The Eco-Housing Pilot Project is a green apartment building in the heart of the capital.

eco residents 224.88 (photo credit: Michael Green)
eco residents 224.88
(photo credit: Michael Green)
Israel's capital may have missed out on Earth Hour when Tel Aviv joined cities across the world to turn off its lights for one hour on March 28 to make a statement about climate change. But some Jerusalemites are already well ahead of the game, including the residents of one unassuming apartment block who have managed to reduce their ecological footprint by at least 30 percent. "The idea was to put theory into practice, to transform a typical Jerusalem residential building, not built with the environment in mind, into a sustainable one," explains Gil Peled, who began the process of greening his home and those of his neighbors in 2002. And from the outside, Peled's apartment block on a quiet street less than 15 minutes by foot from the traffic of Rehov Keren Hayesod, is just that: a typical Jerusalem residence. The first sign there is anything different about this residence - the first green apartment building in Israel - is the neat row of recycling bins in the hallway, labeled according to the type of garbage they collect. And if you didn't know any better, you would be forgiven for thinking that the locked door in the hallway leads to a ground-floor apartment, not to secure parking for bicycles. The secret within the stone walls is the Eco-Housing Pilot Project, originally conceived by Peled, a trained architect and green building consultant, who embarked on a mission to make his home more eco-friendly after completing a post-graduate degree in sustainable and affordable housing. Now, five years into the project, all of the 20-plus residents work together toward a common goal, but it wasn't always that way, reflects Peled. "Now everyone is aware of environmental problems, but in 2002 we had suicide bombers up the road and it was the last thing on people's minds," he says, noting that his first challenge was to get his neighbors on board. "When I began, not many people knew what I was talking about. People who live in flats don't choose the residents." The building's 10 apartments house a cross-section of Israeli society, religious and secular, young and old, renters and owner-occupiers. "We all went through the process of becoming green together," recalls Peled, who, with two degrees under his belt, neatly cropped hair and wearing denim and sports shoes, hardly cuts the figure of a stereotypical eco-warrior. If winning the hearts and minds of people to become more environmentally conscious wasn't enough of a challenge, it took even more convincing to persuade the 50-year-old building itself to go green. "It poses new challenges compared to building from scratch. It's more difficult to deal with the aftermath," explains Peled. The Eco-Housing Project focuses on a number of issues, the most critical of which are energy consumption and carbon emissions, waste and recycling, as well as water usage, and has achieved an overall reduction in resource usage of around 30 percent to 50%. Each household in the building takes charge of an issue that is close to their hearts, for example recycling, or the communal garden that forms a green belt between the concrete of the street and the apartments and even attracts wildlife in the form of half a dozen formerly unloved street cats. Examples of simple changes that have made a difference to their environmental footprint include switching to low-energy bulbs, recycling five types of household waste and harvesting rainwater from the roof to water the garden, itself a previously neglected space, which now boasts a vegetable patch and flower beds made from tires, industrial pallets and other recycled materials. Peled says that they have considered switching from fossil fuel energy to renewable sources but the latter, such as photo-voltaic panels, which convert light into electricity, are too expensive. But Peled insists that changing people's behavior and attitudes is more important than new technologies or, what he calls, the "eco-nitty gritty." "Motivation is the most resource-saving device. If you have energy-efficient light bulbs but leave them on all day, then you're not saving anything," he explains, sitting on a wooden bench in the garden that is paved with reclaimed rubble. One of the most satisfying aspects of the project, says Peled, is creating a community network, or what he calls "social sustainability." "It's bringing people together, sharing a common interest and taking pride in it." The residents of the Eco-House have greened their homes in their own spare time, with virtually no external support and are seeking funds to spread the idea to other buildings in Jerusalem. "People who visit us say, 'Wow, you're so green', but we take it for granted now, we're in the flow. That was one of the things I wanted to achieve when I set out, for it to become part of everyday life," says Peled. Demand certainly exists in Israel, but at times it can feel like an uphill battle for people taking their own initiative. For example, Jerusalem lacks public services for simple changes like recycling tin cans, which councils in many European countries have collected for several years. Fabio Kahn, a Brazilian architect living in a rented flat in nearby Rehavia, agrees that it is important to incorporate environmental sustainability both into existing homes, as well as new designs. "Now people are doing it because it they believe in it or even because it saves them money, but I think that it will be the future," insists Kahn. Peled is optimistic that his home will not remain a green island in a sea of gray for too long. "Many people say that we don't have power to change the environment, but that's not true. If everybody takes responsibility over the environment and their own habits then it all adds up," he says. "Green issues create a bond between people, regardless of place or faith. If there's hope for Jerusalem, then it's through environmental issues, which are common to everybody."