When developer Swire Properties swings open the doors on its mammoth en plein air Brickell shopping center next year, it’s making a bet its well-heeled customers won’t break a sweat in Miami’s summer swelter — a $30 million bet.
An undulating, cascading canopy of steel and clear insulating glass, a thousand feet long, will run over and through the wide open concourses between the shops, which extend across four city blocks.
Fitted with massive fabric-covered louvers, Swire’s “Climate Ribbon” — thus named because it resembles a crumpled strip of ribbon — is designed to admit natural light while shading shoppers and channeling prevailing breezes from Biscayne Bay to cool them.
The highly engineered canopy, the product of a collaboration between a Paris design firm and the universities of Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh and Cardiff in the U.K., is believed to be the first of its kind, and possibly the biggest passive shading and ventilation device — i.e., not dependent on air conditioning — in the country.
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Swire officials also say the ribbon, now being installed at the rapidly rising Brickell City Centre, also makes a big statement about the luxury project’s focus on marrying energy efficiency and environmental sustainability with cool design (pun intended). The entire five-million-square-foot project, which in addition to the shopping center consists of two office towers, a high-rise hotel and two condo towers — one of which was topped off Friday — is designed for LEED certification for neighborhood development, as well as LEED gold for some of the individual towers, an ambitious goal.
It also helps that the very conspicuous ribbon, and the open-air ambience it allows, will also set Brickell City Centre distinctly apart from some of its nearby competitors, including the planned Miami Worldcenter, whose multi-block mall just north of downtown would be fully enclosed and air conditioned.
“It will be very dramatic when it’s done,” said Swire Properties president Stephen Owens of the climate ribbon. “It’s taken a lot of front-end investment. But we have to be mindful as developers of the environment and sustainability. A lot of us just pay lip service to it. But that’s been a big part of what Swire does.”
Owens concedes the ribbon and the emphasis on fresh air may be a risk. But he’s confident that not only customers will enjoy it, but the ribbon could prove an attraction in itself. Owens notes that the highest-grossing U.S. shopping center, Bal Harbour Shops, whose owners are partners with Swire in the retail at Brickell City Centre, is an open-air mall. So is the upscale Village of Merrick Park in Coral Gables.
The idea for the ribbon developed during original planning for the project, the first major development under the city’s then-untested Miami 21 zoning code, which was designed to foster urban buildings oriented to the street and to pedestrians instead of cars.
“We challenged ourselves to think about what that meant, to think about the definition of urban retail in Miami,” he said. “What should it be? Miami is really about its environment. That’s what people come to Miami for. So why build a large box that we would have to air-condition and that could be in Dallas or Atlanta or anywhere else?”
Steve Mouzon, a Miami Beach-based architect who champions natural, low-tech approaches to shading and cooling buildings, said the principles Swire’s climate ribbon depends on are time-tested and will doubtlessly work.
But he sees the ribbon mainly as an attention-grabbing architectural feature, and he worries the public might be misled into thinking that sustainability can be attained only through such expensive high-tech approaches, which he has dubbed “gizmo green.” If the main goal is sustainability, he said, that can be accomplished more cheaply.
“It’s a beautiful structural thing. It is really an attractive piece,” Mouzon said of the ribbon. “But it’s primarily razzle-dazzle that does do some green things. What they’ve done is spent millions of dollars more than necessary in order to have this visible thing that says, ‘Hey, we’re green,’ and to sell real estate.”
But, he added: “There is some virtue to doing something that’s primarily razzle-dazzle, because it does get a conversation started about sustainability.”
Owens said the climate ribbon was a piece of a broader strategy to create an authentically urban project to revitalize a long-dormant corner of the city while limiting its environmental footprint. Virtually all the land had been vacant for decades.
Swire decided early on to build underground parking, at the time a relative — and expensive — novelty, and design an integrated development over it, connected by wide bridges over the streets, which would remain open and fully public. Ground-level shops around the entire perimeter of the project will open directly onto the public sidewalks.
The company also concluded that connecting areas within the multi-level project should also be open to the street and to the Miami climate. The first idea was to design a trellis that would not only shield shoppers from rain and heat, but visually connect the separate pieces of the project, Owens said.
That led to a design and engineering effort that went beyond what anyone expected. Its chief designer, Paris-based Hugh Dutton, of Hugh Dutton Associates, grew up in Jamaica and took inspiration from its tradition of buildings with verandas and natural ventilation, as well as the way sails on a sloop pick up wind.
Those simple concepts were blown up to a large scale to capitalize on the easterly breezes that predominate in Miami. The ribbon will scoop up those breezes at the project’s eastern end and channel them through the complex at a steady six knots, Owens said.
A computer model identified where the sun would produce hot spots at different times of the year, and the canopy and louvers were angled precisely to provide the needed protection from the sun. The ribbon also angles up at the sides in certain areas to let warm air rise, which draws the cooler breeze through. The glass, rather than tinted, is “fritted” with tiny black dots to filter sunlight and heat.
As a bonus, the ribbon will collect rainwater, as much as 3 million gallons a year, that will drain into cisterns. It will be used for all watering of landscaping in the project and to feed high-efficiency AC systems in the retail shops. Because those AC systems expel cooled air to keep inside air quality high, that air will go into the public areas under the climate ribbon, aiding in keeping down temperatures.
Swire has trademarked the “climate ribbon” name, but hopes others will emulate the idea. If nothing else, Owens said, citing the principle of biophilia, natural ventilation and real native landscaping will make Swire’s customers feel better.
“And then, maybe,” he said, only half joking, “they shop more.”