Planners Confront the Long-term Challenges of High-rise Living

Israeli developers and apartment buyers are often transfixed by the sheen of residential high-rises, but a failure to consider their upkeep over the longer term often leads to neglect.

The building is just 10 years old but the electric gate in the parking lot doesn't work, the lawn is turning brown, the intercom is broken and the elevator creaks - all signs of the neglect often seen at apartment houses around the country that were built not so long ago.

The problem is that many projects are characterized by the high standards expected in the luxurious neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, even when they are situated in less upscale surroundings like Ashkelon, Netanya and Modi'in. The problem is especially noticeable in high-rise residential buildings where maintenance is especially expensive. Buyers become transfixed by all the services these offer, but once they move in, they are overwhelmed by the upkeep.

It is not only the home owners, apparently, who are vexed by this state of affairs: The Ministry of Construction and Housing has found it disturbing enough to issue a handbook relating to maintenance of apartment buildings, including suggestions on how to better adapt their design in accordance with the limitations of middle-class purse strings. Although written primarily for architects and building professionals, the booklet offers insights that should also interest the public.

Partially compiled based on a survey of 50 apartment dwellers in different parts of the country, the publication focuses on one main idea: Planning lies at the crux of this problem.

Pressure to construct buildings at sky-high standards comes from numerous quarters, but the upshot is that afterward, as it turns out, residents can't afford the steep upkeep they entail. Modern design brings into play various trappings aimed at dazzling prospective buyers, demands by local authorities seeking to promote luxurious neighborhoods and the aim of generating top dollars for developers. What it doesn't take into account, however, are long-term costs.

"Planning involves many elements such as apartment size and such, but rarely considers any conformity between the layout and the owners' financial wherewithal," explains Carlos Drinberg, the Housing Ministry's chief architect. "We want planners to take this into consideration too."

In days gone by this wasn't an issue: Apartment blocks built from the 1950s to the '70s were easy to maintain: washing the stairwells, an occasional paint job, resealing the roof, and perhaps a minor face-lift - but nothing extensive.

Maintenance of modern buildings is complex and expensive by comparison. An intercom and security cameras at the entrance, plush lobby, elevators, children's play area, fitness room, plumbing infrastructure, complicated systems of solar panels and heaters, and often underground garages - these are some of the elements requiring ongoing upkeep, which is becoming more expensive than ever. Emergency repairs or replacement of elevator components can make costs downright prohibitive.

Buyers tend to overlook upkeep when signing the contract but it comes back to bite them later when they have to pay their monthly maintenance fees, especially when they're asked for one-time payments to cover huge, irregular expenses. Buildings often appear rundown as a result.

In its preface, the ministry's new handbook states: "The condition of Israel's apartment buildings is quite problematic, as clearly evidenced by their deterioration, and wear and tear. Many buildings look neglected and rundown even after several years, and their functioning becomes impaired and problematic. This is particularly noticeable in the buildings' common areas."

It is common to find fitness rooms and playrooms locked up, automatic gates that don't work, gardens overcome with tall weeds, entrance doors with broken handles, and lights on the blink - along with angry notices on a building's bulletin boards railing against recalcitrant residents who are delinquent in their maintenance payments.

Emulating affluence

Why build apartment houses that occupants can't afford to maintain? The answer is that we apparently all aspire to live in buildings like those in upscale Ramat Aviv Hahadasha, so developers have their architects incorporate similar amenities in their design. Home buyers want the highest available standards and mayors, for their part, push builders into providing them with a local version of Ramat Aviv.

But doesn't cloning that luxurious neighborhood in far-flung cities lead to problems? The survey by the Housing Ministry highlights this shortcoming: While inhabitants of Ramat Aviv Hahadasha can well afford the management fees for such buildings, this is far from certain regarding inhabitants of outlying regions.

"Apartment houses serving the top one-thousandth stratum can mean several thousand shekels a month, but the average citizen has difficulty meeting all the expenses involved in maintaining parking lots, lighting and gardens, and their care is often substandard," says Drinberg.

The gardening problem has become increasingly acute in recent years. Designers delight in luxuriant and well-groomed landscaping and developers "plant" virtual forests in their models. Reality, though, is much bleaker: The grounds often spread out over several acres and their care often demands intensive resources. The rising price of water is particularly problematic. The yen for exotic foliage requires professional gardening and outlays on expensive plants, so the decision is usually to make do with just a lawn - but often these aren't even properly cared for.

Shared responsibilities

The problem maintaining common areas just gets worse because it demands cooperation between home owners who are sometimes living in several buildings.

"In high-density housing there are many areas shared by all residents," says Drinberg. "Problems arise when these areas are shared by several buildings - with each one struggling to keep up its own surroundings, not to mention feeling less responsible for shared areas. Therefore, in many cases such areas aren't maintained properly. This lowers the building's value and quality of life, even upsetting a street's whole ambience."

Underground parking is one of the most problematic aspects of upkeep, according to the survey, especially if the garage is shared by more than one building and its operation requires coordination between several associations or management firms. There could be joint ownership of other elements too; residents might be surprised to find that they need to split responsibility and expenses for gardening and lighting with other apartment houses sharing the same plot of land.

"An underground garage is a striking example of a mismatch between maintenance needs and the ability of residents to cover them," explains Drinberg. "If developers find it convenient to build a shared garage to save on entrances, with ramps and so on, then that's what they'll do."

Drinberg maintains that ministry planners have nothing against either open spaces or covered garages. "We object to attempts to stick several apartment buildings together," he says. "If a building has its own parking lot and its size matches the capabilities of the target population, then it's a whole other matter. The same with shared gardens: The plan needs to be adapted to the occupants' ability to cope."

The ministry once took on the marketing of a cluster of lots in Rosh Ha'ayin which had already been planned and included high-rises, recalls Drinberg. He says they met with city officials and managed to convince them to change the plans, replacing the tall buildings with a series of low-rises that would better match the financial capabilities of potential buyers.

Design and technical specifications need to suit the pocketbooks of home buyers rather than their pipe dreams. Meanwhile, the Park Towers-type of building model - so adored in this country, but also the source of many problems found in the Housing Ministry survey - needs to be reconsidered.