Demand for a Safe Room Spiked During the Latest Israel-Gaza War. But How Much Does It Cost?

May's Gaza fighting brought home the fact that more than two million Israelis lack a safe room. Experts offer tips on building one and how to make use of it year-round

 Ronit Harel
Ronit Harel
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A safe room converted into a walk-in closet by designer Oron Milshtein.
A safe room converted into a walk-in closet by designer Oron Milshtein. Credit: Elad Gonen
 Ronit Harel
Ronit Harel

At the height of Operation Guardian of the Walls last May, real estate websites saw a marked rise in demand for rental apartments with safe rooms, or in buildings with protected areas on each floor. This shift in rental preferences, a dynamic market responsive to external events, brought into focus the fact that more than two million Israelis do not have a reinforced-concrete safe room. In the absence of a comprehensive government solution to this problem, many people are trying to create such a room on their own. In practice, and particularly in older buildings, this is a very challenging task.

“Tenants in an apartment building that was built without such rooms before 1990, when they became mandatory, will need the agreement of 60 percent of apartment owners,” says practical engineer Daphna Auerbach, a partner in Auerbach Halevy Architects. Although this is a lower threshold than the one required for other construction additions, even this is not always easy to attain. People living in their own single-family homes can build a safe room without having to take into account neighbors; all that’s required is a building permit from the local authority. Another challenge that might arise, even if all the neighbors are on board, is engineering problems at the site. “The safe room has to be anchored in the building’s foundations, with access into the building or to ground level, and this entails expensive and complex engineering work. In such cases, it’s sometimes preferable to use the national plan for fortifying buildings against earthquakes (called Tama 38), where construction strengthens the entire building,” says Auerbach.

Exceeding building limits

Many older buildings have no safe rooms or safe areas on each floor, and even when there is a shelter in the basement, it takes too long for tenants living on the upper floors to reach it. Many shelters are in disrepair, having been turned into storage space for bikes and toys, which make them unpleasant places to stay during an emergency. This is one of the reasons people now want to build a safe room inside their apartments. Architect Boaz Snir, the owner of Boaz Snir Architects, explains why there is some advantage to adding a safe room in an existing building. “For safe rooms, as opposed to other additions, one can exceed the building’s boundaries, something which greatly improves the ability to draw up building plans.” Planning must take into consideration the building’s boundaries so that the planning does not cut into tenants’ parking spaces, for example. Snir notes that a safe room is therefore usually built on the sides or back of a building, not on the side facing the street.

Practical engineer Daphna Auerbach.Credit: Yossi Zwecker

“Adding a safe room is very important and empowering,” continues Snir. “The extension fortifies the building against earthquakes and makes it more durable. Planning a safe room should involve an architect and orderly construction plans, with tests conducted before the work begins, in order to ascertain if the ground can stand up to the planned additions.” He estimates that the cost of adding a safe room is 100,000 shekels ($31,000). This includes a door and window that meet the building code, air ducts and an apartment-wide filter system. This doesn’t include the cost of building permits and fees for the designers (another 20,000 shekels). The process can take up to one year, depending on the complexity of the area and the number of safe rooms being added to an existing building.

How does it work in practice? Snir describes the process: “After getting the tenants’ consent, the project’s feasibility must be examined with an architect and construction expert. They examine whether the ground and the building itself can withstand the addition. After their approval, preliminary planning can begin, looking at different options that tenants who want the extension can agree on. After that, plans must be submitted to the municipality, and preliminary approval is obtained. Following that, the process of obtaining the final permit can begin. This process can take between a year and a year and a half. After the last round of fighting in Gaza, some cities have shortened the process, cutting it to a few months,” says Snir.

Snir says there’s another new phenomenon of building common safe areas on each floor instead of individual safe rooms. This applies mainly to new buildings containing small apartments or to older buildings in which a Tama 38 renovation is being done. “In a small 2-room apartment, it’s not convenient to use the living room as a safe room,” he says. “A common area on each floor solves this problem. Rooms in small apartments are built as regular rooms, and the safe area is shared by several apartments. In buildings going through the Tama 38 process, even if there is a common shelter in the basement, shared safe rooms may be added on each floor so that people can reach them faster when needed. These common rooms are more spacious than a safe room in an apartment and include a better air filter and fire extinguishing systems, but it does take longer to get there compared to a safe room in your own apartment. This is a factor one has to consider, depending on the apartment’s location relative to the threat people face.” Moreover, Snir believes that such common spaces tend to become storage areas, which makes them unavailable for protecting tenants in times of emergency.

Blurring the safe room look

A safe room turned into a bedroom. Credit: Elad Gonen

Even after adding a safe room or buying a new apartment with a safe room, the room itself is not always pleasant looking or inviting as a living area. The door and blast window are made of thick iron in order to seal off the room during an emergency, but in normal times they are an eyesore. In some new apartments, this is sometimes solved by adding an extra doorframe, which allows an additional door that opens into the room. Architect Shira Muskal, co-owner of Halel Architects and Interior Design, recommends that people make sure an extra doorframe is installed before buying a new apartment. “One can cover the door with wallpaper in accordance with the design of the room, as well as hanging a soft, floor-to-ceiling curtain over the window, giving the room a tall look. For example, a Roman curtain hanging from the ceiling gives every window more attractive rectangular proportions.”

In order to be ready for emergencies, Muskal recommends furnishing the safe room with low furniture, so that “in case there’s an explosion nearby, no one sitting there will be hurt,” she says. Furthermore, she recommends not overloading the room with unnecessary furniture and decorative items in order to give the room a more spacious look. “If the room is not used regularly as a bedroom, you can place a cushioned, soft and comfortable sofa across from the door, so that entering the room is a soothing experience, opening up the space. You can use a sofa that opens into a bed, so that it has a dual purpose as a play room, work room or guest room as needed.”

According to Muskal, “in many apartments, the safe room is used for other purposes such as for storage, as a closet room or as a home office. It’s not legally prohibited, but it’s important to know that according to Home Command regulations, no changes are allowed in plumbing or in the ability to seal off the room. Above all, it’s crucial to leave it as a protected safe space that can be used in times of emergency.”

Interior designer Ariella Azaria Berkovich explains that many people erroneously think that you can’t drill holes in a safe room. “Professionals can tell you where you can drill holes for the right dowels, using them as anchors for hanging up pictures or decorations in your safe room,” she says. One can also move electric sockets. In any case, she says, the safe room should be connected to all forms of communication networks, “concentrating all the media in a closet that can also contain other essentials one may need in an emergency.”

Ariella Azaria Berkovich.Credit: Gai Berkovitz

Azaria Berkovich suggests covering most or all of the safe room’s window with a tall, fancy bed headboard. “This way, you can blur the dominant safe room look and convert it into a fancy room. The absence of external lighting can be compensated for with complementary artificial lighting that provides strong but pleasant light. If doing without a window is not an option, I design the space so that the eye is drawn toward other elements in the room, not to the window and door, such as by adding wallpaper, a large bookcase that fits the space, textile elements and accessories with a presence.”

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