Two Minutes With // Chris Butler, of Mithun

Hi everyone! We are excited to finally release our interview with Chris Butler, of Mithun. As national leaders in sustainable design and urbanism since 1949, Mithun looks for and finds connections — the universal in the specific, and ways to balance the human and natural worlds. Their work is an innovative blend of design, technology and nature to create places that excel in beauty, spirit and performance. Take a look at their website to see some great projects.

Images courtesy of Mithun.

VT: The novel Integrated Design emphasizes Mithun’s belief that solutions to the problem should be treated much like watercolors where different concepts and solutions are overlapped and integrated together. How deep does this concept play into the interweaving of design fields and to success of Mithun’s work?

CB: The project concept grows out of a dialogue with the client and with the site. The project concept establishes the direction and hierarchy of ideas in the project. Building and site concepts point back toward the project concept and also lend strength to each other.

I appreciate the analogy of the tapestry to describe the interrelationship between the various components of the project, precisely because the tapestry is built on an underlying and unifying structure. In the tapestry, each thread responds not only to the hierarchy and structure of the whole but also to the influence of each adjacent thread. Everything is connected, even if first glance suggests otherwise. While each discipline serves a necessary and unique function — without which the project is not whole — each discipline also serves the integrated project concept.

Within our office, multidisciplinary design teams are co-located to foster collaboration and mentorship as well as interdisciplinary understanding. Also, because key discoveries and insights frequently emerge from different corners of the room, it is critical to our process that the entire team (including the client and the consultant team) is at the table from the beginning of the project. It is from the dialogue within that team that the strongest concepts are tested, refined and strengthened.

VT: Many sustainable projects begin with a strong consideration of the site’s existing landscape, revealing the importance of what is already there. The Miraval project enhances the Tucson desert with a clean, crisp design. What are the first steps of your sustainability/site research for a project, and what foresight determines how the landscape will be integrated into the design?

CB: Every project at Mithun begins with listening. For us this is an intentional and directed process that begins with the site and extends to the client, the community and other stakeholder groups. For the site, listening involves undertaking a historic and contemporary ecological mapping of the site to understand: geology and hydrology, topography, flora and fauna, seasonal migration patterns, prevailing breezes, solar access, vehicular and pedestrian patterns, environmentally critical areas, and any other influencing factors. By studying the pre-development patterns we can better understand how the site is connected to its surroundings and what opportunities exist for a restorative approach to the design process.

We also spend a lot of time physically on the site exploring and discovering. We frequently camp onsite and have establish weather stations to collect data specific to the site’s microclimate over the course of the project.

Every project concept grows out of a unique set of factors, and every site response is unique, based on the project goals and concept. For Miraval, everything about the project, from the local clay in the rammed-earth walls, to weathered corten fascias, to spaces carefully knit back into the surrounding landscape was a response to the immense and restorative power of the desert landscape.

For us, asking how the landscape will be integrated into the design is akin to asking how daylight or a wall will be integrated into the design. If you don’t separate the question from the central one, you don’t need to reintegrate it later.

VT: Many of your projects have a balance between compact private spaces placed within larger open spaces. How do you balance the two without taking away from the other? How do you establish the hierarchy between these two types of spaces so that that they enhance the others’ contrasting attributes?

CB: Each exists by virtue of the other. The project goals and program determine the needs and relationship of the public and private (or open and closed) elements, but the overall concept of the project, establishes the hierarchy and order of the spaces. In a well-integrated concept, each of the parts serves the whole, and the unique attributes of each part reinforce those of the other.

The New Tulalip Administration Building was conceived as a delineation of the boundary between the forest and the meadow, connecting the occupants (Tribal Staff and Membership) to the adjacent forest, to Tulalip bay, and to their own traditions. Enclosed and private spaces were organized into three towers, which also facilitated systems distribution for the building, allowing the public and staff areas to be open and transparent. This in turn supported the daylighting and ventilation strategies of the project as well as the goal for an interdepartmental approach to the Tribes governmental services.

By looking for the commonalities and synergies between seemingly disparate functions, we strive to find simple solutions to complex equations.

VT: In regards to Mithun’s stark focus on sustainability, what upcoming advances in sustainable design do you see emerging in the next few years?

CB: The movement beyond sustainability toward net positive environments (beyond net zero) in the design of communities as well as in buildings and landscapes is well underway. Eco-districts enable us to link systems together and create efficient neighborhoods and campuses. There is an increasing emphasis on health and wellness (both physical and psychological) in our understanding of materials and manufacturing as well as in the design of spaces, places, and communities. We will see a new focus on the importance of resiliency and understanding resilient systems as a model for design.

We are at the threshold of a paradigm shift as the practice learns to utilize the technology at our disposal (building information modeling, real time energy modeling, rapid prototyping, and integrated digital fabrication to name a few) as an integral part of our design and delivery process — rather than simply a means of refining a centuries old convention for project delivery. Better tools help us to do our work better, and the current confluence of design, technology, and fabrication offers tremendous opportunities for designing new solutions to the challenges we encounter.