Nepomechie talks about coastal urban design, sustainable building and affordable housing. She explains how architects are taking sea level rise into account.
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Valdes: This is Panther Personalities presented by Florida International University.
Drucker: Hello FIU family and friends, and welcome to Panther Personalities, where students are stars, research is relatable, and FIU tells its own stories. On the show this week, we have a great conversation with an architect and professor here, Marilys Nepomechie. And we got to talk into a field I really didn’t know much about. We talked about, uh, trends in Miami architecture, how building plans account for sea level rise, the amount of pollution that buildings can give off, and the challenges she gives her students in building sustainable architecture. I really enjoyed this conversation with Marilys, and I hope you do, too. So without further ado, here’s our conversation.
Drucker: Okay. Alright. We have another special Panther guest on this episode of Panther Personalities, professor and architect Marilys Nepomechie. Marilys, welcome to the show.
Nepomechie: Thank you, David. Thank you for the invitation. It’s a pleasure.
Drucker: It’s, uh, great to have you on. Um, architecture, if you’ve ever driven around our city here in Miami, you know, there is some really interesting architecture, and all different kinds, right? So I’m super excited to have you on, because you have, you know, a lot of experience here in coastal urban architecture, sustainable architecture, and all sorts of things that are, like, kind of hyper-relevant to our city, Miami. Um, but before we get into that, Professor, uh, Nepomechie, can you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how, uh, you got to FIU?
Nepomechie: Sure. Uh, so like many people here in Miami, I was born in Cuba, in Havana. My family left the island when I was very, very young. Uh, we lived in a number of different places, actually different countries before my family moved to Miami. I was, uh, starting high school at the time. I left Miami for college and later graduate school and returned from Boston to Miami to work as an architect. Um, and here I became licensed, I accepted positions in firms of increasing responsibility until two different things happened at once. And the first was that FIU received the green light to begin a School of Architecture and at the same time, I began my own practice as an architect. And, um, I applied to teach here at FIU. I was excited at the prospect of a brand new program. I was hired first as a visiting professor and later as a member of the tenured faculty. As inaugural director of the professional program in architecture, I worked with a group of amazing colleagues to prepare the brand new program for accreditation and many years later, here I am. Uh, I’ve taught here ever since, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here.
Drucker: That’s awesome. Yes, so you’ve been at our FIU for a while now. Um, and, one of the things you’ve kind of specialized in is sustainable architecture. So what I’m wondering is, you know, as we live in this world where, you know, sea levels continue to rise, what, what is sustainable architecture, and why is it important?
Nepomechie: Well, it’s a great question. Thank you for asking it. Um, buildings and cities are easily the largest things that human beings create, right? Uh, the statistics are that buildings generate nearly 40% of global CO2 emissions. Of those emissions, building operations are maybe 28% and building materials and construction, typically referred to as embodied carbon,
are responsible for another 11%. Um, in addition, 50-70% of all the total waste generated in the United States is from the construction industry and construction waste. So essentially, right? Our future will depend on our ability to recover, to recycle a kind of urban ecosystem of building materials, and our ability to do what we do when we make the places where we live as sustainable as possible. Um, architects need to develop a much greater awareness than the profession has typically had over the years and the impact of every action that we take. Um, we need to reuse, we need to reimagine, we need to rethink what architecture is, how it’s made, who uses it, and how and whether it will or will not be around in the future. Seriously, teaching our students to exercise the professions of the School of Architecture as responsibly as they can is critical to FIU’s mission.
Drucker: And, first of all, that’s an amazing stat when you’re talking about how much buildings contribute to, uh, greenhouse gases and, and waste. But it does make sense, right? Because, I mean, buildings are the largest things we make in society, right? Other then, like, gigantic ships, maybe, but, you know, I feel like there are more buildings. I don’t know, I’d have to run the numbers, but . . . So, you mention that, you know, there are new techniques. And so, I imagine that the students at FIU are probably learning about this. Can you, uh, talk about what students at FIU are learning about sustainable architecture?
Nepomechie: Well, they’re learning a lot, um, I would say. Uh, we teach them, um, through their required courses and through the opportunities to work on grants with research faculty and the opportunity to do full-scale projects like the Solar Decathlon Competition, and I’m sure you know the solar house that is at MMC, the one that is at the Engineering, um, School, and of course, there is one that also lives in China, in Bejing. Um, FIU students and faculty have been involved with all of the . . . and students, uh, learn to do some pretty exciting things. I teach, uh, a course on sustainable design that is required for the curriculum in architecture. Students are learning how to design a building and a landscape that are entirely free from all of the urban grids that you can imagine. So they generate their own power, they’re able to filter their own water, uh, they’re able to clean their own waste, right? These are buildings that in and of themselves take as little from the environment, um, and give back as little, in terms of refuse and waste as you can possibly imagine. And our students are able to do that at the end of this course. Um, we know that FIU wants the Biscayne Bay Campus to be considered a model for environmental sustainability, and our students have designed, uh, strategies for, uh, dealing with, uh, waste water within our campus. Uh, there are a broad range of ways in which students in architecture, landscape architecture, and interior architecture are learning to leave the world better than they found it.
Drucker: And, uh, live in buildings that essentially take care of things, like, by themselves, I mean, that’s pretty cool, um . . .
Nepomechie: We think that architecture is most sustainable when its environmental footprint is as tiny and as light, um, as possible, right? When the demands that buildings make on their environment are absolutely miniscule. And so over time, um, working with better and better materials and better and better systems, we are learning how to make these largest things that we create, as you said, um, have as little bit of a shadow and a footprint that they possibly can on our Earth. We try to make buildings that, um, whose operations mimic living organisms as closely as possible, that work as one with nature. Uh, they’re made of materials that are constructed out of local, uh, and recycled elements that have low-embodied carbon footprints that deal with
waste responsibly, um, and that look at the complete life cycle of all the materials when you think about designing even the very first part. Uh, these are the things we teach and the things that our students are learning, and I have to say, doing really, really well.
Drucker: So staying on this kind of theme of, um, environmentally friendly architecture, um, one of the things that you also studied is, uh, coastal urban architecture. And as we know, people, uh, they tend to like to spend time on the beach, you know, we definitely see this in Miami with buildings and, um, so my question is, you know, I know you presented at some international conferences about coastal urban architecture. So, um, could you tell us what are some of, what are some of the best practices for, for building this type of architecture?
Nepomechie: Well, I would say, um, good coastal urban design, right? Urbanism is a collection of architecture and infrastructure. Um, and it is most sustainable when, like buildings, um, their environmental footprint is light, um, when their demands on the environment are low. That’s kind of the mantra, right? So you want coastal buildings and coastal cities not to inhabit really fragile environmental areas. Just because we can technologically doesn’t mean we should. People do enjoy being on the beach, as you say, so taking up the beachfront with buildings is probably not the best idea. Allowing public space to happen in fragile urban spaces is best practice when it comes to coastal design. You want urban footprints that are compact, that leave the majority of our areas open and natural. You want to minimize infrastructure, you want to minimize sprawl. You want to interfere as little as possible with natural ecosystems, to mimic them, if at all possible. To the greatest extent possible, you want to be resilient in the face of extreme events, and you know that in south Florida, we are at the forefront of hurricanes six months out of every year, right? Hurricanes that are becoming more intense over time with changing climate conditions. You want to be able to make cities and make buildings that are, in interesting ways, kinetic and flexible, right? That they can change over time if the circumstances around them demand that they change. So if climate changes, right? If sea level rises, if driving on streets is no longer a possibility, if there are ways to continue using our buildings and living with our buildings, designing them so maybe you enter on a second floor at some point in the future, you abandon the ground floor, it may be you use that underground parking lot to collect and save fresh water instead of salt, if you find ways of generating an entire network of elevated walkways in transit areas, there are ways that cities can be built thinking not only about today but about what tomorrow will demand. And that’s probably true whether you’re in a coastal region or not in a coastal region, but it is especially fraught and especially important for people who live in places like Miami.
Drucker: Wow. You have to be a pretty, uh, good long-term thinker to be an architect, huh?
Nepomechie: Absolutely, and I am proud to say that the students that I work with are exactly that.
Drucker: Hmm, that’s awesome. So, um, another thing that you’ve, uh, that you’ve worked in in your research is affordable housing, and, um, I’m kind of wondering, um, what are some of the most important things to consider when you’re designing affordable housing?
Nepomechie: That’s another great question. And of course, if you read newspapers, um, not only Miami, but really much of the United States needs a lot more housing that is affordable to more people than almost anything. Um, and so I would say, you know, you begin, and this is
true whether the housing that you’re designing is considered affordable or not, but you begin by engaging closely with the end users, um, as much as you’re able to do it so that the things that you design, the buildings and the spaces around them, respond to the community, to the culture, to the needs and the aspirations of the people who will live there. You want to design with, um, access and inclusivity in mind. You want to design for all users, people of all abilities, and we’re talking physical abilities, cognitive abilities, and everything else that you can imagine. Um, we want to create affordable housing for practical terms, right? Near the routes of public transit, near centers of employment, centers of education, areas of medical care, of civic and social infrastructure so that mobility is not costly, and life remains accessible, housing remains accessible. You don’t want to build so far away from everything that you spend all your money just to get from your home to the place where you need to go to work. You want to be able to connect housing to public open parks, to public open spaces. You want to design sustainably, right? To see all of the ways that we talked about before, so that the maintenance costs for the housing that you’re creating remains low, the durability of the materials and the buildings remain high, and housing remains, again, truly affordable, not just at the front end, right? When you get into the housing, but also over the life span of the building. Um, for people who begin by simply renting, maybe think, uh, about opportunities to facilitate a rent-to-ownership transition over time, so that over, again, the length of your stay in this place, you have an opportunity to build equity in the place where you live. Um, we try to design in a way so that the buildings are not, um, static, right? That they can change over time to change, uh, and accommodate changes in, uh, the number of people in a family. When you think about all of the changes that were required as a result of our pandemic, if you can design so that it’s possible to work from home, and study and learn from home as well as simply live in the home, then again, the housing, at the end of the day is affordable, and it’s a wonderful place where you can live. Um, we want to think about, uh, resilience, um, including climate and weather emergencies, and again, anything that will allow for eventualities. You don’t want to design in a way that you think will be the case forever, but in a way that can actually morph over time to be what it needs to be in the future.
Drucker: That’s cool. A couple of interesting things you talked about there is, you know, before you’re even talking about the architecture, you’ve got to talk about, alright, where are we going to build this thing, you know? Because it’s one thing just to say, hey, we’re building affordable architecture, you’re an hour and a half away from the doctor’s office, like, you know, like, what’s the point, right?
Nepomechie: That’s right.
Drucker: And, and I’m also wondering, you know, because you mentioned that, um, you know, like, uh, in today’s, like, world where, you know, we’re all working from home, like, remotely, have we seen kind of a return of, like, the at-home, like, office, the desk, because I feel like that was a thing, but I don’t know if it became less of a thing. I don’t know, maybe I’m just kind of drawing a nothing here, but is that a thing?
Nepomechie: It’s a thing! [laughter]
Nepomechie: [laughter] It’s definitely a thing. But, you know, uh, it became very accessible and very easy to work outside the home for many years. There were lots of places to do it, they were in the best of circumstances easy to get to, uh, and it seemed to make sense for people to want to work near other people who did the same thing that they were doing. Which makes a lot of sense, right? There’s a synergy around working with colleagues who are doing the same thing. Notwithstanding, right? There are expenses that are associated with working outside the house, uh, and people sometimes want to marshal their resources, so that even in non-pandemic areas it may actually make sense to work from home. Technology certainly is better than it used to be, and still for different reasons, people are finding that you can work from your home base and be as productive and as effective as you might have been some years ago when you only had to be there in person. I think we’re trying to figure out the sweet spot, right? Between being working remotely and working in person and working from home and doing the commute to actually get to work. Um, I don’t think it’s either-or, I think it’s a both-and situation, but certainly when you are designing, whether you’re designing a home or you’re designing an office, right? You’re thinking strategically with that hybrid condition in mind.
Drucker: Yeah, I’m also, like, curious, you know, what are the best elements that make, like, a good office, but for that we probably need a different podcast, and we probably need to bring in one of the indoor architecture people.
Nepomechie: Yes, sir! [laughter] I think you’ve met some.
Drucker: I’ve met some, yeah. Um, Marilys, thank you so much for the time. I have one last question for you, kind of a broad question, ‘cause, you know, you’ve been an architect here for a while. I’m curious, in your opinion, what are some of the most interesting trends in south Florida architecture today?
Nepomechie: Another great question, thank you. Well, I would say, uh, just to sort of carry from the things we were talking about earlier, a growing awareness of the need to design for climate and community resilience, and that’s both in the public realm and in private space, a growing awareness of the need for sustainability and accessibility. Uh, for me, the narrowing gaps between those who have more and those who have less, uh, a growing awareness of the need for a really wonderful public realm, right? Miami is the historical result of a network of independently developed universes, right? Think Miami Beach by one developer, Coral Gables by another, the city of Miami, Miami Shores, right? All of these over the last more than a hundred years have grown together to become one large metro area. But there is not a lot of cohesive, common public space. And as you see many of the projects underway now, big infrastructure projects, big bridges and highway, uh, big public space projects, think about The Underline or IMPAC, all of the new big public parks. I think the city is becoming aware of itself as an entity that is bigger than the sum of its parts and looking at the creation of public space as a way of expressing that identity. Um, I’m seeing, and this is something that when we moved to, when I moved to Miami and, and even a decade or five years ago, the thought unthinkable, Miami’s walkability index is way up. It’s one of the most walkable places in the United States. Uh, for a place that’s still primarily you only think of as needing a car, there are many areas of the city where you can live and walk at the same time. Uh, our cities are getting denser, and there are people actually living downtown and in the Brickell area. There are more and more people living in the downtown areas of Coconut Grove and Coral Gables and Miami Beach. These are becoming more 24-hour cities, not just a city that is only 9 to 5, and then you drive to the suburbs
to do the rest of your day. I think we’re seeing the need for shade. There are lots of studies out there that say that shade equals healthy communities. Um, and typically only our better-off communities have had shade. And now we’re being, making a push to making shade more accessible to all. I think that we are more and more seeing in architecture and urban design a both-and mentality, places that are both places to live and places to work. And we’re seeing real changes in the building industry. The introduction of robotics, of artificial intelligence, of increasingly new and resilient materials, uh, really, uh, cutting edge building practices, of new smart-city technology as well as lots of smart-building technologies. I think Miami is at the forefront of all of these things, which is why it’s so exciting to be an architect here and to teach architecture at FIU.
Drucker: That’s so cool. Is there, um, you know, based off the first thing you said, where you’re saying that there’s an increase in, like, public works, is there, like, uh, an example of that that you would give?
Nepomechie: Um, well, if you have spent any time driving east-west on the 836 or north-south on I-95 where those two very large [laughter] pieces of infrastructure come together, you’ll have seen for the last couple of years and probably for the next couple of years that construction site. Um, what was a fairly low set of elevated highways that really divided the areas of downtown Miami, um, and Biscayne Boulevard south of 36th from north of 36th because the highway was so low, and it was dark. Uh, they’re raising it by a good 20, 30, 40, 50 feet in height so that there will be sun, there will be light, there will be public space between those two areas. It will transform our downtown, it will transform the entire area of Biscayne Boulevard, and I think it will make a real difference—in fact, we were talking about coastal development—the coastal base of Miami on the Bay. Uh, so those are, that’s one great example. If you know the Underline project at all, this is, uh, Ed Bailey’s group. They’ve been working on the area that is underneath Metrorail, from all the way down in Kendall, right at the Dadeland Station all the way north to downtown. It’s a ten-mile stretch of what was essentially neglected underlying space. We’re turning it into a beautiful linear park. Uh, designed by James Corner, Field Operations of New York, the same firm that did the High Line in Manhattan, uh, and the idea is to have this residual space become a center of public life. And the first piece opened in, on Brickell, along Brickell Avenue. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it includes spaces to play basketball, to have concerts, to do yoga, to sit down and have a talk, to run, to walk, to do almost anything—exciting, beautiful public space.
Drucker: Wow, that’s exciting. Well, it’s definitely an exciting time for Miami architecture. And, uh, well Marilys, really appreciate you coming on and sharing your expertise with us today. I really enjoyed it.
Nepomechie: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation. Look forward to seeing you again. Bye-bye, David.
Drucker: Okay, let’s get you caught up on the latest happenings around campus with Campus Headlines:
A $5 million NSF grant is priming an FIU Aquatic Chemistry Center for more research. Researchers plan to create autonomous vehicles that can explore difficult-to-reach urban environments to pinpoint sources of contamination.
Last month, FIU broke ground on a $48 million engineering complex. The 125,00 square foot, six-story building will have labs and classrooms.
And finally, the Green School has been named to the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, making it the first university of Florida to achieve this prestigious designation.
Drucker: Alright, so that’ll do it for today’s show. If you’re liking what you’re hearing, the best way to support Panther Personalities is to give us a follow either on Spotify or Apple podcast. And, if you can, drop a review. That’ll, that’ll let us know that you had your paws up. Appreciate that. Okay, let’s thank all of our contributors here who make Panther Personalities possible. Our theme music is the FIU Samba brought to us by Director of Bands Barry Bernhardt. Our art is done by FIU designers David Roberts, Oscar Negret, and Barbie Ramos. Our intro is voiced by alumna Alexandra Valdes. And this show was edited by FIU’s Strategic Communications, Government and External Affairs. We’ll be back with you before you know it. In the meantime, you can check out more headlined stories about FIU @news.fiu.edu. Talk with you soon Panther friends and family. Paws up.