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Kashmir Newz Specials

Building of a disaster

By Shahnawaz Khan

Srinagar, July 3, 2014:

The valley of Kashmir falls in Seismic zone IV and V, with many experts of the view that a major earthquake is in store for the region.

In 2005 an earthquake of 7.4 magnitude on Richter scale with its epicenter near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan controlled Kashmir caused large scale devastation in Pakistan and Kashmir.

On the Indian side of Kashmir damage was limited to frontier areas of Uri, Karnah and Baramulla.

Distance from the epicenter helped major cities like Srinagar escape the throes of destruction in 2005, but the dynamics of the active seismic zone demand earthquake sensitivity and preparedness.

Experts, however, say the region has never been as vulnerable to destruction in the event of a major quake as it is now – thanks to changes in its building architecture over the last six decades.

“Ninety percent of the (new) structures which have come up in Kashmir will face the same fate that Muzaffarbad structures faced in the event of God Forbid an earthquake,” says Saleem Beg, head J&K Chapter of INTACH referring to the new residential houses that have come up in the last five decades.

Read this Interview with Saleem Beg

Concrete as a choice of construction has almost totally replaced Kashmir’s unique traditional architectures that employed heavy use of timber in its structure along with bricks, mud mortar and stones.

Beg says that while Reinforced Concrete was a modern technology used in super structures worldwide, most structures coming up in Kashmir use sub standard specifications.

“People who are happy with using slabs (RCC ceilings) are at a greater risk of loss in event of an earthquake. Only those people who do it by standard specification would perhaps be secure. And how many people are doing it,” said Beg.

Beg’s views are echoed by many others in Kashmir.

“We have moved from a very efficient system to a very bad system,” says Iftikhar Ahmad Hakim, Chief Town Planner Kashmir.

Hakim says the traditional architecture like Taq and Dhajji Diwari constructions followed standardized specifications, and styles.

“Everything was standard, the window styles, the walls patterns. Nowadays it is wanton,” says Hakim.

As town planner Hakim is also annoyed that Srinagar has lost its unique identity the traditional houses gave the city.

“The face of the city is changing. There is no pattern. Everything is random,” says Hakim.

Moreover, the requirements or essentials that led to the evolution of the systems in Kashmir were totally sidelined with the introduction of new systems, says Beg.

Traditionally Kashmir’s houses could be divided between two major architectural systems, the Taq system and Dhajji Diwari. Both make use of wood as an important structural element.

The efficiency of Kashmiri traditional architectural practices have been duly recognized by experts at national and international level.

In the wake of Kashmir earthquake 2005, UNESCO in conjunction with UNDP, UN Habitat and other some other organizations commissioned Prof Randoplh Langenbach of Conservationtech Consulting (US) to compile a report on heritage value of Kashmiri architecture and construction techniques.

The report, ‘Don’t tear it down! Preserving the earthquake resisitant vernacular architecture of Kashmir’ was published in 2009 and serves as a valuable resource on the richness of Kashmiri traditional architecture.

According to UNESCO the publication was meant to offset the common belief that these systems were obsolete and inadequate for modern day life, and encourage conservation of Kashmir’s vernacular architecture through increased understanding of its scientific and cultural attributes and its earthquake resistant features.

Langenbach uses his 25 years of experiences in earthquake zone areas including Kashmir to illustrate the benefits of traditional Kashmir constructions over the contemporary concrete ones.

He writes, “Concrete construction requires more than just good craftsmanship: it demands an understanding of the science of the material itself. The problem is that builders are often inadequately trained and thus do no fully understand the seismic implications of construction faults. As a result potential disaster lies hidden beneath the plaster….

Traditional buildings, even the ones that have survived earthquakes that felled nearby reinforced concrete buildings, were not engineered. No calculations were made, and no plan for them were ever inspected, because none were ever drawn. They were constructed by local masons with little or no formal training and without the input of professionally trained engineers or building designers. They were built with a minimum of tools, with locally acquired materials using a minimum of costly resources and they were held together with mimimum of nails and fasteners...

Unlike traditional timber and masonry, reinforced concrete requires a high level of knowledge and skill even to meet the basic level of capacity and ductility to ensure against collapse… From its inception, reinforced concrete has captivated engineers and architects alike because of its capabilities yet in earthquakes its record has been disappointing largely because of the pervasive quality control problems endemic to the material.”

Yet earthquake resistance has been only one advantage the traditional houses had over the concrete ones.

Thick walls raised in mud mortar and covered with a mud plaster, along with wooden ceilings, would also insulate the residents from Kashmir’s harsh winters.

But as Town Planner Hakim says, “We have lost what we had, we lost focus somewhere.”

A UNESCO 2007 poster hailing the traditional architecture of Kashmir

What are Taq and Dhajji Diwari construtions

The traditional architecture of Srinagar and Kashmir, writes Prof Langenbach, has generated out of distinctive use of materials and ways of building, which are adapted to local climate, culture and natural environment, principally the soft soils and the earthquake risk in the region.

The danger of earthquakes and the soft building ground have had a great influence on the way people traditionally built their houses. This combination of soft soils with earthquakes required buildings that can undergo a certain amount inelastic deformation without losing their vertical load carrying capacity.

Historically Kashmir’s architecture shows preference for a ‘give’ or flexibility over strength and rigidity.

Taq

Taq construction is a bearing wall masonry construction with horizontal timber lacing embedded into the masonry to keep it from spreading and cracking. It is usually configured with a modular layout of masonry piers and window bays tied together with ladder like constructions of horizontal timbers embedded in the masonry walls at each floor and lintel level. The masonry piers are thick enough to carry the vertical loads, and the bays may either contain a window or a thinner masonry wall. The ladder-like sets of timber beams laid into the exterior and interior faces of the walls are connected together through the wall either by floor beams, and joists or short connector pieces.

These horizontal ladder bands are located at the base of the structure above the foundation (das) and at each floor and lintel level.

Taq construction gets its name from the modular layout of piers and window bays which are referred to as taq. A building with a five sets of piers and bays, will be recognized as a five taq house, alternatively a measurement system for such houses, with the masonry piers (Around 2 ft) and window bays (3-4 ft) almost always of standard size.

An important factor in the structural integrity of taq is that the full weight of the masonry is allowed to bear on the timbers, thus holding them in place, while the timbers in turn keep the masonry from spreading.

Reference: Langenbach, Don’t tear it down, 2009,

The masonry piers are around two feet thick and would usually have fired small bricks on the façade, and unfired mud bricks in the interiors. The piers stood at a distance of three to four feet joined or separated from each other by a window bay. The window bay would have a door, or a thinner wall, when a widow was not required at the place. The whole elements were held together by the horizontal timber beams, helping the structure to act as one unit, and at the same time keep it flexible enough to limit the damage.

An unusual element is the taq system is the existence of a deliberately unbounded butt joint between the masonry piers and the wall and window panels.

The Taq system exploits the combination of a weak mortar, bricks and timber in a manner that the apparent weakness of the structure becomes its strength. The structures hold good on soft soils as well as perform well in earthquakes. Even if some part of the house give into stronger forces of natures, the architecture ensures that the damage is not transmitted to the whole structure.

Dhajji Diwari

Dhajji Diwari is a wooden frame based structure, a variation of mixed timber and masonry construction type found around the world in one form or another. The term dhajji diwari comes from Persian and literally means patchwork quilt wall.

It consists of a complete timber frame that is integral with the masonry, which fills in openings in the frames to form walls. The wall is commonly one half brick in thickness so that the timber and masonry are flush on both sides.

The Dhajji frames usually platform frames meaning that each story is framed separately on the one below. The floor joists are sandwiched between the plates.

Reference: Langenbach, Don’t tear it down, 2009,

Traditional is modern

While the presence of soft soils and the recurrence of earthquakes may have led to the evolution of Kashmir’s unique architectural systems, there are many more reasons to have a closer look at them and encourage its preservation and incorporation of the techniques in modern day constructions. While it may not be possible to revert to traditional architectural systems altogether, given the gap in transfer of technology, and adaptation of new systems with modern lifestyles, there is still need to incorporate modern needs and technologies into the traditional knowledge system. There are enough reasons to encourage use of timber and mud mortar and traditional architecture systems over reinforced and unreinforced concrete.

Earthquake Resistance: Taq and Dhajji Diwari construction systems have proven efficient is surviving earthquakes, by the virtue of their flexibility or ductility. Damages, if any, are localized and not quickly transmitted to whole structure. Survival rates of trapped persons in case of an eventual collapse are fairly high than in case of a concrete building.

Energy Efficiency: The use of mud mortar, mud plaster, wooden ceilings (floor levelts), unfired bricks on the inside, all these elements gave a Kashmiri traditional house a high degree of insulation from external temperatures. It was essential to the survival in Kashmir’s harch winters with very low resilience on energy for internal heating. Kashmir's modern cement and concrete houses are out of sync with its cold climate.

Health Issues: The cold and numb concrete houses have lead to an increase in people complaining of orthopedic problems. Many blame this squarely on the new houses.

Sustainability and recyclability: The recyclability of material in wood and mud based houses is so much so that one can even virtually think of dismantling a house brick by brick, and re-building it at another site brick by brick from the same material. This is incomprehensible in a concrete structure. In fact a concrete house once razed is nothing but debris that needs to be disposed off. While materials salvaged from damaged or even gutted traditional houses can be put to use wherever required.

Environment Pollution: Cement production in itself puts strain on natural resources and creates a lot of environmental pollutions. A number of cement plants have come up in Kashmir in the last few decades, most of them are located in the vicinity Saffron rich Pampore town. Decline in Saffron production the area has been attributed to dust emanating from cement plants. The state has been encouraging less use of timber in a bid to save forests, but has not thought in terms of wood farming. In recent years it has encouraged import of timber.

(This article has been written under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowships 2014.)

Also Read:
Kashmir's changing architecture: Losing gold for glitter
Expert Talk: Saleem Beg

Suggested Reading:
Dont Tear It Down!
Preserving The Earthquake Resistant Vernacular Architecture of Kashmir
by Randolph Langenbach

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