A house in Manjeshwar, Kerala, being raised and moved to build a parking area underneath
WHEN SATAHANGAVELU sat on a chair in his bedroom about nine years ago finalising the plan of pulling down his house so he could use the space to build a large commercial complex, he looked around for a moment and felt sadness. Tahangavelu had spent all his life in this two-storey structure in Coimbatore. His grandfather had built the house in the early-1950s, and Tahangavelu had expanded it in 2000 to accommodate his growing family consisting of his aged parents, wife and two children. He wondered then if there wasn’t a way to both build the new complex and also save his house.
“I was sentimental about the house,” Tahangavelu says today.
It was around this period in 2013 that Tahangavelu had what might be considered a wild idea. Why not simply lift the house, he wondered, and push it—all two storeys and approximately 400 tonnes of it—to a spot about 50 feet behind its current location? This new area was also part of the property he owned and would not be affected by the complex he had in mind. As it turned out, the idea wasn’t entirely wild. Because he soon found a contractor, experienced in this form of work, to execute it. Tahangavelu and his family shifted to another place nearby and watched a crew lift his own house using a variety of mechanical jacks, and then with tracks and jacks with rollers, move it a few millimetres every day. By the time the house reached its new location 50 feet behind the previous spot, about 75 days had passed. Another two-and-a-half months went by when the floor of ground floor was redone, before Tahangavelu and his family returned to their old house.
“It was quite a spectacle because I don’t think anyone had lifted such a large structure in India before. And people would come to watch it move,” Tahangavelu say.
Recently, news of a family in Punjab’s Sangrur district moving their double-storey house 500 feet behind because the proposed Delhi-Jammu-Katra Expressway is expected to pass through it went viral. The house has covered less than half its journey so far, with the remaining 300 feet expected to be covered in another three months. The informal construction sector has been in existence for quite some time, especially in smaller towns and cities. They lift structures, from multi-storey buildings to old temples, often moving them to new locations.
The most common reason to lift homes turns out to be because of the way roads are commonly repaired in India with new layers added atop. Houses that otherwise stood at its level on the sides then get pushed below it over time, leading to them getting flooded every time during heavy rains. Ravindran Naidu, the CEO of an animal nutrition firm, for instance, had built his two-storey house in Chennai well above the adjoining road in 2000. But over the next decade, with a new additional layer being built atop the road as part of repairs every six months or so, he found the road at a higher level than his house. “That’s when the problems began. Every time it rained, my ground floor would be submerged in water,” he says. “I had no option but to go up.”
Since his house was lifted by about five feet in 2013, it has been spared from any flooding, he says, even when the city witnessed heavy showers in 2015.
Although the contractor he hired assured him that it was safe to continue living on the first floor while the house was being lifted, Naidu and his family shifted to a nearby house for the duration of the project. “I didn’t want to take a chance, even though the labourers slept in the house during that period,” he says.
There are however other reasons for elevating and moving structures, too. Houses are lifted, for instance, to create parking spaces below, they are realigned when they begin to tilt because of poor construction, they are moved when new roads are being built or widened, and sometimes they are moved simply to attract better fortune according to vastu principles.
“There is plenty of road-building and infrastructure projects going on in India all the time. And there are always houses coming in the way,” says Sushil Sisodia, whose construction agency TDBD Engineering Works specialises in this form of work. The compensation offered by the government is often a pittance, Sisodia says. And owners find it cheaper to simply move their houses instead of demolishing and building a new one.
TAHANGAVELU’S DESIRE TO save his house wasn’t only based on sentiment. “If I had rebuilt my house, I figured it would cost me at least four to five times the amount it took to move it, apart from 1.5 years to remake it,” he says.
To elevate a house, workers usually dig along and underneath the structure and then using a number of mechanical and hydraulic jacks, raise the entire house like one may raise a car to change its wheels. This is done slowly, with frequent pauses every time a few inches get raised, so wooden supports (a process known as cribbing) can be added. Once the desired elevation is reached, the foundation is built up to meet it. When it has to be moved to a new location, a track is built between the two spots, and the house is moved on roller jacks.
Houses are lifted to create parking spaces below, they are realigned when they begin to tilt because of poor construction, they are moved when new roads are being built or widened, and sometimes they are moved simply to attract better fortune according to Vastu principles
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Moving a structure just a few feet can take months to accomplish. “Every day, we lift a house by just one foot. And we push the houses in terms of millimetres,” Sisodia says. “We don’t want to risk the house developing cracks or its strength weakening.”
Interestingly, most contractors who specialise in this type of work are located in one specific area—Yamuna Nagar in Haryana. But finding out how it first emerged here is akin to being on a wild goose chase. Depending upon which contractor one speaks to, there’s always a different individual—usually, the contractor’s grandfather—who first came up with this method several decades ago.
“What probably happened is that some innovative contractors in that area must have started using some form of lifting technology earlier. But over time, as modern methods using jacks and other equipment developed abroad, especially in the US, this sort of technology was adopted here, too. And individuals who worked with those who had first adopted this technology in [Yamuna Nagar] Haryana probably started their own services from then on,” says K Chandramouli, a professor and the head of the department of Civil Engineering at NRI Institute of Technology in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, who was the co-author of a paper—‘A Study on House Lifting by Jacking’, published last year in the International Journal for Modern Trends in Science and Technology—that explored the development of this method in India. “This whole method of raising and then moving the house has become very popular in the last five years or so. You find it being done across India,” says Chandramouli.
As Chandramouli points out, elevating homes isn’t restricted only to India. Places in the US, especially in areas that are susceptible to floods, have been using such techniques for some time. This is believed to have become particularly popular after the flooding caused by the hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. But most of the structures lifted there, unlike in India, are believed to be relatively light and usually made of wood.
Vikas Sisodia, who runs Shri Ram Building Lifting Works in Kurukshetra, Haryana, claims it was his grandfather, Atma Ram, who first began to lift small homes in the 1970s. “We do projects across India today, from south India to small towns and cities in the Northeast,” he says. One of his new projects involves aligning a building of several storeys in Manipur, he says, which has started to tilt in recent times.
But as this form of work develops in popularity, more contractors elsewhere are joining the fray. Yuga Balan, who runs Maruthi Building Lifting Service in Chennai, for instance, began working for a Haryana-based contractor for about a decade, before starting out on his own. “I must have lifted around 1,500 structures so far across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. There’s a lot of demand for this type of work in these states. But so far, I’ve lifted only one structure,” he says, referring to the project of a temple he had to move in 2019.
In late 2014, Sisodia, who by then had begun to raise and move several homes across towns and cities in south India, received a call from a trust in Tamil Nadu. “They wanted us to move a whole temple,” Sisodia says. It was one dedicated to the Goddess Mariamman in Villupuram district’s Kallakurichi, that he estimates is close to 100 years old. The Hosur-Bengaluru highway was being expanded, and the temple blocked the way. For the next three months, his crew raised the temple which measured about 1,300 square feet and weighed approximately 250 tonnes, and then moved it about 73 feet behind its previous location. Upon the request of the temple’s managers, Sisodia then had it rotated another 30 degrees to face the east.
“This was the first time anyone had ever moved a temple in India,” says Sisodia. This effort, and the relocation of Tahangavelu’s two-storey house in Coimbatore in 2013, earned him two entries in the Limca Book of Records.
For Tahangavelu, nearly six months went by before he could finally return to his house in its new location. “It was slow,” he says. “But to not have to break it down, to find it still unchanged, was well worth it.”