Kashmir’s collapsing roofs: Design flaw, not modern architecture

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Misdiagnoses are as dangerous as the problem itself. In this piece, I’ll be addressing two-fold objectives, one to counter the article written by Syeda Afshana, titled Crumbling Rooftops, and secondly, and more importantly, to bring into light the main reasons that made the hundred-odd structures crumble due to heavy snow across the valley recently.

The author in her column decries “modern style” as culpable to recent mishaps and uses terms like banal modernization, advancement, and chic design in a critical context to convey her point. Is that the case? Absolutely not. The main proposition made by the author is poorly argued and incorrectly holds shifting away from the vernacular style as accountable instead of deficient design and non-compliance to standard practices. 

Even structures built with indigenous techniques do not stand up to the test of time. Many of them get razed to the ground due to earthquakes and physical forces. Those who stand their ground stand tall not only because they were built with reliable craft but also had strong underlying construction. In this regard, an article by Fozia Yasin about structures like Jamia Masjid Srinagar and Khanqah-e-Maula is a good read.

Here, I present my take and dissect the shortcomings in a stepwise manner. Local techniques and elements like Dajji Diwari, Taq, and Dab are just like any other form of architectural features of the building making as much as modern techniques of load-bearing and non-load-bearing concrete structures are, susceptible to disintegrate if poorly designed to unforeseen and uncalculated physical forces like wind, seismic, dead and live loads and in this case – snow induced load.

The Elephant in the Room

The reason behind recent collapses can be highlighted in five points. First, the design problem. The ability to cast off snow from accumulation is the primary function of the pitched roofs in snowy regions. To set for anything less is simply irresponsible. Yet we see roofing’s designed in a way that prioritize aesthetics than following the mandated slope and orientation. In places with moderate snowfall like Srinagar, the slant of the roof should be in a range of 25 to 30-degree angles to accord gliding momentum to amassed snow.

Secondly: the lack of a structural standard. There is a mass unawareness regarding the role of an architect, structural engineer, and draftsman. Mostly, the design is not consulted for the structural practicality which puts the structures and lives at risk. According to the Indian Standard (IS:875 [Part 4] -1987), the design load for roofing structure should be not less than 2 KPa (203.9 Kg/sq. m) for the Kashmir region. Anything less is prone to slump in face of unwanted forces. In fact, the design load of a whole structure needs to be assessed and checked prior to construction on site.

Improper practices come next. The structural check set the precedent for a healthy building but it does not necessarily end up being implemented. The roofing is supported by trusses/frames, mostly made of wood. To reduce labour hours, cut on a budget, or simply due to technical ignorance, the structural integrity is compromised. For example, the horizontal struts used to buttress principal beam members are avoided or mislocated and in some cases, the joint to overlap two beams is done inappropriately.

Additionally, the quality and cross-sectional dimensions of wooden members have reduced significantly in the last decades. The locally available construction timber like Kashmir Silver Fir (Budul) has been replaced by cheaper timber like imported Poplar — Fress — which does not has the adequate load-bearing capacity. To build with affordability, the local poplar wood was earlier strengthened with curing practice to extract moisture. That practice also has vanished.

On the skill side, the demand for modern and complex roof designs has surged in the recent past which experienced masons have less knowledge of and to end up meeting the demand of clients, they built frame structures devoid of adequate strength.

But another question is: who is qualified to design? Even if the argument can be considered for the experienced masons who have successfully built hundreds of homes during their lifetimes, the same ground cannot be ceded to people who pass out with diplomas and drafting courses and set up their own architectural practices. To curb this malpractice, the one way to go would be relying only on qualified and registered architects for making layouts and supervising the construction rather than leaving things with unqualified people who work on a test and trial basis, risking incidents in the aftermath.

Registered architects have a responsibility as per the legislation and are liable to get their licenses cancelled in case of damage to their designed structures. While no such check is in place for other practitioners who take the whole process casually.

Fifth and the last one is the complacent building permission system. To acquire building permission across local bodies in Kashmir, people without a valid Council of Architecture (CoA) license are delegated authority to sign and stamp drawings. Formally, it is the architect who reserves the right to attest at every phase to get the construction going and cities like Chandigarh follow that trend. There is a dire need for a similar robust framework in our municipalities and local bodies to ensure a safer built environment and responsible building practices.

The Author is an architect and planner from Srinagar, Kashmir, and an alumnus of CEPT University, Ahmedabad. You can write to him at e-mail: [email protected].

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