Tuscany in the Middle East

A custom-built home north of Binyamina combines Italian design elements with indigenous building techniques to keep it cool in the summer heat.

house exterior 88 248 (photo credit: Uriel Messa)
house exterior 88 248
(photo credit: Uriel Messa)
Aviel is a small pastoral moshav in the area northeast of Binyamina which was named for Israel "Aviel" Epstein, a member of the Irgun Zvai Leumi who was killed in Italy in 1946. This beautiful area is sometimes known as the Tuscany of Israel. Looking at the garden of the home belonging to Clare and Jacob Sagiv, one can see why. "It's a garden of scents," says Clare, originally from England. "We have jasmine, lavender, honeysuckle and rosemary, all things that give off wonderful perfumes." The garden has more than 200 rose bushes that they planted when they moved in three years ago. What was nothing but "a white chalky wasteland," as Clare puts it, has been transformed into a place of color and scent, with ancient olive trees providing shade for the family, the parents and three sons, to lie on the hammock or sit in the gazebo and contemplate the beauties of nature in this idyllic spot. And yet, aware that this was not really Tuscany but the north of a hot Mediterranean country, they decided to construct their dream house, which they began building 10 years ago, using local materials and a design adapted from the Arab houses in the area, with a flat roof, semi-domed ceilings and thick stone walls. The Tuscan look went the way of the red sloping tiled roofs of that region. "Why on earth do people build with sloping roofs meant to let the snow slide off them?" says Jacob, who is a sabra but who worked for many years in theater in England and Holland, stage managing and directing. They both had preconceived ideas of what they wanted in their home. Clare, who trained as a lawyer and who now works as an assistant at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda, wanted a flow of movement between the inside and the outside, with the garden visible from every room and for it to be a part of the living space. Jacob wanted a house that would not be alien to its surroundings, using the indigenous building techniques of thick stone walls and very high ceilings with inset domes to keep the place cool in the summer heat. WHILE THE house was being built the family lived in two caravans on the land and watched the construction, which they found a very satisfying and enjoyable experience. When you have 15 dunams (3.75 acres) of land you can do that. The steps up to the front door lead into a cool entrance hall with several exotic features which set the tone for what is to follow. "We didn't want a house full of oriental furniture as it would have looked like a museum," Clare says. On the other hand they wanted dramatic touches like the hanging blue glass lamp at the entrance which they brought from London, the hand-painted wooden mirror on the side wall and the old wooden bench which had been in Clare's family for years. The blue panes of glass cast a cool light over the scene and they were chosen to remind them of the beautiful stained glass windows in their Victorian home in London. The decorative floor tiles come from an old house in Jerusalem which was being demolished by Jacob's brother, a builder. "We only had enough tiles for the entrance," Jacob explains, "so the rest of the floor is done in plain stone unpolished tiles." The kitchen is a very important part of the house as this is where Jacob prepares the mainly organic jams, chutneys, pestos and cakes which are the basis of his new profession. "I'd had enough of the theater, so I turned to my other love - cooking," he says. The light airy kitchen looks over the front garden with its banks of rosemary to give inspiration. The brilliant blue crystalline work tops contrast with the wooden cabinets. Everything is conveniently to hand. BOTH THE living room and the bedroom were built with an inner dome which helps to make the house very well-insulated, while the walls are half a meter thick and built with layers of cement and plaster, so even in a hot spell the house does not need air-conditioning. The arched windows are Belgian profiles built to their own design, while outside are metal shutters which are closed at night, arched to fit the window spaces. "Because of budget constraints, we painted them rather than have them galvanized," Jacob says. "So unfortunately in the very hot weather the paint peels." The lounge part of the home is furnished with a striking seating arrangement of two very deep sofas upholstered in brick red with mountains of cushions to sink into. They were bought in The Hague, where they used to live, in one of the huge furniture shops there. For bookshelves and a place for the TV, they were in a dilemma. "Because of the unusually high space you can't just go and buy Ikea shelving," Clare says. They solved the problem by asking theater friends in Holland to make something dramatic, and they came up with red lacquered shelves which match the sofas and reach the ceiling. Everywhere there are small dramatic touches to remind the visitor of Jacob's long association with the theater. And just in case one forgets, there is always the small fiberglass elephant out in the garden which once graced the stage of the English National Opera - although which production they can't quite recall.