Mithun R+D

Date Posted: 04.30.2018

By Katie Stege, Jason Steiner,

How can we transcend the traditional boundaries of practice and scale to address questions not yet asked?

At Mithun, we invest in research to solve clients’ increasingly complex challenges, tackle global issues, advance our design and values, cultivate staff passion and expand industry knowledge. Within our research and development program—Mithun R+D—design, technology and policy converge to support our unifying purpose: Design for Positive Change.

An academic approach to client projects, powered by design passion, curiosity and innovation, has been embedded in Mithun’s practice from its inception. In the early days, efforts were inspired by founder Omer Mithun, a professor at the University of Washington, and included pioneering designs for energy efficiency in the 1950s and solar energy in the 1960s. Omer was intrigued by new technology, the benefit of integrated thinking of multiple disciplines and the exploration for new knowledge.

This curiosity continued to be integral to the firm’s culture, expanding to commissioned and non-commissioned research projects like The Resource Guide for Sustainable Development in an Urban Environment, using Seattle’s burgeoning South Lake Union as a template for advancing sustainability in a market economy; Lloyd Crossing Sustainable Urban Design Plan, a neighborhood level strategy that stimulated the EcoDistricts movement; and the Mariposa Healthy Living toolkit, a revolutionary systemized guide to include health as fundamental to planning and design.

For decades, inquisitive designers at Mithun have been stepping beyond the bounds of traditional project scopes to conduct research around wide-ranging topics that impact design, practice and society, while creating new knowledge and bridging industry gaps. Our open source approach to research and knowledge ensures that the results become tools for widespread use and positive impact. For example, Mithun internally commissioned, created and continues to host, the world’s first web-based carbon calculator design tool developed to increase knowledge of the impact of embodied carbon on climate change. It is used nationwide as a design resource by professionals and programs including the annual AIA COTE Top Ten Award project calculations.

To reinforce the need to accelerate design research into key global issues, in 2008 the firm established the Mithun/Russell Family Foundation Endowed Professorship in Sustainability at the University of Washington College of Built Environments. Steve Kieran and James Timberlake became the inaugural Endowed Professors. Kathrina Simonen is the current Endowed Professor and is leading the groundbreaking Carbon Leadership Forum.

In 2015, R+D efforts were formalized within the practice to further the mission of the firm, tackle contemporary issues in design, advance our client’s projects and unleash the creativity of our staff. Today, the Mithun R+D program advances and formalizes the firm’s culture of curiosity, hearkening back to its founding and Omer’s work at the University of Washington.

Mithun R+D drives positive change by advancing design knowledge and its application. Through internal embedded project research, external partnership opportunities and intellectual research pursuits, Mithun R+D advances the firm’s design capabilities and projects through meaningful and transformative inquiry. Our priority is integrated research within clients’ projects, to advance new knowledge directly benefiting the client, society and people’s lives.

Mithun R+D is structured as a unique integral entity within the firm that supports and guides the integration of research and development into projects, the design processes and culture. To elicit ideas and participation from all staff levels, a biannual request for proposals is issued to all employees, encouraging project teams and individuals to submit provocative questions and potential partnerships that merit investigation beyond the typical scope of a design project. Mithun R+D reviews all proposals and awards grants, prioritizing efforts that advance current projects, incorporate external collaborators who bring diverse resources and expertise, and address critical knowledge gaps.

Given the range of expertise within our integrated architecture, landscape, urban planning/design and interior design practice, the research topics and timelines vary significantly. Mithun R+D awarded five internal grants to 2016/2017 projects and introduced four new 2018 grantees this past January.

Three examples demonstrate the breadth of our current investigations, while also highlighting the project-based, collaborative, relevant and new-knowledge creation goals Mithun R+D prioritizes.

Embodying Change – Life Cycle Assessment
Embodying Change’s research is inspired by Mithun’s belief that designers are uniquely positioned to reduce embodied carbon in buildings, and advances the early R+D effort of The project takes advantage of Mithun’s digital design process and currently available life cycle assessment tools to assess the environmental impact of ongoing projects, from individual materials to whole building analyses. The findings are being used to help design teams make low carbon material choices, help communicate environmental impact to clients and builders, and track our firm’s climate change impact.

This research has led to collaboration on the Carbon Leadership Forum’s Life Cycle Assessment of Buildings Practice Guide to be released this year, and will be discussed at the 2018 AIA Conference on Architecture session “Assessing Your Building’s Whole Life Cycle.” Internally, this research has yielded in-office education workshops and opened up life cycle assessment as a tool for use across project types at Mithun, including current school, museum and student housing projects.

A Model Resilient Zoning Code
The Model Resilient Zoning Code research investigates potential transformation of municipal zoning codes to support, rather than hinder, resilient communities. Building from design experience interacting with policies that obstruct human health and performance, natural ventilation, natural daylighting and onsite-energy generation, this Mithun R+D project explores alternative land use regulations via barriers and incentives. Alongside industry experts Vivian Loftness of Carnegie Mellon University and Alisdair McGregor of ARUP, the Resilient Zoning R+D team is collaboratively investigating alternative zoning policies that promote resilience in seven interrelated categories: water, energy, food, waste, mobility, human health and safety, and ecological health.

Via a presentation of the initial Model Resilient Zoning Code analysis at Greenbuild 2017, the team ran an ‘expert crowdsourcing’ session, collecting more than 600 items of audience feedback related to particular zoning resilience challenges and possible solutions. In the next phase of the project, the team will refine these findings and continue the dialogue, building towards future policy recommendations and model code language for municipalities.

Pollinator Pathways
The Pollinator Pathways R+D team connects site specific analysis to regional landscape design outcomes via citizen-science based community engagement. In collaboration with the University of California Berkeley Urban Bee Lab and San Francisco Recreation & Parks, this team is studying the efficacy of varied planting types and soil conditions in attracting native pollinators, using the mid-block paseo of 2060 Folsom as the study site.

The team hosted a planting day in the community garden directly adjacent to the 2060 Folsom site on January 4th, and has partnered with the Folsom neighborhood community garden volunteers to do bee counts, species surveys and plant health monitoring over the next 12 months. The research will inform a fully tested landscape design for the 2060 Folsom paseo across the street, and will lead to a database of plants, soil types and native bee information to inform regional pollinator landscape design.

We are thrilled to be diving into four new R+D projects in 2018:

  • Booster Pack – Holistic Design Analytics will build off Mithun’s POE work to investigate holistic design analytics, pilot projects, toolkits, and training in collaboration with Green Health Partnership, with an emphasis on pre and post occupancy evaluation.
  • Affordable Housing Net Zero Energy Study will use cost analysis and systems design research to investigate the net zero energy potential of several Mithun affordable housing projects. In collaboration with a matching grant from Integral Group’s research and development program program to carry out detailed, multi-climate energy analysis, the study targets findings related to 2030 Challenge goals.
  • Biophilic Urbanism will advance the work from the collaborative 2012 Greenbuild session “Biophilic Urbanism,” defining the concept, developing a practice framework, and structuring a communication strategy towards actionable implementation of the concepts within urban built environments.
  • A Model Zoning Code for Resilient Communities will advance work from the 2016/2017 effort described above, identify next steps and organizational partners for formalizing a Model Resilient Zoning Code, while seeking foundational synergy with Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities. The team’s new session at Greenbuild 2018 in Chicago will further ‘expert crowdsourcing’ data collection.

Looking ahead, Mithun R+D aims to expand its reach and foster new public-private partnerships to carry out transformative projects alongside diverse collaborators. Rooted in Omer Mithun’s academic tradition and building upon our team’s range of expertise, the R+D program will continue to cultivate discovery and create new knowledge that advances the profession and creates positive change. Join us.