A house can be a home

Taking a look back at 70 years of the evolving Israeli home

AMITZI ARCHITECTS ‘passive house’ design. (photo credit: UZI PORAT)
AMITZI ARCHITECTS ‘passive house’ design.
(photo credit: UZI PORAT)
In her otherwise quite forgettable 1925 novel, Emily Climbs, Canadian author L.M. Montgomery has one of her characters remark, “Houses are like people – some you like and some you don’t like – and once in a while there is one you love.” Throughout much of the State of Israel’s history, people have often found themselves living in houses of one sort or another that have been very difficult to love.
Inundated after independence in 1948 by immigrants from postwar Europe and the Middle East, the fledgling state was forced to house these new Israelis in ma’abarot, tents that sheltered immigrant families from the summer sun but not from the chill, rain and winds of winter.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw the spread of “housing estates” across the country – rows of long, single-story blocks of apartments that looked like white railroad trains, usually separated from each other by pedestrian paths that were either dusty or muddy, depending on the season. These buildings were simple, starkly unadorned, and designed to be totally functional. They were built quickly and cheaply to provide housing for as many people as possible during a time of massive immigration and economic austerity. As the country became more prosperous in later years, housing became more elaborate, even lavish – more livable if not actually more lovable.
But now, as our country embarks on its eighth decade of growth and evolution, Israeli architects and designers are exploring new directions in making a house truly a home. They are coming up with new and very creative ideas to build houses that not only shelter but inspire us, comfort us, and bring us closer to both the natural environment and the places we call home.
And as they do this, these young, up-and-coming builders and designers are making a virtue of necessity, taking into account the growing challenges of an ever-growing population, shrinking space, high energy costs, and a threatened natural environment.
ONE INTERESTING idea is the “passive house,” designed to help a house maximize the natural energy – air, water and light – that is available around it. This allows the house to be cooled in the summer and heated in the winter with minimal energy costs.
Says Yuval Amitzi of Amitzi Architects, “We claim that saving energy and energy costs can be achieved with almost no extra expenses, compared with normal, conventional building. All we need to do is design in a clever way, not to add all kinds of expensive elements, but to be very specific about the positioning of the building in terms of morning sun and evening sun, and by using clever, intelligent kinds of shading devices.
These do not need to be expensive, because they are designed to be integral parts of the building. We design the simple geometry of the building to acknowledge very simple things like the course of the sun in the sky, the wind, etc. So this is passive architecture.”
Whether we like it or not, however, most people who read or listen to such descriptions tend naturally to think that passive architecture is not adding to “all the comforts of home” but, rather, taking away things we are used to, like air-conditioning.
Amitzi explains, “We are not taking away things, certainly not air-conditioning, especially here in Israel. But by using things like the wind and air, and orienting the building to protect from sun glare, and if we know how the air acts, we can use high windows in which the hot air goes out from the top and cool air goes in below. So we have air circulation. In this way, during spring and autumn at certain hours of the day, we can save the use of air-conditioning. This can amount to thousands of shekels in savings.”
When told that his emphasis on positioning buildings in certain directions sounds a little like the traditional Chinese science of feng shui, Amitzi laughs and replies, “I wish it could be like that, although I’m not a big fan of feng shui. It’s just very simple common sense.”
ANOTHER EXAMPLE of common sense is what might be called organic architecture, which attempts to improve the relationship between buildings and their surrounding environment. The idea is to construct a building that “completes” its environment by creating a uniform space that appears to grow naturally out of the earth.
The organic approach tries to unite things that are usually opposites – interior and exterior, inside and outside, buildings and nature – in order to create an integrated living environment.
Says architect Lior Rozenfeld, “It’s about relating the structure to the environment. For example, in density building like we have in our cities, what we can do is use gardens as borders to make privacy for our customers. Even though it’s a small garden, if you make the windows from the floor to the ceiling, it’s like you’ve made an aquarium. You’re using the outside. It’s not only about the inside space, but relating it to the area. We are trying to draw together the inside and the outside. All construction usually separates the two with walls. Now you are inside, and now you are outside. We make our borders with glass and materials that erase the border.”
The two architects stress that each site creates its unique requirements and opportunities. Says Rozenfeld’s partner, Yael Shachar, “You cannot take the plans for one building and use them at another site. You have to see how each building is related to the site, to the environment, to the sun. We’re looking at the topography. And the neighbors. The neighbors are a very important part of the local organic nature.”
Asked whether this approach is likely to make the lives of people living in these organic houses better, both Rozenfeld and Shachar, almost in unison, shout, “Yes! Much better!”
A BIT more complicated than the previous two approaches to house design is what’s known as “handwork architecture.” Although it shares the passive and organic emphases on a unique, individual design for each house they build, the handwork method elevates this almost to an art form, “sewing” pieces of things together to create something fitted for only one client, and no others. For each house, a team designs, manufactures and customizes elements.
“The idea is first to work locally,” says Adi Klein of Studio-dulu. “Our way to create is to design from scratch, even the furniture in our houses. Doing everything from scratch, locally. Our houses are made of furniture that we’ve designed from scratch. We are not using walls. We use furniture made from MDF. This material is like dough. We make everything with it.”
For the uninitiated, “MDF” is medium-density fiberboard, an engineered wood product that is denser than plywood, and made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibers and combining it with wax and a resin binder.
Why not just use walls? Klein says, “A wall is just a wall. You can paint it. You can hang a picture on it. But that’s really it. But our furniture can be used for everything – for storage, as a divider, or for just design. It has multi options. And since we are designing from scratch and using new ideas, we create a whole different environment. This can make even very small spaces functional. And it makes the design be part of the actual function of the space. It’s custom made. And every piece that we design is unique. It’s not a new thing, but with our studio it’s a total constant part of our design.”
LAST AND least, when we start talking about the use of physical space, is the idea of “compact architecture” and its attendant ideology of “compact living.” This very broad set of ideas, as explained by XS Studio’s Ofer Rossmann, might just have you reaching for your old copy of Jane Jacobs’s seminal urban studies textbook, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Both Jacobs’s book and the wide-ranging goals of the young architects at XS Studio share an almost obsessive desire to make urban life as good as it can be.
Says Rossmann, “We noticed that today more people are moving to the cities, buying small houses, buying flats. There’s a gap, because architects and designers usually look at small projects as just a first step before jumping to larger projects. What we found is a gap of knowledge that needs to be addressed. So we have created our studio to hold on to the knowledge and lecture on it in universities. So at XS we have made what we call a ‘compactness index’ so people can plan.”
The index consists of a scale that measures seven elements: proximity to the city center, size of area per person, cost per area, overlapping spaces, defined spaces, packed spaces and movement efficiency.
“We extend the notion of compactness to a variety of projects. Right now we’re doing a school with 24 classrooms,” Rossmann explains. “We believe that compactness is not just the unit itself.
“I’ll give you an example,” he continues. “If you and your family go to live in a 50-sq.m. house in the middle of the desert, you’re not compact. You’re just living in a very small house. That’s not compact. You’d need to drive an hour and a half just to buy milk, and your children couldn’t get to their friends easily. You would need to base your life around at least two cars. So this is not compact.
“But if you live in the city and have the infrastructure to buy your groceries, education, entertainment and all these needs available from what is surrounding you, we call that the ‘10-minute by bicycle test.’ If you have all the urban facilities around you in a 10-minute bike trip, you are living compact. So if you’re getting all these extra services, your house can be much smaller. So it’s seen from a lot of perspectives – social, financial. Everything you need is close by.
“When I lived in Karmiel as a kid, I had to take my mother’s car to go to the gym, which was ridiculous. Here, I go five minutes, I’m at the gym, the supermarket, and can find all the necessities. That’s why I can live with a partner in a 44-sq.m. apartment.”
These four exciting approaches to housing design and construction provide us with some brilliant examples of Israeli cleverness and creativity. But they do more than that. These burgeoning ideas give us nothing less than a picture of Israel’s future.