Had to be sensitive to ‘heritage value’ of Mayo College buildings, architects recall 10 years after restoration

Ajmer House photo courtesy Basics Architects

Ajmer House photo courtesy Basics Architects

It took years – from May 2004 to January 2013 – to complete the renovation and restoration work of the boarding houses of Mayo College in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Even after 10 years, it remains an unforgettable ‘profound experience’ for architects Vinod Singhi and Ranju Singhi of New-Delhi based Basics Architects.

Looking back, both architects say they had to be constantly mindful of how sensitively the heritage project had to be handled. One of India’s oldest schools, also known as the Eton of India, Mayo College was founded by Richard Bourke, the sixth earl of Mayo at Ajmer in Rajasthan in 1875. He had been viceroy from 1869 to 1872.

It was a political agent of the Bharatpur Agency, Lt Col FKM Walter, who recommended in the Bharatpur Agency Report on May 28, 1869, “to ensure to the sons of aristocracy in India a liberal and enlightened education to enable them to keep pace with the ever-advancing spirit of the age.” The intention then was to create an institute with a curriculum tailored specifically for the sons of noblemen and royals of India.

Bikaner House (photo courtesy Basics Architects) Bikaner House (photo courtesy Basics Architects)

The main college building was designed in Indo-Saracenic style (often referred to as Indo-Islamic architecture blended with Gothic elements) according to initial plans submitted by architect Major Charles Mant. After he formally adopted the plan to build the school, Lord Mayo invited the royals and noblemen of the Rajputana to build and maintain the boarding houses for their children.

Work cut out

Basics Architects had their work cut out, says Vinod, an alumnus of the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi and University of New South Wales, Sydney, where he earned his bachelor’s in architecture and master’s in construction management, respectively. They had to restore and figure out adaptive reuse for many heritage buildings, including eight boarding houses and new buildings and infrastructure on the 187-acre campus.

The brief

The brief from the Mayo College management comprising the then principal of the school, Dr Pramod Sharma, and the bursar, Dinesh Bhatnagar, required improved and modernized living spaces for students, says Vinod. Functional and “aesthetically appealing structures also had to be added to enhance the campus environment.”

The buildings, which were deteriorating, had to be upgraded as functional boarding houses with student-friendly spaces.

Jodhpur House (photo courtesy Basics Architects) Jodhpur House (photo courtesy Basics Architects)

Apart from Vinod, the architects’ team, including Ranju, founder and principal architect of Basics Architects and alumna of JNEC Aurangabad, as well as architects Nishant Kumar and Harkishan Dagar, had to plan how to remove encroachments and unnecessary structures even while preserving the “essence” of the original buildings.

The architects made their first site visit in May 2004 to start work on Ajmer House. One key takeaway was the need for a sensitive approach to bring the building back to its original state.

Ravages of time

Camping out at the Mayo College guest house on campus, in close proximity to the project site for efficient oversight and coordination, the architects minutely examined the structure. “Due to shifting patterns in usage and ageing, over time, some buildings had fallen into disrepair requiring significant restoration efforts,” says Ranju.

Kashmir House (photo courtesy Basics Architects) Kashmir House (photo courtesy Basics Architects)

The aim was to provide standardized and improved living arrangements for students and staff, ensuring more organized and functional spaces within the buildings.

The rooms were small. Numerous encroachments on the original structure posed a problem. Addressing these issues was crucial to preserving the building’s historical character.

The spaces for students were cramped and inadequate, dark and dingy, lacking proper ventilation and poorly organized. Plumbing and electrical systems were malfunctioning. “Numerous rooms had been constructed by encroaching upon verandahs or balconies, and annexes were created by extending the original building,” Ranju adds.

Extensive research

Extensive background research was done before the design process began. The architects had to delve into the historical records of Ajmer House and archives to gather information about its original construction and previous uses.

“This helped us comprehend its heritage value and the changes it had undergone over the years,” says Ranju, in order to restore everything as authentically as possible.

After completion of the first boarding house, Basics Architects signed an eight-year agreement to renovate the other hostels, including Jodhpur House, Colvin House, Rajasthan House, Bharatpur House, Kashmir House, Bikaner House, and Tonk House.

Even as the firm received a commission every year to remodel each house, the architects prepared all the necessary drawings and documentation in advance to efficiently manage the project.

Why eight years? That’s because construction work took place during the school’s summer vacations, posing a significant challenge as the projects had to be completed within tight timelines. The project costs varied, and the firm had to work within limited budgets to achieve the desired outcomes each year.

Areas of focus

In a project of this type and scale, the architects had to be mindful of several critical aspects such as preserving the buildings’ historical significance and making sure the heritage value was not negatively impacted by the renovation process.

Secondly, the original design had to remain intact even while blending the new elements harmoniously. The structural integrity and safety of the old structures had to be checked and fixed and   modern building standards complied with.

“Lastly, we prioritized adaptability and functionality, creating spaces that catered to present-day needs,” says Ranju.

Back to the drawing table

It took time for the architects to get the clients on board, entailing numerous back-and-forth discussions, primarily due to the challenges faced during the adaptive reuse of the buildings and the need to meet specific facility requirements. “These complexities often demanded innovative approaches for suitable solutions while minimising significant structural changes to the buildings. The open communication allowed the architects to navigate through obstacles and arrive at effective solutions,” says Vinod.

Comfort factor

After restoration where optimum space utilisation was prioritised, the houses could accommodate 64 students, with separate dormitories and double sharing rooms having attached washrooms and change rooms for a convenient and private living arrangement.

The common areas for recreation and study were enlarged and opened up to foster “a sense of community” among the students. Increased natural lighting and ventilation throughout the buildings ensured a pleasant and healthy living environment.

Each house tackled differently

The architectural design of each of the existing buildings was different, factoring in the unique heritage of the kingdoms they represented. Each house was addressed individually, employing customised strategies to minimise structural alterations and maintain cost-effectiveness.

To ensure uniformity, space allocation and access to all facilities across the buildings were standardised. “It helped create a cohesive and functional environment that met the users’ needs uniformly,” says Vinod.

Local craftsmen, age-old skills

Local craftsmen too played a key role in the project as the original intricate stonework in the building exteriors had to be recreated. Since all the stones used in the original construction were sourced from local stone mines in and around Ajmer, stone masons were roped in to help identify the specific stone quarries to match the colours and patterns of the original stones. In some instances, the masons spent hours creating accurate reproductions of the stone latticework (jaalis).

The existing metal jaalis too were replaced with exact replicas in stone.

Five key sustainable elements

According to Singhi, the sustainable elements in the buildings included:

1.      Installation of solar water heating systems in each boarding house to replace the energy-guzzling electric heating system.

2.      Water conservation measures put in place by installing low-flow, water-saving faucets and toilets in the buildings.  Rainwater harvesting pits were also dug.

3.      Natural ventilation and flow of light ensured by redesigning existing windows and new ones added wherever possible to increase the flow of natural light, reducing dependence on artificial lighting during the day.

4.      Sustainable materials, including recycled, reclaimed, or locally sourced materials used wherever possible to reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation and manufacturing processes.

5.      Rainwater harvesting systems installed to replenish the water table by recharging the groundwater.

Pat on the back

Feedback from the client, say the architects, was overwhelmingly positive. “They expressed great satisfaction with the overall outcome of the project, appreciating the meticulous attention to detail in preserving the buildings’ historical significance while incorporating modern functionalities. The client praised the seamless integration of sustainable elements and the implementation of energy-efficient features, which resulted in reduced operational costs and an eco-friendlier environment,” says Ranju.

For Vinod, managing the project was a “profound” experience. It was a privilege, he says, to work closely with local craftsmen, meticulously recreate intricate stonework and figure out how to “preserve the essence of the past,” factoring in at the same time the comfort and well-being of students.

Ranju found the work “incredibly fulfilling.” Each building was approached with a deep respect for its unique heritage and architectural identity, but preserving the historical significance of each structure while upgrading the infrastructure was a complex challenge.

Today, she says, “we are immensely proud of the outcome.”

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