A major earthquake in Israel is not a question of when, but severity when it does happen. In other words, how much damage will an earthquake cause and how many people will be injured or killed.
In this short article we will address the critical function of the construction industry in earthquake preparedness. We will analyse what has been done so far, its effectiveness and what the future holds.
The important (and critical) role of the construction industry in earthquake preparedness
Israeli Standard SI 413 – Earthquake Resistance of Structures
Awareness of the hazards which millions of Israelis are exposed to in the event of an earthquake started to increase at the end of the 1970s in a process which lead to the drafting of one of the most important standards in the local construction industry being the “Israeli Standard SI 413 – Earthquake Resistance of Structures” (“the code”).
The code was published in 1975 and lead to a clear improvement. Looking back, from the beginning of the 1980s, most buildings in Israel were constructed in line with the code with better resistance against a strong earthquake. According to the Planning and Building Regulations (Construction Permits, Conditions and Fees), it is now law to implement the earthquake code in Israel.
It should be borne in mind that the primary aim of the code was to save lives in and around buildings. In the vast majority of cases, implementation of the code did not purport to prevent substantial physical damage, the need for alternative accommodation and widespread repair and reconstruction.
Despite the fact that many buildings are compliant with the earthquake code, there are still many buildings in Israel which were built before the code came into effect and are at risk of immediately collapse in case of an earthquake, especially so in some extreme cases of very poorly maintained buildings or a direct belligerent threat.
Important revisions to the earthquake code over the years
Israeli Standard 413 has been revised over the years and one of the important revisions was in 1995 when the requirements were made more stringent. The resistance factor in the Tiberias area was increased by 300%, and by 200% in the case of high-rise buildings in Tel Aviv. Other revisions were made in 1998 and 2009.
Since the 1990s and specifically following the Gulf War in 1991 which brought home the threat of long range rockets and not just aerial bombing, the perception of protection in Israel also changed and old underground bomb shelters were gradually replaced with reinforced concrete protected spaces in new buildings.
New apartments had to be built with an integral reinforced concrete room, not only to protect against bombing, but also affording an additional layer of reinforcement and protection in case of an earthquake.
In parallel to improved engineering standards, there were also advances in seismology, which benefitted Israel and the Syria-Africa rift region. The accumulated knowledge had a positive impact on the design of buildings in Israel and the incorporation of earthquake protections, and a model was formulated whereby Israel was divided into differential risk zones, called cresta zones.
National Outline Plan 38 projects
In 2005, the government launched a scheme called National Outline Plan 38 – Earthquake Reinforcement of Existing Buildings.
The rationale behind the scheme was to promote the reinforcement of buildings against earthquake by encouraging owners of apartments to work with the private construction sector in a manner that created economic incentives for both home owners and building contractors, independent of government funding.
According to the scheme, building contractors would be given construction rights to build new apartments on top of existing apartments in return for modernising the entire building, extending existing apartments by adding protected spaces, balconies and storerooms and reinforcing the entire structure against earthquake. The residents would not incur any cost for all of these improvements and the contractor would benefit from the entrepreneurial profit from selling the new apartments they construct.
In 2008, National Outline Plan 38 underwent a revision, called National Outline Plan 38/2 – Demolition and Reconstruction, which enabled owners of old apartments not only to modernise the building, but also the option to completely demolish the building and construct a brand new and larger apartment building in its place.
National Outline Plan 38/2
National Outline Plan 38/2 became increasingly popular due to the inherent advantages of urban renewal and the possibility of improving living standards. Instead of receiving a modernised apartment in an old albeit earthquake resistant building, the residents receive a more spacious apartment in a brand new building. The scheme is particularly popular in the case of very old and dilapidated buildings where the viability of investing in reinforcement and modernisation is very low due to the onerous costs involved. Around 50% of the construction projects currently underway in Israel are demolition and reconstruction projects.
The ratio between National Outline Plan 38 – Earthquake Reinforcement of Existing Buildings projects and National Outline Plan 38/2 – Demolition and Reconstruction projects over the years is shown in the following table:
Both versions of the scheme generated impressive results but did not succeed in comprehensively addressing the nationwide problem of preparedness for a major earthquake in Israel. One of the main reasons was that these projects were considered to be more profitable in the centre of the country where property prices are high and the earthquake risk is low, compared to peripheral areas where property prices are low and the earthquake risk is high. As a result, only a very small percentage of the projects were carried out in areas which should have been prioritised.
A January 2022 paper from the Research and Information Institute of the Knesset concluded that “The determining factor of National Outline Plan 38 was ascertaining the economic feasibility in its implementation, which is a function of land value” (“Description and analysis of National Outline Plan 38 and its proposed substitute”). According to a report from the State Comptroller in 2018, as soon as National Outline Plan 38 was launched it was clear that it would not provide a nationwide solution for the need to reinforce old buildings, and that there would be a need for additional arrangements, including supplying finance to reinforce buildings in provincial areas which would be less attractive to contractors.
Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
According to Dr. Benny Barosh, the head of the construction division at the Standards Institution of Israel and a lecturer in structural engineering in the civil engineering faculty of the University of Ariel and a leading experts in Israel in the field of civil safety, until Israeli Standard 413 came into effect, buildings in Israel were primarily designed to withstand external vertical pressures on the building from the exterior inwards with an emphasis on gravitational forces. The violent, impulsive nature of the pressure created by an earthquake has a horizontal impact on lower section of the building, whilst the gravitational forces apply from the top downwards.
According to Dr. Barosh: “Construction design before Israeli Standard 413 was characterised by building the first floor apartments above piers and beams with open spaces on the ground floor where the earthquake impact is the greatest, arising from the accumulative mass of the upper floors”.
Key barriers and challenges
Dr. Barosh adds that despite National Outline Plan 38, the problem has not been comprehensively addressed, although he does point out that criticism of the scheme in the construction industry and in the media is not completely justified.
“If I look at the glass half-full, National Outline Plan 38, properly implemented, has contributed to saving life in the event of an earthquake” says Dr. Barosh, “According to official reports from the Government Authority on Urban Renewal, up to the year 2020 the project was implemented in around 1,300 buildings with around 26,800 apartments”. According to Dr. Barosh, the main factors incumbering greater success of the scheme and the central challenges that constructors are facing in light of National Outline Plan 38 projects are as follows:
Difficulties in obtaining unilateral agreement of residents to implement the scheme, sometimes due to personal vendettas between residents or with a view to maximising construction rights (in some cases to facilitate illegal construction).
Lack of economic feasibility if the contractor’s profit does not justify the costs of the project.
Construction in dense urban areas without the real possibility of supplying all other infrastructures required such as drainage, municipal institutions, public open spaces, transportation routes and the like. In other words, using existing infrastructures despite the increased pressure on them.
Integrating new elements into old buildings is always problematic and complex – both from an engineering perspective as well as from a construction perspective.
National Outline Plan 38/1 projects turn people’s homes into construction sites for long periods of time.
Construction in dense urban areas presents challenges such as logistics, access to the site by heavy equipment, safety related issues for the residents and passers-by.
Often unbearable inconvenience for the residents during the construction works.
Potential damage to the local infrastructures, especially those buried underground.
Many construction industry experts and professionals believe that National Outline Plan 38/1 – Earthquake Reinforcement of Existing Buildings, has come to a dead end and can no longer supply the goods and the government is more inclined to promote demolition and reconstruction projects for large apartment complexes, i.e. urban renewal supported by local authorities, for complete neighbourhoods.
Dr. Barosh explains that this is the right approach but warns very strongly that the criteria currently in place for National Outline Plan 38/1 should not be cancelled and/or limited, since the existing plan is more suitable for individual buildings (or two attached tenement buildings), in which the project can be completed fairly quickly, especially from the perspective of the licensing process.
The future – Demolition and reconstruction
“I am of course in favour of large projects where demolition and reconstruction is very effective and worthwhile” says Dr. Barosh, “However at the same time we should bear in mind that in some cases the only practical option is the original plan, where demolition and reconstruction is unsuitable for the specific urban expanse, such that preventing individual solutions is irresponsible”.
He adds that it is certainly possible to cope with the challenges of urban renewal in Israel not only at legislative and regulatory levels, but also by promoting awareness and consciousness.
“The government needs to work on emphasising the importance of reinforcing buildings against earthquake and urban renewal in the media” says Dr. Barosh, “and that includes by way of financial incentives. I would suggest, for example, placing an emphasis on the potential increase in the value of the apartments for sale or rental following urban renewal and the difference in values between new or modernised properties and those which have been left behind”.
“Another possibility is to focus on the safety and security by emphasising that the residents will receive a protected space. If a major earthquake sounds like a remote scenario, despite the fact that it is just a question of time, the threat of rocket attacks is unfortunately much more tangible. It would also be possible to heighten awareness of the fact that insurance premiums might be lower for new buildings”.
Steps in the right direction
Before concluding, we would point out that the government is well aware of the fact that the construction industry has a key function in coping with the earthquake risk and several measures have been taken in the last few years, including:
Increasing funding for urban renewal as part of the state budget.
Promoting outline agreements for urban renewal with financial incentives for local authorities to issue construction permits.
Government support for urban renewal in peripheral areas.
Legislative amendments to address opposition by individual residents and lowering the majority threshold required to proceed with the project.
Regulatory changes to lower betterment tax for urban renewal.
Legislative amendments to protect the rights of apartment owners.
Extending government initiated planning activity to assist in promotion construction in place of National Outline Plan 38 (especially in areas near train stations and the future metro in the greater Tel Aviv area).