In our pursuit to provide valuable insights to foreign residents with an interest in Israel real estate, we sat down with Architect Allegra Darmon, a former Belgian who specializes in sustainable architecture, renovations and building conservation. Allegra provides a unique perspective as both a foreign Jew who made Aliyah and as a local architect who serves the foreign community, helping them to build their homes in Israel.
Allegra moved to Israel from Belgium 5 years ago with her former Israeli husband and family of 3 children after many years of yearning and contemplation. Although she had been coming to Israel for many years as a Zionist and a Jewish visitor, the living experience taught her a great deal about Israeli culture. After a couple of years of travelling back and forth to withhold her Belgium-situated business, she decided to relocate her business to Israel as well.
How did you find the right home for your family?
Well, it wasn't simple because, as regular guests to the country who mainly vacationed here during the holidays, we had many preconceptions about the various areas of the country and what would be right for us. The biggest challenge for us was to find a place to raise our children that was actually different from the urban setting we were accustomed to in Belgium; we didn't want to make such a huge move only to find ourselves living in another bustling metropolis.
What finally prompted us to make the decision was the fact that the children were at that age when it would soon be too late to move them until after they finished school. Also, our close friends from Belgium moved to a beautiful moshav (an agricultural village),in the Sharon area. When we visited the moshav and witnessed our children enjoying the freedom to roam from one friend's house to another, the freedom to play outside and come and go as they pleased - we were sold. From there the process was really quite straightforward; we put out 'feelers' with all our new acquaintances and quickly found a home that suited us perfectly. It was actually the first home I have ever moved into without renovating.
We were also excited by the fact that the kid's local school was a short walking distance from the house. In Belgium most Jewish kids attend private Jewish schools and they are typically a drive away. Our children were not able to befriend the neighborhood kids, and after arriving home from a long day, we had to drive them everywhere for their activities.
What was it like moving your architectural firm to Israel?
It's been an exciting journey! The concept of architecture has different roots in Europe than in Israel, there are so many grand buildings with historical value everywhere. Perhaps this is what drew me to Tel Aviv - the fact that it is a city with an eclectic architectural environment, that also displays many important styles of modern architecture like Bauhaus.
How does your architectural work in Israel differ from your work in Belgium?
Firstly, although I moved my business here, my clients continue to be mainly foreigners. I am a native French speaker and I speak fluent Hebrew and English as well, so the role I naturally took on was one of a liaison between the Israeli construction industry and its foreign clients. There is so much that nonresidents don't know about Israeli habitats and the fact that I was able to learn from the inside and provide an two-way perspective to clients that may have been otherwise 'left in the dark', means a great deal to them.
What are some of the 'surprises' that you help prepare them for or deal with?
It ranges from small details to the more significant really. There are things that I know are different here because they stem from cultural differences. Small details like the height and placement of an electric socket are usually hidden in Europe for aesthetic reasons, whereas here, the sockets are placed higher up and in locations of convenience rather than aesthetics.
I also come across many foreign residents a who are taken aback by elements of the Israeli design like the entrance to a home for example. In Europe the entrance is a transitional area that 'protects' the more private areas of the home. Culturally, Europeans are more concerned about their privacy and walking straight into someone's kitchen can seem strange to them. I explain to them that the Israeli culture is an open one, the entrance to the home plays a different role than what they are accustomed to and more often than not, this is one of the first changes we make to the home.
What I think that people should be most prepared for is working with Israeli vendors. It took me a long time to get used to the way things work here, and now that I am familiar and I have my own database of professional vendors that I trust and work with regularly , my clients are thrilled not to be dealing with this side of the renovation or construction. Buying a home in Israel is often a complex process and having someone who knows both your culture and the Israeli one is a huge benefit in this sense.
Another gap between my clients' expectations and the reality is the level of finishing you receive. In Europe aestheticism takes priority over all else. I f you want your expectations met you should either lower them (just kidding), or make sure you are working with someone who knows what you want and can hire the right professionals to execute on the level that you need.
What is the one piece of advice you would give a family on its way to building a home in Israel?
There are things about Israeli design that are related to the local climate, regulations and culture and I think that moving anywhere requires an open mind to learn from the locals.
Open your mind to living in a different culture, a different habitat than what you are used to and possibly to living in an area that meets your needs better than the area you chose from over the sea.