In 1991, when Miami architect Chad Oppenheim was a 20-year-old Cornell undergraduate, he had an environmental revelation in the high desert of Taos, New Mexico. He was there to help Michael Reynolds—since the 1970s a guru of so-called biotecture—to build by hand a completely self-sufficient home out of discarded tires and packed earth. Oppenheim was impressed with another of Reynolds’s creations: “He was developing this very controversial piece of green technology that he calls the ‘shit fryer,’” he remembers. “It transformed waste into fertilizer for greenhouses.”
Now in his mid-30s, Oppenheim has taken a very different approach to architecture than Reynolds, making his name by building minimalist glass towers in which he tries to incorporate environmentally friendly features. His most recent project, COR—a planned 28-story mixed-use condominium in Miami’s Design District—is his first to tout sustainability as its primary motivation. Its projected LEED Platinum certification would make it a high-water mark of sustainable design in Miami, but the development process also illustrates the difficulties facing green buildings in the city.
Scheduled for completion in 2009, COR will be sheathed in a poured-concrete skin with perforations that echo the “cheese holes” of Morris Lapidus’s nearby 1954 Fontainebleau Hotel. The facade, which resembles a titanic game of Connect Four and forms COR’s structure, will rise 50 feet above the $1.5 million penthouses and act as the armature for 30 wind turbines fueling the common areas. “We really wanted to push this and use it as a benchmark of how architecture can be in this climate,” Oppenheim says.
He estimates that the building’s sustainable features account for five percent of the $60–70 million budget, and he had to convince the developer, Jeremy Green of Nexus Development Group, that the initial expenditure would pay off. “I basically sold him on the idea that it would be great for, obviously, the environment but also from a sales standpoint,” Oppenheim says. In a city unlikely to be mistaken for an environmentalist redoubt, it is notable that the developer plans to market COR for its sustainability and believes there are enough buyers who will pay a premium for it. “I think it’s worth ten percent more,” Green says.
Even so, it is not yet clear that COR will be built as designed, with solar panels for hot water, Energy Star appliances, bamboo floors, and low-VOC paints. Although the mayor’s newly formed Miami Green Commission (of which Oppenheim is a member) is developing plans to encourage ecologically sound architecture, for now the price is often too high—especially given rising construction costs and a weak housing market. So while the developer is ebullient in describing Oppenheim’s overall design for COR, he adopts a cautious wait-and-see tone when he talks about the sustainable particulars. “We still need to get further along in the design to see what it really means in terms of cost,” Green says. “Now it’s projections.”
But Oppenheim is used to skeptical developers, and he sometimes resorts to subterfuge to retain environmentally sensitive elements. “We kind of try to sneak things in,” he says. One design that he’s unlikely to specify in future projects, however, is Reynolds’s waste-reclaiming handiwork. “It’s something that I don’t think translates well into condominiums,” Oppenheim says.