The safest room in the house

In the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense, engineers and architects consider the parameters of the protected space

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The most basic of shelters, the cement pipe (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
The most basic of shelters, the cement pipe (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

As Israelis returned to a more normal existence following last week’s ceasefire with Gaza, one lasting effect from the time spent evading the rockets was a better sense of what it’s like to spend time in bomb shelters, so-called safe rooms and stairwells.

Southern residents living within a 40-kilometer range of Gaza, from where the missiles  were being launched, have spent many days and nights over the last few years seeking shelter. For Tel Avivians and those living within range of the city, which got hit by a barrage of rockets over the course of the eight-day escalation of violence, it was a much newer experience. Residents had to think about where they would go if a siren sounded while they were driving or walking, and began stocking their safe rooms with bottled water, cans of tuna and bars of chocolate (as well as making videos poking fun at the new shelter phenomenon, such as “Sh*t Tel Avivians say during a siren,” see below).

But what became clear after last Thursday’s direct hit on a Rishon Lezion sixth-floor apartment was that while the home may have been totaled, the couple who lived there emerged completely intact from their safe room.

As a Home Front Command soldier who entered the room commented, “The books didn’t even fall out of the bookcase.”

The safe room, also known as a protected or fortified space, has now become a crucial word in the Israeli residential lexicon. It was first coined during the 1990 Gulf War, when people needed to move quickly to a sheltered space, often during the night, where they would don gas masks and wait out the Scud missiles being launched from Iraq. Known as the “sealed room,” the windows and doors were covered with plastic sheeting to shield against the possibility of chemical weapons.

As the threat of chemical warfare grew over the next 20 years, the Home Front Command switched its preference from basement bomb shelters or sealed rooms to elevated protected spaces. Each new building was 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.

Residential buildings built in the last 20 years now have either mamaks — merhav mugan komati — safe rooms for each floor, or mamads built in each apartment, usually one on top of the other, creating a core of safe rooms in the building. In older buildings, owners can create fortified rooms, reinforcing a standard room with 12 centimeters of concrete and adding a specialized steel door and window and a reinforced ceiling. Another, cheaper, option that can be built according to government code is a steel cage in an existing room, covered by another layer of cement. And for those lacking a safe room or bomb shelter, there’s always the stairwell, usually cast in concrete and surrounded by pillars that keep the building standing, making it the safest place in the building.

Lighting candles in the bomb shelter (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash 90)
Lighting candles in the bomb shelter (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

Following last week’s rush to find bomb shelters, safe rooms and stairwells, there will probably be an initial increase in bomb shelter improvement and construction of safe rooms, but just for a short time, said Ilan Peretz, a shelter expert who consults on safe rooms for the army and the private sector.

“When there’s an emergency situation, the awareness goes up, but it also decreases as soon as the threat goes away,” said Peretz, who spent the last two weeks on emergency reserve duty in the south. “There’s no doubt that this war affected everyone, with the greater range of the rockets. At the same time, the danger wasn’t as great as it has been in the south to convince most people to worry about themselves and come up with a defensive solution.”

There are more safe rooms now then there were years ago, commented Eliezer Gochman, an engineer who supervises and inspects safe rooms throughout the country. People are more aware about how and why a correct safe room is needed, but “they still don’t always build it the way they’re supposed to,” he added.

According to a survey conducted of 2,135 safe rooms by Gochman’s company, Hadas Building Inspection, about 75% of the safe rooms surveyed had one or more defects, and 70% of 500 bomb shelters inspected had major construction flaws as well.

A view of the Rishon Lezion building that was hit by a rocket last week (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
The Rishon Lezion building that was hit by a rocket last week (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

“People know how to build correct safe rooms, but they play around with the rooms,” said Hochman. “They add a wall, or change the window or door. You’re not supposed to have shelving, or running water or light fixtures and other things that can fall. But people use it as a room in their apartment. If you buy an apartment with four rooms and one is a protected space, of course you’re going to use it.”

At one time, the protected space had to be only five square meters and was often used as a laundry room or storage space, but has since been expanded to a minimum of nine meters. Most people use it as a bedroom or work space, commented architect Netanel Chaziza.

A safe room being used as a kids' bedroom (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A safe room being used as a kids’ bedroom (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“You’re limited in what you can do with it, since it’s the size of a small bedroom, but it can’t be incorporated into any other space because of the door and window,” said Chaziza.

It isn’t surprising that Israelis, who are big home improvement mavens, often gutting and renovating apartments with alacrity, have found ways to make the safe room more user-friendly. Apartment owners might add other decorative things that they shouldn’t, commented Chaziza, like a dry wall ceiling or regular light fixture rather than the required fluorescent bulb.

A look at the reinforced steel door of the safe room (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A look at the reinforced steel door of the safe room (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

They also often add a smaller wooden door inside the heavy steel door frame, leaving the heavy metal door open at all times and using the smaller one as the actual door. Some contractors will recommend getting rid of the steel door altogether, storing it away until needed, but it would be hard to “schlep” the steel door out of storage once a siren sounds, noted Chaziza. The newer safe room doors are nicer looking, he added, and “not quite as offensive.”

While the first safe rooms were made out of concrete blocks, the safe rooms built in the last decade are made out of 20 centimeters of high-end concrete, a thicker and stronger material than regular concrete and with an inner wall of reinforced steel.

“It’s not a cheap thing to build,” said Chaziza. “Within an overall project, it’s one of the most expensive things to build.”

“It costs more,” agreed Hochman. “But these days, you can’t live without it.”

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