The Rough Road to Rooftop Construction

Anyone who has attempted to enclose a porch, add a floor or obtain additional building rights has experienced the aggravation of dealing with the official bureaucracy and other parties involved in the process. "Victims" are all too happy to describe the lethargy of municipal clerks, the pettiness of spiteful neighbors, and the high cost and exasperation that comes with added turf.

These problems are especially pronounced when the project involves building on the roof of a jointly owned apartment building. While it is difficult to estimate the proportions of the rooftop construction phenomenon, a quick glance at roofs in Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and even Jerusalem indicates that this is a burgeoning trend motivated by increased crowding between Hadera and Gedera. Despite that, this is not a simple business: Construction regulations differ from city to city and are not always clear, municipalities present stumbling blocks, and neighbors are always quick to oppose a project or grab a piece of the newly constructed pie.

Piles of paperwork

"Rooftop construction has two aspects - purchasing and planning," explains attorney Gilad Hess. "It's not enough to live on the top floor if you want to build on the roof. You have to obtain a document from the land registry office (tabu in Hebrew) to ensure that the roof actually includes building rights, and you have to identify any limitations on those rights.

"I had a case in which a man saw that he had building rights in tabu, but according to his local council's regulations, you cannot build a room on the roof of a building with fewer than two floors. As a result, he could not make use of his building rights.

"In the Sharon region, for example," Hess adds, "building up to 30 square meters on the roof is permitted. In Tel Aviv, a maximum of 23 square meters is allowed. One has to ascertain whether or not the area includes stairs and the distance required from railings, because each of these elements has implications on the value of construction. An additional aspect to be taken into account is appreciation tax. In Tel Aviv, this can cost $1,000 per square meter, and in the Sharon region, it comes to about $600 per square meter."

Waiting for the municipality

"Two years ago, the local press published an article stating that the permitted area of a room on the roof was about to be increased," a Tel Aviv resident recalls. "According to the new plan, the permitted area was supposed to be increased from 23 square meters to 40 square meters. Many of us who read the article were very happy about the amendment. Everyone knows that a gross allocation of 23 square meters, including all the various deductions, becomes a net space of 16 square meters, and that the room is not cost-effective when you consider the many expenses and difficulties involved." According to the resident, this is the reason that many homeowners who had rights to build 23 square meters on the roof decided to wait. "We thought that soon we'd be able to build a bigger room," she adds.

A year later, progress in this matter was announced in the media. The Tel Aviv local planning and building committee approved a plan, in principle, which permitted the increased building allowance and even permitted the purchase of a neighbor's allotment on the roof.

"This will expand housing and increase property values in top floor apartments in the city," Tel Aviv City Engineer Danny Kaiser was quoted as saying. "The goal of the plan is to encourage residents to make use of the rooftops."

Tel Aviv residents with top floor apartments soon appeared at the municipality to make their increased roof rights official, but they were told that the matter was in the pipeline and their requests remained unapproved. "There is a great deal of ambiguity regarding this issue," the city resident claims. "Thousands of people are sitting on the fence and they don't know how to proceed because they have all read the aforementioned articles in recent years."

Kaiser recently reported that the municipality is waiting for the plan, which is currently under examination by the District Planning and Building Committee. He believes it will be approved within two years.

A victory for bureaucracy

Tel Aviv residents are clearly not the only ones with their sights set on rooftop construction. In Jerusalem these days, where architecture is synonymous with the Israeli talent for improvisation, workers are busy adding an additional floor to every available empty space on rooftops. Ruth Bickson, director of the Jerusalem construction licensing department, says that in recent years, many city residents have registered requests to build on the roof - mainly in the city center, but also in the Ramot and Pisgat Zeev neighborhoods.

"Unlike Tel Aviv, which has an outline plan that permits rooftop construction, there is no sweeping decision in Jerusalem," Bickson says. "We try to help residents and issue permits on streets where building is allowed. However, some streets took advantage of every possible building right, and we can no longer permit exceptions there.

"The municipality is aware of the urban crowding, which caused movement of residents to surrounding communities, and we are thus formulating a new outline plan to increase the percentage of built-up areas allowed in the city, including on rooftops."

One of the reasons for the Jerusalem municipality's relative leniency is the prevalence of construction violations, particularly in East Jerusalem. "The extent of violations is greater, by hundreds of percentage points, in the eastern part of the city than in the western city," says Jerusalem municipal licensing and inspection department director Micha Ben-Nun. "If people in western neighborhoods open porches without permits, residents in the eastern city raise towers to the sky. We have been fighting this phenomenon on two fronts - by confiscating construction vehicles, like cement mixers and trucks, and by legal intervention.

"In 2004, the fines collected for construction violations in Jerusalem amounted to NIS 34 million. This phenomenon is testimony to the real distress of residents, so we try to permit building on the roof wherever possible."

Other municipalities do not necessarily exhibit similar sensitivity to the suffering of residents. "In the Krayot towns near Haifa, one can build with relative ease," says architect Ronit Lichtman. "But every rooftop construction permit in the Carmel region costs an arm and a leg. I don't understand the municipality policy that thwarts such construction permits. In Haifa, which is built on a hillside, it actually makes sense to add a fifth dimension to building for the good of the urban landscape and the residents. We have eight months [during each year] in which we can enjoy the roof and it's a shame to miss that. But bureaucracy apparently wins out over any other consideration."

Legally sanctioned extortion

After you have successfully run the gauntlet of municipal clerks, you will discover that the bureaucratic hurdle is a mere prelude to the real obstacle - your neighbors. According to law, any construction in a jointly owned area requires the agreement of all the tenants in the building. This issue stirs up all ancient grudges and old scores, including those pertaining to elections of joint owners committees and the New Year's Eve party that ended with a visit from the police.

"I've had cases where the roof was attached to a particular apartment, but some of the neighbors refused to sign," Hess recalls. "So, with all the subsequent disappointment, they were not able to build. The reasons for objections are usually miserly and avaricious. The neighbors want money - lots of money. The tenant who wants to build says, in an owners committee meeting, `The roof is worth nothing to you because you can't build on it anyway,' and the neighbors say, `You're going to make a lot of money and we want a piece of the pie.' The last tenant to sign is the biggest extortionist. I had a case where a tenant like that wanted $10,000 to sign, when the total cost of the construction project was $20,000! That's legally sanctioned chutzpah and blackmail."

Haifa architect Ronit Lichtman offers a tip for obtaining signatures: "I recommend that people use a barter system: Give me a building permit for the roof and I'll give you a permit to open the porch."

How much does it cost?

After you have successfully navigated the municipality and your neighbors, only the price issue remains. Renovations contractor Ayal Hazan says that building a room on the roof is 25 percent more expensive than building a room elsewhere. "A wall is a wall," Hazan acknowledges, "but transporting material to the roof, which sometimes requires a crane, makes the whole thing more expensive. And you also have to pay attention to the drainage issue. This area was not intended for building, and it therefore lacks plumbing infrastructure. Building a room on the roof in Tel Aviv may cost $20,000. If there are supporting walls already at the site, it costs less - NIS 30,000-40,000."

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality responds that this is not a municipal policy but the result of the "municipal building plan" currently in force, which is equivalent to law. It is permissible to add an "exit room to the roof" for every housing unit on the top floor of a building; it can be no larger than 23 square meters and must be built a defined distance from the railing around the outside edges of the roof.

"The local committee recommended that the district committee outline the details of a plan that will provide greater flexibility on this matter, including permission to expand the area of the exit room to the roof, the possibility of connecting a few rooms with one apartment, etc. All of these measures represent the goal of providing expanded housing, adding a new population to the center of the city, and providing better and more efficient maintenance of the roofs of the city - the fifth front."

The Haifa Municipality says it permits an addition of up to two floors to buildings in the Hadar Carmel neighborhood, on condition that the additional construction is completed in conjunction with renovations of the buildings' exterior and jointly owned areas.