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For Most Israeli Contractors, Green Isn't an Issue

Guy Lieberman. . . .07/07/2008

"I don't think everyone who tries to brand construction as green is lying, but when hidden garbage-disposal systems are touted as the technological zenith of green construction, I don't see how this contributes to the environment," says Prof. Rachel Becker, of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, who heads the Faculty of Civil
Engineering at the National Building Research Institute.

Becker recently participated in a symposium entitled "Israel in Search of a Green Building Code." Environmentally friendly construction has not even officially begun in this country, he says, as the authorities do not really understand what "green" is, even though everyone knows it is supposed to be good.

"This is a dismal situation," Becker explains. "There are no real standards, and there is no way of telling whether green construction is another nice slogan or something genuine that will actually contribute to preserving natural resources and the environment."

While government authorities continue to doze, the private market woke up long ago and quickly joined the new trend in vogue. Marketing mavens are attentive to such trends and are adding green to their logos, names and slogans. Today "the green neighborhood," "the green house," "the green society" - anything goes.

There is just one small problem: Reality is far less environmentally oriented than the logos and slogans adorning the signs and brochures. Over a decade ago the green organizations recognized the great danger of "greenwashing," whereby steps are undertaken by polluting companies ostensibly in the name of environmental protection, but actually do nothing to promote that goal.

"This is a type of sophisticated fifth column," says one long-time environment activist. "There are absurdities such as fuel companies that declare they are green, which is fundamentally contradictory to their nature. Unfortunately, their methods are becoming more and more sophisticated."

In the construction industry, and mainly in residential building, green has become the most fashionable color. A few months ago Shari Arison's Housing & Construction replaced all the logos of the company and its subsidiaries with new green ones. The Smile residential project, being built by Ashdar in Petah Tikva, has adopted such a logo, and the luxury apartment project going up on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard branded itself as Israel's first green residential tower - even before the first brick was laid.

Want some more examples? The municipalities of Kfar Sava, Yavneh and soon Rishon Letzion are declaring that new neighborhoods within their jurisdiction will be green. Indeed, realtors and construction companies in Kfar Sava are marketing "Israel's first green neighborhood."

Even companies like Intel and First International Bank of Israel, which are currently building impressive offices, are defining themselves as green. The basic question of what that actually means, however, is not even discussed. And apparently for good reason.

Just recommendations
Israel has a green building code (Israel Standard 5281, from 2005). However, as in other countries, including in Europe, the standards noted here are recommendations only, and are not binding, making life very easy for developers. The weak legal status of the code means that there is no supervisory body that checks whether construction meets the standards, such that contractors can declare a project green even when it is not.

The code has four sections that cover energy, land, water, waste water, drainage and other environmentally related elements. Points are given for fulfilling stipulations in each category. A building that accumulates over 55 points can be defined as green. A good system? Not necessarily.

"From an economic perspective," say Technion researchers, "it is preferable for a developer to focus on areas that provide inexpensive points, and to avoid big investments as much as possible. Thus, for example, the current points system allows a building to be green with almost no energy-saving mechanisms."

Just 25% of the regulations are devoted to energy, but Becker claims that this factor is much more important.

"Energy accounts for 70%-75% of all the steps we can take to build a more environmentally friendly structure," she explains. "There are two main aspects: First, there is the equipment - this includes washing machines and clothes dryers. The more energy-saving these devices are, the better, as they reduce energy consumption. The second aspect is the building itself. the type of construction. This depends on the planners and builders. The heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and even the operation of the elevator - all are controlled by the planners. The building's construction materials, solar-powered facilities and so on can result in real energy savings."

The confusion and lack of agreement concerning the standards for buildings, along with sweeping statements by various bodies concerning their green-ness, have prompted a large group of businessmen to found the Israeli Green Building Council. The goal: to develop guidelines for this realm, and to improve current standards. The local group is part of the worldwide Green Building Council founded in the United States in 1998, with branches in dozens of countries.

"The opportunity to be part of the founding of the local branch of the council will make you unique as a pioneer in adopting green building in Israel, will make you unique among other international companies that have chosen to institute change," states a council brochure.

The Green Building Council has developed a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which emphasizes various elements also included in the Israeli code. Some local academic experts, however, are not pleased with this either.

"The points system in the LEED standard does not always result in buildings that protect the environment," according to the closing remarks from the Technion symposium. "There is insufficient emphasis on saving energy. The process for gaining recognition is expensive and cumbersome, so developers who build according to the standards will forgo recognition. The Israeli code, in spite of its shortcomings, takes into account water and energy considerations, which are fundamental in Israel, and relates to the accepted, local construction methods. It would therefore not be correct to adopt the LEED as is."

Israeli contractors and developers are not really interested in such debates. Thus, for example, the marketers of one project describe it as a green residential tower, even though it has no laundry screens (for people who want to dry their clothes in the sun), and no solar-water heaters.

"Do you really want to see laundry hanging from the upper floors of the Tzameret Towers? That would be ugly," said the publicist for the construction company that defines itself as green, referring to one of the upscale projects located in the compound between Namir Road and the Ayalon Highway.

The bottom line is simple: Israeli developers and construction companies prefer slogans, logos and green paint over content. Prof. Yair Etzion, of the Desert Architecture Unit at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, puts it this way: "The green issue may be very fashionable, but in practice there is a lack of regard for it. The government, the press, institutions and contractors do not take sufficient interest in the environment. It affects all aspects of our lives, and not just construction."

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