Resource crunch demand shift in construction industry; demand for new materials, innovative technologies up

Bengaluru: Wiseman and renowned bureaucrat P. N. Haksar, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary, had made an apt observation while speaking at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 1982: “Any Indian who aspires to have a roof of his own on his head out of his legitimate income, should be called an overambitious person.” I was a young journalist then covering the proceedings of a seminar on housing for a Bangalore daily. His words still echo into my ears.

Nearly four decades since then, the situation has not altered in any considerable measure, although bank loans on EMI have certainly made some difference to the new upwardly mobile middle class in a selected few cities. A home of his own for an average Indian in a city before he steps into his late adulthood is still like daydreaming.

A good two-thirds of the cost incurred on constructing a house goes for material like sand, stone as aggregates, soil for bricks and limestone for cement. That is all for the bare structure. Finishing is an unfinished task taking a lot of glass, timber, plastic, PVC, aluminum and paints. With most states having banned sand-mining from river-beds, price of sand from black market is shooting through the roof. Bricks are in short supply. Steel for reinforcement of concrete pillars is pricey. With cities expanding limitlessly, the transportation of material to core areas involves cost, often by way of bribing the police, if the material like sand is sourced illegally.

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The need is therefore being felt to find alternative material and innovative technologies for construction. Indian construction industry which employs the largest unskilled workforce (after agriculture) and contributes nearly 10% to the national GDP is likely to face material supply problems if the predicted growth in demand continues.

Conventional brick and mortar construction consumes 40% of energy, 25% of water, and 40% of resources. It contributes 50% of air pollution, 42% of GHG emissions, 50% of water pollution and 48% of solid waste in cities. As urbanization races into future, the urban population is likely to touch 590 million by 2030 and 815 million by 2050. “India needs to build 600 to 800 sqm of urban space every year till 2030 which roughly translates into adding a new Chicago every year,” says  Shailesh Kumar Agrawal, executive director, Building Materials & Technology Promotion Council (BMPTC). The Council acts like a think tank under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). Agrawal said this while delivering keynote address at an international seminar on Alternative Material and Innovation Technologies in Bengaluru last week convened by Indian Concrete Institute (ICI).

India is already the second largest producer of cement in the world which is currently pegged at 335 million tons (2020 figures) annually. It accounts for 8% of the total global production. Between 1996 and 2010, cement production increased fourfold. If the growth remains at the same pace, India may exhaust its limestone—the key ingredient—reserves by 2060.

Not merely resources crunch, need for alternative technologies and alternative material is also being felt in view of eco-friendliness, low lifecycle cost of buildings and better health and productivity of inmates residing or working in the urban buildings. Shorter timelines for construction are also pushing the research for material and methods that can hasten the pace of construction.

These imperatives have made the Council to shortlist 54 new construction systems with the objective of adopting alternative material and new techniques. The MoHUA has taken up six of these technologies at six different locations within the country under Global Housing Technology Challenge-India (GHTC). One thousand homes are being built at these locations under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) and Light House Project (LHP). These showcase technologies such as Light Gauge Steel Structural System and Pre-engineered steel Structural Systems (at Agartala); Precast Concrete Construction system-Precast Components assembled at site (Chennai); Prefabricated Sandwich Panel System (Indore); Stay in-Place Formwork System (Lucknow); Monolithic Concrete Constructure System (Rajkot); and, Precast Concrete Construction system-3-D Pre-cast volumetric (Ranchi). Prime Minister Narendra Modi who laid the foundation (virtually) of the projects on January 1, this year, has invited all students and professionals in the field of structural engineering to study the new technologies at these “incubation centres.”

Of them all, precast (it is also termed prefabricated) construction has gained wider acceptance in cities as it allows fast-paced construction, leaves few debris at the site, consumes less water and comes handy for raising structures for emergency situations (such as rehabilitation homes for victims of quake or tsunami, or hospitals for Covid-afflicted patients etc.). Vaishnavi Group of Bengaluru recently announced delivery of more than half the homes in 896-unit housing complex in the city’s northern region 18 months ahead of schedule. In an industry where project delays are normal, delivery ahead of schedule has comes as a surprise. The project named ‘Vaishnavi Serene’ was completed with precast wall panels and roof slabs supplied by Katerra, an MNC with its precast unit at Krishnagiri (in Tamil Nadu), 100 km east of Bengaluru. Originally set up by Dubai-based Malayali industrial tycoon Faizal Kottikolon, the unit was set up under KEF-Infra, a construction company with presence in India, Dubai and Singapore.

Najeeb Khan, Head, Katerra’s Design & Brand Strategy division in Asia and the Middle East says, “Designed and manufactured to precision, we deliver quality homes that increase speed of implementation while simultaneously reducing waste through the optimal use of resources and minimal environmental intervention.”

The Vaishnavi project used 100% offsite manufactured bathrooms pods that merely had to be plugged into the designated area on a floor place. In fact, Katerra supplied panels, slabs, beams have been used for Infosys building (1.6 mn sq ft) in Bengaluru’s Electronic City as well as India headquarter of Microsoft at Hyderabad (1.2 mn sq ft) besides several other minor projects. The historic Modi Masjid* in Bengaluru’s Tasker Town was fully reconstructed with precast components two years ago.

*Totally unrelated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

M A Siraj is senior journalist based in Bengaluru. He writes for several publications in the country.

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