Sustainability’s Terra incognita

July 16, 2019   |   The Real Deal


If you hang out around enough climate change-related events in Miami, you’ll inevitably run into David Martin. With slicked-back hair and a scraggly beard, the 41-year-old co-founded Terra Group, along with his father, Pedro, in 2001. In the ensuing two decades, the South Florida development firm has aimed to create environmentally sustainable interventions into the urban fabric of the city with such projects as Eighty Seven Park in Miami Beach and Grove at Grand Bay in Coconut Grove — the first residential project in South Florida to receive LEED Gold certification. The sustainability of the designs often hinges on Martin’s expertise on the subjects of climate mitigation and adaptation. TRD caught up with Martin to talk climate change, the evolution of ecologically minded building and the future of Miami’s built environment amid predictions that the city may very well experience two feet of sea level rise by 2060.

Tell us about the genesis of Terra Group. I was really focused on urbanization. Urbanism was being taught in school and university departments — this whole notion that making people live closer to each other is good for the climate, creates more of a sense of community, creates walkability. So I started my career finding areas, whether it was Miami Beach or downtown Kendall or downtown Miami, and just developing some mixed-use and residential projects in those markets.

What have you learned from your work over the years? There were a few principles that came about. One was less is more. Sometimes, maximizing every square foot of your entitlements is not smart for business or smart for the community. Number two is scarcity. Trying to build in neighborhoods that have high barriers to entry creates a sense of value and uniqueness that allows me to be a little more creative and interesting with the type of architecture and product I’m creating.

Where does your interest in sustainability and resilience originate? When I started my career, LEED certification was kinda getting started. Miami 21 was also revamping the zoning code, and so that made a requirement that any building 50,000 square feet or larger had to have that certification. I started researching and developing and learning a lot from guys like Rob Hink from the Spinnaker Group.

On the resiliency front, there was a gentleman by the name of Walter Meyer that really educated me. I was appointed to the sea level rise committee in the city of Miami maybe four or five years ago … So I started thinking about how we can mitigate sea level rise or climate change or economic disruption or heavy rain events and adapt. And I think those are really cool, amazing, interesting, kind of urban planning principles.

You mentioned the Miami-Dade Building Code and Miami 21. South Florida is a world leader in wind resilience. Do you think that the region may have to take a leadership role again when it comes to building for flood resilience? The new construction is going to be built to the great codes, and there’s going to be new design techniques that are going to help. Like, you shouldn’t put your elevator for the entire building going down to the basement, right? So, those are some smart design techniques that from a market efficiency standard just make sense.

But the real solution is asking: How are we thinking of our parks? How do these parks become a better place to be able to hold water in the case of heavy rains, right? How are we cleaning that water before it gets into our storm water system and before it gets into the bay? How do we use our swales in order to be able to hold more water? How do we promote more permeable pavers? How do we rethink the way we’re building our roads and cities? And so it’s a much more, in my opinion, complex rewrite.

What advice would you give to the development community in Miami when it comes to applying the principles of sustainable and resilient thinking to their particular business models? I would just prove it’s good for business. Listen, if your retailer can do business while it’s raining in a heavy way and people feel it’s comfortable, then that small business owner is going to have a higher survival rate.

Where do you see climate risks entering into the development process? When we’re thinking about our community and the recurring rain events and shocks, which are, in the short and medium term, as much or even more impactful than sea level rise, what we want to do are assessments of the infrastructure in a given neighborhood. And I think that those assessments are going to take into account what the future of that neighborhood looks like. In my world, I think I’m not only looking at the neighborhood, I’m not only looking at my site and what I’m building, but I’m actually looking at the neighborhood and saying, all right, what are the infrastructure needs and how can I help guide or be a catalyst to be able to create the revenues necessary in order to solve that infrastructure problem?

Do you see climate risks entering into the financial side of the development equation? I don’t see me wanting to invest in North Carolina. I don’t see me wanting to invest in Boston, D.C. or New York. When you look at all the risks and you look at our city and our ability to create revenues and really attract population, it’s just a unique place. It’s got international demand and national demand and local demand, and this transition to urbanization. I think the business opportunity to build in a climate-friendly way is staring right at us. So it’s not a risk — it’s an opportunity. I think climate does come into that equation, but it’s not in the perspective that people don’t want to invest in our city. They’re just investing in assets that have different characteristics, and it’s our job to develop things that meet those characteristics.

—This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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