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Vertical Limit

Business

 BY SUMANTRA DAS

Rising population, shrinking space and a desire to remain close to the main city had led to the idea for multi-storeyed sky-scrapers in India. The concept of vertical space expansion by constructing sky-scrapers is the best option especially when it comes to the metro cities.

This concept has now spread to the tier-II and III cities, too. One of the primary reasons for this would be the cost of the land that has sky-rocketed in recent years. Also, business houses have now started targeting such places for setting up their operations.

In line with Mumbai, other cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Kolkata have now developed hundreds of high-rise residential and commercial buildings. The trend has also given rise to more and more builders getting engaged in the Indian real estate market to develop such projects.

It has also motivated local developers to collaborate with international players who, with their advanced technical expertise for better engineering and construction solutions, will enable the developers to remain competitive in this premium segment. Recent examples of such collaborations with internationally-renowned architects, consultants and contractors are Lodha’s ‘World One’ tower in Mumbai, Gateway Tower in Gandhinagar (Gujarat), Supertech’s tallest tower ‘North Eye’ in Noida (near Delhi) and Kolkata’s Urbana Housing.

In the last couple of years, Kolkata has witnessed a sea-change in urbanism. The boom in construction is reported to be even more exponential in growth compared to that of Mumbai. Projects such as South City, Hiland Park, Bel Air, Unitech Horizon have already made their mark in the high-rise segment.

Similarly, in Gurgaon, a number of high-rise buildings are coming up on about 8,000 acres of land in sectors earmarked in Gurgaon Master Plan 2031. Cities like Ahmedabad and Hyderabad are also witnessing a lot of high-rises. As the standard of living has gradually gone up, people today prefer high-rise apartments as compared to bungalows. Hyderabad is the second largest metropolitan city in India and in the last few years has witnessed a lot of real estate activity, which includes the development of the popular Fab City, Hardware Park, Shamshabad Airport, etc.

Commenting on the high-rise trend, Paras Gundecha, former president, Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (MCHI), said, “The latest trend in high-rise construction came about in the last couple of years and city after city is witnessing the launch of high-rise residential projects. These are not the usual 15-20 floor buildings but many have more than 30 or even up to 100 floors.”

Low-rise buildings are forerunners of the Indian residential property sector, and continue to represent its bulk. However, the concept is also highly location-specific and has a lot to do with available Floor Space Index (FSI) in any given location.

Agreeing, Anuj Puri, chairman and country head, Jones Lang LaSalle, averred, “In centralised locations of metropolitan cities, a builder’s first instinct is to consume all available FSI by building a high-rise project, and this makes sense when one considers that available space is used more efficiently. However, the availability of necessary infrastructure to support high-rise buildings in a given area must at all times be taken into consideration.”

With limited space availability, vertical development is the only option. Developed cities across the globe — Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai — all have opted for high-rises. One would hardly find any buildings below 60-70 floors there, mentioned Raju John, CEO, Builders’ Association of India.

“Buyers’ expectations are growing with time. Now they look for various amenities along with residential units. This can only be provided with a judicious usage of space,” stated MC Sunny, chairman and managing director, National Group developers and immediate vice-president, Builders’ Association of Navi Mumbai (BANM). He supports a sentiment echoed by many, that of developers preferring high-rise buildings even though the cost involved in their construction is 20-25% more than normal structures. The concept is in demand because a high-rise accommodates more units as compared to normal structures in the same size of land. If normal structures were to be promoted, more land would be required for construction, which is becoming costlier by the day.

Other than accommodating more tenements in lesser space, high-rises ensure that more space is left for construction of public transport, infrastructure, education and health facilities. Seconding the same, John added, “If residential and commercial space is accommodated in high-rises, the government will have more land for agriculture and recreational usage, which, in turn will benefit the public. So considering several benefits, the government should frame policies that promote high-rise constructions.”

Other than private developers, state government-owned companies like Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority (MHADA) and City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) are also shifting focus from affordable housing to high-rises. MHADA has constructed several high-rises to accommodate Project-Affected People (PAP) and for redevelopment projects. CIDCO too, has recently launched 24-buildings in its Valley Shilp Housing Project, which is spread over 6.45 hectare in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. These buildings are all 14 floors tall.

Planned for middle- and higher-income groups, the CIDCO project comprises 1,224 flats, including 802 flats for middle-income group (MIG) and 422 for high income group (HIG) flats. Along with providing spacious housing, the state-owned company is also offering amenities like a club house, tennis and badminton courts, fitness centre, food court and a multi-purpose hall.

As high-rise buildings are coming up so are new technologies. For instance, elevators are becoming more efficient. Otis Elevator company’s patented ‘Smart Grouping’ technology organises travel by grouping both passengers and stops. Passengers going to the same destination are assigned to the same elevator. Smart grouping also assigns elevators to serve a group of floors, or a zone. The result is faster, better-organised service.

In the past, destination management systems focused on the task of moving people vertically by using intelligent elevator dispatching. Today, because of Otis’ compass destination management system — CompassPlus, a virtual concierge — intuitive screens guide passengers smoothly through their journey, thus, delivering a more intelligent solution for elevators.

Moreover, with newer technology, construction of high-rises is becoming easier and less time consuming. Innovative technologies namely box-type aluminum shuttering, broad sustainable building (BSB’s), prefabricated construction process, Kone Ultrarope, Raster Facade Precast Concrete System and Doka centre core technology, are some inventions that have largely expedited construction work. “With the help of technology, time required for construction of high-rises has reduced to a third. Earlier it used to take 14-21 days to construct one plinth, that is now reduced to seven days. Though these technologies are slightly expensive, using it repeatedly depending on the area, helps reduce the cost,” stated Himanshu Raje, a structural engineer.

Apart from aiding faster construction, these technologies are also earthquake-resistant and energy efficient. It has resistance to high magnitude earthquakes, and is five times more energy efficient than a conventionally-built structure and 10-30% lower in cost. The prefabricated construction process uses a factory-fabricated steel structure system and on-site installation, with flanges and high-strength bolts to join the construction members. It also incorporates integrated, installable floor slabs, light wallboard and other prefabricated materials. It offers multiple advantages; one being that the process produces less than 1% of the waste when compared to conventional site-built constructions.

“This is an innovative way of looking at tall-building construction. Fundamentally rethinking how we build a tall building is fascinating and serves as a great platform for the next stage of development,” opined Jeanne Gang, principal, Studio Gang Architects at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) 2013 Innovation Award.

Similarly, KONE UltraRope is a new carbon-fibre hoisting technology, the weight and bending advantages of which effectively double the distance an elevator can travel in a single shaft – to 1,000 metres. Currently, elevators are limited to a single-shaft height of 500 metres, a point at which the mass and thickness of a steel rope makes further height impractical. With UltraRope, elevators can travel up to 1,000 metres without the need for transfer lobbies.

Another novelty is the raster façade, a load-bearing pre-cast concrete frame that eliminates interior columns, allowing floor-to-ceiling glass by way of triple-glazing with exterior retractable protective louvres. This also generates more usable floor area than other systems. “Load-bearing precast concrete offers an alternative to the glass curtain wall for tall building construction,” said Richard Cook, partner, CookFox Architects at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) 2013 Innovation Award.

However, even coupled with innovations that support faster constructions and luxurious amenities, residents still prefer moderate high-rises in comparison to sky-scrapers going up to 50-60 floors. “We are in favour of development, but not at the cost of hampering our environment. High-rises are welcome as long as they provide community halls, gymnasiums and other facilities but unlimited parking and elevated podiums could be avoided,” expressed Rishi Agarwal, research fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

With opportunities come challenges and it is the same here. Allowing high-rises indiscriminately in certain city areas is definitely asking for trouble and will result in an infrastructure deadlock and an eventual fall in prices.

Unlike in developed countries, enforcing strict norms with regards to structural safety, disaster, environment and fire safety presents a challenge in India. If we take the intense urban sprawl of the financial capital of Mumbai as a reference point, it is evident that such parameters cannot be over-emphasised. The same can be said for other large cities, albeit to varying degrees. Apart from the fact that support infrastructure is a huge challenge in most cities, we do not have the benefit of facilities such as helicopter evacuation in India.

Another factor affecting the increase of high-rise buildings in India are the floor area ratio (FAR) norms. FAR parameters vary from state to state and are governed by the respective city development authorities. Increase or limitation of FAR is not city-specific but area specific. FAR restrictions are necessary in heritage zones featuring monuments and wherever higher, it would destroy the urban fabric of a particular area. This has been the primary area of contention. Lower FAR implies higher horizontal growth, which is positive in terms of environmental sustainability but negative in terms of available supply.

The main issue of whether our cities should grow horizontally or vertically revolves around limited supply and whether horizontal growth is a real solution, keeping in mind the growing population and increasing land prices. Every city will have areas where higher FAR is permissible to encourage or accommodate growth of a certain market segment — the same FAR would not be applicable in other areas of the city. These areas will come under municipal limits and are governed by municipal authorities and the FAR for areas outside municipal limits is decided by town and country planning organisations. While there are general guidelines provided by the Ministry of Urban affairs in the form of Model Urban and Regional Planning and Development Laws, their implementation is by necessity entirely city-specific.

The FAR parameters mentioned above represent the first line of restrictions. Also, in order to prevent circumvention of mandatory regulations, development of high-rises in most Indian metros are governed by committees that encompass representatives of the fire and civic development plan department as well as civil engineers and architects. These committees weigh proposals for high-rise developments obtained by the developer as well as their learnings pertaining to the viability of implementation of all safety norms for a given location. In cities like Mumbai, there is a history of non-compliance and non-existence of necessary clearances for high-rise buildings, which has still not prevented such developments from being launched. This has naturally given authorities reason to be highly circumspect about ensuing approvals.

High-rise buildings are extremely expensive in terms of construction, services and utilities. They are not necessarily more environmentally sustainable. Realistically, we are still a long way off from seeing sustainable skyscrapers as a norm rather than an exception to the rule in India. Cost will continue to dictate most construction in this country and the fact remains that skyscrapers — sustainable or otherwise — involve huge costs.

With inputs from Prashant Chavan

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