It's not easy building green - but here's why you should

As available land in Israel dwindles, investing in construction that utilizes - wind and sun - can save both money and our habitat.

solar neighborhod 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, BGU)
solar neighborhod 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, BGU)
As the smooth asphalt road running through the Negev community of Ashalim comes to a sudden end, forklifts stir up clouds of dust on the uneven dirt path and a plain, whitewashed house sits on a stony patch of earth. Here, a few kilometers northwest of Sde Boker, seeds of green are beginning to sprout in an unlikely place. Stepping into the building from the dry heat of the desert, the temperature drops to an unseasonably cool, and certainly more comfortable, level. REAL Housing's chairman, Hy Brown, says the building's microclimate owes itself to insulation from its structured integrated paneling (SIP) as well as the fact that the building is raised a few inches off the ground, allowing air to circulate around the house, cooling it down. The 70-square-meter prefabricated houses also incorporate geothermal heating and, when they hit the production line, will come standard with solar roof panels. Originally designed to provide affordable housing in Israel's undersupplied real estate market, the first prototype home from the fledgling REAL (Renewable Energy for Affordable Living) housing company could also offer homeowners a more environmentally sustainable choice. "I didn't set out to build solar power for Israel," says Brown, whose previous projects include the World Trade Center and Disney World. "Originally, the thrust was to design affordable housing that could be built fast, not the environment. We were afraid to add innovations because we didn't think that we could get approval, but now we're going full throttle to make them as sustainable as possible because we are getting government support," Brown told Metro. "There are lots of reasons why Israel needs to build green," believes Yehuda Olander, chairman of the Israeli chapter of the International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment (IISBE). "Israel needs to be part of the international challenge to global warming, even though it is a small country and its effect will not be so [significant]. But it is not just about global problems. The country has its local problems, too. Israel is very poor in terms of natural resources, for example oil, and... we are talking about 10 million people living here by 2020," says Olander, who is also the manager of the Sharon District's Regional Division for the Quality of the Environment. This Thursday (June 5) saw World Environment Day 2008, an annual event coordinated by the United Nations Environment Program that is intended to raise awareness of global environmental issues. This year's theme - "Towards a Low-Carbon Economy" - urges households across the world to "Kick the Habit" of fossil fuel consumption in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change. In Israel, private households consume 30 percent of the country's total electricity production and a similar proportion of fresh water, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry. Therefore, what people do at home, not to mention how their homes are designed, has a huge impact on climate change. "Buildings consume 50 to 55% of the energy used nationally in developed countries," says Michal Vital, green building planner and consultant. "[Energy] is not just consumed by cars or industry, and people aren't aware of this." Commercial buildings eat up an additional 30% of Israel's electricity, mainly for heating, cooling and lighting. But advocates for green construction say that if buildings were designed with a little bit of ecological know-how, energy-hungry heating and air-conditioning - and the huge bills they incur - could become a thing of the past. It has taken a while for the idea of environmental responsibility to catch on here, but it's one that architects and local municipalities are now beginning to take seriously when planning new communities. REAL's lone prototype house, standing out like a sore thumb from the portacabins and caravillas that surround it, echoes the wider story of environmentally-sound architecture now taking root locally. Green building is beginning to shift from the margins to the mainstream, and could be the future. But despite Israel being a world leader in environmentally friendly technologies like solar power, green building remains in its infancy here. Advocates, however, believe that green building has huge potential. "It's taking its first steps in Israel, it's really like a baby now," says Vital, adding that the demand for green building has moved beyond what she calls "hard-core" green activists. Not far from Ashalim, at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Sde Boker campus, "greening" the desert has taken root in a different form. The Desert Architecture and Urban Planning Unit of the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research has been at the forefront of developing solutions to human habitation in the harsh desert environment, which comprises some 65% of Israel's total land mass. In the early 1990s, the first residents moved into the campus's Neveh Zin solar neighborhood, designed to take advantage of the natural properties of the desert climate, promoting the use of passive heating and cooling mechanisms and minimizing energy use. Overlooking the breathtaking Zin Valley, Neveh Zin's public gardens, featuring drought- and salinity-resistant plants, are kept to a minimum around the 80 carefully designed detached houses whose common geometry and character allows them to fit into the desert, both aesthetically and ecologically. The single-family homes incorporate the concept of "solar and wind rights," ensuring that they receive the maximum amount of sunshine possible when the sun is at its lowest altitude during the cold winter months, while maximizing the cooling power of the wind in the summer, explains Isaac Meir, chair of BGU's Department of Man in the Desert. "We want summer night winds because they are cool and permeate the built environment, flushing out the heat accumulated in the day. By taking into account the altitude of the sun, we can define the distance needed between two buildings to ensure they won't shade each other in the winter," says Meir, who is currently working with the Housing and Construction Ministry to develop an environmentally responsible housing cluster in Beersheba's Ramot neighborhood. "What we are doing with this specific cluster is trying to incorporate the same logic and environmental strategies from Neveh Zin [in] something much more urban, with [buildings of] five or six stories, the type of apartment blocks that developers like to market in cities." With 1,000 housing units, a school, synagogues and commercial areas planned, the Ramot project marks one of the largest of its kind in Israel, but it's still on the drawing board, lagging years behind the establishment of Neveh Zin. "It takes time for new strategies to percolate down to professionals, on the one hand, and decision-makers, on the other. I think that the Housing Ministry is realizing the importance of developing homes that are more environmentally-friendly, user-friendly and less resource-intensive," Meir tells Metro. Olander believes that the slow development of green building in Israel stems partly from the problem that, until recently, there was no definition of what exactly constituted a "green building." To help catalyze the relationship between architecture and ecology in the country, IISBE Israel was established four years ago and was a key player in getting the first official guidelines for green building in Israel off the ground. In November 2005, the Standards Institute of Israel published the Israel Standard 5281 for Buildings with Reduced Environmental Impact (commonly known as the "Green Buildings" standard), which addresses energy, water, land and other environmental issues, including air quality, and the building process. Homes and offices in Israel can now proudly wear the "green building" label if they score 55 or more out of 100 points (over 75 qualifies a structure as an "outstanding green building") by meeting the standards' conditions. Vital believes it's a good thing that Israel now has a green building standard, but argues that much of the responsibility for ensuring progress in this field lies with lawmakers. "I don't mean the Knesset. If municipalities put green demands into city plans, architects will have to follow them to have permission to build," she says. "Who's interested in green building? Local governments, not [the] national government. Local governments are trying to bring citizens to live in their cities and they want them to be happy living there," says Olander, who says the Kfar Saba Municipality has already planned a 5,000-unit "green neighborhood," and that there is talk of building 10,000 green housing units in north Tel Aviv's Sde Dov district. In addition, he believes there is interest in green building in Petah Tikva, Ra'anana and Jerusalem. "In the United States, the national government didn't take action to save energy or promote green building - the local governments did it instead." Olander points out. But one man's palace can be another man's pollution, as the developers of Eden Hills, a new community now under construction in the Elah Valley, south of Beit Shemesh, know all too well. The first building at the project, which is set to be the last new town built in central Israel, was inaugurated by Housing Minister Zeev Boim last month, following 18 years of delays and setbacks [see In Jerusalem, "Paradise Gained", May 30]. Developer Jake Leibowitz describes Eden Hills as his "vision of an ecological village," which will include environmentally friendly innovations such as solar power, geothermal technology and water purification. But Michelle Levine, spokesperson for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, describes Eden Hills as an "ecological catastrophe" because it runs close to Israel's primary wildlife corridor, a natural migratory path for flora and fauna. Following interventions from the SPNI and other green groups, the regional planning council ordered a reduction in the size of the development, but Levine argues that the development should never have been given the go-ahead in the first place. "Eden Hills is extraneous, does not abide by Israel 2020, and is in essence a bigger disaster to the environment than their [water] and solar power schemes could ever hope to rectify," she says, adding that the National Planning Council had mistakenly approved the community without waiting for the Environmental Impact Report. The "Israel 2020" master plan for the country in the 21st century recommends that sustainable development be based on the "prevention of new settlements and increased density of existing ones... and emphasis on green buffers, open spaces and the preservation of heritage and nature values." "No new community can call itself an 'environmental' community. We have gone past the point where we can build more communities. There's only so much green space we can take up in Israel," she declares. But what about residents of the rest of the country, who live in houses that have been standing for decades? "It's very important not only to make new houses environmentally friendly, but to improve existing homes, too," agrees Olander, adding that Standard 5281 can also be applied when renovating houses. "Our association (IISBE Israel) is trying to get the information to everyone. To save important resources like energy and water, you don't need to build a new house, you can be greener in your behavior too." Gil Peled, an architect and green building consultant, acknowledges that while it is much easier to design ecologically sensitive buildings if starting from scratch, constructing homes on a small scale could actually be less sustainable than building within existing urban areas. "Detached housing is, by definition, un-ecological," he argues, noting the additional roads, land and infrastructure needed, as well as its impact on wildlife. "Everybody wants a detached house on half a dunam (1.23 acres), that's the dream, but we just don't have enough land," says Peled, whose Eco-Housing Pilot Project has successfully "greened" the 10-family Jerusalem apartment building in which he lives without resorting to technological fixes. "Motivation is the most resource-saving device. If you have energy-efficient light bulbs but leave them on all day, you're not saving anything," he says, explaining that since 2002, the use of energy and water in his building, as well as its production of waste, has been slashed by between 30 to 50 percent by initiatives that include recycling, energy-efficient appliances and rainwater collection. But despite people's best intentions, going green doesn't come cheap. A typical Israeli family thinking of switching to clean electricity would have to invest at least NIS 70,000 in photovoltaic (PV) panels to harness the sun's energy. Alon Tamari, CEO of SolarPower Israel, says that most Israelis currently using PV cells are doing so for ideological reasons, but there could be a surge in demand following the announcement of a long-awaited government incentive program to subsidize households' production of their own solar power. The Greek firm Solar Energy Hellas has developed a prototype "Energy Autonomous Building" that aims to supply all of a building's energy needs from the sun alone and is working with Israel solar power company Chromagen to bring the technology across the Mediterranean. However, the building requires a 30 to 35% higher capital investment than standard buildings. Speaking last month at Bar-Ilan University's Conference for Green Industry and Building, Dr. Alexis Faisis, a mechanical engineer at Solar Energy Hellas, explained that incorporating "passive measures" can eradicate the need to switch on energy-consuming heaters or air conditioners in the first place. Effective design of home insulation, walls and windows can slash the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a structure by between 50 and 70%, he says. "Passive systems save money, which can then be spent on the best possible active energy system. If you take the right measures, you can afford photovoltaics," notes Faisis. He believes that Energy Autonomous Buildings are "100% feasible" in Israel, but is frank about the motives behind the development of such structures: "The designs are not based on a client's ecological concerns, they are based on profitability. I'm sad to say that money drives the world, and ecological concerns are a by-product of economic benefits." In other words, saving the environment can also mean saving shekels. Olander, who predicts that the price of water will rise in the near future, says that homeowners who invest in making their property "green" can recoup their outlay in four or five years. "In my opinion, to build a green building in the long term will not be more than the price of an average building today," he says. "Today, we need to pay for experts or trained architects, but in the future it will be something that every part of the team will have knowledge of." [See "Standing Tall and Saving Green" in Metro's "Green Issue," April 18.] If the predictions by Olander and others are to be believed, green housing in the future might not be for environmental activists or the wealthy alone. "A rich person can buy solar panels, but [the same goal can be reached by] reducing the size of windows, changing the directions, or shading buildings with trees," says Vital. "Not everything has to cost money. It's possible to be green by being clever."