North Bay Village mayor Brent Latham poses for a photo with associate professor Esber Andiroglu and village manager Ralph Rosado in February, when the design of a graduate student in the University's  College of Engineering was used to construct a 50-foot section of seawall in North Bay Village.

Teams tackle sustainability for North Bay Village

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Teams tackle sustainability for North Bay Village

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
This past semester, engineering students investigated resilient solutions for one of Miami’s communities that is most vulnerable to sea level rise.

Just a few miles from the beaches and the heart of downtown Miami lies a beautiful community with multimillion-dollar homes and high-rise condos boasting incredible views of Biscayne Bay.

But there is one problem.

This tiny hamlet, called North Bay Village, was built at sea level. And with climate change prompting water levels to rise, its ability to remain a viable place to live is under threat.

Taking that into account, interdisciplinary teams of students in the University of Miami College of Engineering were tasked with a project this spring semester to tackle some novel solutions for the village’s host of challenges—including aging seawalls, roads that need repair, and the need for a plan to maintain clean drinking water with the inevitability of saltwater intrusion. Students presented their ideas to village leaders, as well as University faculty members, last week during a virtual presentation.

“I’d love to see some of these things implemented, and there’s no time like the present to start thinking about it,” said Mayor Brent Latham.

North Bay Village and the University of Miami are working closely together as the community refines its strategic plan to protect its residents’ property into the future. Along these lines, faculty members from two of the University’s Laboratory for Integrative Studies (U-LINK) teams are working to test many sustainable solutions in the village, including resilient seawalls and seagrass structures.

This past semester, the sustainable construction class, led by Esber Andiroglu, associate professor, paired graduate students with undergraduates in four teams. Two of the teams researched novel solutions to erosion control and offered ways to emulate coral reefs, which University researchers have found effectively reduce wave energy. Some of these include concrete reef balls that could be submerged on the floor of Biscayne Bay to help protect seawalls from powerful waves and storm surge, or artificial modular reef structures that could be submerged and expanded like stacking Legos. Both would allow biodiversity to flourish in the bay and scuba divers could install them without the need for heavy machinery.

“One of the best ways to protect a beach from erosion is to emulate its natural defense mechanisms,” said graduate student Jose Heighes. “These reef balls also provide an environment for natural marine life,” he added. “And damaged corals can even be transplanted on them. This can be enjoyed by divers, snorkelers, and fisherman.”

The group also suggested that North Bay Village could attach seawall tiles along the five miles of seawall that surround its three islands. These textured tiles, which can also be 3D printed, mimic the root structures of mangroves, which protect islands from storm surge. They also attract oysters that help improve water quality, according to Afeefa Abdool-Ghany, a Ph.D. student in environmental engineering.

Students also proposed that the village use floating seawalls to generate blue energy, or clean renewable energy produced from the currents of the ocean. They also explained that many communities are partnering with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and that North Bay Village could do the same.

Another team investigated sustainable roadways for the village. This group suggested using fly ash concrete—which students noted is more durable and less permeable than typically used portland cement—to build prefabricated roadways with embedded smart sensors and integrated storm water management features. Such design and construction approaches would not only eliminate the noise and air pollution typical of infrastructure projects but would also serve as data sources to help improve transportation and water drainage.

“This could help handle the increasing amount of storm and flood water that the city will experience in the next century,” said Nicholas Hartman, a construction management graduate student.

A final group presented ideas for how North Bay Village can conserve drinking water at a time when sea level rise is causing saltwater to seep into South Florida’s main drinking water source: the Biscayne Aquifer. Students pointed out that desalinizing South Florida’s water will add more steps to the water treatment process, forcing water bills to rise through time.

“While it may seem that during the rainy season we have too much water, we need to make sure that the water going back into our aquifer is fresh and clean, so proper stormwater management can ensure that,” said Nancy Lewis, who is also a graduate student in construction management.

To do that, they proposed using biofilters, which can look as pleasing as a green wall or a bioswale and clean rainwater before it is discharged back to the aquifer. They also touted the benefits of greywater reuse systems—which treat water from sinks, showers, and some laundry facilities on site—potentially saving residents up to 55 percent on their water bills.

Village leaders seemed interested in the projects and asked for printed copies of the students reports.

“We need to get these technologies to market as fast as we can, because we are in a losing battle with climate change,” said Denise O’Brien, the village’s sustainability and resiliency task force chair.