January 5, 2009
For more than fifty years, Seattle-based Mithun has defined sustainable design. A new book explores the culture of an architecture practice where the earth is first.
Bert Gregory, CEO and President of Mithun, opens the new book about his firm’s history with the story of a dinner party. Described as an intimate meal with lively conversation and good food, the gathering is capped off by a question from the host, Debbi Brainerd of the IslandWood learning center project. “What gives us hope?” she asked each of the guests. When it was his turn, Gregory replied, “My hope is in cities and integrated design.”
Integrated Design—Mithun, written by David Macaulay, tells the story of the Seattle-based architecture firm, which first opened its doors in the 1950’s. Its founder, Omer Mithun, built a practice around inquisition, research, and ecology and his early projects set a new standard for sustainability. In 1956, Mithun incorporated solar design into the Washington State Bank Building, and his firm has never looked back. Today, Mithun is a leader in progressive ecological design rooted in place. The book offers in-depth profiles on projects like Portland’s LLoyd Crossing, a sustainable neighborhood designed to reduce carbon dioxide footprints to pre-development levels, levels that existed when the lot in question was a forest.
Perhaps more intriguing than the projects themselves is the office culture that allows these projects to unfold. Macaulay describes in detail the business plan that fosters such a collaborative and creative culture. At Mithun, ideas and questions rule and different disciplines are brought together to revolve around solutions. Office space morphs and moves depending on the project at hand; weekly classes and project crits involve the full firm in critical debate and education; mentors work with new employees; annual trips abroad encourage travel and advanced learning. It is also a culture of fun and play, where an annual Iron Designer competition, modeled after Iron Chef, sees designers competing to fabricate original objects from new materials.
“In some ways, integrated design is more like a water color painting than a jigsaw puzzle where there is only one solution and all of the pieces fit together in a pre-determined way,” Macaulay writes. “Integrated design is blended and seamless. The concepts and solutions overlap and support one another, rather than fight for dominance. And getting there doesn’t happen without a collaborative team where all the voices are heard and where unexpected ideas aren’t ridiculed, but rather become the stuff around which real solutions are created.”
Even the book is a model of thoughtful design. Published by Ecotone Publishing, the book is printed on chlorine-free Reincarnation Matte paper, which is 100% recycled, using vegetable-based inks.
The book includes an Environmental Benefits Statement.