When Faye Bittker and her husband bought their home in Meitar in 2006, she took note of the open, available space under the 32-year-old house, one of the first built in their small community.
“We thought, ‘Do we put in a Jacuzzi or a bomb shelter?’” she said.
Back then, the town, northeast of Beersheba, wasn’t getting hit by rockets from Gaza. A shelter or safe room seemed like a waste of good space, and besides, they had one down the block. Their friends in the nearby town of Omer, however, used Bittker’s contractor to build their own bomb shelter.
“Everyone said to them, ‘You’re crazy,’” said Bittker.
Three years later, rockets began reaching Omer. Now, says Bittker, she never says no to a dinner invitation at their friends, knowing that there’s always a safe spot in their home.
At her own house, however, they still lacked their own safe room. They didn’t worry, as Meitar was still out of the rockets’ range.
“We always sort of had a false sense of safety,” said Bittker.
But in 2012, the Hamas rockets began reaching Meitar as well, and having promised her late mother she would build a safe room for the grandkids, Bittker and her husband began planning one.
The safe room, or mamad, was a term first coined during the 1990 Gulf War, when people needed to move quickly to a sheltered space, where they would don gas masks and wait out the Scud missiles being launched from Iraq. It was known then as the “sealed room,” for the plastic-covered windows and doors that shielded occupants against chemical weapons.
In the last 20 years, the IDF Home Front Command switched its preference from basement bomb shelters or sealed rooms to elevated protected spaces. Each new building is required to have a safe room, or mamad, the acronym for merhav mugan dirati, built from reinforced concrete with a heavy, sealed window and steel vault-like door that can protect those inside from the blast of rockets.
During times like these, everyone is clamoring for some kind of safe room, said Shahaf Pripaz, whose company, Migun Lekulam (Protection for Everyone) consults on and constructs safe rooms.
“The demand is crazy right now, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Pripaz, who lives in the community of Erez, next to Gaza. “It’s a seriously crazy situation; I’m on the phone all the time.”
He says there’s a fair amount of misinformation regarding safe room requirements and construction.
“The engineering companies are often umbrellas for nothing,” he said. “People pay a lot and don’t get real safe rooms. It brings the prices down, but they’re not getting the real thing.”
Pripaz’s company offers three types of safe rooms, including the megunit, a kind of freestanding shed that costs NIS 30,000 to NIS 40,000 and can be brought intact to sit in a backyard.
“I’ve sold more than 100 of those in the last five days,” he said. “It’s not another room for the house, but it’s easy and cheap.”
There’s also the possibility of using an existing room in the house and making it safe by adding extra concrete and steel to the walls, swapping out the existing door and window for the reinforced steel versions. It’s a good option for older folks who don’t want to move too far at the sound of the siren, he said.
Similarly, there’s the option of building a safe room connected to the house, which is the solution that the Home Front Command prefers, said Pripaz. It’s far more expensive, ranging anywhere in price from NIS 50,000 to NIS 100,000 and Pripaz warns potential customers to be careful consumers.
“People buy based on the first company that jumps up on the Internet,” he said. “If you’re going to do this, you need to know the contractor is using the right kind of cement, and the right thickness.”
It’s also a very bureaucratic process, said Charles Yawitz, a partner in Price Piltzer Yawitz Architects.
When the Home Front Command first insisted on safe rooms in every home, it was HAGA, Hagana Ezrahit or the Civil Defense Organization, that had to sign off on every permit.
But it wouldn’t give exact information.
“It was kind of a classified process,” chuckled Yawitz. “HAGA would release information, it wasn’t top secret, but there wasn’t a book, either. It was all about the army’s general secrecy.”
Architects and contractors would head to the HAGA offices in the nearest army base or army facility to file paperwork for any safe room request. It wasn’t unusual to have plans rejected, said Yawitz. It took another ten years for the process to become slightly more streamlined by the Home Front Command, which now publishes safe room specifications on its website.
“They’re always upgrading the specifications, they want to make sure that you’re not getting away with a cheaper version,” said Yawitz. “They want sealed windows and doors and air filtration systems for the possibility of chemical attacks, and the architect is usually trying to get the simplest version for the developer or client.”
The other downside of the safe room is that it “takes up one room of the house,” he said, “and makes it worse.”
Though it has a thick, heavy metal door (which contractors often suggest removing and storing until necessary), lots of internal steel and only one window, it often ends up being used as a regular room in Israeli homes.
“Very few people want to leave it as an empty space,” said Yawitz. “That’s always been the story with [apartment building] bomb shelters, too. They get used for storage, for strollers and things, and then somebody has to clean them out when the sirens start to go off.”
In the private homes that Yawitz designs, the safe room often becomes the “man cave,” he said, a cozy den filled with a big-screen TV and some gym equipment, possibly even a pool table.
“I’ve designed more than one man cave,” he said. “They decide that it will be in the basement so that it doesn’t ruin a bedroom, and it has to be a certain minimum size, and at some point the man of the house says, ‘I think I’ll use that for my office.’”
Most Israelis don’t have the man cave option.
Ehud Zion-Waldoks — who works with Bittker at the communications department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — moved to Beersheba with his young family several years ago and has been offering regular updates on Facebook about dealing with and adapting to the constant sirens.
There are others who run regularly to the neighborhood bomb shelter, generally used for other purposes during quieter times. It may double as a theater, a synagogue, a yoga or ballet studio, even a bar. Using it for other purposes generally ensures that locals know where the shelter is located, said a Home Front Command spokesperson.
In fact, Sophie Kaye’s 6.5-year-old son didn’t want to leave their Tel Aviv neighborhood shelter last week, because he was climbing the walls. Literally.
“It’s used as a kind of alternative location for kung fu lessons,” said Kaye. “It has all kinds of mattresses and a long climbing wall.”
As for Bittker, construction on their own safe room will start in mid-August.
“It’s not cheap, and it was a long process, but at least I feel like we came to the right decision,” she said.
As it turned out, they couldn’t build a safe room under the house, because the ceiling was too low. Instead, they’ll have one built behind the kitchen. It will be used as a guestroom, with Bittker’s sewing machine ensconced in its own corner.
As for that empty space under the house, that’s being turned into a family room.
“We’ll all benefit,” she said. “And I’m building a safe room that I feel safe with.”