Office interior with wood and steel details
Photos courtesy Kevin Scott

Behind This Seattle Office’s Pursuit of LBC 4.0 Certification

Mithun’s renovation of its own waterfront headquarters is on track to make it one of the first buildings certified under the new Living Building Challenge standards.

Perched above a souvenir shop hawking Sasquatch T-shirts on a Seattle waterfront pier is the headquarters of West Coast architects Mithun. They’ve occupied this formerly derelict warehouse since 1999, but two years ago they completed their first renovation and they are on track to make it one of the first buildings certified under the new Living Building Challenge (LBC) 4.0 standards. Over the years, Seattle has become a global hub for the living building movement. City incentives provide additional buildable square footage for developers who meet high-performing building standards. But there were no density bonuses for renovating Mithun’s own offices, just a chance for the environment minded firm, which also has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, to create “an expression of our values,” in the words of president Dave Goldberg.

When Mithun relocated to Seattle’s waterfront two decades ago, it was a pioneering move. (The area is currently undergoing a multiyear makeover at the hands of Field Operations.) The firm pursued an experimental design for the lofty warehouse space that Goldberg likened to a sailboat. It relies on operable windows for cooling—the building has no air-conditioning, utilizing natural sea breezes instead—and puts sweeping saltwater and mountain views in common areas rather than corner offices.

Reusing and Reinventing for the Future of Mithun

For project architect Dustann Jones, Mithun’s foresight made his job easier. “A huge part of LBC is not tearing things out,” he said. “[The design] was done well 25 years ago and it still works today. That reduced the amount we had to dispose of.” The most noticeable changes include revamped LED light fixtures and a wireless control system for maximum daylight harvesting. Printing areas were shrunk in favor of a larger materials library and model shop, which now has a 3D printer and much-needed ventilation. Conference rooms are outfitted with the latest audiovisual technology.

Workplace lobby with check-in desk
All of Mithun’s interventions in the 120-year-old building that houses its headquarters are complementary to the existing materials in the space. The reclaimed timber and steel of the reception area echo the heavy timber of the beams and posts. All the wood introduced into the space is FSC certified.

But in Mithun’s LBC quest, the most important changes are invisible to the naked eye. After a blower door test revealed a drafty roof, calking reduced air leakage by 16 percent. Rigorously sourced carpet backers are now carbon negative. Or take a blank white wall with wooden trim: It features Living Product Challenge Sheetrock, low-VOC paint, and FSC certified wood with a zero-VOC varnish.

However, arriving at such an assemblage was daunting. With the help of consultant Integrated Eco Strategy and its proprietary Red2Green material management platform, as well as ILFI’s own Declare label database, Jones and his team reviewed 946 products and used all but 222. Some common items are still tricky: the team was unable to find kitchen faucets that were Red List compliant, which meant conducting due diligence with manufacturers to find the best option. This meticulous process didn’t necessarily cost more in materials, but it did add project time.

Making an Impact Beyond the Building

In addition to working with a consultant, Jones recommends starting early and making sure your contractor is versed in LBC before embarking on such a project. But Mithun stands by the results, which are healthier not just for building occupants but also for construction workers who are spared noxious fumes. “Anyone who touches this building benefits,” says Jones. With a successful case study, Mithun now has a competitive edge as it pursues clients seeking LBC certification—like developers eager for those density bonuses. When the time comes, Jones, who had previously worked on a living building tree house for the Boy Scouts, will be ready. “I could do the second building much faster than the first,” he says.

For Goldberg, that steep learning curve took him back to architecture school. “It’s like taking a hard class at a university,” he says. “The teacher was tough, but you learned a lot and it made a big impact.”

Office space with conference table
A multimedia makerspace is the heart of the firm’s creative process. The Pier 56 sign that presides over the buzz of model making and interdisciplinary conversation in the studio was once mounted on a facade of the building.

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