Residents tell of great light and magnificent privacy; but while Israelis approve of green building, they aren’t stampeding for it.
By Israel Fisher | Dec. 28, 2014

Living the green life sounds great. Lower electricity bills, insulation from heat, cold and noise too. So why is the demand for green housing so small?

Opponents claim the high construction costs make the end-game uneconomical for homeowners hoping to save earlier, not later. The Israel Green Building Council rejects that argument, however, pointing to an ILGBC report on the costs of green building as proof that green construction in Israel costs just 2 to 4 percent more than ordinary construction.

Still, with the average price of housing in Israel (the average of all dwellings sold in a period of time) higher than 1.3 million shekels ($332,000,) even that minimal addition adds almost 30,000 shekels to the price. It takes years for the return on the added investment in terms of saving on electricity to trickle in.

“Research has shown that green construction according to the standard added 2 to 4 percent to construction costs, and these were the first buildings to be built according to the standard,” says Hilla Beinish, director-general of the Israel green Building Council (ILGBC.) With 120 green buildings already erected in Israel, experience has been gained, she says; the builders know what they’re doing, know the technologies and costs are dropping. Australia has managed to even out the costs of green and ordinary construction, she adds.

To understand the issue of cost, let’s understand what green building involves.

The Israeli standard for green building was issued in 2005 and amended in 2011. Today, its demands encompass energy economy, land management, waste, water, transportation, health and welfare, construction materials, innovation and construction site management. The bottom line is that green construction is supposed to economize on energy and water, and use more environmentally-friendly materials.

In the past, any building that met the green building standard was rated “pass” or “outstanding”. Today the buildings are rated by stars, and a building that doesn’t pass 55 points in the Standards Institute rating doesn’t get even one star and is not recognized as green.

“Green building is mainly an issue of the construction materials,” says Dalia Rosenzweig, a partner in ESD (Environmental Survivability Development,) which was a partner in a project in Karkur four years ago. Built by Shikun & Binui, it was one of the first green projects in Israel. “They used materials that met the green standard, built combined systems that save energy and reduce lime buildup (calcification in pipelines because of hard water) and provided solar systems for all the stories, even though the law demands them only for the top floors.”

ESD CEO Shmulik Lifshin says the process starts with a company deciding that it wants to plan green construction, and instructing its planners to find out what that requires. In Karkur, that included all the architectural aspects, including things such as shading.

In the space between the Karkur buildings, one feels a breeze that one doesn’t feel in open space. “We analyzed the main wind direction and positioned the openings and their size accordingly,” Lifshin explains, demonstrating how the windows in the apartments were adapted to make the apartments cooler. “The windows are planned so the sun doesn’t penetrate in the summer, making the climate inside the building more comfortable, with good ventilation and better lighting. The size of the window openings is also different from ordinary construction.”

“We were also involved in planning the city master plan before getting into the planning stage of each building,” says Rosenzweig. “The buildings aren’t in a straight line but in a receding one, to create a breeze in the garden. Each apartment has three fronts, as opposed to buildings with four apartments per floor and two fronts per floor. More fronts enables better ventilation and passive heating.”

Green building insulates, passively reducing the differences between hot and cold, says Lifshin. “The green building standard took the original insulation standard and upgraded it.”

The two are proud that a cross-section of walls in the Karkur project shows they’re much thicker than in ordinary construction: 35.5 centimeters, compared with 26.5cm in standard construction. In other words, the contractors undertook extra costs for the sake of insulation. Everyone building green now adheres to the strict standard, Lifshin claims.

TheMarker: If it demands more from the builder, how is the cost difference so low?

“It doesn’t necessarily demand more, just proper planning,” says Beinish. “If you locate a building at a certain place, you get a shading effect.” With correct passive planning, the right position and shading, the building can be better suited to the environment, she says. That’s one thing. The second is technological and insulation systems that indeed can jack up construction costs to a degree, she adds.

TheMarker: But the builder is building a thicker wall with more material, which increases the cost.

“Yes and no,” Beinish says. “You can invest in a façade that costs more but doesn’t provide better insulation. Green building means higher quality building. You invest in insulation and in better materials. There are places where it will cost more and places where that isn’t necessarily true.”

TheMarker: How much of the extra cost gets passed on to the homebuyer?

Lifshin: “As far as we know, these apartments are not more expensive. The contractors absorbed the costs.”

According to a study on green building in projects in Nes Ziona and Netanya by Dr David Katz and Hagai Kot of Haifa University, the additional cost ranged from 2.1 to 4.1 percent, mostly on components to improve energy efficiency and other systems.

After planning, the Israel Standards Board steps in, examining the plans at three stages. First it goes over the plans and determines if the building meets the standard at the level of planning. The contractor enters at the second stage, taking the Standards Board on a tour to examine the foundations. At the third stage, occupation, they check that all the elements are in place.”

“You look and say to yourself, that looks like any other project in Israel,” says Beinish. “But the residents feel the difference. They have more natural light and ventilation, less need to turn on the air conditioner.” Green building on a massive scale would ultimately have a significant environmental impact, she claims.

Figures from the ILGBC and Standards Board show they’re handling about 200 green projects, of which 35 were approved under the old standard from 2005; another 88 are under construction and 67 are in the planning stages. Of all the projects, 53 percent are residential, 23 percent office space, 20 percent private building (such as houses) and 4 percent are public building. The Standards Board supervises throughout the construction, sending representatives to the site to inspect.

Can a house be green?

The debate on green construction raises questions of broader scope. For instance, aren’t neighborhoods of single-family houses bad for the environment? If so, how can a house be defined as green?

Meanwhile, despite the talk about energy economy, the Israeli consumer is in no rush to invest in green building. “Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing any change in demand,” admits Beinish. Surveys show the public smiles on green building and understands its importance but in practice, isn’t choosing to pay more for it.

At least awareness has grown, she says, partly because a forum of 15 big Israeli cities has been gradually adopting the green building standard. At first it was applied to buildings with more than 30 stories, then that dropped to 15. “We are seeing more projects in the direction of green building and more new neighborhoods, like those going up in Yavne, Yokneam or Ofakim, which are taking an interest in it; or in Dimona, which wants this kind of building.”

TheMarker: But the trend has to be led from the top.

“I think the reality in the real estate market does not allow the issue to be debated genuinely and widely, because all anybody’s talking about is housing prices and how to lower them, so the issue of green building got shunted aside.”

Still, the ILGBC is optimistic, noting corporate research on creating a better-insulating brick, or better solar systems. The solar water heater can be adjusted according to the number of dwellers and their average shower time, saving a lot of energy, Beinish says.

If the authorities were to promote green projects in poor areas, and make existing buildings “green,” the savings on energy would go to those who truly need it, says Lifshin. The problem is that these residents can’t pay for renovation of their buildings or handle the maintenance costs of the new, more sophisticated systems.

One couple shares its satisfaction with their life in a green building. Ortal Hakimi, a resident in the Karkur project, says she didn’t understand what green building meant until she moved in. “I have a friend who lives in the Naveh area of Pardes Hana and she tells me, ‘when I come to your home, it’s really pleasant and calm.’ It’s true. There’s something very calm in this building. You don’t hear the neighbors. That’s great.”

Her husband, Shimi Hakimi, says they’ve been there for three years now and feel it in their electricity bills. “We turn on lights less, we hardly use our air conditioning, because it’s really pleasant here in both summer and winter. It’s insulated at a level I never knew before. Most of the apartments here had central air conditioning put in, but we said we’d just have one for the living room and see how it went. And we hardly ever turn it on.”

Asked for details, Hakimi says he’s saving 200 shekels a month compared with his last apartment, but isn’t sure it’s all because of the green building. Even if it is, it will take 15 years of cheaper electricity bills to return the investment in the construction cost. One can understand the Israeli consumer who wants to save here and now, certainly when making the biggest investment of his life.