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Adaptive reuse of old, decaying buildings in metros across India | Latest News Delhi

Old, abandoned buildings, such as power plants, mills, factories, and old houses, serve as concrete links to a city’s industrial and social history, representing important stages in its evolution. As cities grapple with the twin issues of a rising population and overcrowding, the redevelopment of these neglected structures has often entailed demolishing them to make way for new modern buildings and infrastructure.

The Dhan Mill Compound at Chhatarpur in New Delhi on April 5. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

However, in recent years, some Indian cities have gone for adaptive reuse of these decaying buildings, driven by a need for sustainable urban development, the preservation of cultural heritage, and innovative space utilisation. This approach — on display in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata — involves the repurposing of existing structures by renovating, retrofitting, or restoring them to accommodate different functions, while preserving the historical or architectural significance of the structure in question.

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Transforming Mumbai’s heritage structures

Mumbai stands out as a pioneer in repurposing old buildings. The Fort area in the city is dotted with several buildings that have undergone adaptive reuse in recent years.

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Kirtida Unwalla, a Mumbai-based conservation architect, has spearheaded the transformation of several heritage buildings for adaptive reuse. Among these is the five-storey, 110-year-old Ismail Building, now home to a Zara store. Last year, she led the renovation of the Sassoon Building, situated across from the Jehangir Art Gallery, which now hosts fashion designer Anita Dongre’s store.

“The focus of repairing and restoring the Sassoon building was to revitalise the existing structure, while allowing for changes in its use. The primary addition was a lift, with an emphasis on conservation and restoration principles,” she said.

“Adapting the building for a new use involves managing building services such as plumbing, electricity, and HVAC systems. Anita Dongre, as a retailer, brought her vision of reconfiguring the space while preserving the building’s original features. The completed project reflects a harmonious blend of preservation and adaptation,” she added.

Similarly, at the nearby Ballard Estate, the Bombay Ice Manufacturing Co started by businessman Nanabhoy Byramjee Jeejeebhoy in 1878 was repurposed as IF.BE, a vibrant cultural centre, in 2022. Led by Kamal Malik, founder of Malik Architects, this project showcases remarkable adaptive reuse. Today, the space buzzes with life, hosting art exhibitions, events, performances, and creative gatherings of architects, designers, and artists.

Remodelling the Capital’s historical buildings

In Delhi, the Dhan Mill compound, once a granary and a cluster of warehouses spread across an area of 4.5 acres, has undergone a remarkable transformation. In 1978, the Jain family purchased the plot, located at Chhatarpur in south Delhi, and established a granary, and later warehouses on the piece of land.

The IF.BE cultural centre at Ballard Estate in south Mumbai on April 6. (Raju Shinde/HT Photo)
The IF.BE cultural centre at Ballard Estate in south Mumbai on April 6. (Raju Shinde/HT Photo)

Today, however, the repurposed warehouse buildings, with their distinctive metal roofs still intact, have been revitalised into a vibrant lifestyle destination, hosting a diverse array of establishments, including trendy cafes, chic boutiques, creative studios, and much more.

“My father wanted to exit the warehousing business when he was approached by a few property dealers, who asked if we would be interested in renting out one of our warehouses to a furniture store. The rent they offered was more than double the going rates. We agreed, and Dhan Mill’s new journey began,” said Rishabh Jain, who manages the compound with his sister Gunjan Jain.

In 2021, Dhan Mill featured in Design of the Unfinished, a book by renowned architect Luciano Crespi, which calls on the city administrators to adopt innovative approaches to revitalise neglected urban spaces, using examples from across the world.

Similarly, many old havelis in Chandni Chowk have found a new lease of life as heritage hotels, cultural hubs, or cafes, offering a glimpse into the city’s rich history while boosting its tourism and cultural scene. The Kathika Cultural Centre, born out of two rundown havelis, stands as a testament to exemplary adaptive reuse. Atul Jain, a hotelier and heritage enthusiast who bought and restored the havelis, said, “Though originally designed as residences, we restored them to serve as a cultural centre, preserving their original layout and architecture.”

The potential adaptive reuse of the Rajghat power plant has also sparked debate. Commissioned in 1989, the plant, which was coal-based and sprawled across 28 acres, ceased operations in 2015 due to environmental concerns. It was first proposed to be repurposed as a high-tech office complex, then as a waste-to-energy plant, and last year, as an energy museum. However, there has been no progress.

To be sure, the plant’s chimney, which had long been considered an eyesore, was illuminated with the tricolour in November last year.

“Cities evolve, and structures like old power plants become obsolete. However, it is important to acknowledge their significance as part of the city’s heritage, representing important stages in its development and urban history,” said Aakash Hingorani, a principal architect and urban designer at Oasis Designs, an architecture firm based in Delhi.

“I believe that these abandoned structures should be repurposed into public spaces and cultural hubs. Adaptive reuse allows this at a fraction of the cost of constructing new buildings; it helps revitalise urban areas by activating abandoned, underutilised, or neglected spaces within the city, enhancing the city’s vibrancy,” he added.

In 2021, Delhi-based conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis launched The Restoration toolbox , an open-source online platform to address the many challenges associated with restoration and adaptive reuse of old buildings.

“Not all buildings are protected under the law or are listed, but they still are a part of the city’s heritage. In fact, many people want to restore their buildings but often lack guidance on how to proceed and don’t receive timely advice,” Tipnis said.

The platform, which has been recognised by European Spaces of Culture, helps citizens at every step of the process — from conceptualising, designing, financing, and implementing a project through a process of collaboration and co-creation. “We aim to democratise the process of heritage conservation, improve accessibility to expert advice, and provide a space for collaboration among citizens and policymakers,” Tipnis added.

Preserving Kolkata’s legacy

Kolkata hosts the largest number of heritage buildings in India. However, it also faces a great challenge — the city has the highest number of deteriorating colonial-era structures, including old houses. Over the past decade, there has been a movement to preserve the city’s architectural heritage, led by people such as writer Amit Chaudhury, and organisations such as the Calcutta Heritage Collective (CHC), whose mission of heritage conservation is encapsulated in its tagline ‘Respect, Restore, Reuse’.

The Kolkata Bungalow in north Kolkata is a heritage hotel converted from a decaying old house. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)
The Kolkata Bungalow in north Kolkata is a heritage hotel converted from a decaying old house. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

“Thankfully, citizens are becoming more aware and sensitised to the benefits of adapting and reusing. This is the only way to conserve heritage buildings, “ said conservation architect Mukul Agarwal, the founder trustee of CHC.

Indeed, Kolkata has recently witnessed the adaptive reuse of many public and private properties. Metcalfe Hall, constructed between 1840 and 1844, and notable for its lofty Corinthian columns and colonnade, was restored by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) after being in a state of dilapidation for decades. It now hosts a permanent exhibition on the history and culture of Kolkata. Other significant examples of restoration and reuse include RNM Galleria, the city’s first heritage lifestyle space, which is housed in a colonial property from 1910 once owned by industrialist Rajendranath Mookerjee.

Many old houses in various areas of the city have been transformed into cafes, heritage hotels, and coworking spaces. Some examples include Bhawanipur House, a decaying bungalow dating back to 1907 that was restored and repurposed as restaurant; Kolkata Bungalow, a heritage hotel converted from a decaying old house in North Kolkata; and The Redbari, a 90-year-old house that was recently restored to include a café, bed and breakfast, and coworking spaces on different floors.

Addressing challenges

According to Tipins, adaptive reuse is a new approach to architecture that benefits cities and communities by preserving architectural heritage and revitalising neighbourhoods. However, she cautions: “Adaptive reuse should not lead to gentrification. An area must maintain its original character both in terms of the built environment and community. This can be achieved through policy measures.”

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Agarwal said that challenges in adaptive reuse persist, particularly with properties that have multiple tenants who are often stuck in prolonged legal disputes. Moreover, outdated bylaws come in the way of the conversion of old buildings into commercial spaces. “Besides, there is a shortage of skilled contractors who are adept at working with traditional materials such as lime plaster and IPS flooring,” he said.

According to Unwalla, the extent of alterations in repurposing buildings depends on local regulations and structural consolidation. “Governments should incentivize adaptive reuse by offering tax benefits, such as relaxing property tax and providing GST rebates on materials used to reduce the cost of restoration,” she said.

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