Architectural engineering alumnus bridges disciplines, builds a legacy

Rodolphe el-Khoury, left, dean of the School of Architecture, with alumnus W.R. “Bob” Miller and his wife, Catherine, loyal supporters of the school and its students.
By Pamela Edward

Rodolphe el-Khoury, left, dean of the School of Architecture, with alumnus W.R. “Bob” Miller and his wife, Catherine, loyal supporters of the school and its students.

Architectural engineering alumnus bridges disciplines, builds a legacy

By Pamela Edward
University of Miami alumnus W.R. “Bob” Miller and his wife, Catherine, are among the School of Architecture’s most generous and loyal supporters. And with two planned gifts, they are building a lasting legacy for the school and its students.

When W.R. “Bob’’ Miller was an architectural engineering student at the University of Miami in the mid-1970s, the School of Architecture was still several years away from its emergence as an autonomous academic unit. 

Yet, among the faculty members Miller encountered during his time at the College of Engineering were Andrés Duany and Bernardo Fort-Brescia, now two of the most renowned names in contemporary architecture.

Along with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, longtime faculty member and former dean of the School of Architecture, Duany is among the founders of The New Urbanism, one of the most influential urban planning movements of the 20th century. Fort-Brescia is co-founder of Arquitectonica, the international architectural firm with iconic, award-winning work that includes Lakeside Village on the University’s Coral Gables Campus. 

Learning from these “great professors,” as he called them, was a highlight of Miller’s undergraduate experience at the University. And it kindled in him a passion for helping future generations of students bridge the gap between architectural design and construction, through practical, hands-on learning. 

This passion was manifested when the Millers made a gift in 2016 to name the B.E. and W.R. Miller BuildLab. Dedicated in 2018, the BuildLab is named in honor of Miller and his late father, Billy E. Miller, who founded the Miami-based construction firm First Florida in 1963 and served on the University’s Board of Trustees and Citizens Board. 

Designed by Rocco Ceo, professor of architecture, the BuildLab houses the school’s design/build program. Here, students can bring their design ideas to life at large scale and in a safe, controlled environment sheltered from the vagaries of the South Florida weather. Not far away is the B.E. and W.R. Miller Fabrication Lab, also named in honor of the father and son, where students and faculty members employ a wide range of digital and analog tools, including a robotic arm, to create design prototypes. The BuildLab and Fabrication Lab are emblematic of the immersive learning-by-making that is foundational to architecture education. 

As a licensed general contractor and realtor (he retired from First Florida as president and owner in 2017), Miller has worked with architects throughout his career. In addition to financial support, he has lent his industry expertise to the School of Architecture. He is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Committee, and he was instrumental in developing and promoting the Master of Construction Management program and served as chair of the program’s industry advisory board. 

In 2020 he funded a construction management scholarship, opening doors to opportunities for students to gain the knowledge and experience that is highly sought-after by architectural, engineering, and construction firms. 

Now, Miller and his wife, Catherine, have cemented their legacy at the School of Architecture through two planned estate gifts that will help the school advance its core vision of building urban resilience through cross-disciplinary engagement and experiential learning. 

The Millers’ bequests, as well as their earlier gifts to name the BuildLab and Fabrication Lab, are part of the University of Miami’s Ever Brighter: The Campaign for Our Next Century. The most ambitious in the University’s history, the $2.5 billion campaign is set to conclude in 2025, when the University will celebrate its centennial. 

Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the School of Architecture, pointed to the Millers’ investment in the BuildLab as the catalyst that precipitated a culture change at the school, with resources and infrastructure provided to support experiential learning. “The students are now learning by making,” el-Khoury said, adding that “the curriculum will continue to evolve with this kind of support.” 

Miller credits Plater-Zyberk with inspiring him to magnify his giving to the School of Architecture when she was dean in the early 2000s. “She invited me to become involved in the BuildLab,” he recalled. “And I have been an avid giver ever since.” 

“We see [our giving] as a way to give back to the construction community and to my alma mater,” Miller said. “I love what Rudy el-Khoury and his staff are doing to make the school special. Their efforts are seen at every level: quality of professors, the physical plant, curriculum, and new areas of learning. It’s exciting.” 

Miller hopes that the planned gifts will help to propel the School of Architecture’s rank and similarly elevate the University of Miami. 

“Miami is a great city. Great cities need great universities,” Miller said. “The relationship is symbiotic and must be fed. [Giving and volunteering] gives one a great feeling of being a part of the community.”