Scratch the surface of any large architectural firm—say, one with 150 or more employees. Chances are, you'll find a major office and retail component. There's also apt to be an institutional division, a hospitality specialty, maybe a medical facilities branch. In fact, the big firms tend to specialize in everything—everything, that is, except for housing.
That's where the 50-year-old Seattle firm MITHUN Architects + Designers + Planners, known until last April as Mithun Partners, comes in. In a genre where the majority of large architecture firms might do a couple of custom homes or an apartment building per year, MITHUN has built a national reputation for well-designed, regionally appropriate residential work. But it hasn't done so at the cost of its other specialties—among the most highly praised buildings to come out of its 150-person office recently are the award-winning REI flagship stores in Seattle and Denver, and the Seattle headquarters for Planned Parenthood of Western Washington. Current high-profile projects include the $35 million Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center on Bainbridge Island, Wash., and the $200 million Pacific Northwest Aquarium in Seattle, which MITHUN is designing with London's Terry Farrell & Partners. The firm's increasing success in the residential market, which makes up 50 percent to 60 percent of its practice, only seems to have enhanced its performance in other arenas.
When Omer Mithun founded the firm back in 1950 in Bellevue, Wash., he intended it as a teaching practice, where young architects could learn on the job. The Norwegian immigrant and professor at the University of Washington initially wanted a residential firm, but he soon became interested in other project types. He realized he needed someone else to nurture the residential arm of his business, and in 1967 he hired Bill Kreager, a young architect who'd served in the Peace Corps and worked at NBBJ in Seattle.
"He told me to take the housing division and run with it," recalls Kreager, AIA, now a partner at MITHUN.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the housing department of Mithun Partners turned out a number of perfectly respectable production projects, mostly single-family communities. The firm established solid relationships with Seattle's home builders and developers, and learned to infuse production homes with character by paying more attention to detailing and scale than was customary at the time. "We refer to this style as 'Bellevue French,'" says Kreager, tongue in cheek, of a mid-80s, MITHUN-designed neighborhood called Kempton Downs. The lots in the project are fairly large for the area, about a quarter of an acre. The garages are turned in towards the homes in an unusual pre-New Urbanism attempt to de-emphasize that part of the house. "It's nice-looking," he adds. "But it's still sprawl." MITHUN specialized—it still does—in designing communities with several different elevations but only a few floor plans. It's a strategy that endeared the firm to both builders, who could save money by paying for fewer plans, and consumers, who could choose from an eclectic, but always contextual, array of house styles.
By the late 1980s, Omer Mithun had passed away. The remaining owners decided it was time to shake things up a little, and in 1990 they moved Mithun Partners across Lake Washington, to Seattle. "It was a big step for them," says Tom Kuniholm, AIA, a former employee who now has his own Seattle-based practice.
"Being in Seattle rather than Bellevue definitely raised their status." Kreager and his team were also raising the bar on their own designs. And Kreager started a planning and a landscape architecture division in 1990 and 1998, respectively. "We needed more control over the execution of our projects," he says. "What better way to have that than to bring planning and landscaping in-house?"
Along with Calthorpe Associates of Berkeley, Calif., MITHUN co-planned Northwest Landing in DuPont, Wash., a well-publicized, Neo-Traditional town for the Weyerhaeuser Corporation. More and more, the firm began to take on mixed-use and infill residential projects, marking them with the same attention to detail and willingness to experiment that had distinguished their suburban predecessors. MITHUN re-established a name for itself during the 1990s, this time for innovative, high-density work, and national housing awards began to pile up in its offices.
going with the flow
The firm's growing concentration on higher-density housing was no accident. Urban sprawl hit the Pacific Northwest in a big way during the 1990s. And in 1996 the state of Washington developed a growth management plan that mandated higher densities in almost every county. MITHUN saw this law coming, and started marketing itself as a player in the infill and mixed-use markets. "When we market, we pursue urban, multifamily, anything that serves the growth management issue," says Kreager, who's spent the past 15 years on the NAHB and AIA lecture circuits, talking about ways to make density appealing to buyers. Though the firm designs about six to eight custom homes a year, that's not the side of the housing business it pursues. "You can learn a lot from working on a small project, like a custom home," says Jim Bodoia, AIA, a principal specializing in urban housing. "But I really like the challenge of doing little infill projects and larger-scale mixed-use stuff." High-density housing is where the market is—and, shrewdly, it's where MITHUN has positioned itself. At the same time, it hasn't gotten itself pigeonholed as a New Urbanist firm. "New Urbanism has such benefits, but it can also be overdone," says Kreager. "It's not the only way. You don't have to have all front porches or all 8-foot setbacks to make a great community."
Thinking about another future market—the aging population—spurred MITHUN to set up a seniors' housing division in 1990. Over the past decade it's grown in size, to 35 employees, and in stature. "The old view of how to treat seniors' housing was to follow a medical model," says Leslie Moldow, AIA, one of the division's partners. "Now, it's thought of as residential. With our residential experience, it's so natural for us to take the lead." In 1999 and 2000, MITHUN's seniors projects won design awards or recognition from the National Council on Seniors' Housing, the AIA, the Assisted Living Federation of America, and Contemporary Long Term Care magazine.
As the year 2000 approached, MITHUN was riding high. It had more work than it could handle, projects under way in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Canada, and Japan, and dozens of design awards under its belt. As usual, though, the firm was looking ahead. Its offices on five floors of the historic Times Square Building in downtown Seattle were comfortable and attractive. But they didn't promote the social, information-sharing atmosphere that MITHUN's leaders felt would be necessary in the years ahead. "The last straw for me was when I asked someone in the elevator if he was new," recalls Kreager. "It turned out he'd been with MITHUN for a year and a half!"
The company leased an old warehouse building on Seattle's waterfront and set about renovating. They moved into their new offices in April 2000 and, according to employees, the difference in atmosphere is palpable. The studio takes up one gigantic, loftlike floor. Everyone from intern to principal sits at desks out in the open, not shut away in offices. Staff members sit in project teams; when they complete one project, they may change desks, depending on the team they're assigned to next. Wheeled filing cabinets and document drawers move around easily from team to team. Bright blue and green freestanding walls contain conference rooms and private telephone booths.
In addition to fostering a more interactive atmosphere, the studio showcases one of MITHUN's major initiatives for the next century: sustainability. Reclaimed lumber and engineered wood provide structural support, and a passive cooling system eliminates the need for air conditioning. Recycled carpet and wheat-board furniture use fewer resources than conventional materials do, and low-VOC paints and low-toxicity adhesives make for better indoor air quality. An expansive view of the snow-capped peaks surrounding Puget Sound remind staff and visitors why sustainability is so important in the first place.
The entire setup takes full advantage of MITHUN's interdisciplinary prowess. Because project teams, rather than divisions, sit together, it's very easy to assign architects from different divisions to the same project. "Our diversity has proved to be a great strength," Kreager says. "When we're doing mixed-use, for example, we have the ability to grab an architect who specializes in retail and a housing architect and a landscape architect, et cetera, and put them all together." Like a well-designed Web site (which MITHUN also has—www.mithun.com
While a sparkling new office is certainly a drawing point for Seattle's brimming talent pool, MITHUN isn't putting all its eggs in that basket. Since the days of Omer Mithun, the firm has been known for mentoring young architects (for more on this, see Practice, page 30). The current 15 partners continue to emphasize professional education, organizing an annual company trip to places rich in architectural heritage. Past destinations for the trip have included Italy, Spain, Japan, Washington, D.C., and England. The partners have also made efforts to foster interdisciplinary learning. January 2001, for example, saw both Landscape Architecture Week and Interior Design Week at MITHUN, in which displays and exhibits from each department lined the office's central, open-air walkway. "These weeks are designed to educate the entire staff about what each department does," says marketing associate Kipepeo Brown. The MITHUN arts and crafts show, held in February, allowed employees with artistic hobbies to bring in and display examples of their work.
Like more and more firms these days, MITHUN offers a flexible work schedule. And a sincere social consciousness permeates its general office culture. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, callers on hold hear excerpts from the civil-rights leader's speeches, rather than standard hold music. Kreager and some co-workers recently started up a group they call MAHI, or MITHUN Affordable Housing Initiative. "Bill Kreager at MITHUN has really been mining this issue of affordable housing," says Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, the head of urban design at the Seattle firm LMN Architects. "Speaking to groups, almost doing advocacy work. It's unusual for a design firm to take that kind of role."
Kreager is also fresh from a stint as head of the AIA's Housing PIA, where his work on behalf of residential architects resulted in the launch of an annual residential design awards program. It represents a step up in stature for residential architects and for the firm. Poised for a broadening of its national profile and professional scope, the former Mithun Partners has rethought its image and its name. It's now officially MITHUN Architects + Designers + Planners. "Everyone already called us 'Mithun,'" says company COO Bruce Williams, AIA. "We were building a new office and it was a new century, and it seemed like as good a time as any for a new name and logo." The punchy new moniker, along with a bold, graphic logo replacing a rather stodgy old one, expresses the firm's ever-growing confidence and capabilities.
Williams, AIA. "We were building a new office and it was a new century, and it seemed like as good a time as any for a new name and logo." The punchy new moniker, along with a bold, graphic logo replacing a rather stodgy old one, expresses the firm's ever-growing confidence and capabilities.