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  • Writer's pictureMaria Luisa Castellanos

Miami architect explains why building in Miami is particularly challenging

Tropical climate landscape
Typical scene from a tropical climate

Even though Miami has developed a reputation for being a very desirable place to live, as a Miami architect, I can tell you that construction in Miami holds its particular challenges. I will detail some of them here for you:

  • The climate: Miami has a subtropical climate with hot, humid summers and mild winters. This can make working outdoors difficult and dangerous during the summer, as workers are at risk of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Additionally, the humidity can cause materials to warp and deteriorate, which can lead to problems during construction. Wood stud walls, typically used for exterior walls in the north, will not hold up well to hurricane conditions or termites. Our typical construction materials are concrete blocks, concrete, and stucco. Anything less will not last in this climate.

Sometimes concrete pours must be protected. If the concrete dries too fast and

without proper hydration, it will crack right away.

  • The soil: The soil in Miami is often made up of sand or muck, which is not very stable. This can make it difficult to construct foundations and footings, and it can also lead to problems with erosion. This is particularly true in Miami Beach and the coast of Biscayne Bay. Normally, for high rises along the coast, special engineers are hired just to design the foundations which often entail pile footings which are deep foundations. They are like concrete columns, but instead of going up, they go down into the ground.

Sometimes instead of installing piles, when the muck is not too deep, the better option

is to remove the muck. Muck is made of organic materials from dead plants and

microbes or small animals.

  • The water table: Miami is located in a coastal area, and the water table is very high. This means that there is a risk of flooding during construction, which can damage materials and equipment. Often water pumping must take place while the foundations are being installed so that water does not go into the voids for the concrete footings. Additionally, the water table can cause problems with foundations and footings, as it can erode the soil and cause them to sink.

Because the water table is high, underground parking is rare in Miami. This is because

when digging a few feet, water will be found. Again, to put in underground parking, the

area would have to be pumped and the water removed to pour the concrete for the

floor and walls for the parking. This would be very expensive. So, few buildings have

underground parking in Miami.

  • The regulations: Miami has a number of strict regulations governing construction, which can add to the cost and complexity of projects. Additionally, the city is constantly changing, so it is important to stay up to date on the latest regulations.

There are 34 separate municipalities or cities within Miami-Dade County, which covers

about 2000 square miles or the size of Rhode Island. This means there are 34

different sets of regulations for land use, normally called planning or zoning codes,

plus the additional one for Miami-Dade County for what is called the unincorporated

area. So, as you can imagine keeping up with these regulations for a normal investor

or homeowner is not easy.

In addition, the State of Florida has the Florida Building Code (FBC) which applies to

the entire state. All buildings and residences must comply with the FBC.

So, this is where an architect can help with these challenges of building in Miami.

  1. Designing for the climate: Architects can design buildings that are more energy-efficient and comfortable in Miami's hot, humid climate. This can include things like using light-colored materials, incorporating natural ventilation, and providing shade. An architect who is certified with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) can certainly help with these ideas.

Porches, covered terraces, trellises, and courtyards with trees and plants can

ameliorate the heat that is natural to Miami in the summer. To its credit, the county has

a landscape code to help you select the right vegetation for this purpose. You can

download it here for free.

2. Selecting the right materials: Architects can select materials that are resistant to

the harsh conditions in Miami, such as salt water, humidity, and high winds. This can

help to ensure that buildings are durable and long-lasting. The exterior walls commonly

used in Miami are made up of concrete blocks with a stucco finish. However, most

houses in Miami have wood truss roofs with a tile finish or now metal roofing. To me,

this is the weak link during hurricanes. Although we have improved roofing materials

and assemblies since Hurricane Andrew, there are superior roofing systems available

today. If you want to read about why a concrete roof is superior, read my blog post

3. Planning for the water table: Architects can plan for the high-water table in Miami

by designing buildings with foundations and footings that are deep enough to reach

stable soil. They can also design buildings with drainage systems that can handle the

excess water. Now, with a new house construction or addition, the City of Miami is

requiring drainage design and calculations. The days of dumping your water onto your

neighbor’s yard or the street, if you live in the city, are over!

In addition, you need to know right away if you are in a FEMA-designated flood zone.

FEMA limits the amount of money you can spend on an addition or remodeling if your

house is in a flood zone. Read more about this here.

With the right architect, you can work around these issues.

4. Complying with regulations: Architects can stay up to date on the latest regulations

governing construction in Miami and ensure that their designs comply with these

regulations. This can help avoid costly delays and fines. We are expecting an updated

Florida Building Code at the beginning of next year. And zoning codes can change at

any time. A good architect will discuss the zoning regulations with the particular

municipality or even get zoning approval prior to even starting on the construction

documents. I thought this site had a pretty good description of construction documents,

if you are unfamiliar with the term:

5. Working with a team: A good architect will normally have a team of engineers with

whom he/she normally works. The normal team will include an electrical engineer, a

structural engineer, a mechanical, engineer, and sometimes a civil engineer.

By hiring the right architect, you can make building a project in Miami more feasible, sustainable, and beneficial for the community. If you want to discuss the project you have in mind, call me Maria Luisa Castellanos, R.A., LEED AP, principal of United Architects, Inc., on my cell at 305-439-7898.


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