Monday, 16 May 2011

The House On Pillars

In the 1970s, after having lived as caretaker tenants for a few months in the quiet and unspoilt seaside neighborhood of Thiruvanmiyur, my wife and I made up our minds to put down our roots there. In those days Thiruvanmiyur was a suburb of Madras (as Chennai was then known) and most people thought that we were very daring and unwise to live in such a "remote" place. Although there were very few proper houses around, and an enormous amount of vacant land, it took us almost a year to find somebody willing to sell us a small plot. Land was not expensive then. In fact we paid only around US$ 350 for our plot. But the cost of construction was relatively high.

Although money, or more precisely our lack of it, was an important factor, there were a few other bigger hurdles. There were a number of permits and service connections to be obtained and, even in those relatively less corrupt days, it was a severe ordeal to deal with a very large number of minor and major bureaucrats. To add to our problems, those were the days of cement and steel shortages. In fact the cement scarcity was so severe that its supply was controlled by the Indian Government and rationed to consumers. And this of course brought a whole new set of bureaucrats into play. The shortage of materials and the consequent delays in the delivery of the materials made it very difficult to keep to construction schedules and stay within budgets.

Since steel and cement were the two major "problem" materials we decided to minimise their use in the house construction. We went in for a variety of roofing techniques, such as sloped clay tiled roofing, and hollow clay tile roofing, left our walls unplastered on one side, and went in for clay tile flooring. In addition to this we also decided to use pivot hinges for our doors and do away with door frames, had smaller but strategically placed windows, and reduced the floor to ceiling height, all in a bid to reduce costs. As a result we were able to keep to both the construction schedule and our budget. It also allowed us the luxury of building the entire house on stilts.

Since there were very few built houses around, our house was now visible from quite some distance in every direction. And unlike other houses which rested solidly on the ground the first level of our house was left entirely vacant. As a result our house came to be known in the neighbourhood as the "thoon veedu" or " house on pillars".

Some years later, when we had a few more neighbours, Chennai experienced particularly severe flooding, and the locality where we lived was also flooded. Although we had water in our plot, under the house, and all around us, we were unaffected by it. A number of people thought that we had been very wise to have anticipated this event and planned for it. Actually it had never occurred to us that the area could be flooded since that had never happened within living memory. We had built our house on stilts because it was located a little further away from the sea than what we would have liked, and we wanted to ensure that we had a good view of the water.

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