Havelis in demand

Heritage buildings are being revived for use as museums, government offices, educational institutions, restaurants and cultural centres

Updated - September 08, 2023 02:04 pm IST

Published - August 25, 2023 05:32 pm IST

India’s vast cultural heritage is visible across the country, especially in the structures erected in different epochs. While many notable ones have become heritage sites, cities still have a number of historic private homes no longer in use. Such spectacularly constructed traditional townhouses or mansions called ‘havelis’ get their name from ‘hawali’ — the Arabic word for ‘partition’ or ‘private space’.

Patwon Ki Haveli in Jaisalmer.

Patwon Ki Haveli in Jaisalmer. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Timeless appeal

Of late, haveli properties are seeing a resurgence of interest from well-heeled buyers who sense an opportunity to secure a remarkable piece of history. As India accelerates headlong into the tech-driven age of modern conveniences, the underlying sentiment for such properties is a ‘reaching back’ to simpler and perhaps more dignified times.

In the decades before a formal real estate market took hold, spacious homes in many parts of India were the norm. There are many who seek to purchase historic homes with a view to restoring them and putting them to active use — either as residences or as business establishments.

Partnership grants
Owners of heritage buildings can claim tax deductions on expenses incurred for maintenance/preservation. There are also exemptions from property tax in some States. The Ministry of Culture has schemes that provide financial assistance to owners/organisations for conservation and redevelopment projects related to heritage sites. Some municipal authorities provide additional Floor Space Index (FSI) to owners of heritage buildings to make redevelopment projects more viable. Policies allow heritage buildings to be adaptively reused for new purposes like hotels, museums etc., while retaining their historic character. This enhances viability. Bodies like the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) provide funds for public-private partnership projects aimed at urban heritage conservation and reuse.

Heritage buildings can be redeveloped and adaptively reused as museums, offices, educational institutions, restaurants, cultural centres, public recreational spaces, commercial complexes, and religious centres for active worship.

Besides the growing interest in preserving architectural heritage, there is also a paucity of space in the prime locations of our cities. This inevitably increases the demand for iconic buildings which have historical relevance and/or a unique location advantage.

Monetising history

There have been several instances where old buildings have been refurbished into office spaces, retail outlets or even residential spaces, and the hospitality industry puts a premium on restored or preserved haveli homes of sufficient size.

The Ministry of New Space at Kitab Mahal, Mumbai

The Ministry of New Space at Kitab Mahal, Mumbai | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Many previously derelict spaces are now serving as artists’ ateliers across all segments, including co-working spaces. For instance, the Ministry of New Space — a co-working space opened in 2016 at Kitab Mahal on D.N. Road, Mumbai — has infused new life into a building that was crumbling away in Fort district. Recently launched flagship stores like that by designers Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Shantnu and Nikhil in Kala Ghoda are also housed inside buildings that are well over a century old.

Similarly, Spanish brand Zara opened its flagship store in the 111-year-old Ismail Building at Mumbai’s Flora Fountain Circle. These are good examples of heritage spaces being revamped for contemporary use. It is a case of increasing demand for very limited — and non-replenishable — supply.

Zara store at the iconic Ismail Building in Mumbai.

Zara store at the iconic Ismail Building in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: Fariha Farooqui

Where to find them

Heritage homes can still be found across the length and breadth of the country, in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Jaipur, Mysore and Jodhpur, but also in Goa, in old cantonment areas of defence-centric cities like Belgaum and Pune, and in hill stations like Mussoorie, Shimla and Kodaikanal.

While many such structures date back to the British times, others also predate India’s colonial past.

A beautiful haveli in Bikaner, Rajasthan.

A beautiful haveli in Bikaner, Rajasthan. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Unlike modern concrete structures which come with an ‘expiry date’, these homes were built to withstand the vagaries of time and weather in a tropical country indefinitely. The major appeal of haveli homes in large cities like Mumbai or Kolkata obviously lies in the fact that these cities are space-starved in their central locations. In other cities like Jaipur, Mysore or Jodhpur, they can have considerable historical significance.

To attract interest, the size of such a property needs to be quite large with a minimum size of around 25,000 sq.ft. The selling price will obviously involve its size, age and state of repair/disrepair, but the main criterion is the city and the exact location. In a land-starved place like Mumbai, the asking price can go beyond ₹4 billion.

Bagore Ki Haveli museum in Udaipur.

Bagore Ki Haveli museum in Udaipur. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Several old forts and palaces have also been redeveloped into boutique hotels or resorts, like Lake Palace in Udaipur, and Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad.

Many heritage structures house modern art galleries or museums, like the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. Historic buildings sometimes get redeveloped into government offices, like the Writers’ Building in Kolkata. Also in Kolkata, old mansions and estates have been converted into schools and university campuses.

Writers’ Building in Kolkata.

Writers’ Building in Kolkata. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Old bungalows have become restaurants, like the Agariya restaurant in a haveli in Udaipur. Several former royal residences now function as cultural centres hosting events, like Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad. Certain old structures have been opened up as public recreational spaces, like Chandni Chowk Market in Delhi. Some large heritage sites have been redeveloped into commercial spaces with shops, offices etc. like DLF Emporio in Delhi.

However, the trickiest part is that a buyer’s financial commitment does not end with the purchase.

Inherent challenges

Restoring and preserving a haveli building can be extremely capital-intensive as it requires expert services. In most cases, restoration work is done after the purchase, and the valuation of the property and its final selling price will also depend on the amount of restoration work it requires. If a property is seriously dilapidated, it will certainly require more than just a face-lift.

A proper cost and structure audit needs to be in place before restoration work begins. Due to outdated designs, such buildings could have disproportionately large rooms (leading to wasted space and inflated air conditioning bills). Squatters often occupy unused buildings and their eviction can be challenging (a buyer needs to be in a position of legal strength — not always a straightforward matter). The title of a heritage building may also be quite opaque (and muddied by disputes and multiple claimants). The restoration of heritage buildings requires highly skilled workers adept in specific techniques (also, restoration workers and masons may not be willing to follow traditional restoration techniques). Possible workarounds like using cement to fix construction flaws must be discussed in advance.

Regulations for renovation
There are some key laws and regulations in India regarding renovation and restoration of heritage properties. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, prohibits making any changes to a protected monument or site without permission from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Rules, 1959, specify procedures for carrying out repair or renovation work. Many States have constituted Heritage Conservation Committee Rules under the relevant municipal corporation acts. They monitor any renovations/alterations proposed for listed heritage buildings. Many municipal bodies have heritage conservation guidelines and rules for listed heritage structures. These have to be followed for any renovation work. The National Building Code provides guidelines for heritage structures related to building materials, structural stability, fire safety, etc. Renovation projects may also require clearances related to environmental impact, forest act etc. depending on site location.

Complex sale process

The sale of such property usually has a long gestation cycle due to its unique features and the various factors that need to be considered. HNI buyers tend to know what they’re doing and invariably examine such a property minutely, both structurally and from a legal point of view, before deciding to invest in it.

This makes heritage properties a ‘market segment’ that requires a lot of patience on behalf of the seller. Most mainstream property brokers will not deal with them because finding the right client who is convinced about the value of the property and its distinct appeal is an uphill task.

The writer is Chairman, ANAROCK Group.

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