In any weather, the views from Seattle’s Pier 56 to the Olympic Mountains are nothing short of spectacular: cruise ships and ferries plying the waters of Elliott Bay, misty islands in the distance, occasionally an orca surfacing, seabirds circling. Home to architectural firm Mithun for the past 10 years, the pier marks the intersection of old and new, of history and a bright green tomorrow.

Building on its success with the REI flagship stores and several other high-profile projects (including a new corporate campus for Sun Systems, now Accu-Med Systems, in Anacortes, Wash.), Mithun had tripled in size by the late 1990s. From its downtown location, the firm’s leadership sought more space on Seattle’s waterfront, which at that time was an area filled with abandoned warehouses, a few scattered restaurants, and the remnants of tourist attractions. They viewed adaptive reuse of one of the historic piers as a catalyst for change in helping to preserve the waterfront. Mithun CEO Bert Gregory also envisioned the new office as a living laboratory: an opportunity to demonstrate new sustainable design ideas while integrating these practices into the firm’s culture.

As the project’s design architect, Gregory and his team worked closely with Coughlin Porter Lundeen (structural engineer), Edifice Construction (general contractor), and the building’s owner to transform the dark, dusty, turn-of-the-century Pier 56 into prime office space. As a historic building, the pier’s basic shape and outlines had to be retained; yet the renovation also would require seismic upgrades throughout the predominately timber structure. By placing shear walls where they would be least disruptive, engineers preserved interior open space according to the architect’s design intent, admitting light and views never seen before within the beautiful old structure.

Today, the nearly 200-person architecture firm occupies the entire second floor, a modular system of open workstations organized around a circulation spine that leads to a common area (called The Point) at the end of the pier. Constructed of sanded, unfinished wood, all tables and dividers can be reconfigured quickly, enabling teams to collaborate more effectively around large projects.

Besides extensive use of reclaimed and recycled lumber for the tenant improvements, the 36,000-square-foot Pier 56 serves as a showplace for Mithun’s deep green design approach. Operable clerestory windows run the length of the building, admitting daylight and sufficient ventilation for the office to take full advantage of natural cooling during summer months. The design also features durable, salvaged wood and low-VOC finishes throughout in the oriented strand board flooring, open frame office partitions, and solid core doors.

Central to the design intent, and perhaps the project’s most tangible success over the past decade, the architects wanted to connect staff and visitors with views of the bay while creating a sense of community inside. “People love working here,” says Brendan Connolly, an associate partner at Mithun. “It’s an egalitarian open space that promotes the exchange of ideas and has empowered our process of design.”

Also deeply engrained within Mithun’s culture is an attitude of “lessons learned” with each project. Since completing the building renovation in 1999, designers have experimented with virtually every aspect of the pier’s systems while continuing to explore advances in sustainability practices and technologies. Energy performance is 20 percent to 25 percent better than a typical Seattle office building: good, they say, considering the very low tenant-improvement budget, but not groundbreaking. What could be improved? There’s widespread agreement on several areas: better controls and thermal comfort levels, the use of a fossil fuel–free heat source, and skylights to bring additional daylight to workspaces.

Still, Pier 56 remains a desirable office environment. “Essentially, we wanted to create a sailboat, not a power yacht,” explains Connolly, “by reducing both the embodied energy of materials and demand for electricity while creating the city’s first naturally cooled office space in the post–air conditioning era. We think it succeeds.”

David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun, and the blog

Lessons Learned

“The most successful design strategies on display here are the most timeless ones: natural cooling and ventilation, connection to daylight and views, and open, flexible space,” says Brendan Connolly. “But it’s an archaic building, so everything done at the time of the renovation in 1999 is arguably obsolete in terms of the learning curve of sustainability.” Among the lessons learned (and now applied to other projects) by Mithun’s designers from their work on Pier 56:

• Maintain a better understanding of building controls, including the need for more user instruction; the ability to tie lighting controls to daylight harvesting; and the use of passive indicator lights for operable windows. • Fine tune use of clerestories and operable windows, particularly those facing an adjacent viaduct, to optimize air quality while deflecting highway noise.
• Explore increased daylighting opportunities. Because of Pier 56’s deep floor plate, most workspaces are below LEED ambient levels of natural light. The addition of skylights offers one solution to improving productivity and further reducing energy demands.
• Retrofit renewable energy technologies. The building’s 15,000-square-foot, south-facing roof offers an ideal, and possible iconic, location for photovoltaic arrays and micro wind systems on Seattle’s waterfront.