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AIMING TO PUSH THE LIMITS

RUCHIR PANWAR
Founder & Principal, e3+A Architects

QWhat motivates you to bring out your best in every project that you implement?

The primary motivation undoubtedly is the design, which is in response to the need of the project in various ways. There are financial, social, environmental needs in addition to the operational and design program requirements. At the core, it is governed by how you put together every need, and make it a sort of a matrix where the end users are impacted by the way they are going to interact with the building and how the building should respond to them. This is at the core and then, from there on we weave it and connect it to everything else. The building doesn’t stand alone, as it impacts and in turn is impacted by what’s around it, including other buildings. It is possible to establish a ‘symbiotic relationship’ back and forth between buildings and then, it integrates into an area, a region and a city.

Whatever is one’s core design philosophy, it starts from a singular core idea which is the function of the building, in response to the needs of its occupants, and then keeps on expanding to whatever level is viable in implementing the project. The thought process should be to integrate sustainability at the very basic level itself, inherent in the design such that the ‘built environment’ sits aesthetically and harmoniously with our ‘natural environment’. This is the attitude that I carry for all projects and constantly research how new materials, construction technology, software and other design tools ‘fit in’.

QWith technology taking centre-stage in the modern-day architecture, what is your assessment on the BIM technology?

Building Information Modeling is a tool, a process which people often misunderstand as being a software, whereas it is not. In fact, BIM uses multiple softwares. The idea behind using BIM is to set up a ‘virtual platform’ for flow of information, communication and management from design through to construction in 3D. Further, you can add aspects of project management in terms of time and cost.

It goes right down to how you are going to manage the level of construction activities at site, how you are going to stage material, and how people are going to move in and out, you can stimulate conditions and scenarios, study it and choose the best compromise, and based on that, you change or tweak the entire program.

In today’s day and age, one needs to be accurate, to be quick and to be able to deliver quality. Thus, you need to deliver on quality, cost and time and you can’t ensure that unless and until you are using tools that allow you to do so. So based on the needs and requirements of the industry, where clients want very quick turnaround times fixed to an accurate price, or there are incentives to reduce the price, we need to know all aspects of the design, duly coordinated with all other related disciplines, sequenced for fabrication-installation-construction, interfaced with other trades dimensionally and sequentially finally simulated for construction in the set of circumstances at site integrating procurement/delivery schedules. BIM allows you to do all this and more!

Its not that projects cannot be executed without BIM. Historically, we have witnessed great projects and buildings executed in the past with no concept of building information modeling, yet these projects did get delivered, however, using huge resources in terms of time and money. It will be a colossal waste to continue doing things in a similar manner when BIM technology is available to us now.

Understanding the tool is important, as the more functions it can perform the greater the level of complexity in relationships between functions where small omissions or inaccuracies can lead to delays and frustrations later on. A skilled BIM manager starts rights from the beginning, outlining the intended outcome and then setting the ‘BIM Platform’ and processes. Starting from the conceptual models, constantly adding information to it in real time right up to the level established at the start.

Building Information Modeling is a tool which can be used in real time for communication, collaboration and resolution of all issues on the project, allowing a team of people to work together on the ‘building’ because it is physically there in front of you in virtual space.

It is easy to edit or change, saving a lot of time in to and fro communication between project stakeholders, giving tremendous amount of clarity, and takes away a whole gamut of misunderstandings which can arise through ‘assumptions’ of the design intent from a 2D drawing.
The skill of the BIM manager, thus, lies in ensuring that changes are managed in the early stages of the project rather than later on and that the information added to the ‘building model’ is accurately defined, quantified and resolved going forward. In the Indian context BIM can bring a paradigm shift in the construction industry as we can ‘leap-frog’ to the latest technology and systems.

QAccording to you what are the major advantages of opting for steel buildings vis-à-vis conventional buildings?

Steel as a building construction material came with the industrialized age, and because of industrialization, the buildings started getting fabricated. Interestingly, 70-80 years ago a building called Esplanade, opposite Khala Ghoda was erected which was shipped entirely from England to India. It was made out of pre-fabricated cast iron and structural steel sections, and it was entirely assembled and not build onsite. So even at that time people were thinking on the same lines. They were looking at this industrialized process of construction, not the activity of construction. Building construction wasn’t seen as an activity rather a process, and that is how steel came in as a building construction material. Everything else till then was stone, mud, cement and brick, in a process which had to be done at site.

As far as steel is concerned, you can take it offsite, and hence, it can be done in a much faster and a controlled manner. You could pre-decide sizes, dimensions, fixing details and such. Steel was brought into building construction post the Second World War because of the need in quick turn-around times and lesser weight and mass for large scale buildings. Buildings got taller, had larger spans and were required to be built quickly. Steel made all this possible and being lighter afforded a lot of savings in the design of foundations for such buildings. However, steel does have its challenges and due diligence must be done specific to the project requirements and needs to choose the right construction/building material suitable to the design.

QWhy is it that we have not been able to witness more steel structures in India as compared to the rest of the world?

Primarily, it is the affordability of steel which is a concern. While people say it is because of lack of skill sets, lack of good quality fabricators, lack of good quality steel material being not manufactured, but I think it is not true. We have very good quality of steel being manufactured, even though it may not be available easily and everywhere but if required for the project, there are manufacturers that can supply quality steel and there are quality fabricators too. Focusing on lower costs rather than extracting greater value has allowed for cheaper but poor quality manufacturers and fabricators to spawn all over. Consultants and clients have to jointly address the aspects of ‘price’ and ‘value’ thus enabling the evolution of a whole ecosystem of stakeholders in the industry focused on delivering quality.

R&D is another area where the steel industry in India is lagging behind. Design and manufacturing both need to collaborate in R&D to develop solutions specific to the Indian context rather than borrowing those developed elsewhere with high costs, ‘force fitted’ to our requirements.

The western world has constantly been pushing the limits of steel and developing products that we are trying to incorporate in our projects at very high costs. Hundreds of years ago, the best steel used to go out of India. The samurai swords were made out of Indian steel and that steel was not made in any factory, but, was made by tribal men. We need to go back to that ability of finding ‘frugal’ and efficient ways of making quality steel and systems based products including researching and developing new ones.

Other practical issues of corrosion, fire retarding etc. are addressable and we only need to figure out cost effective ways of doing this which I am certain the industry will do if it looks at R&D seriously.

QWhat trend should be anticipated in the coming few years?

Usage of steel in the construction industry will rise, newer lighter steel with higher strength will be available where the overall tonnage of steel consumed will be considerably lower thus making it ‘affordable’ for wider use in building construction. Prefabrication will become the norm and a greater portion of buildings will be ‘assembled’ rather can constructed on site. New ‘systems’ based products will be developed and new codes will be written to enable using these in future buildings. Our need for factories, civic amenities, housing and infrastructure will continue to grow and steel will play an ever-increasing role in these sectors

QAccording to you, what role could be played by the government in urging the green building concept in India?

Steel is a material which can be reused, and if done so then we save on all the cost of energy consumed in the extraction (of the ore) and manufacturing. Steel is thus considered a sustainable material. What the government should do is just enforce whatever rules that they have formulated. We have got the most stringent environmental laws in the world but they are not enforced and hence there is no impact.

The government and official bodies also need to involve educational institutions, Universities, professional bodies and even corporates and companies developing building materials and construction products in the formulation/drafting of rules and guidelines. The ‘National Building Code’ has already been revised to include a section on ‘Green Buildings’ however this needs to be constantly reviewed and evolved to go beyond ‘Energy Efficiency’ covering aspects in the larger context of ‘Sustainability’.

The government cannot be expected to do everything however it must set the frame work for involving Universities, professional bodies and corporates to contribute in the drafting, reviewing and development of the codes for, not just ‘Green’ but ‘Sustainable’ buildings. They can take cues from Singapore where the government has elicited the help of the National University of Singapore and leading global companies developing sustainable technologies in setting up research facilities and labs to study various aspects of buildings in the larger context of sustainability.

QAre there any structures that you admire for their concept or execution? Your reasons for admiration?

There are two structures which I really love because contextually they are brilliant. One is a pure steel building – The Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, and how it was envisaged was brilliant. Parisians, initially had very negative reactions about that building. It was huge box of steel but was not the usual huge amount of heavy looking steel building. It, in contrast, is a light structure in steel, with glass tubes of escalators hanging of a frame that spans the entire building, because they wanted nothing in between.

It is one box with no structural elements dividing the internal space with only external elements where the design, the details, the nuts and bolts have been beautifully used to form its own aesthetic. The entire process from the evolution of the design to the execution was thought through brilliantly. Technologically, it is one of the most advanced building of its time, the innovative use of steel to make a very ‘light’ building which in one sweeping gesture provides a space where not only those inside interact with art on display but also those on the outside can witness this interaction.

The other building is the New Caledonia Cultural Center – a combination of materials into a ‘hybrid system’ made from wood and stainless steel. It takes inspiration from the ‘hut-like’ dwelling of the local people made of bamboo but gives it a whole new dimension! The architect Renzo Piano used wood and steel brilliantly, enhancing the basic strength of wood. Here, it was made possible for wood to be the basic construction material, in the cultural context of the design, because of the detailing of steel. The buildings look like beautiful baskets. The innovative use of the two materials brilliantly engineered to come together, brought the delicacy of a basket weave to a building.

QWhat is your dream project? By when it will translate into a reality?

You can’t stop dreaming, as once you start it keeps going on. Having said that, I wouldn’t call it a dream project, but, I look at it as a ‘mother’ of all projects – ‘The Smart City’. Smart cities got me really excited as I saw it as an opportunity to set up an entire new city. This was prior to the announcement of the government and its policies regarding developing existing cities into Smart Cities.

It would be an opportunity to evolve a whole new concept of ‘Sustainable Urban Living’, with infrastructure designed to cater to sustainable living goals and to be able to interface with IT for extremely efficient monitoring and management through real time big-data analysis. All the while the ‘connectivity’ of various systems, amenities, facilities and buildings, in short, ‘IOT – the Internet of Things’ would enable each person to selectively choose how they wish to interact with the city based on their needs and the city would be able to respond to each person accordingly.

There is a lot to be thought through in the aspects of ‘Smart Cities’ and in the not so distant future we will have to develop new cities that start as a ‘clean slate’ helping to reduce the stress and pressure on the systems and infrastructure of existing ‘mega cities’ with high-speed mass transportation connectivity, clean air and water, urban farms, sustainable living which then become harnessers of resources and generators of clean energy that positively impact a larger surrounding area rather than huge consumers generating tons of waste that is dumped into rivers, seas and landfills.

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