Setbacks are good
It was during the early years of town planning that setbacks were introduced to ensure fresh indoor air circulation, accommodate outdoor sanitary connections, and provide room for fire-fighting tasks.
Sustainable living demands an ecological approach far beyond mere saving in project money and construction materials; it requires saving every kind of earth resources like water, vegetation or minerals. In an urban context, land is scarce today which we cannot let go waste. In real terms, we cannot really save land, but save unwanted interventions there, hoping to reap some benefits thereupon.
Traditionally compound as a demarcation wall and unused leftover space next to it were not found in Indian settlements, wherein the space between buildings were generally open with people walking around there or provide for allied activities like cattle sheds and rain drainage. It was during the early years of town planning that setbacks were introduced to ensure the space around that would allow fresh indoor air circulation, accommodate outdoor sanitary connections, ensure access to fire fighting tasks and such others.
Nowadays leaving space around a building is a legal requirement in majority of cities. The local authorities and the neighbours can object if an owner leaves less than the officially stipulated width. Considering the benefits of setbacks, we need not question this rule, but unfortunately, this restrictive law does not provide ideas towards making good use of this land. All of the empty setback spaces left around in a city will together count for a large land parcel. Many city master plans do not allow continuous buildings where there are no setbacks at all or even semi-detached ones where two building share a common wall. Both of these development types save lot of side setback spaces.
Where side setbacks are unavoidable, we can at least avoid paving it or concreting it, letting rain water percolate to earth, supporting a few plants. The plinth protection or flagging concrete continues to be a standard specification in projects, which supposedly stops rainwater percolating close to the building foundation, minimizing the possibilities of shrinkage cracks. With the good quality of foundation concretes and the curing time they get, no unequal settlements happen in normal soil and concreting can be saved.
With a desire to build maximum interior space in a given space, many site owners tend to violate the building bye-laws, under the knowledge of the officials, leaving narrow setbacks like two ft. space. Such widths are of no use to anyone — for a person to walk, for a mason to build proper sanitary chambers or for letting in good air and light for neighbouring buildings. If we can keep them as per bye-laws at minimum three ft., not only one can walk but also have some hedge plants.
Alternatively, we can increase this space and with no additional costs of construction, gain many value-added advantages and space for general tasks. The mandatory setbacks, if well utilised, are like free bonuses.