Sunday, 14 February 2016

The role of a Conservation Professional: Demystifying the jargon for the common man

A phone call a couple of days back from a friend inquiring about the meaning and methods of listing and how to go about doing a conservation project by the book in the city, prompted me to help demystify what words like listing, grading and restoration mean to the common man, after all the purpose of this blog is to help the common man restore his own heritage home.

So let's begin with the simple word, what is a heritage building? Is everything that is old considered to be heritage? By definition heritage is something that one generation has preserved and wants to hand down to the next generation, it is something that one generation has valued and wants the next generation to keep properly. It could be your grandmothers banarasi sari that she wore for her wedding or a simple piece of jewellery, a rare old book and in built heritage terms a building that you wouldn't want destroyed. Every old building is not heritage, only those buildings which have something special are considered as heritage buildings, they could be buildings that were great pieces of architecture of their times, they may have been home to important people or some important event may have taken place there or it may be just one of its kind thats left today. There may be multiple reasons why something is considered heritage.Everyone has  heritage, some of it is personal, belonging to the families themselves while others are shared, sometimes with neighbours sometimes with communities and sometimes with the city or with other cultures.

When Mr Bagla first contacted me in May 2010, he was merely looking for an architect to redesign his old house for him, when I had my first look at the property I realised that hidden behind all the grime and dirt lay a beautiful marvel. My first question to him was is this listed? He said to me what is that? Earlier in February that year the Delhi Government had notified some 775 buildings of heritage value as listed buildings. When I looked up the list I realised we were listed as a Grade II heritage building, albeit erroneously the address was given as opposite shop no 1242/5 Chotta bazaar, but the photograph of the gateway confirmed that it was the very same property.

Now what does listing actually mean? Over the years, architects survey the historic areas and come up with a list of the best surviving heritage buildings, that process of making the list is called "listing". Depending on the level of importance of these heritage buildings they are graded and protected by the different government authorities.So for example in Shahjahanabad, the old city of Delhi, the Red Fort is recognized as a monument of international value and is also a world heritage site, while it is also protected by the national law by the Archeological Survey of India, there are however other monuments which are of lesser importance and are protected by the Department of Archaeology of the Delhi Government. There is a full third category that is known as "listed buildings" which are all over the old city of Shahjahanabad and are protected under the Delhi Building Byelaws by the DDA/ MCD.Now not all heritage buildings are of the same value and depending on their overall importance, the ones which are important at the City Level are listed as Grade I such as the Town Hall, Old Delhi Railway Station  while Grade II buildings are something of a lesser important than Grade I such as Lala Chunamal's Haveli, Jain Temple at Dharampura and in Grade III is buildings of local importance such as Haveli Haider Quli etc. These grades are what determine what you can and cannot do for your heritage properties, for example in a Grade I building no changes to the exterior or interior are allowed and the original pattern has to be maintained, while in Grade II internal changes and adaptive reuse may be allowed while in Grade III some additions, alterations and extensions may be permitted by the Heritage Conservation Committee.Now anyone who wants to make any changes in their "listed" heritage buildings must seek the NOC from the Heritage Conservation Committee. Now you can't approach the HCC directly, one has to approach it through the appropriate local body MCD or NDMC as the case may be. Once your proposal is ready, you have to send it to the HCC for the approval, who will ask you to come and make a presentation as to what you want to do in your property.

There is a full process of how it is done, what are the criteria for listing, who decides, how they decide, what changes would you be permitted, for further detailed information on this you could go to the local INTACH office/ or North MCD or visit the Heritage Conservation Committee  (www.hcc.delhi). Here you will be able to find out if your building too is on the list, what is its grade what you can and cannot do in your heritage property.

Another important thing that impacts heritage properties in the walled city is the Ancient Monuments and Sites & Remains Act amendment 2010. What that means is even if you may not be listed as a heritage building by MCD/NDMC, if you happen to stay near a protected monument you need to seek the permission of the Competent Authority/ National Monuments Authority before carrying out any works in the building. In a nutshell, this law states that within 100m radius from a Centrally protected monument one cannot do any building activity, this is what is known as the "prohibited zone", while between 100m-300m from the monument is what is known as the "regulated zone" again where repairs, construction will need a prior permission of the Competent Authority.Now this is a Pan India Central Law for the ASI protected monuments and a similar state law exists for State Protected monuments known as the Delhi Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and remains Act 2004, in this case the prohibited zone is 50 m from the boundary of the monument while the regulated zone is a further 100m from the prohibited zone. You can see the details for the Archaeology Department at this (

In our case, we had checked the distance of our haveli from the main Kashmere Gate and it was around 500m so we thought we were clear and had just begun the work for setting up the mill for the lime mortar when the local police came and stopped the work, saying that without an ASI NOC work cannot happen, on visiting the ASI office we realised that there was a small section of the city wall that was surviving at a distance of 292 m from the haveli and hence we had to follow another process to first get the Competent Authority NOC and subsequently the NOC from the Heritage Committee. You can get the details about your property and its distance and procedure for NOC from
NOC from ASI and Heritage Conservation Committee hung at the entrance of the haveli during the entire duration of the project

One thing I would like to highlight here is that both the Heritage Committee and the ASI require that a "Conservation Architect" is entrusted with the process of the restoration, a Conservation Architect is essentially a little different from a regular architect, he is a specialist in restoration of heritage buildings. Just like you would go to a Cardiologist for your heart problems and not a general practitioner, you should ideally go to a conservation architect and not just an architect for the health of your building.The School of Planning and Architecture at ITO has an entire department dedicated to Architectural Conservation, INTACH based at Lodhi Estate is also a good resource, and of course there are many private practitioners, it is really your choice as to who suits your requirements the best.

So what is the benefit of hiring a conservation architect, well they are trained to understand materials, practices and their design approach is clever, unobtrusive, based on what is the value and significance of a space.

For example, when we showcase the pictures of our newly made kitchen in the haveli, most reactions are it is pretty so what?. Any body can do that, any modular kitchen company will do that for you. But the fact is in keeping with the conservation principle of like to like repair, our design was governed by the fact that we did not want to use any cement and therefore made sure the design is such that it is tailor made to use materials that are compatible with lime mortar. Especially hand crafted tiles have been designed and manufactured such that they could be used with lime mortar after studying the chemical compositions and many scientific papers on the subject while the cabinets are all made from locally available wood.

In case of the drawing room, the huge doors, windows fanlights have been conservatively repaired and not replaced with new.

Conservation is not jargon and a lot of big words, it is simple common sense, it is the sustainable way of life, you would repair because its more economical, the wood used in those days cant be matched today. When a conservation project meaning restoration as well as adaptive reuse is undertaken, the planning and approach of what materials to use what would be most significant to the building, what is the design language of this building would the material be appropriate here all are design decisions that one would take. The design methodology of a conservation professional would ideally be so subtle that for a common man it would appear that there is no intervention but to the trained eye one would be able to discern what is old and what is new. That fine line is the value a trained conservation professional brings to your project.

For further information visit the INTACH Delhi Chapter and refer to the " Handbook for Conservation of Heritage Buildings in Shahjahanabad : A Manual for Owners & Occupiers" available at INTACH

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Translating dreams into reality: So whats the fuss all about?

We are all dreamers, all designers are experts at building the perfect concept, but reality hits when you are faced with the fact now how are we going to build this. The haveli project has been an eyeopener in many ways and the one lesson that shines brighter than the sun is that " simple solutions are often the best solutions". Although when one looks at finished images of the project, most people react, its pretty, big deal, whats the fuss all about. Why is our project so fascinating to the Indian and International media? For all of you that think that we made a killing with this project, had a special PR exercise to promote it, the truth is the only thing that propelled this has been passion. Our passion for turning dreams into reality in the given constraints of time and money and the Clients passion of having his "pushtayni haveli" {ancestral house}restored as his home. Everything else just happened to fall in place.

The big deal about the Haveli Project is that our sole objective with this project has been to reiterate that conservation isn't just about the buildings, its about the people and their stories about those spaces. The survival of heritage in the current socio-political climate will depend solely on how relevant it remains to its owners and occupiers. Urban conservation isn't just about restoring the buildings and streetscapes in an old city, its also sustaining the "spirit of the place" of keeping the dynamism, the people their stories and their way of life. It is more than architecture, it is social science, it is urban geography, it is economics, it is urban planning and much more.

I suppose the most challenging part of this project was the fact that this wasn't a monument, it was a home to a family that had lived here since the 1920s. There were meanings and associations with each and every space, for me what was a grand 20th century extension, complete with its semi-circular arched fanlights and fireplace for the owner it was "dadijis room" where she sat and supervised the household while sitting on the bed. He told me once " Dadiji used to sit on her bed here and keep an observant eye on what the bahus were upto."

Another interesting anecdote was when we were relaying the floors of one of the bedrooms, we found foundations of earlier walls made in lakhori brickwork which to me meant, that the rooms had been reconfigured in the 20th Century, getting me super excited that our understanding of the chronology was bang on supported by the building archaeology! But the Contractor and the owner thought that there was a secret passageway that lead to some hidden treasure and "khazaana". The owner told me that a Muslim family from Pakistan had once come looking for their family treasure that they had hidden and left behind in the partition in a haveli that matched the description of this one and this was possibly our chance to discover the treasure. I had to tell them that if they excavated any more the haveli will fall down and aborted their attempt of the treasure hunt there and then!

Its also an extremely engaging experience when we are not speaking the same aesthetic language, a journey that has taken us almost half a decade is eloquent of this fact. Endless debates on what would be the ideal material, would it be durable, how often would it require repair, would it be easy to maintain, what is its longevity made sure that we were absolutely sure of what we are doing. Some battles are still ongoing. We had a gamut of ideas thrown at us such as painting the jack arched ceilings a la Sistine chapel, printing patterns of wall paintings from Shekhawati havelis on vinyl and pasting them on the hall walls, placing mirror glasses in the doors and windows, buying furniture from IKEA for the heritage house, Vasstu considerations thrown in when the work is finished. I would say the one skill that was sharpened in this whole process is that of "negotiating" and sometimes "arbitrating".
To us the Haveli Project shall always remain special because it brought conservation from the text books and guidance notes out on to the ground. Every conservation architect studies the importance of lime and advocates its use in every project, but apart from the chemical equations no book tells you where you buy it, how you make it, how to use and how to maintain it. Secondly the merits of this material had to be proved to the Client, who kept insisting on using cement since it was more "strong and durable". Most of the Client's advisers and relatives told him that I was "Wasting his time" with lime mortar. We didn't have any specialized masons, we had old masons who remembered the technique, who themselves were skeptical why this "madam" wanted to use old and regressive chuna and even tried to convince me to use cement. This was one battle I wasn't prepared to give up, we tried and failed and tried again until we got it right and the belief came only when the 8' high seepage and rising damp perpetually in the room disappeared after lime plastering and didn't return even in the heavy monsoon. A battle that was won after 4 long years, we had a client so convinced of the lime mortar and its benefits that when students would come to visit, he himself gave the demonstration of how to use and mix.

Lessons learnt while dirtying our hands are what will stay with us forever. It also reinforces an idea that conservation requires nothing more than "common sense", the principles of conservation are ingrained in our way of traditional way of life, repair, reuse, juggad and innovate. In this day and age, where traditional and vernacular is considered regressive while the perception of modernity is posh, swanky and elitist. When we began, reusing the historic wooden doors and furniture were out of question, as the owner could "afford" new. Debates on how the quality of the old, its craftsmanship was far superior that what we could ever buy new didn't help until the entire market was surveyed and the same conclusion reached after 2 months.Once fresh from a trip to China, I was told that whatever design you want, Chinese manufacturer would be ready to make, not a big deal. Words like "local" and "sustainable" didn't have much meaning. I guess what turned the argument in the favour of conservation was ultimately the constraints of time and most importantly budgets. For me its a red letter day, when all the old furniture and doors and windows have been restored insitu by the carpenters and when I am told " Aaree beta the quality of that time is unparalleled, even after 100 years it is surviving".

As I stand at the closure of this project, for me the biggest prize is how this project managed to make conservation relevant to a common man, how conservation helped reinforce their identity and how Mr Bagla became the Sethji of the haveli. With this conservation project, we have been able to bring back the glory and keep intact the memories of this family. It has also been proved that it is possible for anyone to live with the luxuries of contemporary living in a heritage house complete with their memories and associations.
The Bagla Family lives at Kashmere Gate Haveli
Photo Credits: Daniel J Allen

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Reviving the historic tile patterns!

We often look at beautiful architectural magazines and think, wow that's really neat! Theoretically we were crystal clear with our vision that we had to provide a contemporary dwelling within a historic building but how were we going to achieve this practically. I trained to be a conservation professional in Scotland, it most definitely broadened my perspective to the levels of interventions that could be done in historic buildings. But I'd say conservation in the European context is a far less challenging when you can go to a special store and buy everything off the shelf whether it is lime plaster, heritage tiles, or types of limewash. This project made us go back to the drawing board multiple times to understand what the source of most things was, first year architecture and building construction was resonating with us which not only made the project interesting but also thoroughly challenging. Here I had at my hand a Grade II listed haveli, yet it had to be converted to a comfortable dwelling unit for 2010, air-conditioning provided for, concealed cabling for electrical and plumbing. One such concern was the introduction of contemporary bathroom in the historic building.

While at one hand, we were able to solve the spatial, plumbing and electrical concern, the second most important concern was the choice of finishes and fittings! Someone once told me when you do an interior project, the most important job is the selection of the tiles, once that is done the project is half done. Now most people say we are lucky to be in the heart of Delhi, where every thing is easily available off the shelf and we have lots of skilled craftsmen. But finding those shops and craftsmen is like looking for a pin in a haystack. Our Client is more that eager to source everything from his "friends and relatives" who import things from China. Words like local and sustainable were too distant and meaningless for him, marble inlay, gold leafing, Italian tiles and Chinese replicas of Versace tiles fascinated him more. NITCO was inferior, stone too old fashioned and the brief the bathroom has to be "royal".

The job of the conservation architect is a tough one, especially in a project like this when one has to begin socialising the client with design ideologies materials and finishes that are in keeping with the character and significance of the historic structure that he calls home. Our decision to use only home made lime mortar made it easier to reject a lot of the fancy material like vitrified tiles as they weren't compatible to our mortar. Our research had yielded that in buildings of a similar age in the walled city, the walls were generally clad with a dado of 4" X 4" what were then known as "Italian tiles".
4"X 4" Italian tiles used for dado in one of the grandest havelis of old Delhi, The Chunamal Haveli is used as a design reference.

The original Victorian tiles used in Chunamal Haveli, Chandni Chowk Delhi
We finally narrowed down on these 4" X 4" handmade ceramic tiles, were what we wanted to use. Now no shop in Delhi was selling them off the shelf since they were out of "fashion". Someone told us that there was this one shop in Sundernagar Market, which would probably stock these however when we visited them, the shop didn't exist anymore. We then heard that Raja Tiles in Noida, one of the largest manufacturer of handmade tiles in Delhi had a factory in Sector 16 and we went there to ask him if he was ready to custom make a design for us. However he declined and then someone suggested we look at Jaipur, so we spoke to some manufacturers of Jaipur Pottery. The big manufacturers were ofcourse not interested in our minuscule order and said we had to chose from their portfolio of designs only. Finally through just dial we found a small time manufacturer, Rachit in a place called khurja a 100kms from Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh, who was just starting out and was willing to experiment with us.

We researched  patterns of tiles in the early 20th Century and came up with some typical designs. We were able to trace these out on a 1:1 scale to explain to Rachit what we wanted! So we set off for Khurja with our designs to see his unit and order our final tiles. A treacherous 3 hr road trip on a   dusty and bumpy road  in 45 degrees heat led us to Rachits manufacturing unit on the banks of a canal in the small town of Khurja, as we entered through the gates, what we saw amazed us. That's when we knew the effort was worth it. We showed Rachit what we wanted and he like it and wanted to try his hand at something new so together in that small unit we began to develop a product that has left us both extremely proud!

Detailed 1:1 scaled drawings were prepared for developing the designs for the tiles.

Small scale industry in Khurja, UP where hand made ceramic tiles are still made, an enthusiastic entrepreneur agreed to made our designs

Hand made and embossed tiled being prepared at the unit for export purposes
It took some experimentation both on our part as well as on Rachits part to reach the final product. Twice the total batch was spoilt, due to over baking. Although there were delays but it was a blessing in disguise as it gave our lime plaster all the more time to dry out.

Special dyes were prepared based on our design for the skirting tiles

After several failures finally Rachit got the top rail perfect exact as per our drawing
The final product arrives, perfect in specification to our designs
Variation of the same design to be of the dado

September 2014 The bathroom under construction

November 2014 The tiles finally installed on the courtyard wall