Just Why Are Israeli Homes So Badly Designed?

Indifferent contractors, underpaid architects and indiscriminating buyers are all part of the problem, experts say. Ultimately, we’ll see higher quality only when buyers start demanding it.

The buyers of this apartment wanted to preserve the open space. The central pillar was turned into an integral part of the kitchen while the games corner was set off from the living room by a bidirectional divider.
Yana Turansky

How is it possible that 30 years ago a four-room apartment of less than 100 square meters was considered spacious, while today buyers of five room homes spread out over 120 square meters feel their apartment is too small?

Why do people who pay so much for an apartment later feel that the design is unsuitable, the division of space, faulty, the apartment is dark, the bathrooms are suffocating, the rooms are small and there isn’t enough room to entertain? Is there something fundamentally wrong with our expectations, or are we paying hundreds of thousands or even millions of shekels for an inferior and functionally unsuitable product?

And why do apartments look as though they came off an assembly line? Do developers and architects really think that all families conduct their lives in exactly the same way? After all, they’re selling us the same apartments from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat: porcelain granite flooring with 60 x 60-centimeter tiles, an electric roll-up shutter and a detached toilet.

Most of the architects interviewed by TheMarker point to three main reasons for dissatisfaction with a home: 1) poor planning and construction standards; 2) too little investment in architectural design, giving experts little incentive to devote too much time to designing a better-quality home; 3) buyers who don’t ask the right questions and don’t demand quality design.

Architect Uri Ronen blames over-regulation for lowering design standards. Whereas design quality used to determine the size of a room, “today the minimum per room is eight square meters, and that’s not really a room, but that’s what the regulations dictate. It can’t be properly furnished and is very crowded,” Ronen says.

The minimal height of ceiling is 2.5 meters, and most are actually about 2.65 meters. That’s lower than in buildings constructed during the British Mandate period, or the 1920s through the late 1940s.

Regulations have also set such standards as the minimum number of electrical outlets necessary, window size and the number of openings in the building’s facade. Ronen does his base design based on these regulations.

An apartment a designer would live in

“I give the developers several options, reduce corridors and plan the minimum, but in a way that it can be furnished. I design an apartment that I would want to live in,” Ronen says.

As Ronen sees it, the fact that home prices are based on the number of rooms rather than property size encourages bad design, especially in the case of small and medium-sized units built under what is known as National Building Plan 38 (Tama 38 in Hebrew) in the country’s central districts. A two-room apartment of 60 square meters in a Tama 38 project will sell for less than one of the same size divided into 3.5 rooms.

“That’s why the developers prefer more rooms, although a two-room apartment would be of higher quality. The clients receive an inferior product,” says Ronen.

Yaffa Sadan, vice president of marketing for the construction company Yossi Avrahami Limited, offers a similar assessment.

“The size of the apartment is less important for the buyers than the number of rooms,” she says. She says buyers today are willing to compromise on a small living room, but it’s still important to them that there be at least as many rooms as there occupants.

“The reason is the price. A proper and efficient design might call for fewer than five rooms, but the price will be lower. In any case, the buyers don’t want to compromise on the important criterion of number of rooms,” Sadan says. But the planning is sometimes inefficient and not suited to every family.

Architect Rony Kurz-Avitzour, whose Studio XS plans home renovations, attributes faulty planning to buyers’ lack of knowledge. “People want larger apartments, but they have no idea how to ask the right questions. Have you ever met anyone who asks about the height of the apartment’s ceilings before buying?”

Kurz-Avitzour spells out additional problems that tenants don’t check: “There’s no defined entrance -- you suddenly enter an unclear corridor or kitchen, the dining room table isn’t situated where it should be, it’s just tossed into the space, the location of electrical outlets aren’t planned correctly. And why do you need three bathrooms? Isn’t it better to plan one good, spacious bathroom?”

She also blames Tama 38 for having led to lower-quality apartments. “These are projects with many constraints, they have to fit into a small area, and usually they’re built by small contractors, which is why you see apartments with lots of problems.”

Sadan says clients insist mainly on the standard of construction, and are less interested in other details.

“The quality of construction and the standard offered by the developer are very important. The last thing the buyer wants to deal with, after moving his things into the house, is arguments with the developer,” which could keep the company from fixing any problems.

In other words, the buyer will probably get angry if the plaster is peeling or the flooring was placed carelessly -- problems that his non-professional eyes identify immediately – but is more likely to take less interest in the size of his daughter’s bedroom or the lack of storage space. The homeowner is only likely to see problems much later on.

Another reason for faulty planning is the small amount of funds allocated for architecture, although the architects themselves are often to blame for this problem. One architect who deals with interior design and private homes, recalls an instance of making what she thought was a fair a bid for a Tama 38 project only to discover that was double the other offers.

The architect, who asked not to be named, says the fees her competitors were prepared to accept make quality design impossible. The professional fee in large projects is 7,000 to 10,000 shekels ($1,800 -$2,600) per apartment, which at best means architects will simply duplicate the same design from unit to unit.

Buyers’ changes have become standard

In addition to planning deficiencies, homes today are not suited to a diverse group of homeowners, from single-parent families, bachelors and older couples whose children have left the nest. A relatively young retired couple had trouble finding an apartment in Haifa’s “Krayot” suburbs to suit their needs -- four large rooms and a spacious bathroom. They ended up buying a five-room apartment and converting it into four large rooms and an expanded bathroom, at an additional expense.

Older couples are not the only ones ignored by the real estate market. New homes in Israel are mainly designed for young couples with two or three children. Sometimes design changes are made by an interior designer hired by the buyers themselves, but often buyers ask the contractors to do it, for an extra fee.

Kurz-Avitzour’s firm has ways of maximizing apartments with small square meterage. The most popular method is to convert walls into dividers. As an example, placing a closet between two smaller rooms instead of putting it against a wall. Few contractors include ideas like this in their blueprints.

Kurz-Avitzour sees faulty planning as deliberate.

“Everyone has something to gain from it,” she says. “In terms of economics, the developers rely on the fact that the tenant will turn to a designer. And then the contractor profits from the changes. He tells the tenants, ‘If you want to move a wall, pay for it.’”

Gili Alfi, CEO of Inview renovation specialists, says the problem is that nobody really takes charge of the process. “The contractors want to race ahead, and some allow changes at no extra cost, if the changes are made at an early stage of the planning,” she says.

70% of buyers make changes

Either way, she estimates that 70% of buyers make changes in their newly bought home’s design. The costs of such design changes added up to 1.1 billion shekels nationwide in 2015.

“Although a basic upgrade costs 10,000 shekels, the average upgrade costs 50,000 to 60,000 shekels, and can reach as high as 100,000 shekels,” Alfi says.

Developers say that implementing higher planning standards would make jack up the prices of homes, and that buyers would still seek design changes, anyhow.

“Every buyer wants to bring his own personality to the house, which is why there’s no reason for the developer to invest in unique specifications in advance. That would lead to additional costs, and the buyer would still have to invest in adapting the apartment to his taste,” Sadan of Yossi Avrahami says.

Developers prefer to build apartments assembly-line style rather than invest in planning for each and every tenant.

In projects built by contractors today – as opposed to those built in the 1950s and 1960s – there are increasing numbers of apartments wedged between two other units, usually with three rooms and no cross ventilation. The window of their mamad (protective room) often faces a shaft rather than the building’s exterior. These apartments are cheaper, but the buyers end up spending on renovations.

“In properly run countries, public housing and affordable housing is also well-designed. If the demand for quality doesn’t come from below, the contractors and developers will have no incentive to build good apartments. We should demand public intervention particularly for those who aren’t privileged,” says one architect, who asked not to be named.

Not only are apartments for the middle class poorly designed, so are luxury apartments that go for 10 million shekels and more.

Kurz-Avitzour tells of a Tel Aviv 250-square meter property her firm renovated. “One side was round, and the apartment couldn’t be furnished. There were also nine-square meter size rooms. Clearly someone who buys such an apartment won’t leave it like that. It seems as though someone designed it that way deliberately.”