Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Buildings, like the proverbial cat, have nine lives. A building persists for a very long and indeterminable period. It remains relevant till the structure or part of it can provide shelter. And even after loss of its integrity as a shell for shelter, its parts and components are scavenged for reuse. A building is a precious asset, acquired at a great expense of resources and effort. No one wants it to go waste so it gets reborn and put to different use.

Life of a building is evaluated on basic two counts: Stability and Relevance.

Stability of a building is checked in terms the Physical condition, Structural integrity, and the stack-holders’ perceptions. The last factor is subjective, but it presents cumulative considerations of several participants. The Physical conditions are checked through the weathering processes of nature, and the user-related wear-tear. Structural integrity ensures its capacity to stand-up in equilibrium, by defying, overcoming or consistently being with the gravity, safety and security as a place of habitation.

Stack-holders’ perceptions:
Buildings are perceived to be stable when these are of balanced shapes (regular geometrical shapes), straight (upright and not inclined or crooked) form, broader at base, balanced composition (axially symmetrical), and of lower height. Similarly buildings made of materials that are opaque, high density, non deformable, stiff, good in compression, rough or robust finish, are considered longer lasting or reliable. Buildings composed of elements, fewer in numbers, larger in scale, and simpler in details also denote reliable performance.

Relevance is frequently associated with the Life of a building. A building may become irrelevant in a variety of context.

  •  A building may be considered to be irrelevant, when the purpose for which it was conceived is no longer valid.
  •   A building may become non-essential, when  other exotic or superior forms are available.
  •  A building may be considered to have ended, when its important constituents disintegrate or get separated.
  • A building may be judged redundant, when in spite of all remedial actions it cannot fulfill its functions.
  • A building becomes worthless, when due to decadence of some of the parts, it begins to affect our sensuality, pride, prestige, values, etc.
  • A building may turn embarrassing, in the context of its varied surroundings and environment.
  • A building may be rejected, when the surroundings do not support its existence or use.
  • A building may be abandoned, when resources for a fresh (and necessarily superior) form are available. 
  • A building is declared defective if it cannot stay in equilibrium or in a state that is right for a normal human occupation.
  • A building may become ineffective if it cannot accommodate technologically superior service systems, parts or components.


It is perceived differently by different stack-holders.

 ●    A casual observer perceives ‘monumental buildings’ to be of time tested or mature technology and durable, whereas, fragile buildings (though stable and functionally adequate) are of a newer or untested technology and so temporary.

●    A User perceives permanence in terms of buildings’ capacity to accommodate the changes effortlessly through the passage of time.

●    A Designer distinguishes a new building for a specific set of functions only. Architects very rarely design buildings for reuse or adoptive functions.

●    A Builder recognizes the building for its stability or equilibrium. In this drive the builder unless restrained by the economics will overdo the job by making the building extra strong (safe). In rural areas where the user is the designer and the builder, permanence resides in the personal ability to maintain and upgrade the building. For such self-builders structure is permanent so long it can be reconditioned from personal or local resources. In nomadic or intensively migrant societies, the dwellings are light and transportable, yet the selection of form and the materials, reflect their quest for permanence.


The process of change is both, in the building itself and the contextual setting within which it must exist. The changes in the building shell are real happening in time, though usually ignored. The change in its contextual setting is often subjective perception, and so seems to be unreal. The changes in the building or its surroundings are not noticed because these occur in small measures and spread over a very long period.

●    Natural changes occur in buildings irrespective of the intensity of use. Such changes occur in buildings that are over-used, mis-used, under-used or not at all-used. Though, some conditions like over-usage may hasten the pace of  change. Natural changes cannot be terminated, but perhaps can be slowed or restricted spatially.

●    Man-made changes mainly relate to the nature of use. Over-usage reflects the intensity of use, which must be provisioned for in the system. Mis-usage results due to the abuse of the building system. It relates to the social set-up within which the building exists, functional inadequacies and ambiguities about the form. Under-usage and non-use of a building are circumstantial factors, and in that sense the changes may be more for natural reasons then man-made causes. Man-made changes are involuntary as well as malicious.


A building exists and flourishes in the circumstantial surroundings and with environmental factors. These bear upon the building. A building exists in the social, political and an economics profile of the locality. The environmental factors are absolute and are fairly consistent, but at micro level these effects are conditioned by the happenings in the immediate vicinity. A building has a relevance for its form, functionality and technological grade.

Contextual setting of a building is considered mainly in terms of its Location and Age, and both change concurrently. A good building is integral to its Space and Time. Changes in the contextual settings affect some buildings more,  if these are: Intensely located that is subsisting on the site related advantages, Highly stylized, Acutely dependent on the technology, and Endowed with high degree of functionality.

# Location is the external realm of the building. It has two facets: the distance or the extent and the stack holders of the building. A building serves certain terrain or physical distance. When these get enlarged due to efficient transport services the usage is increased, but conversely barriers like railway tracks, canals, closure of roads,  or loss of visual identity affects the raison d'être (reason for existence) of the building. Stack holders become insincere for maintenance when the location begins to deteriorate due to economic, social or political problems, and affects the pride or faith in the building.

Life of buildings is governed by its surroundings. Environmental pollution over a location strains the parts and components, hastening their failure. Old buildings in good localities are more likely to be well looked after than in deteriorating locations.

# Age dilutes the connections a building has with the site and the circumstances. A building on ageing becomes irrelevant for the original functions and current day technologies. However, it can still continue to survive, if its structure is safe and habitation worthy.


A building, if it has a form of architectural styling then it is continued as a relic. When it has commemorative connections, in appreciation of its past, the building becomes a monument. Buildings that need to be remembered are restored  or preserved to retain their form, but often in complete absence of the original setting. A building that has substantially lost the form and has indistinct circumstantial connections can be enacted through re-imaging of its setting, like through Sound & light (son et Lumière) shows on historical sites.

Buildings are continued by Restorative as well as Enabling interventions. Repairs and maintenance schedules can restore parts, components and systems, provided the design is ‘open-ended’. However, holistic creations or ‘close-ended’ entities deteriorate completely without any scope for corrective measures. Enabling interventions add local capacities, or mediate by adjusting the existing capacities. Changes in the surroundings force functional changes in the building, however, whether one makes the changes to be with surroundings or resists, both ways the building gets altered.

Buildings persist, primarily by changing the functions they serve, secondly by redefining the form, and in rare cases, if possible, by altering the surroundings. Many corrective actions are necessary to use the building for a different purpose. Redefining the form of a building is even more difficult as it expected to satisfy simultaneously the functional needs and the value system in the society. In the first instance if the owner finds the corrective actions uneconomic, would rather opt for a new entity. In the later case, the changes in the form may make the society apathetic to the building’s revised ‘look’. The preservation of surroundings of  buildings requires social, political and financial involvement, beyond the reach of an owner or user. A building, if is a public utility, serves social functions, or is society’s pride and prestige, its surroundings will be maintained or even resurrected.

Young buildings seem invincible. Original intentions are still valid and surroundings relevant, and so no change of the function or form is required. Enabling interventions such as maintenance helps a building continue with a predictable and consistent pace. Such restorative efforts sustain the form and nurture the functions. New buildings have overcapacity risk margins. The parts and components are able to share the additional loads or risks posed by neighbouring constituents. So in early stages of buildings’ life no major replacements are required. New buildings do not need immediate changes unless the programme for it has been faulty, or it coincides with major changes in the  political, social or economics fields. Changes in the early phase can be easily made, because original designer and design documents are available. At this point the building is structurally fit for habitation.

All changes, whether these are improvisations, preventive corrections, sufficiency provisions, or re-surrectional actions, may be ‘minor, imperceptible, innocent, non-invasive or just touching’. Such small changes however, gradually add up to completely reformat the original form. These reformations are in addition to the parallel altering process of nature.

Buildings with associated values are carefully changed to maintain the form, and the functions. Such building seems to last forever, except when referenced against past records or memories. Though planned corrective measures or the inevitable (natural) changes may sum up into ‘non-recoverable’ damaging consequences.


FIRST Stage  occurs immediately on occupation. Buildings where the functions have not been adequately defined, or get substantially compromised during the post planning phase, turn into an irrelevant entity. The greatest threat occurs from fast changing surroundings and external circumstances like the ingress of new technologies.

SECOND Stage  occurs when safety and security are under threat due to natural disasters or design inadequacies. Some major programme to replace parts, components and systems can still save the building.

THIRD Stage  arrives much later in life of the building. At these stage the original sponsors or owners are no longer the stack holders. New masters possibly have negligible no emotional attachment. The building has lost its functional and location related relevance, forcing a financial viability assessment. The form has been substantially altered and no restoration efforts can reestablish anything even to the original.
FOURTH Stage  sets in when many of the systems that support the environment for human occupation become dysfunctional. The building may nevertheless survive and be used for non habitation purposes like storage.

TERMINAL Stage  is, when the shell deteriorates and collapses. Building remains an  operational entity so long as the bare minimum space defining or enclosing entity, remains sound. In well integrated buildings the process of deterioration cannot be noticed in isolation. Here the shell and other subsystems are not separable, and so the collapse is unpredictable and sudden.  However, in assembled buildings the frame and in-fill elements have distinctly defined roles of structural or non-structural elements. Here the deterioration is visible, slow to occur and often predictable.

It is very difficult to define the demise of a building. A building dies many deaths usually very slowly but occasionally suddenly. Parts and components decay at different and an unknown rate. With age the capacity to accommodate the changes becomes smaller and uneconomic. Users and occupants of the buildings are continuously involved very closely, and do not realise the changes setting in. The accumulated changes are more apparent to others, which reduces a building’s social prestige and also affects the locality’s standing.


A building represents a designer’s professionalism, an owner’s dreams, a builder’s craftsmanship, and society’s values, traditions, beliefs, heritage, politics, laws, environment, etc. Buildings result from immense amounts of resources and effort, so there is natural resistance to demolition or disintegration of existing buildings. When a building disintegrates, many of the accomplishments are irretrievably lost. Though public preference fluctuates from age to age, between creation of new buildings and preservation of existing buildings.

Professionals like architects, interior designers, builders, have a natural interest in the life span of buildings. A building signifies effort (intellectual for conception), manpower (for execution), energy inputs, resources and plant-equipment’s utilization. It also represents fees and service costs, monetary investments and above all consummation of a non recoverable entity -time.

  • In any urban setting the question of Age of Building is very important. Today, 70% of the city’s apartment buildings (Toronto, Canada) are more than 40 years old, and substantial number of them (60%) are located in the core area.
  • Of all the buildings, available for human use to day in urban areas, substantial number of them are more than 25 years old. In other words, these buildings were commissioned by a generation of people, that are not alive to day, or have retired from active life. More than ½ of the urban population spend their entire life, in buildings ‘that were not conceived and built by or for them, but adopted for or by them’. This proportion is likely to increase as time passes for two major reasons:
           1   Buildings are being built with better technologies and last longer.
           2   People migrate more frequently and have little time to construct a new building.

Buildings are intentionally designed to outlive the planned functions. However, unwittingly buildings are over-designed. There are several sub-levels where ‘factors of safety’ are individually applied. These individual factors add up to substantial ‘margin of safety’. Wherever the components are well integrated, such duplication of safety factors is avoided. During later day repairs, replacement and maintenance schedules the original cohesive working is disturbed. The interactive sharing of loads and risks become scarce, and components begin to decay at different and often unpredictable rates.

In certain emergencies, it is not possible, to either plan or build new buildings, and as a result one must locate and adapt readily available forms. Nevertheless, an assured life span of the building is always the major factor for selection in such exigencies.

Life of Buildings -A chapter from series Alterations and Renovations

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