do 300-400 sq m work." Naturally, he spends most of his time at his various repair sites before returning to his office in Colaba. "The face of an engineer who spends his time at site will be like a burnt brick," he says with a chuckle. "If an engineer comes for an interview with polished shoes, starched shirt and looking like a chocolate hero, I will know he does not work much at site!"

Having recently diversified into development with the formation of Mermit Developers Pvt Ltd in partnership with Sunil Mittal of Mittal Builders, Merchant tells CW about his company and projects as well as his views and experience on his pet subject: repairs.

The genesis

Painterior was born in 1982 when I was in my final year of engineering. Aasim and Firdaus, both commerce graduates and qualified construction supervisors, and I pooled in Rs 3,000 each from our pocket money and borrowed Rs 7,000 from my aunt, giving her 25 per cent partnership in lieu, and started the company! My study table placed in the balcony of our home in Colaba was our office. We began by painting buildings. When we were on our second project in Colaba, the owners asked us to undertake the repairs also – that's how we got into the field. Initially, our slogan was 'Interior or Exterior, It's Got to be Painterior'. After about a decade we changed it to 'Time Will Tell the Difference', indicating that lasting quality of work would differentiate us from others. And it has! We are from Campion School, Mumbai, which instilled in us tremendous confidence and a huge appetite for excellence, honesty and integrity. In addition, we imbibed several doses of these values from our father too. They have stood us in good stead. I strongly believe if you do your work properly and honestly, money will follow.

Professional challenges

Repair is challenging in many ways. First, convincing residents to go in for repairs and getting them to do it our way is no easy task. They are used to the culture of calling a local contractor, haggling over costs and letting him do some kind of slapdash work. So they get shocked when we quote our price and talk about removing windows, guniting, adding polymer and epoxy. Generally, the majority of housing societies do not have their building structural plans that reveal the position of columns and beams, load bearing capacity, etc. This is our second major problem. Further, we have no CT scan or MRI; we get to know what is inside a building only when we open up the surface. Based on our knowledge and experience, we have to hazard a guesstimate, which is another major challenge.

Premature repairs

The lifespan of buildings and bridges should be 50 and 100 years respectively. However, this does not mean the building will crumble after 50 years. It only means it will require extensive repairs at that time and then the lifespan will get extended by another 20-25 years. The same principle applies for bridges. But these days, buildings need repairs after 10/15 years because we follow a fast-track policy or cut corners. Poor quality concrete or plastering, incorrect workmanship and lack of sufficient cover for steel are the major reasons for shorter lifespan. Poor quality work often owes to lack of knowledge. Many engineers just do not know better. In college, we are only taught the basics and as we do not have any internship, actual learning takes place only on the job. An internship must be introduced in all engineering colleges to ensure quality civil engineering.

Economics of conservation vs construction:

Construction is definitely more remunerative than repairs for a contractor. For instance, if I am taking one-and-a-half years to repair a 20-storey building, my turnover would be Rs 3-4 crore maximum. I would use one engineer, one supervisor and one foreman with 15 to 20 years experience and 30-40 labourers. If I am constructing a similar building using the same team, it will take me one-and-a-half to two years to complete the project, but my turnover would be Rs 30-40 crore. We can get into construction contracting but as our experience and expertise is in repairs, we prefer to continue in this field. We would rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in the sea! However we have diversified into development and established Mermit Developers Pvt Ltd with Sunil Mittal of Mittal Builders. We will earn more money, of course, but more important, we will be creating landmark structures that will remain for several years to come. And I will also get to use my engineering skills in different areas.

Imran Merchant:

• Diploma in civil engineering from MH Saboo Siddik College of Engineering, Byculla, Mumbai
• Diploma in business management from Davar's College, Mumbai
• Active member of American Shotcrete Association, American Concrete Institute and International Concrete Repair Institute (ICRI)
• Presented several papers at Indian and international seminars on repairs and renovation

Awards and accolades:

Award for best restored structures at the worldwide competition held by International Concrete Repair Institute, USA:
1998 Jeevan-Manek, Neapean Sea Road, Mumbai; Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim Kabrastaan, Dongri, Mumbai
2002 Forbes House, Fort, Mumbai; Shipping House, Nariman Point, Mumbai
Outstanding concrete repair projects award from India Chapter of American Concrete Institute:
2004 Forbes House, Fort, Mumbai; Jeevan-Manek, Neapean Sea Road, Mumbai; Woodland, Neapean Sea Road, Mumbai

Challenging projects:

Project: Jeevan-Manek, Neapean Sea Road, Mumbai
Period : 1996-98

Background: Jeevan and Manek are two independent buildings comprising nine floors and 18 floors, respectively, with basement, badminton court, three-tier car parking and swimming pool. They also have very huge thin curved chajjas and large balconies enclosed with aluminium windows.

Reason for repairs: Owing to constant exposure to sunlight and consequent expansion and contraction, the plaster on the chajjas had begun to . "As the chajjas were not conventionally waterproofed, rainwater seeped in, leading to corrosion of steel,' reveals Merchant. "As corroded steel expands four times its volume, s appeared in concrete and more water seeped in. The cycle is progressive and moves at a very high speed. But through repairs, we can arrest the speed of corrosion." Likewise, because of leakage of water through the aluminium windows, the beam below them had corroded. "In India, the method of fixing aluminium windows is highly faulty," he adds. "The channels are fixed and screwed into the concrete, creating conduits for rainwater. The rainwater that collects in the channels then seeps through on to the beam below."

Solution: The chajjas were waterproofed and restored. The beams and columns were repaired and restored. All exposed surfaces were sealed to stop further ingress of water. The swimming pool, which had several s, was restored with expansion joints and advanced adhesives. The aluminium windows were removed and reinstalled with concrete rebates to prevent rainwater from seeping in. "This concrete rebate is our innovation,' shares Merchant. "We hit upon it when we were trying to stem the flooding in our uncle's house in Colaba. For three years, we tried various experiments without much success. Our uncle used to keep on asking why the aluminium windows leaked when wooden windows did not. While trying to find an answer to his question, we discovered that it was the rebated section in the wooden windows that was keeping the water out. So we created the rebate in concrete for aluminium windows."

Challenges: The restoration of the chajjas was intricate, involving highly skilled workmanship, as they were 55-60 ft long and curved. All of them had to be in the same line and look the same after restoration, which was very challenging. Second, getting the consent of residents to remove the aluminium windows and undertake repairs inside proved difficult as there was stiff opposition from them and even from the original architect and structural consultant, who were big guns. "First, they were not convinced that the aluminium windows were causing the problem and, second, they were reluctant to have such massive breaking and repairing as many residents had converted their balconies into lounges and undertaken high-end interior decoration," recalls Merchant. "Finally, the members agreed to remove the window in one flat to see if my diagnosis was right. Accordingly, we removed the window and found the beam below was totally corroded. The society then gave us the green signal to go ahead."

Project: Forbes House, Fort
Period: 2001-2002

Background: This 160-year-old building was originally a ground-plus-two-floor stone structure. Later on, Forbes added three floors on top, a composite structure of RCC (reinforced concrete cement), steel and cement.

Reason for repairs: Corrosion of basement columns owing to water seepage, deterioration of stone façade treatment, s in the stone joints and s in the additional upper floors

Solution: Repair/replacement of concrete members, jacketing of columns and corrosion control were carried out. The stone structure was restored with stone replacement, stone cleaning and stone pointing. Structural renovation, restoration and guniting were done for the upper three floors. Some aesthetic architectural features were added to the upper floors, including application of synthetic plaster with an innovative paint pattern to match the existing stone façade below. Delicate elements like cornices were recast in the stone structure and the same was carried forward to the upper floors. The top 2.5-inch-thick slab was haphazardly loaded with several utility units. This was redesigned and resized into a structural steel platform and waterproofed before the utilities were loaded on it.

Challenges: "To restore a structure that was a blend of heritage and modernity and a composite structure made of several materials like stone, brick, Mangalore tiles, structural steel, RCC and wood was a big challenge in itself," says Merchant. "Then to maintain the architectural features in their original form in the heritage building and introduce features on the upper floor and marry both to make the whole building look like it was made of stone was another challenge."

Project: The Trident, Mumbai
Period: 2009

Background: After the terrorist attack in 2008, the hotel was extensively damaged in several areas including the lobby, atrium, guest rooms, underground water tanks and external façade. All the structural damages had to be repaired and restored and the external façade plastered.

Solution: At first, the entire building was inspected in a gondola and every damaged spot identified, assessed and photographed. Then the structural damages were attended to. The job also involved extensive guniting, shotcreting and re-plastering of the external façade.

Challenges: Completing the work in a short span of six to seven months and working in a scenario where several repairs were going on concurrently was a big challenge. "The task of identifying and assessing damages and getting materials and restoring them in six to seven months was in itself a nightmare," reveals Merchant. "It also required meticulous planning and coordination as massive work was going on simultaneously involving several contractors and over 3,000 workmen. But everything went off smoothly as the hotel team had coordinated it very well. And all the contractors worked with one objective: to put the hotel back in action and prove to the world that no amount of terrorist activity can keep us down."

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