Architecture Professor Wants Others To Follow His Lead With Eco-Sustainable 'Tin Box' Homes

Dec 18, 2019
Originally published on December 18, 2019 9:30 am

When local architect David Rifkind and his former wife built their home in South Miami in 2011, they had sustainability in mind.

The light-gray home is made out of mostly recycled materials -- predominantly steel. It generates most of its electricity from solar panels, collects its water from the roof, and the front yard has no grass. Rifkind calls the home the "tin box" and his goal is to reduce his carbon footprint.   

“We [architects] have enormous power in terms of being public intellectuals, activists and teachers,” said Rifkind on Sundial. “We have an opportunity to set an example.” Like Rifkind, other architects are shifting the way they think about building for the future by accounting for South Florida’s threats to climate change like rising sea-levels or increasing hurricanes.

Rifkind, Interim Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture + Environmental and Urban Design at Florida International University, joined Sundial to discuss why and how he built his home and share what conversations architects are having about building more eco-friendly.

WLRN: Why did you want to build this house?

RIFKIND: One is that my previous stop before I moved to Miami was teaching at the University of Virginia. There I had a chance to hear a lecture by William McDonough, a former dean of architecture. His latest bestseller, Cradle to Cradle, is basically a plea for all of us in the built environment to understand the environmental consequences of the work that we do and to start to build in a way that doesn't destroy the earth, but rather helps to rebuild it. This was really inspiring, partly because I started to understand the full stakes of what happens in the built environment when we build in a way that doesn't sustain.

As a designer and historian, what role do architects, designers have in sustainability?

It's on architects and designers to a degree. And then through us, it's on everybody. On the one hand, we [architects] have enormous power in terms of being public intellectuals, activists, and teachers. We have an opportunity to set an example. But at the same time, architects have very little power in our society. In the case of carbon emissions, what drives most carbon emissions are policy decisions either made by public policymakers, like in government, or by private developers. The biggest thing that we could do is simply change our land-use patterns so that we don't drive everywhere--and that's a public policy decision that's really out of the hands of architects.

Is there a demand through this sustainable kind of building? Are homeowners asking for it?

Yes. One of the really important things that we can do as architects is to change the very terms that we use in the debates. For example, people often say with respect to any sustainability measure, they always ask about the pay-off period. And we should instead talk about them in terms of return on investment (ROI). And when you look at them in terms of your annual ROI, they are an amazing investment. We're talking about 10 to 12 percent ROI annually and there's nothing else in your house that's going to give you that kind of return.

If you could reimagine Miami, rebuild it as a more sustainable city, give me a couple of things that you would do.

If I was starting over from scratch, the simple thing that I would do is leave as much of the natural environment untouched as possible. Miami is the only city in America that sits between two national parks. It's the only county that includes two national parks, Everglades on one side and the Biscayne. We have such incredible ecosystems. What if we just left those largely untouched and instead we accommodated the population we have in relatively dense developments built around public transit. If we left most of the environment free, it would have so many benefits. 

Learn more about the house: somigreenhouse.blogspot.com


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