As heritage homes make way for highrises across the city, one woman tells the story of how she chose to renovate the dilapidated roof of her family home rather than break it all down.

All around us in Chennai, I see priceless old homes and charming bungalows demolished to make way for skyscrapers and apartment complexes that look like beehives. When you renovate an old house instead of tearing it down, you keep memories intact and let bygone building styles thrive. To demolish or renovate is a million dollar question, but costs apart, renovating is a rare pleasure that allows one’s imagination wide scope.

I took up the challenge with my old family home. The old Burma teak raftered ceiling had sprung a hundred leaks, the walls were flaking, and the walls had cracks. My family was impatient — demolition it is, they said. On the other hand, we had the coolness of a lime-and-brick building, gleaming red-oxide floors, and fresh air and sunlight coming in from large windows. I was reluctant to let it all go in return for steel and glass. I finally decided the solution was to remove the old roof and put in a new one, while keeping the old home intact.

I decided to consult the Structural Engineering Dept of IIT, Madras, for an expert opinion. Off I went, unknown and unheralded, to meet the right person, who it turned out was one Professor Devdas Menon. The professor studied my house plans, saw the building, and said that the roof should be removed gently, brick by brick. The pillars in the walls were strong, he said, and new concrete beams could be put in place before putting on a new RCC roof. These beams would take, and disperse the load, giving my building new strength and life.

He also advised me to use a particular grade of cement that’s used for bridges. Further, Prof. Menon designed the new roof, explaining the details to my builder and instructing him to come and see him whenever he had a doubt during the building process. One of his able students was deputed to check on the work and report back to him regularly.

For Prof. Menon, it was an intellectual and professional challenge. Under his guidance, we went to work. “I’m taking the roof off,” I said to a couple of friends, and was faced with such a look of shock that I decided to keep quiet about it from then on. We located the right mason, an old hand at dismantling masonry. I moved downstairs, surrounded by a million packed possessions. I dropped out of the social scene, cocooned in my roofless house, the open skies shut meticulously by the workers each evening with tied-down tarpaulin sheets.

Gradually, the rafters were removed and stored in the garage. We had a flurry of buyers for the lovely old wood. “Not now,” we said, having plenty of use for it.

One month later, the day dawned when the new roof would be cast. The road gang arrived, and all was noise and loud chatter. About six hours later, the roof had been poured in place. The hive of activity of the past month came to a lull for the next 20 days. The roof had to be given time to set before de-shuttering could be done. Finally, the workers came back to work and the new roof was a reality.

Getting the right engineer, who is not only experienced but who has a positive attitude, is the key to any building. Combined with reasonably good labour, we can definitely build a dream home. A lot of common sense and plenty of patience also play a vital part. Yes, it is possible, and when it’s done, there is no greater satisfaction than moving back into your old family home.