PROFILEmiami had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with Ralph Choeff and Paul Fischman, partners at luxury architectural powerhouse firm Choeff Levy Fischman. Find out how they are using sustainability to transform and innovate when it comes to building modern luxury single-family homes in South Florida.
PM: What makes architecture and design in Miami so unique compared to other cities?
RC: The climate. Our year round warm and breezy climate encourages indoor-outdoor living. This reinforces the use of vast opening sliding glass doors and the use of a substantial amount of glass to enhance the great view of the bays, canals and the ocean. The region is perfect for flat roofs and its origins are midcentury modern architecture that can be expanded upon. Because of our location, the use of materials natural to the area, such as wood, stone, stucco and natural concrete balance the architecture with the nature surrounding it. It does not feel out of place, rather as if it belongs.
PM: Choeff Levy Fischman has designed some of Miami's finest homes in one of the most competitive markets, what sets CLF apart from some of Miami's other great architects when it comes to luxury homes?
RC: Our design of spacial layouts and floor plans in combination with our exterior design of these buildings sets us apart. If a plan is not functional and does not work properly, no matter how beautiful the exterior may be, the residence, or any building, will not work. Each residence is designed with the individual’s lifestyle in mind. We ask many questions how a person lives and functions in their residence. We study the patterns in which they move around and design our plans to complement their lifestyle. Our combination of midcentury architectural elements along with the use of natural materials completes the package. We also use large openings with open plans to make the transition between what is indoors and outdoors almost seamless We blur the lines of what is man made from what is natural.
PM: You guys have been some of the major innovators to bring a modern, luxury style to South Florida home design as opposed to the classic mediterranean design. How did this movement come about?
RC: It started with one developer that had the vision and trusted us to deliver the product. This is how it all started and it just took off from there. Modern architecture has never gone out of style, it has always been here. These days there is an appreciation for it that lacked in some previous eras.
PM: When you look at a property as a blank slate, is there a room or a feature that you want to center the home around? How do you leave your signature?
RC: This really depends on the individual project and the owners we are designing for. Each person has their priorities and wants to feature different things. There is no one element to design around unless it involves natural elements such as water or nature. We want to take advantage of what nature provides us and combine it with what the owner is looking for.
PM: What is the most unique feature that Choeff Levy Fischman has brought to a home in South Florida?
PF: I got one. Having a batting cage with an oceanfront and Downtown view. An Indoor batting cage.
RC: Great example, because the first house we did for Alex Rodriguez he had a full 3,000 SF indoor batting cage. It had views that overlooked teh family media room, but the family media room had the large 2-story glass openings that also overlooked Downtown Miami and the water.
PF: Even the new owner, he is an art collector not a baseball player, so he turned it into an office. The view was so great so he kept it.
RC: I'll tell you a feature that we brought to South Florid and expanded on, there is a form of construction called post-tension, which is normally used for apartment building slabs or office building slabs. It is so repatative that it is more inexpensive to do it floor-by-floor, but it wasn't used in single-family residences. I believe we brought that to South Florida because we wanted to capture a bigger slab and more mid-century modern features. That is unique to a lot of our designs.
PF: Post-tension construction is really only used in large office buildings and large residential towers. My background before I joined Ralph was in that exact field. Ralph was trying to find a new way to express a mid-century modern motif with an exterior elevation. With my understanding of how the system worked Ralphs desire to work with these elements, we said why with the clientele we cater to, shouldn't we use this to create a very high-end residential even though it does cost a little bit more money. There are no beams so if you look at a condo all you see is floor-to-ceiling glass. There are no drops beams in the system. This allows for taller windows, higher ceilings, less mechanical penetration. We have found is it has become comparable cost-wise because we are actually using less concrete, less labor and less formwork. It presents its own challenges but the positives outweigh the negatives. Every client we have suggested it to has bought into-it. When we suggested it to Alex and his construction team, they were a little timid at first because they had never done a post-tension home, but when we had finished Jose, who is his (Alex's) VP of Construction, told me it may have even been cheaper doing it post-tension as opposed to doing it the other way. All of the advantages I had touched on had ended up offsetting all of the extra costs.
PM: How has luxury home design in Miami changed over the last decade? Where do you see it heading?
RC: Miami used to be mostly a vacation destination. Now Miami is a cosmopolitan city where people come to live and work. Because of this, the manner in which architecture is approached when it comes to residential design is totally different than it used to be. We now create a lifestyle, whereas before designs were predicated on short stays. We now design with the family in mind and the owner actually living in the residence long term. This is now the way of life here. People move to Miami to make a life for themselves rather than stay a week and leave. This will continue from now on.
PF: We are staying on the cutting-edge of LEED accreditation and sustainability. Now that we are dealing with the bulk of our clientele as end-users, we are implementing sustainable elements. It is typical for developers of condos, but the single-family market hadn't really touched on it. Now we are using sustainability elements like solar panels, rainwater reharvesting, all of these elements of sustainable design that cost 15% to 25% more up-front, but in these long-term homes the end up making their money back within a few years. We are reducing the carbon footprint and making homes that can be there for 100 or 200 years as opposed to 50 years which is the standard lifespan.
PM: How does architecture differ amongst the different neighborhoods of Miami? Does any stand out in your mind?
RC: There are neighborhoods that are more forward thinking and then there are some that are set in their ways. There are also neighborhoods that want to maintain their history, such as Coral Gables, so Mediterranean architecture is encouraged there. Miami and Miami Beach tend to lean towards modern, with some historical elements to be respected in commercial areas of the city. Each demographic has a different way to think, thus the architecture reflects the demographics of each area.
PM: Where do you see Choeff Levy Fischman's role in Miami over the next five to ten years?
RC: Our answers will differ here. You ask ten different architects, you get ten different answers. this is more of a personal thing. I want to expand the boundaries of modern architecture while learning and implementing the reduction of the carbon footprint as well. As technology changes so will we.
PF: That is kind-of what I want to do as well. Really honing in on the sustainable aspects. In Miami we see global warming and sea level rise at many of our job sites. Elements of raising our sea walls on our properties 3 feet higher than we would have a few years ago. Its really addressing our climate and doing so in a manor thats really luxurious and not so that you feel like you are inside of a technological envelope.
About Choeff Levy Fischman
Choeff Levy Fischman’s partners have combined vast experience that includes custom single family residences in the modern style of architecture, commercial and residential hi-rise buildings, hotels, multi-family development projects and shopping plazas. Founded by Ralph Choeff, Raphael Levy and Paul Fischman, the trio joined-up as experts in the field of Tropical Modern architecture. Their designs maximize the use of indoor-outdoor living and spaces are emphasized and reflected in the projects. Choeff Levy Fischman has won several design awards for both residential and commercial design, and has had their work featured on television as well as major publications.
Ralph Choeff is a graduate of Pratt Institute; where he graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. Upon graduation, Ralph moved to Miami where he went on to establish his own architectural practice in 1983. Since then, Choeff has established himself as a leader in the South Florida area in modern and tropical modern architecture. He has gone on to win several design awards, and has been published in many publications both nationally and internationally.
Choeff is best known for his modern and tropical modern custom residential projects, although he has designed projects that include hotels, office buildings, shopping centers and multi-family developments. He has been commissioned by many celebrities to design their residences including Alex Rodriguez, Cher, Edward James Olmos, Matt Damon, Rony Seikaly, Barry Gibb, as well as many other professional athletes and high profile businessmen. He is also known for his work on recognized hospitality projects include the Mondrian South Beach Hotel and The Anglers on Miami Beach.
Paul Fischman was born in Miami and raised in Vero Beach before leaving Florida to earn a Bachelor degree in Environmental Design from the University of Colorado’s School of Architecture and Planning. Fischman later returned to Miami to complete a Master’s of Architecture at the University of Miami while also working part time for Ralph Choeff. Eager to become a part of the redevelopment of South Florida, Fischman worked as project manager and designer for Arquitectonica, and then went on to establish his own firm where he worked on luxury single and multifamily residences, mixed-use buildings, architectural visualization, and interiors. He officially joined Choeff as a partner in 2012.
With a background in environmental design, he strives to provide alternate, sustainable design and construction solutions in lieu of conventional methods, while educating his clients along the way. Paul is an active member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and is LEED certified.
Raphael Levy grew up in Miami and received a Bachelor of Design from the University of Florida. He later moved to New York to begin his career in architecture and earned a Master’s of Architecture from Columbia University. In 2006, he moved back to Miami, joined Ralph Choeff Architect as a project manager, and later became a partner in 2011. So far, he has worked on many high-profile luxury single-family homes and other major projects in South Florida, including the Mondrian South Beach and the relocation and renovation of a historic mansion on Star Island.