SCIENCE TRIBUNE Thursday, March 27, 2003, Chandigarh, India

Good maintenance of buildings
M.K. Agarwal
uildings are the most important component of any planned development, whether in the field of education, medical, administration, or housing. It is necessary that the assets once created, be maintained properly, to prevent loss of capital, disuse, or obsolescence. The concept of maintenance has undergone a metamorphosis over the years.





Good maintenance of buildings
M.K. Agarwal

Buildings are the most important component of any planned development, whether in the field of education, medical, administration, or housing. It is necessary that the assets once created, be maintained properly, to prevent loss of capital, disuse, or obsolescence.

The concept of maintenance has undergone a metamorphosis over the years. Maintenance does not connote merely the preservation of various components and facilities of the building. It also means their renovation, improvement and upgradation at the currently expected levels of functional usage, and serviceability. The facilities above could include a host of ancillaries and services such as water supply, sewerage, storm water drainage, lifts, airconditioning, fire detection and fire fighting, standby generators, solar energy system, communication lines for TV, telephony, public address system, computer network, security, lawns, trees and shrubbery, footpaths, driveways, collection and disposal of solid waste. In the case of hospitals there would be special services like laundry and gas supplies. There are several other operations such as upkeep of street lighting, removal of debris, roadside malba, refuse and garbage etc.

Some of these services may be already available, but many may need to be provided altogether anew, or augmented to meet the increase in demand, or upgraded to incorporate changes of technology.


The seeds of good maintenance are sown NOT post-construction, but at the time of architectural planning, structural design, and actual construction. Features which collect dust, retain moisture, inhibit drainage, deny access for inspection, induce or promote corrosion, invite abuse, ignore thermal forces, geography and climate, and neglect natural phenomena like earthquakes or termite occurrence, are the very bane and anathema of maintenance. Many a time, architectural frills are found to militate against good maintenance. Certain unsound practices have gained currency, namely: adoption of exposed single brick thick un-plastered walls in high rainfall areas; provision of narrow and congested ducts for service lines; indiscriminate employment of glazing; poor detailing of expansion joints, toilets, and shafts; use of plywood shutters in bathrooms; fancy, borrowed designs which do not gel with the locality, etc. All such practices carry problems of maintenance from their very birth.

Water is required for construction, but indiscretion in the matter of selection of source, and application, can jeopardise the health and life of the building. Use of unsuitable water that is high in chloride or sulphate content, can lead to early deterioration of structure, requiring costly repairs. One of the causes of extensive damage to a three-storey general ward of Medical College, Rohtak in the seventies was the use of unfit water. Then, high water table, if not taken care of, may mean damp floors, and even foundation failure. Entrapped moisture in the plaster will play havoc with the most costly of surface finish. Improper dampproof course in the walls will be the source of constant headache. Blocked drainage may cause not only leakage, but also rapid disintegration and premature failure. A decade back, the roof slab of the bus-stand in Ambala City developed problems of safety on account of blocked roof drainage, which resulted in the collection of water, its seepage into the slab, corrosion of rebars, and severe cracking of concrete.

There is a growing tendency to use superior, fancy and costly specifications, while workmanship is relegated to the secondary place. Supervision is much too often a casualty. This was not so in the past, when the degree of control exercised on detailing, processing of materials, sealing and jointing, waterproofing, finish, line and level was of a very high order. No wonder, the buildings of those days have withstood the ravages of time, and have required little by way of major repairs, except those of the routine kind. Even the ordinary cement floors have done remarkably well, as a visit to any of the buildings in Chandigarh, like the secretariat, assembly complex, high court, or even a residential house will amply prove. The point is that while choice of specifications should be relevant to the situation and usage, and suited to budget, they must also be maintenance friendly, and make no compromise with workmanship.


With regards to the strategy for maintenance, foremost attention is required to be paid to safety aspects, such as corrosion of reinforcement and structural cracks. In the second place come the functional aspects, such as damaged floors, broken joinery, missing fittings, choked WCs. Then come the cosmetic part, like whitewashing, painting, etc. which, too, must be attended if funds permit. Since the funds are chronically short, there has to some prioritisation. Apart from the engineering priorities, it is advisable to ascertain the userís needs and order of precedence. This type of interaction and dialogue with the head of the institution, or the resident, will go a long way in enhancing user satisfaction. Superficial maintenance, like carpeting a road without first attending to the potholes, or whitewashing a wall or fascia without repairing the broken plaster, is a mistaken approach, with only illusory results.

Various activities have to be fully planned, sequenced, and also coordinated among different departments and organisations. There should be a foolproof system of registration and attendance of complaints, and a monitoring mechanism at the appropriate level to ensure that the required repairs or replacements have been carried out timely as well as effectively. In case of a large campus, a dedicated set-up, headed by a middle level or even a senior level engineer, may have to be provided. Repetitive visits of the maintenance staff to the site should be eschewed in order to minimise disturbance to the client, as also interruptions in usage of the facility.

Maintenance of records is basic and fundamental to effective maintenance. This implies the preparation of completion or "as-built" drawings, complete layouts and identification plans of services; record of major repairs, improvements and replacements, and above all, a comprehensive directory or register of buildings, which should be kept updated. Of equal importance is the need of inspection, which must be thorough and meaningful, and carried out at specified periodic intervals and at prescribed level of seniority, just like bridges. Problems should be identified and rectified before they become cancerous and catastrophic. In case of major repairs, a balanced view has to be taken as to whether it is expedient to repair and rehabilitate, or to demolish and build afresh.

Likewise, choice has to be struck between departmental and contractual maintenance. A suitable mix of the two may be a useful option at times, though both the options have their problems. The commonest ills associated with the former are: hijacking of the maintenance staff for private purposes, and use of materials which are inferior in quality, short in quantity, and are reportedly recycled between the supplier and the departmental store. The problem with contractual maintenance is that of maximisation of profit, with minimal of service ó the evil getting more pronounced if supervision is lax, and the scope and frequency of intervention are not well defined and sufficiently detailed. The remedy lies in eternal vigilance, culminating in disciplinary action and condign punishment or penalty.


There are often problems arising of habits and attitude of the user public and the care-taking staff. Examples are: throwing about of cigarette butts and litter, panspitting, dumping rubbish in the WCs, pilferage of fittings, insecure shutting of doors and windows, unsatisfactory or deficient cleaning, sweeping and scavenging, improper use of an area or facility etc. There are umpteen examples of ramps and corridors cluttered with broken furniture and old records, making passage or exit difficult or even impossible. Quite often, this happens under the nose of the high and the mighty. All this necessitates that while the design must take into account the habits and modes of behaviour of people, the user, too, needs to have the required orientation towards and education in house keeping.

It is found that a kind of "caste" system, which afflicts the society, is also practised in the matter of maintenance. The house of a VIP, the office room of a senior official, the area frequented by a dignitary get the best of attention, and cream of the budget. On the other hand, upkeep of the dwellings and locality inhabited by the common folk get neglected, as the feeling is that it will not get anybody into trouble. An allied phenomenon generally observed is that the maintenance activity feverishly picks up on the eve of a visit by a high personage, but is put on the back burner before and after the event. This repair is limited to the area on which the VIP is likely to set his foot or cast his eye. Sooner rather than later, such patch type repair falls a victim to its own shoddiness. Such differential, deferential, and sporadic approach exacts its own toll by way of reduction in functional usefulness of the building and its expected life.

Maintenance of public buildings suffers from a major attitudinal problem. This is that maintenance is invisible and unrewarding, while construction is perceived to be more prestigious and winsome. There are any number of takers for a construction division, but few for a maintenance division. Further, maintenance is considered problem and complaint ridden, and construction as progress and budget driven. For a construction project there are schedules, targets, inspections, and reviews. But hardly, if ever, a senior engineer bothers to check the health of a building, much less ascertain user satisfaction. This mind-set should change.

At the end of the day, it may be said that as so much of our life is spent in one or other kind of built environment, its health should be the chief concern of one and all. We should be proud of our buildings, our surroundings, and our heritage. Acid test of good maintenance of a building, if any can be prescribed, is not the decor of the reception area or of directorís office, but the state of its backyard and of the WCs.

The author is retired Engineer-in-Chief, Haryana PWD (B&R).



During the winter season the water in the river and the water tank feels cold while that from the well is warm. Why is it so?

Winter is winter because the land surface and the atmosphere become colder. This is also true for the water on the surface of the earth. The primary reason is the reduction of the solar energy input.

However, changes in the surface temperature of the earth do not significantly affect the temperature below ground. Heat capacity of the earth is large and soil does not conduct heat very well. Therefore the temperature below ground is higher than the top during winter and lower than the top in summer. As a result the well water is always at an advantage. During winters it provides us the needed warmth and in summer the cooler water to bathe in and to drink.

We have the picture of my grandfather hanging on the wall of my room. It was taken while he looked at the camera. But wherever I go the picture stares at me. The eyes of my grandfather are on us like the sun and the moon. Is their any science behind it?

The picture will always show what the camera saw. When you look at the picture you also see what the camera saw. When the camera was taking the picture, your grandfather was looking at it. The picture cannot change when you move around the room.

You would have noticed that when you are watching a newscaster read the news on TV he seems to be always looking at you no matter where you are sitting in the room. In order to give you this impression the newscaster just looks at the lens of the camera. Whole of his audience is, in a way, captured behind that lens. This way he can pose to be the sole friend of everyone who watches him perform.

The question remains as to how we get an impression that some one is looking at us. It seems obvious that when his face is turned towards me and the pupils of his eyes are centrally located in his eyes he must be looking at me. Perhaps there is also a difference between someone staring in my direction and his looking at me. This difference might lie in his expression ó we humans are very sensitive in reading expressions.

Incidentally, you must have noticed that in a photograph, or on the TV screen, If some one is looking sideways you can never move to a position where that someone would be looking at you. For an eye contact with every one in his audience a performer has only to look lovingly towards the camera lens! Anywhere else and he would not be looking at anyone!.



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