Founded in 1949 by the late architect and educator Omer Mithun, a Norwegian immigrant to the United States, Mithun continues to inspire fellow practitioners and clients alike with its commitment to creating sustainable, community-centric spaces. The team, which boasts some 180 staffers working across its Seattle headquarters and offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, is the recipient of AIA’s highest honor for an individual firm.
This Q+A has been edited for clarity.
What is the firm’s greatest achievement?
Our ability to constantly evolve and get better over time. We’ve done this with intent to help address the challenges of the future through design. Our evolution into a multidisciplinary firm, and centering sustainability, equity, research and development, are all products of this kind of strategic, mission-based [progress]. And we’ve been able to do this through multiple generations of leadership while maintaining our core values and how we collaborate as a team, which is something else to be proud of. We can’t wait to see how Mithun’s story continues to unfold and the positive impact we will continue to make.
What’s the best word to describe the personality of the practice?
“Optimistic” and “Down to Earth” (more than one word, sorry!). Even though the practice is committed to tackling big issues, “Mithunees” are known for being great listeners, having a tremendous sense of optimism, balancing hard work with good spirits, and a commitment to family, community and time well spent in nature. While we take our work very seriously, we try not to take ourselves too seriously. This sense of character and collaboration is foundational to our design process and professional leadership.
What’s the firm’s approach to architecture?
The firm’s design process is founded on a process of authentic listening: listening to the land, listening to community, and listening to our colleagues and collaborators. Architects aren’t typically known as great listeners, but this is fundamental to our culture and the way we work. For us, design is a holistic, interdisciplinary pursuit that places users and community, not objects and agendas, at the center of decision-making. This integrated approach honors the identity of places—culture, history, and ecology—with a reverence for the characteristics that make each unique.
Unlike many mid-sized firms, we have resisted the creation of internal design studios, instead structuring the practice for the sharing of ideas and expertise broadly across the company. Interdisciplinary teams sit together around their projects, rather than being grouped in teams based on expertise. Working in a deeply integrated fashion, with all design disciplines at the table from day one, has resulted in a body of work that is authentically rooted in place and community, rather than from the vision of a singular designer.
What types of projects are most appealing to the firm?
The more complex and mission-driven the better! Our favorite projects allow us to bridge from large-scale design thinking well beyond the site boundaries all the way into the tiniest details of construction. We love projects that allow our teams of urban planners and designers, architects, landscape architects, and interior designers to all work together toward a shared project vision for positive change. We also cherish authentic community engagement in the design process, as well as collaboration with other design teams, contractors, and industry partners. Some firms don’t like “messy” projects, but we thrive on them!
What is the importance of sustainability to the firm’s overall mission?
Sustainable design has been a core part of the firm’s DNA since the 1960s. We believe that sustainable design leadership is a foundational imperative and a driving force for our future. Mithun’s accomplishments include eight AIA COTE Top Ten design awards, ranging from a net-zero-energy educational treehouse to a visionary urban design plan for more than 1,000,000 square feet of development. The firm has committed to carbon neutral operations since 2004, was an early signatory to the 2030 Challenge, and recently completed a Living Building Challenge renovation to our headquarters on the Seattle waterfront.
What is the importance of the issues of diversity and equity to the firm’s overall mission?
We embrace justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) as key expressions of our mission, Design for Positive Change. Mithun is committed to promoting JEDI both internally and externally, in our firm culture, project work, and partnerships. Our goal is not just good intentions but real impact for the people, communities, and clients we serve.
Building on our early focus on sustainability, we made it an imperative to broaden the social impact of our work along with the environmental. As a result, over the past 25 years, affordable housing, work with Indigenous communities, and work with underserved communities on long-term health and resilience planning has become a significant focus of our practice.
How have those issues shaped the way you practice architecture?
Changing the status quo in such a large industry requires both innate curiosity and steadfast resolve. For decades, our teams 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.
In addition, with our focus on a multidisciplinary approach to design and a commitment to empowering a broad range of design leaders from early-career professionals to long-practicing veterans, the firm has moved to a broad ownership and horizontal leadership model. The current ownership group at Mithun is more than 50% women and includes five landscape architects, two interior designers, and one urban planner. The group ranges in age from early 30s to early 80s, and provides the diverse perspectives and skill sets necessary to tackle the complexity of our work.
What’s the firm’s biggest strength?
It’s definitely our people. Our team members are smart, creative, mission-driven, and nice. We love our team and authentically enjoy working together. Life’s too short, and our profession is too hard to have it any other way.
What’s the firm’s most enduring tradition?
We host our own Mithun Olympic games biennially with spirited team competition in several highly athletic and creative events including the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic Cauldron, rolling furniture luge races, and action-figure ski-jumping.
What is the firm’s biggest extravagance?
While we wouldn’t necessarily use the word “extravagance,” the firm has a culture of generosity that is demonstrated by dozens of ongoing initiatives beyond our billable project work. These include staff-led community fundraising events, interdisciplinary research and development projects, public advocacy for important mission-related causes, and lots of pro-bono work, volunteer service, and donations to local community organizations doing important work for us all. In the last 15 years, we’ve donated more than 10,000 hours of pro-bono design to more than 70 community-serving projects—approximately 1% of our net revenue on an annual basis.
What is the firm most proud of?
Our design work is not in the hand of a singular designer but the result of deep and authentic collaborations. To be recognized by AIA for the quality of our design work and this approach is especially rewarding.
What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
The ability to attract the best and brightest talents into architecture and the allied design professions. This is critical for our profession, as well as for our communities at large, to address the myriad challenges facing modern society.
What should architects do to respond to that challenge?
We need to increasingly reach out to our youth and help them understand how exciting the design professions can be, and the positive impact that can be achieved through a career in architecture. At Mithun, we teach, we mentor, and are generous with our time with a wide range of students each year. This includes formal mentorship programs with high school students, job shadowing, teaching classes at universities, and hosting student groups regularly at our offices.
What are the firm’s ambitions for the coming five years?
Empowering the fifth and sixth generations of firm leadership to help steer the practice toward continued positive impact.
What do you hope the firm’s legacy will be?
High-caliber, high-performing integrated design that continues to make a positive impact for our communities and the health of our planet—delivered by down-to-earth, wonderful people.
What does winning the Architecture Firm Award mean to you?
Being recognized in this way by our peers is very special to us. And it’s an affirmation of a unique model of practice that we hope can be replicated and advanced by many more practitioners and practices over time.
An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.