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Israel has over 10,000 pages of building regulations, construction standards and building guidelines. A company that in 1996 carried out a project involving the preparation of an integrated compilation containing all of the country's construction regulations uncovered no fewer than 519 contradictions, lacunae and redundancies, with which it is still dealing today. These are some of the harsh findings that appear in last week's report published by the Zeiler Commission, a state commission of inquiry that investigated the safety of publicly used buildings following the May 2001 collapse of Jerusalem's Versailles wedding hall that killed 23 people and injured over 300. The commission was headed by retired judge Vardi Zeiler.

Confusion rules

Building norms are supposed to define the manner in which buildings should be planned and constructed, as well as serve as the basis for proper activity in the construction industry. The report's authors noted that numerous functionaries who appeared before the committee criticized action in the construction industry. Therefore, for example, a highly reputed architect stated in his testimony: "I can attest to the fact that 95 percent of the architects in Israel are not familiar with the building and planning regulations. The legal situation is so confusing that people don't want to have to deal with it if it can be bypassed." He said that he himself provides services to public institutions (the government, universities, public authorities, hospitals), and he knows from his own experience that none of them meet all the building norms stated in the lawbooks.

A very prominent architect said that there is an excess of regulations and standards, "but in no way can the situation be construed as a set of regulations that one can easily find one's way about in that is clearly professional, can provide results, and can be easily critiqued. All in all, the situation is quite a mess, and difficult from almost all respects," he said. "It would be very difficult to introduce order into it. At present, almost all ministers have the authority to issue regulations and standards, and these regulations are not compatible with one another. A proper and responsible construction professional should be familiar with all 10,000 pages, which of course is not feasible.

"The ones submitting the request [usually the architects] are forced in the request for a permit and in other contexts to sign papers containing things they doesn't understand," he continued. "They sign declarations knowing full well that they are unfamiliar with the situation. This creates a lack of respect for the law, the signature and the entire process."

Another architect said there are separate instructions for different buildings, for example, for buildings for the handicapped, multi-storey buildings, public buildings, wedding halls - and they are all scattered over the 10,000 pages of norms.

No method to madness

Two of the heads of the engineers' and architects' associations said: "No planner can take responsibility for what is in the 10,000 pages of the planning and construction law and the related regulations and standards and laws." They added that the Israel Standards Institute presents them with a paper containing requisite standards six meters long. "This is an unreasonable amount of material, set up in an entirely illogical fashion. There is no method to this madness, and there is no possible way of knowing everything contained in it."

A planner who is an architect and engineer by profession and whose main work is carried out in the Arab sector, said: "There are all kinds of demands; sometimes they contradict each other, sometimes one section is mentioned, you go to another place, read and then it's different, and then you have to try to figure out what you can and cannot do."

A director-general of one of the country's large contractors said that the legislation requires rethinking. "There is a very large volume of laws, regulations, standards. I don't know a single person in our industry who knows all the regulations and standards," he said. "There are also many contradictions between the laws and regulations, and sometimes it is like patchwork. You find yourself in the middle of a pile of contradictions, between regulations and laws, especially concerning the subject of safety, for example, fire safety. There is no single authority that dictates regulations for this subject. Each local government is its own boss."

Odd laws

The Interior Ministry's director of the department of planning and construction instructions and standards confirmed in his testimony that most regulations come from outside the ministry. He said the ministry does not have an organized system that is sensitive to what is needed and that initiates systematic legislation based on logical priorities.

The association of contractors wrote that, "because of the multiplicity of agencies that are involved in the building industry and the desire on the part of each agency to be involved in the functioning of the industry, an absurd situation has been created according to which thousands of regulations, standards, injunctions, specifications, demands and so on have been issued in the various and sundry laws or as proposals by the agencies or various committees.

"Often the regulations or rules are determined in specifications or rulings that contradict one another. The many regulations cause confusion, delays and mistakes in planning and implementation, and could ultimately lead to the opposite result, and even cause disasters. The large number of regulations leads to matters falling between the cracks," it continued.

"It is impossible to closely supervise implementation of regulations or instructions, and it is clear to anyone with eyes that it is impossible for any reasonable individual to keep track of all the verbiage, part of which is archaic and no longer relevant, and part of which contradicts other verbiage, and all of which together causes confusion. As a result, the law is not observed. Unfortunately, the lack of observance of the law focuses on the most important aspects, and as a result can cause disasters."

A leader in the field of architecture said that in each of the country's three major cities - Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa - there are about 3,000 master plans, "and no one has coordinated them. In this context, there are plans in English from 1923, which cover half the city. The plans contain different definitions, and different interpretations apply to them, and those who want to learn exactly what the planning situation is are not always able to do so."

Drawn-out process

A well-known architect said that sometimes preparation of plans requires the signature of about 20 different agencies on various forms even before the committee sees the plans, a process that takes 12-to-18 months to complete. "At this point, the plans arrive at the committee, and it can decide `It's too high,' and everything starts all over again. Afterward, one has to complete the procedures of the district committee that reexamines everything, and everything starts all over again. At the end of the process, one needs to get a permit, and the whole procedure starts all over again."

According to the Zeiler report, the planning and construction law alone contains some 60 compilations of regulations, including those related to "limited work permits." These refer to limited jobs, such as the installation of an antenna and solar water heaters, as well as regulations for "the permission of changes in the permit of the local committee engineer" during implementation of the work. In addition to all this, there are numerous other laws that include construction regulations from which regulations are formulated.

The report's authors noted that the norms that are included in some 600 standards related to the construction industry, of which some 380 refer directly to construction, should be added to this list. About 50 of these have been declared official standards, either partly or in full. Of all the standards, about 250 have been adopted in various laws related to the construction industry. The bylaws of various local governments related to construction matters - for example, those related to hazardous buildings, the maintenance of shelters and the fencing in of stalls, should be added to this list as well.

This, however, does not complete the list of norms. According to the report, additional norms can be found in the detailed instructions regarding the construction of "designated buildings" found under the authority of various ministries - schools, prisons and hospitals. These instructions are generally published in director-general circulars and include implementation specifications.

Not a secret

The report notes that the grave situation in the area of norms is not unknown to Interior Ministry workers, including the person in charge of the planning and construction law. However, for many years, this individual had done hardly anything regarding this matter. In 1992, however, he was forced to take action. Israel received U.S. guarantees for loans for the construction of immigrant housing, but it was made conditional on improving construction requirements in the law. A group that included representatives from the Interior Ministry, Housing and Construction Ministry, Finance Ministry, the Israel Standards Institute, the Contractors' Association, and the Technion went to the United States to learn about the situation there. The group eventually decided to become involved in two projects - concentrating building regulations in an integrated compilation and examining management of building regulations. Implementation of the first project took a year, and the second took about 3.5 years.

According to the report, these projects produced several findings and conclusions. For example, it was discovered that 12 government ministries - interior, housing and construction, internal security, education, transportation, health, industry and trade, labor, environment, national infrastructure, tourism and agriculture - set down regulations and issue instructions and guidelines related to construction. In addition, the report noted, other agencies such as the Home Front Command, local governments, and the fire-fighting authorities can issue norms.

Due to these projects, the government decided in April 1997 to establish a unit in the Interior Ministry to deal with coordinating building regulations. The intention was that all the relevant ministries would not continue to issue regulations before being examined by the coordination unit and without ensuring that they are compatible with other norms.

At the same time, the report noted, based on testimony given by the person in charge of the unit for the coordination of construction regulations and standards, as well as other Interior Ministry workers, it could be learned that the government decision is being implemented only partially. In a large portion of the cases, the ministries are not cooperating with this unit. The unit has not received sufficient funding, is poorly staffed, and lacks computers. The person heading the division said he receives an "enormous amount" of relevant material from the Standards Institute, but is unable to deal with it all.