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Why does a building collapse?

Savera R Someshwar

If it was a coincidence, it was a strange one. A landmark building in the city collapses and, strangely enough, there is not a single architect who is willing to shed light on its demise.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, he's in a meeting and cannot be disturbed."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, all our architects are on site at the moment."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, only the senior architect can answer your questions and he's out of town at the moment."

"I'm sorry, ma'am. You know, a building collapsed next door and all our architects have gone there."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't think anyone in our firm is qualified to answer your questions."

"I'm sorry, ma'am..."

"I'm sorry, ma'am..."

"I'm sorry, ma'am..."

Eventually, when the finger was almost worn to the bone, a few cautiously positive answers. Some of them on conditions of anonymity.

"To be frank," said a rather eminent architect, "it's very difficult to say why a building has collapsed, unless you know the exact details about the building, its structural design, its load bearing capacity, its maintenance factor, the kind of materials used..."

Factors which were stressed upon by other architects as well.

"Suppose," he continued, "a building has been designed to take the load factor of, say, 10. And the factor of safety for this particular building is, say, 12. Which means that it can bear a load of 12. But, if the load factor goes upto 15, you cannot say what will happen."

Load, in architectural parlance, refers to the weight, in kilograms, that a building can bear per square foot. The kind of load each building can bear depends on the purpose for which it has been designed -- residential, commercial or industrial. The load bearing capacity of a building progressively increases, depending on its type.

"For example," he points out, "many buildings in the city opt for terrace gardens -- an extra load that the building may not have been designed to bear. In this case, the top slab might have given way." A fact corroborated by an eyewitness in the next building, who said the roof collapsed under the overhead tank.

"The collapse of the topmost floor," said the architect, "must have increased the load on the floor below it, leading to the collapse of each subsequent floor until the damage stopped at floor three. But no one can say how long that floor will hold. It was definitely not designed to bear such a load..."

Considering that he did not know the details -- did not even know whether the building had collapsed from above or caved in from below -- Shishir Patel, the wellknown architect, was not willing to forward any opinion. But he did go far enough to say, "As far as I know, this building is not very old -- it's only about 20 or 30 years old -- so age cannot be the reason behind its collapse. Any collapse of this kind would only happen due to column failure (if one of the structural columns gives way or is disturbed in some manner, either during interior construction or repair work). Otherwise, there were no other external factors that could have trigged off such a collapsed, there were no earthquakes or strong winds or anything like that."

Uttam Jain of Uttam Jain Architects and Planners explained that bad design and bad planning definitely affected the longevity of a building. "The life of a building is affected by bad workmanship. By bad design. Or if the soil type and structure has not been taken into consideration. If mistakes in calculation result in the building being overloaded. If the materials used were sub-standard. If the construction standards that have to be maintained have not been adhered to. It could amount to overlooking something as simple as lab-testing every truckload of cement that is used in the construction of your building..."

Maintenance, agree the architects, is another extremely important factor.

"Maintenance is the lifeblood of a building. The steel skeleton of a building are its bones. If the steel corrodes, it will become weaker and weaker until the building collapses. The concrete structure will crumble like sponge," continues the architect, on conditions of anonymity. "Once the slabs leak, the steel will corrode. And since Poonam Chambers is near the sea, the corrosion level will be more."

Uttam Jain adds, "Wasn't this building built by Poonamchand Shah? You know that man's reputation; why do I need to say anything more? Look at the kind of people who are constructing buildings today. None of them have the requisite background to be builders, they just have money and use it to manipulate their way and get the necessary sanctions. And, in order to make still more money, they cut corners and compromise on the very factors that affect the life of a building. No wonder, the buildings in Bombay start leaking within a year of their construction."

Shirish Patel adds the final word, "(Violent external factors excepting) A building never collapses just like that. It always gives warning signs. Corrosion does not happen in one day. There would be indications -- if there is any indication of corrosion, it would show in the form of cracks. Those who ignore such external signs do so at their own risk. Then it's a doomsday scenario; you will not know what happens next..."

RELATED REPORT: Did pile foundation cavity have something to do with the collapse?

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