Innovative architecture facility facilitates hands-on learning

UM alumnus Thomas P. Murphy Jr., founder, chairman, and CEO of Miami-based Coastal Construction. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

By Robert C. Jones Jr. and Barbara Gutierrez

UM alumnus Thomas P. Murphy Jr., founder, chairman, and CEO of Miami-based Coastal Construction. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Innovative architecture facility facilitates hands-on learning

By Robert C. Jones Jr. and Barbara Gutierrez
UM dedicates ‘transformational’ Thomas P. Murphy Design Studio Building at the School of Architecture.

It happens at least once a week. University of Miami architecture students working on their projects inside the new Thomas P. Murphy Design Studio Building will walk up to fifth-year senior Lorena Knezevic to get advice on a visual programming language or 3D modeling software.

And Knezevic, who has designed everything from a high-rise housing unit to a research facility in Pigeon Key, Florida, is always happy to help. “Students,” she said, “do some of their best learning from each other.” 

Not long ago, however, such interaction was rare because all design studios were held in the School of Architecture’s historic Marion Manley-designed buildings, where massive walls separated each classroom, making it impossible for students to see and talk to their peers and work in large groups. 

Now, all that has changed. With spaciousness as its distinctive style, the 20,000-square-foot Murphy Design Studio Building has created what dean Rodolphe el-Khoury called “a specialized learning environment” that allows architecture students to “engage in collaborative learning.” 

Dedicated Thursday during a ceremony that both showcased its state-of-the-art features and honored the man who made it possible—UM alumnus Thomas P. Murphy Jr., founder, chairman, and CEO of Miami-based Coastal Construction Group, the building is named for his father, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division—the Screaming Eagles—during World War II. 

The building includes a high-tech fabrications lab with polymer and powder 3D printers, modern workstations that facilitate advanced digital production, a computer lab, presentation areas, review spaces, and offices. 

But its most salient attribute is what you don’t see—barriers. Save for its exterior walls and enclosed fabrications lab, the building is literally a massive open-space classroom where some 130 students can work—and collaborate—simultaneously. 

“It is incredible how different the dynamic already is,” said Knezevic, who, along with other architecture students, has been working in the building since early fall semester. “Faculty members will walk through at different points of the day creating a very professional and dynamic work environment. Professors who have mentored us in the past will stop by and ask us about our design evolution. And, of course, we are surrounded by all the colleagues we have developed strong friendships with since day one. The openness of the space makes it so easy for everyone to feel included and a part of something bigger than themselves.” 

The Murphy Design Studio is a first-of-its-kind structure for the School of Architecture, a building that el-Khoury said will serve as a “teaching tool, as it exhibits some of the basic principles of modern architecture.” 

“It complements our constellation of buildings that constitute a campus-within-the-campus,” said the dean. “The vast studio spaces, which are designed to enhance co-creation, and the digital fabrication lab, among several other features, are welcome additions to our beloved historic and award-winning facilities.” 

The building’s mechanical systems are exposed, allowing students to understand what makes the facility work, said Carmen Guerrero, associate dean of strategic initiatives and facilities and associate professor in practice at the school. 

UM President Julio Frenk said the Murphy Design Studio is paving the way for the School of Architecture to become a leader in architectural education and for the University to “revolutionize the hands-on learning experience.” 

Calling it a hub for creative thinking, Frenk said the building is already making an impact as a learning space where students will work on solutions to environmental and sustainability problems. “It is in itself an educational object,” he explained.

World-renowned Miami architecture firm Arquitectonica designed the building, which is built to LEED-certification standards.

Even the structure’s windows are special. Manufactured by Tecnoglass Inc., they are hurricane-resistant and feature energy-efficient low-E coatings. 

During the dedication ceremony, Frenk said Tom Murphy, Jr. knows better than anyone that facilities like the new Murphy Design Studio Building “can have a transformational effect on a community.” 

The gift that made the building a reality represents more than the “generosity of financial resources,” said UM Board of Trustees Chair Richard D. Fain. “It’s the generosity of spirit, of the desire to move the School of Architecture forward.” 

Tom Murphy Jr. learned much of what he knows about the construction industry from his father, who was a painting contractor and builder in South Florida for 35 years. “My dad and I were best friends,” Tom Murphy, Jr. said at the ceremony. “We were like brothers.” 

At 19, Tom Murphy, Jr. became the youngest contractor in state history, earning his contractor’s license while attending UM. When he turned 20, he started his own construction company. 

At Thursday’s ceremony, he regaled the audience with stories of his UM school days, recalling how he worked fulltime while attending school and how he convinced the president of his fraternity that he could renovate their frat house. 

When he and his brother, John, started Coastal Construction in the late eighties, their father worked alongside them as a consultant. “This marked the beginning of generations of Murphys joining the construction business,” said el-Khoury.

Tom Murphy, Jr. has consistently supported the School of Architecture, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Athletics, the School of Law, the Miami Business School, and other areas of the institution. 

It was Bernardo Fort-Brescia, founding principal of Arquitectonica, who sold him on the idea of supporting the construction of the Murphy Design building, telling him that the School of Architecture lacked the kind of large studio that would allow students to see and collaborate with their classmates. 

Tom Murphy, Jr. decided to fund the project, and when the time came to name the building, “I couldn’t think of anything but my best friend, my dad,” he said. 

He said he is proud to have made the building possible. “I sure wish my dad could be here today,” he said. “That’s the only thing I’m missing here.”