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Implementation challenges of urban planning and development – Part II

Buildings

Urban planners are responsible to prepare a layout or action plan for development of a town-planning scheme. Engineers construct roads and other infrastructure as per approved plan and architects design the buildings, which gives the ultimate streetscape and aesthetics of the area.

In Bhutan, government agencies and individual owners build buildings for residential and commercial purposes. Respective land owners finance the construction, mostly by availing loans at a high interest rate thereby escalating the cost of construction, which is already high due to import of materials, transportation cost and expensive labour market. In the absence of organized construction agencies, amateur builders construct these houses and the quality and aesthetics do not harmonize with the surrounding topography, traditional architectural norms and standards. Though building plans are approved by respective local governments, using development control regulations, ground realities are different and constructions do not match the approved plan. This is a result of inexperienced landowner, lack of technically qualified building technicians and absence of supervising architect/engineer at site.

a. Government constructions.

The constructions by government agencies, in the past, were poor, as traditional architecture was not considered important e.g. PWD colonies and the hydro power colony at Tshimalakha. The quality of construction could have been compromised as the work is awarded to the lowest bidder. Besides that, architects designing such structures design huge excavation works creating a need for big retaining and breast walls. The traditional culture of constructing houses in split level is ignored as it is expensive and needs skillful construction methods. This is also a result of ignorance of clients who have not thought of aesthetics of split-level constructions. Sometimes it is influenced by financial status, poor or inappropriate advice from designers and lack of experience of property owners.

Many institutions like schools, courts and police stations are constructed based on type designs that are prepared somewhere. When the actual constructions are carried out, there is always a need to excavate the ground to make it flat so that the design suits the ground. Such type of designs are adopted based on approvals since the bidding process will take time and money to custom design a structure and the approved budget will lapse. Such an approach has resulted in huge cost overrun, inappropriate design and too much of excavation or erection of walls. However, this attitude has improved for the adoption of traditional architectural designs in the recent past. But there is a lack of co-ordination among government agencies and each agency follows its own plan isolated from the comprehensive local government plan. Agencies are pre occupied with the approved type design, availability of budget and the risk of budget lapse and the compartmentalised thinking continue. This compromises the plan prepared in full consultation with all stakeholders. The head of an agency that is articulate enough wins the game, as there is no accountability for deviating from the plan.

b. Lack of technically qualified supervisors

In the private sector, owners do not appoint site engineers. Construction is done mostly by Thikadars (assumed to be a building technician) who are merely labour contractors. They are not trained technicians but have gained some experience while working on other sites. Owners avoid appointing technically qualified supervisors as it will add to the cost.

c. Architectural planning

There are many local architects in the market and competition is huge for work. Not everyone is competent to get a job. There are also non-architects who are preparing building plans. With the formation of architectural association of Bhutan, one has to qualify to register to practice. Since non-architects are barred from preparing architectural designs, there is an informal contract between some registered architects and the practicing non-architects. With the intention to make quick earning, some registered architects take commission from non-architects and sign their drawings to avoid authorities rejecting the plans. This undermines the responsibility of the architect and the client suffers, as there could be inconsistence in planning.

d. Designs by public sector architects

There is a feeling that clients should engage architects and engineers working within the MoWHS or the respective municipalities for designing private buildings.  The reason for such an approach is to ensure that the approval process does not take too long and shortcomings are minimized. This assumption remains a mystery, but it is understood that few of those working in these organizations do practice this in the name of other professionals who are authorized to practice.

The civil service rule framed with the good intention to minimize conflict of interest creates a situation whereby designers have to keep practicing so that they are in touch with the profession and keep pace with the professional development in their field. This has promoted a culture of fake identity of practicing architects and engineers.

Parking for motor 

vehicles

Landowners maximize the building coverage for better rate of return. Services to tenants are considered insignificant since the owners hardly live in such houses and tenants don’t raise voices for fear of getting vacated. This happens due to shortage of affordable rental accommodation in bigger towns. While building owners in Thimphu raise at least 10% house rent every two years, as per the tenancy act they do not maintain their houses and direct the tenants to maintain.  This is a result of unscientific land subdivision practices of the past whereby small plots were created and the size of construction and the required building services are not weighed during the purchase of land, planning the building and availing construction loan. Due to the small plot and the desire for wealth, vehicular parking spaces and elevators are planned but not constructed.

On the issue of parking, it is planned mostly in the basement or ground floor, but on completion of the house, it is converted into a dwelling unit or go-down or commercial space. The administrators allow such conversions, as there is no accountability since the objections made by the building inspectors and other development control officers are considered insignificant. In the excuse of space constraint, a low rate of return and the fact that the local government does not penalize the defaulters, vehicles are parked on the road obstructing the free flow of traffic.

There are also cases where designers prepare designs that are not practical to suit ground realities e.g. a ramp leading to basement parking and columns spacing are poorly done for the sake of getting a building permit and not necessarily to create such facilities. Development control authorities are not careful to detect such intricate details at the time of scrutinizing the building proposal.

This results in traffic congestion. The burden of providing parking space is shifted to the municipal authorities. There is no system of transfer of development rights whereby a property owner can buy land and transfer to the municipality and it becomes the obligation of the authorities to create parking in strategic locations even by re-planning and redeveloping the congested area.

Elevators

The common concerns builders raise on elevators are the cost, unreliable electricity and lack of technicians representing manufacturers to maintain and repair. While this must be a genuine concern, one has to understand that given the level of development and physical hardship faced by tenants, it cannot be deferred any more. It is affecting the quality of life and the building conditions deteriorate faster as the tenants move heavy stuff up and down. Frequent movement of bulky goods is very damaging to the structure.

The practice of keeping provisions for elevators is a pseudo-concern of all parties though building rules make it mandatory for all buildings exceeding four floors. A mere provision and not constructing the elevator is appeasement to all the parties including the tenants. Without any elevator and the existence of narrow staircases, movement of goods, the disabled people, the sick and the elderly is ignored. However, those having commercial viability do provide elevators.

Contributed by 

 Meghraj Adhikari,

Former Urban Specialist.

DHS

The author has worked as an urban planner for the last 39 years

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