Miami’s IM/KM Reshapes an Oceanfront Estate in Panama

Ivan and Kristin Morales met at SCAD in the late 1990s, founded IM/KM, their architecture firm, in 2008 – and took on their first project the same year.

It consisted of 2,500 barren acres on the west coast of Panama.

Their clients, three U.S. and European investors, wanted to build homes there. One had already had plans drawn up by Selldorf Architects in New York. IM/KM’s assignment was to oversee construction of that first home.

There were challenges, to be sure. The land had been deforested by timber companies, and the sunbaked soil was depleted by cattle farming. The roads were dirt and there was no source of power.

“We started work on a residence and it became a land restoration project,” Kristin says. “We started with reforestation and planted coverage – we removed non-native teak and planted native species.”

They consulted with local scientists and engineers for their expertise and knowledge. They hired a staff of 40 locals to plant hardwood trees, bushes and 75 varieties of ornamentals, and increase the biodiversity of the soil. And they created biological corridors for animals and more balanced ecosystems for future generations.

Still, they were there to build a house. “It started with a survey of the site – the wind patterns, the sun, the gardens and the water,” Ivan says. “We looked at more than architecture.”

In fact, the site and environment told them everything they needed to know. “We looked at favorable views – the first house was oriented around one tree,” Kristin says. “But after a year, it was struck by lighting and burned.”

But that first house is a success because they did pay careful attention to wind, sun and water. The architects pulled its pieces apart for cross ventilation and more privacy. They added long, overhanging roofs on its western side. Two open-air corridors – more garden-like than enclosed – are open to prevailing winds and eliminate the need for air conditioning.

“One of the most challenging aspects was to make it comfortable and feel in place and blend in with the landscape and environment,” Ivan says. “If the building were done correctly, the conversation would be between the landscape and the architecture.”

As they delivered a human scale to this very broad site, they also encouraged their client to spend time outside – giving them access to the wilderness of Panama in small doses. “There are smaller rooms circulating between indoors and outdoors,” Kristin says. “They bridge the gap and break it down.”

Three lots were carved out for the clients, plus sites for a clubhouse and a paddock, as well as support facilities for recycling and a wood shop for furniture and two more residences – which IM/KM designed.

Now, much of the estate called Reserva Ecologica Panamaes has been reforested. But not all of it. “The staff is going to plant 8,000 trees in the next month,” Ivan says.

And yes, it’s curated, Kristin says, but not like a botanical garden.

It’s more like the restoring the tropical paradise it evolved into hundreds of years ago.

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