Pushing the Envelop

The distinction between formal and informal settlement lies in the application of rules, codes, zoning plans, property rights and so on. In the formal world, the whole structure of formalities is the foundation of development. Informal settlements do not consider formalities. That is why they are called informal. In order to understand the concept of incremental development, this chapter is about growth in that other world, called the formality.

Many formalities have a restrictive character. Zoning plans limit the built-up area and the maximum height of buildings. This set of limitations is called the envelop. As regulations can be complicated, the envelop can be complicated too. Planners and architects have to figure out what the envelop precisely looks like and sometimes they need the help of law experts. This process is called pushing the envelop.

Incremental development in the formal world has much to do with pushing the envelop. Not only rules do determine the envelop, enforcement is also contributing to what is finally happening. If the rules are not enforced, they become obsolete. Changes in building codes also change the envelop. Thus, envelops are subject to continuous change and incremental development is a matter of continuously pushing the envelop.

Photo 1. Window with a weather shade and a box-grill.

To stand the heavy rains of the monsoon, a good window needs a chhajja, a weather-shade. Such a parapet is subject to building codes and may not extend more than two feet from the façade. Most buildings have weather-shades as an integral part of their structure.

As many households prefer to have the windows open, it is a safe precaution to build a box-grill on the outside. Safety in this case primarily means the safety of not falling out of the window. Adding a box-grill to the window is to the discretion of the inhabitants. Thus, the design of the grills shows a great variety. Some have beautiful ironmongery while others stick to utilitarian patterns. The space claimed by the box-grill is an extension of the house and often gives room to flower pots and various household items. It is not allowed to build the box-grill beyond the weather shade, which restricts the common box-grill to a depth of two feet.

Photo 2. Variety in box-grills.

A second feature in the extension of apartments is the balcony. In Mumbai, balconies may not extend more than three feet from the façade, whereas to make a balcony genuinely work as an outdoor space, it requires a minimum depth of six feet. For a reason the city of Mumbai limits the depth of the balconies to three feet. If you are lucky and have your window under a balcony, you may make your box-grill three feet deep.

Photo 3. Narrow alleys demand regulation on weather-shades.

These regulations on façade extension are especially important to the narrow alleys. Urban blocks in Mumbai are often close to each other.

Photo 4. Dharavi, Mumbai. Balconies built over to gain another room.

A common practice of incremental development is building over balconies and terraces, in order to add another room to the building.

Photo 5. Ballard Estate, Mumbai. Roof terrace built over.

Photo 6. Ballard Estate, Mumbai. Added weather shades to protect modern airco-units. Built over balconies.

Photo 7. Ballard Estate, Mumbai. Two(!) buildings showing different approaches to the use of weather shades and balconies.

Photo 8. Ballard Estate, Mumbai. Practical use overtaking classic forms.

Mumbai is known for its mix of Indian and colonial architecture. The photo above shows what can happen when the two meet in one building. The three windows in the top right hand corner have original classic ornamentation. They are typical European classicist elements, probably meant to frame the window in a recessed manner, thus protecting it from the weather. Apparently, this was not enough to stand the monsoon rains in India and weather shades of considerable size were added. The convenient grill boxes soon followed. The grill boxes now serve as a garage for the air conditioning units. Due to the limited size of the grill boxes, those units block the view from the windows.

The lower part of the building tells another story about pushing the envelop. Commercial activities probably take pushing the envelop as a daily exercise. Shopkeepers take it to the limit when it comes to parapets, advertising, signage, and so on. Every extension possible is used to extend the shop to the street and to connect the street to the shop. The goal is to embrace the client in the street. Most successful are those who manage to connect most smoothly the private space of the shop to the public space of the street.

An interesting phenomenon is the perception of the façade as a whole. Seen from the life in the street, the ground floor is where it all happens. The upper parts of the façade are just the backyard compared to below, being the front. It illustrates the importance of the building edge, housing the life of the street.

Photo 9. A puzzling envelop.

In informal development, the placing of a flowerpot, an air conditioning unit or a box grill is no big deal. In the formal world, much more has to be taken into account. The above photo would certainly raise some tough questions. Is it allowed to have separate weather shades for air conditioning units? Is it allowed to make box grills serving only such units? Which rule permits the screen under the weather shade of the ground floor? Or is it all legally covered by the balcony on the second floor?

Photo 10. Pushing too far: photo taken one hour before the next…

Pushing to the limits may have some repercussions. The Patel Mansion building in the above photo had a long life of 110 years. People made adjustments as they needed, as far as rules allowed them. It showed on the outside that this building was alive and changing. One day, inhabitants pushed the envelop of their apartment thus far that they made a breakthrough between rooms, without permission. They knocked out a bearing wall. Cracks occurred throughout the building and scary noises were heard. Alarmed authorities hastily evacuated the building, averting a disaster. Within a day, the building reduced itself to rubble. No one was injured.

Photo 11. A section of Patel Mansion at Dockyard Road collapsing. Photo by Kamlesh Pednekar, DNA.

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