Home Renovation Jerusalem Style - Tear-Down and Build a New House

Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

The Serial Tourist's Guide to Living in Jerusalem

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The universal dream for immigrants is home ownership, and but Olim will rarely end up with a free standing structure on their own little plot of land. In Israel, home ownership generally refers to apartments in multi-unit buildings, a sort of cross between a co-op and a condo. However, some Israelis and some immigrants do find the money to buy free standing homes in Jerusalem, but many of these are in need of renovation. Take the house in the picture to the left. You can see that there's nothing left worth keeping other than the front wall, which is genuine laid stone with a real arch over the window casing. The house was probably the first on the street, a one story affair constructed entirely from hand-hewn Jerusalem stone. The neighbor to the right has walls constructed of newer block and mortar, with a steel frame providing the load support for the second floor. The neighbor to the left has concrete formed posts and carrying beams, no doubt with rebar to give them structural credibility. I'll think about getting some close ups of the house later, since it displays three generations of home building techniques.
The picture to the right shows another row house under renovation. To the right you can see the picture window of an operating retail shop. To the left is a house that's currently being lived in. The front wall of this structure, again a genuine stone construction with stone lintels above and below the windows, has been shored up so it won't collapse. Nobody builds new from individual stone blocks, I'm not sure whether or not it would be allowed in the building code, but it would be prohibitively expensive. The standard Israeli construction technique is very similar to timber framing and commercial construction in the sense that it consists of building a frame, from reinforced concrete posts and beams, and then filling in the open space with a curtain wall. The usual curtain wall material is concrete block and mortar, though it seems to me I've seen some prefab concrete wall slabs being used as well. The scaffolding is there just in case a stone does fall off the top due to the pounding that's going on in the back, shown in the picture below. The floors use a minimum number of concrete beams and steel mesh to provide the load strength, and the rest is made up with more block or poured concrete.
In the course of renovating this house, they decided to give it a full basement, who knows, maybe it will be a drive in garage, but a pesky boulder turned out to be in the way. That's no obstacle for construction in Jerusalem, they just bring in a Catipilar excavator with a hydraulic hammer, the same setup that's used on the large construction foundations, and pound away. Standing in the street, I was bouncing up and down with the hammer strikes, so I can imagine that anything that's not glued down in the neighbor's house that this crew is essentially digging under is long since been moved to the floor or broken. I'll have to ask around about what sorts of rights neighbors have in limiting the scope of construction activities in with which they share a common wall. My guess is that neighbors have no rights at all, beyond calling law enforcement if the construction begins to early, lasts to late, or takes place on a Jewish holiday. Most of the foundation under the neighbors house looked like undisturbed hardpan, or what passes for hardpan around here. Well, it's disturbed now, and I wouldn't be shocked if one good rain is all it would take to crack the neighbors floors. Somehow, I suspect the consolation prize would be a tube of caulk rather than a new house.
Another common sight in Jerusalem renovations is carefully numbering all of the stones of the front of a building. Even in cases where the building is to be completely replaced by a new structure, old stone walls with true arches and interesting doorways or gates are preserved whole and reassembled to provide front facades on newer construction. Even in the case of renovation jobs they might number the stones in case an accidental collapse takes place. The steel reinforcing is a common temporary measure, but it's rarely used for framing anything other than temporary building in modern Israeli construction. Permanent construction, both home and commercial, frames with reinforced concrete. I've seen highway construction jobs where the rebar was so densely packed that you wonder who the can squeeze any concrete in. Must use a very loose mix without a lot of aggregate:-)
Two interesting notes about the steel framing supporting the exterior wall in this picture. First of all , the joint has been welded in place. All of this crazy reinforced concrete construction going on, yet when they want a temporary frame to support a stone wall that isn't bearing anything, they use steel I-beams and weld the joints! Secondly, it illustrates how the stone wall is secured to the framing. They drill through the stone, usually on a seam, and use a heavy, multi-strand steel wire to tie a stone block off to the frame.The corner of the house below gives a good example of undressed vs dressed stone in old construction. Originally, all of the old common houses were constructed of undressed stone, only the edges that need to be flat for construction were chipped flat. However, you can always have somebody come and dress the stone face by hand, which I've seen them doing using a light hand sledge, maybe a two pounder, and a round chisel or drift pin. Tap, tap, tap. It looks like dressing a single stone can take an hour.

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