From Lego to building Israel: Tips for renovation, construction projects

The person who is the coordinator of all the building is known in Israel as “the cablan” (contractor).

 The entrance of a n apartment designed by Schertzman Architecture. (photo credit: SCHERTZMAN ARCHITECTURE)
The entrance of a n apartment designed by Schertzman Architecture.
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

As a young child, Shimon (Shimmy) Daniel Schertzman spent a lot of time building very detailed, lifelike airplanes, cars, and buildings with his Lego sets. This progressed to designing the first go-cart in the neighborhood to architectural plans a small remote-control gas-powered airplane as a teenager. During that time, he even started an “airplane chug (club)” in our neighborhood in Gush Etzion, which as you can imagine attracted a huge crowd of boys. I remember one boy on our block who always looked very melancholy and lonely, but after this chug, he was a changed kid. He purchased Shimmy’s original gas-powdered airplane and fell in love with the sport. This kid grew up to become a drone pilot for the Israeli Air Force. Inevitably, Shimmy followed his dream and grew up to become an architect and get to build for real.

Meanwhile, Shimmy’s younger brother Avraham, a very talented artist, could draw anything, especially funny cartoons. He too became an architect. Both Shimmy and Avraham have worked together to renovate and help build shuls, schools, and apartments in the Gush Etzion and Jerusalem areas. One of Shimmy’s first projects during his internship as an architect was to design the electrical systems for the Jerusalem trains and how they run from station to station.

As the mother of these talented boys, I have watched them grow into very competent builders and architects. I would always allow them to experiment in my own home, building everything from closets to a newly designed living room, bathrooms, replacing my floors and windows. Frankly, if they weren’t my sons, I probably would not have attempted these renovations because it can be very scary and incredibly dusty, so much so that dust gets into absolutely everything. Also, it can be a costly and stressful business.

That being said, why would anyone want to get involved in a renovation or new building project? The fact is, there are many good reasons. Personally, I loved having my simple bathrooms redone with beautiful tiles reaching to the ceiling and fancy sink areas with marble, because I discovered that even a simple but tastefully designed bathroom can easily match the comfort of a five-star hotel bathroom.

I also now enjoy my larger living room and kitchen areas, which were achieved by knocking down unnecessary walls. The boys designed built-in Sheetrock shelves and recessed lighting, which looks unbelievable.

 A new hand-washing unit designed by the Schertzmans. (credit: SCHERTZMAN ARCHITECTURE) A new hand-washing unit designed by the Schertzmans. (credit: SCHERTZMAN ARCHITECTURE)

Another amazing change is to replace the old flooring with a new pattern of granite porcelain floor tiles, or add decorative molding to the tops of the walls giving it that “American home” feeling. In short, doing renovations has made my home my comfortable castle, so the “suffering” was worth it (and easily forgotten).

My first tip for those of you embarking on a renovation or a brand new building endeavor is to make a few fun tours of many building/design stores with luxurious displays of kitchens, bathrooms, tiles, and all sorts of home building supplies on display, whatever it is you are interested in. This helped me to get an idea of what is out there and how much it costs. I also scanned the Internet home design sites as well.

I had an old wood Thomasville living room cabinet that I converted into a “negal vassar” center by adding a marble top and a fancy sink. I found this idea on the Internet. Also, when I found a style of tiles for my bathroom in a pattern I liked but could not afford, I worked with my architect son to locate cheaper tiles and copy the look. So you can either purchase the tiles or supplies from the expensive store, or alternatively substitute something cheaper. Or, you can hire a building planner or designer to help you create the design you want according to your budget. The building planner will interact with your architect as well. I happen to think this is the best way to go for most of us.

After countless hours of witnessing the process of renovation, I would like to share some of what I have learned and include valuable tips from my boys. Let me begin by explaining that an architect is someone who designs buildings, rooms, structures, and in some cases, supervises the construction of these design plans. Architectural training includes courses in building materials as well as how the building is carried out. Therefore, an architect actually is required to know how to install a floor, for instance. Before Shimmy was a licensed architect, he got his hands dirty by being a “shiputznik,” a builder, putting down tiles and doing construction in apartments. This has given him more insight into what he designs as well as how to supervise the workers.

Avraham observed that there are often problems in Israel getting a permit for a building or perhaps, illegal things were already done in an apartment that needs correcting. Therefore, he has become a specialist in how to deal with the intricacies of the paperwork along with his design skills. A good architect can sometimes help eliminate problems, like building without a permit, or correcting improper construction projects. Most people do not realize that even a simple part of a construction project needs an exact plan. This would mean, for example, that if you wanted to create a bathroom with different size floor and wall tiles, Avraham would make an exact map of how the tiles fit together in a pattern of your choosing. This plan is then given to the tile contractor, who lays the floor exactly according to the map created by the architect. This shows how many tiles are needed and where to put them.

The person who is the coordinator of all the building is known in Israel as “the cablan” (contractor). Sometimes, as in the case of Shimmy and Avraham, they act as both the cablan and the architect. What follows are their answers to some key questions when it comes to building and remodeling homes.

What are the benefits of doing renovations or additions to your home?

By renovating or building a new structure, you have the opportunity to get just what you want. It is truly custom-made for you. You may even find that in some cases, redoing an ugly apartment is cheaper than seeking out something spectacular to purchase. Something many people do not realize is that building technology improves all the time. This means that the new structures and materials are of higher quality than previously. Also, new building techniques make the way things are done more efficient. 

So whatever is recent tends to be better. In addition, things do wear out, so home improvements maintain the quality and safety of the home. Oftentimes, many apartments in Israel were made with many design flaws and interior problems. People will suffer from things like plumbing problems, leaks, smelly bathrooms, rooms that are too confining, tiles that are laid out sloppily, door frames crumpling, drafts, or things falling apart in the apartment. Thus, renovation prevents your home from collapsing as well as makes the home more valuable and enjoyable. 

Who should you choose to do your building?

It is extremely important to use a professional builder who knows what he is doing and does not “rip you off.” Therefore, it is best to work with a known team or company. It is especially good to use a “registered cablan who is essentially vetted by the government. This registration means the cablan has a degree in the field and experience.

Shimmy says that finding the right cablan to work with is almost like finding a good shidduch (match), because you are putting your trust and lots of money into this person, and he in turn is putting his trust in you.

“When I take money from this person, I do my best to make sure that things flow correctly in the process of doing the building, and that it comes out very successfully,” says Shimmy. “If the client interferes with the projects by making decisions without consulting the cablan or even cutting off funds that were planned for the project, then this can result in damage on both sides. Unfortunately, I have experienced this problem several times. The bottom line is that once you decide on this person, after doing your own homework on whom to use to run your project, trust in your contractor, and let him or her do the work. You can always speak to your contractor about your concerns all along the way.”

It is a good idea to get references, to take a look at their work, especially new work and work finished two years ago if it’s possible to see. This gives you an idea of how the job goes and what will be. You may also want to copy design ideas from others. By the way, you can use an interior designer along with an architect. The designer tells the architect what you want, and the architect designs the actual building specifications.

Let’s talk about how much things costs

The boys both observed how they had seen cases where a person obtained a ‘too good to be true’ estimate on their project as compared with a realistic quote. They tried to point out to the customer why there is ‘something wrong with this picture.’ For instance, they might point out that the cost of the material alone is more than the estimate they received, which already hints at something wrong. As the project progresses, the truth comes out in demands for more money or the use of inferior materials or skimping on the workmanship. Usually, building estimates are all around the same because it is known what materials and labor costs.

What are some of the things that can happen in a renovation or building project? 

Like Murphy’s law, absolutely anything can go wrong, so you need to know that you have a competent project manager. Frankly, there are always obstacles to tackle in every project. Only a qualified professional knows how to be efficient and how to get the job done correctly, and having a good rapport with this person is helpful. These jobs are quite detailed and difficult, much more than most people imagine. The building project involves the coordination of various building specialists to handle the different phases of a project. Sometimes the materials arrive late or the materials are damaged. Problems like corona can prevent workers from working or deliveries from arriving on time. There can easily be “collateral damage” and unexpected results in the project itself. This could be anything from leaks that you can’t solve to the room not looking right.

As explained before, if people try to save money by using cheap labor without understanding why it is cheap labor, stages of the building may be bypassed causing damage. For example, if you want to build a basement, there are a number of stages that a lot of people try to avoid because they are costly: the workers might not do the sealant of the basement properly, which will cause ongoing water damage. Or cutting corners on plumbing can result in leaks and smells in the bathroom.

“I was doing the renovation on a bathroom that had been leaking through the wall, and the toilet kept on backing up,” says Shimmy. “When we took it apart, we realized there was no sealant in the walls to make it waterproof. Also, the pipes for the toilet were reversed. Instead of placing it in a slant going down, the previous builder used an illegal pipe with the angle facing upward. This job was done by someone who did not know what he was doing as well as using old materials found on-site.”

What are the most common problems you have observed when you started a building project? And have you observed a lot of inferior building or sabotage?

Almost every single project reveals some problem to save a few shekels that ended up causing a lot of damage. These included plumbing leaks in the bathrooms, which spread out throughout the house, problematic drainage that wasn’t set and checked properly, electrical issues, and peeling of the walls around the house from water damage from the bathtub or shower.

If someone did some addition to their house, there are often serious structural issues such as not building according to basic engineering laws using the wrong type of cement, or setting it incorrectly. Another big thing is how a contractor would try to save money by adding to a faulty structure that needs to be demolished first and then rebuilt. This could end up costing a lot of money to repair.

The bottom line is that there is no cheap way to build.

When a person wants to start a building project, where do they begin?

First, think about what you want to do. Sit with an architect and/or designers and discuss the possibilities. Then contact a cablan or building company and get price quotes. Try to be very clear about what you want. And also, try to know what your budget is first.

How can you get money for a building project?

Many people go back to their bank and add onto their mortgage or borrow against pensions or investments accounts. You must have a mindset of what you want and stick to the budget you have decided on. Be clear about this with your cablan. Then, make sure you put this money aside and don’t spend it on something else because when the time comes to pay the bill, you should be able to pay the bill.

Unfortunately, one of the problems many cablans suffer is people who decide not to pay the bill. It may be they have a dispute on a small thing and leave the builder without the bulk of their hard-earned payment. The builder has to pay workers and materials. While the builder can fight in court for the final payment, these things take money and time. This problem has put many a good builder out of business, so show menchlechkeit (humanity) with your workers. If you have a dispute on something, pay for the rest of the job and just dispute that issue. If you added on to your project and find later that you are short of money to pay for the final project, it is best to be honest with the builder and work out a payment schedule.

What happens after you choose the contractor?

Basically, the cablan will tell you what to do. The architect designs the plans and works with a building engineer, if necessary. Many projects require a building permit. The cablan will let you know what to do, or perhaps, as is the case with my sons, take care of this for you. The permit does cost money. After you have these in place, you will be asked to decide on anything that will be installed for the project like tiles, doors, windows, cabinets and the like. For this you can either go to the stores, some of which are recommended by the builder, or hire a designer to help you. In certain cases, the builder may do some of this for you.

After all the budget, permit, design, and materials are decided upon, the cablan should know how to put the whole project together and manage it all without you worrying about this. In some cases, things can be decided step by step. For instance, in my project, I decided on the tiles I wanted while the builders were working on another part of the project.

How can you make the experience of a project better?

  • Get a contractor with experience who knows what he is doing
  • Everything needs to be written in a contract. If you want to make changes once the project begins, expect it to cost money.
  • Cover things that you want to avoid getting dust on, and try to avoid being around during the building
  • Follow the advice of your builder, and do not interfere with the building site. Ask loads of questions to the cablan or point out your complaints, but never take matters into your own hands.
  • While building and renovation are quite overwhelming, it ultimately improves the quality of your life. It’s like making your own artistic dream into a reality. You have the power to create your living space in your own image, and that’s just amazing. Better yet, it’s a mitzva to build and beautify the land of Israel.  ■

Shimon Daniel Schertzman, both a registered ‘cablan’ and licensed architect, can manage a project from start to finish. Contact him in Israel at (054) 556-6207 or Avraham Schertzman is a licensed architect and a specialist in obtaining permits, professional surveying of properties, and architectural design. Contact him at (054) 774-9439 or