Mithun’s Bert Gregory: Doing What Comes Naturally

Jan. 1, 2006
Katie Sosnowchik

By Katie Sosnowchik • Cover and portrait photography by Liane Enkelis
Bert Gregory’s lifelong appreciation for the natural world intersects with his fascination for the built environment in an award-winning career distinguished by cutting-edge, resource-sensitive design.

Growing up in a railroad family in Denver, CO, Bert Gregory got to see much of the United States as a youngster. Even today, as he reminisces about traveling to Chicago, Los Angeles and other great cities, you can detect in his voice a hint of the exhilaration he felt back then. And though Gregory didn't realize it at the time, he now acknowledges that those experiences would profoundly affect his thinking of the world and the profession he chose to pursue. It would also positively influence the well-being of thousands of folks who happily live, work and learn in the award-winning environmentally friendly buildings, neighborhoods and urban landscapes he now designs.

"I have big vivid memories of elegant, beautiful, dramatically
huge spaces—especially when you're a little kid—all that influenced my interest in the physical built world. My dad and I put together train sets, and I would build the buildings. When I was in the seventh grade, two different architects moved onto our street, and that was an awakening for me—I realized, 'Hey, grown-ups do this kind of stuff'."

In the years since, Gregory has parlayed this fascination with buildings and his love of nature into an acclaimed architectural career. He is a 21-year veteran of Mithun, an architecture, design and planning firm based in Seattle, WA, where he is now principal and president. Since the early '90s, the firm has consistently and deservedly been ranked as one of the foremost experts in sustainable design. Its first green project was the REI Flagship store in Seattle, which it completed in 1996 and went on to win one of the very first Top Ten Green Design Awards given by the AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE) in 1998. A subsequent project for REI, the renovation of Denver's early 1900's electric trolley power plant into a retail space, won Mithin its second coveted COTE Top Ten Award in 2001. One year later, Mithun's design of the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center (now known as IslandWood) also garnered a COTE Top Ten Award. Most recently, the firm's innovative Lloyd Crossing Sustainable Urban Design Plan won a special recognition award in the 2005 COTE Top Ten Green competition as well as an American Society of Landscape Architect's Award of Honor.

This decade-long journey—an undertaking that found the firm delving deep into sustainable design ideas, theories and practices—is one that came naturally to the firm, says Gregory. It's part of a commitment to the environment that has been with the company since it was first founded by Omar Mithun, a University of Washington architecture professor, in the late 1940s.

"Omar was a wonderful person and very committed to an environmental ethic, although I don't know if you could call it that in the '50s and '60s," Gregory notes. "In the '70s, he was very interested in solar strategies, solar energy and design, and Mithun has done some interesting work in passive and active solar energy projects." In addition, the firm has always placed an importance on daylighting and careful site work, insuring that the buildings it designed were formed and shaped to respond to the surrounding landscape.

This awareness and sensitivity to the natural world, Gregory says, is part of the innate culture of the firm, one that has shaped it even as it has grown over the years to become a nearly 200-employee practice. "There's been a lot of growth at the firm, but it doesn't seem a whole lot different in a lot of ways. I think our culture has remained in tact, our value system is only expanding and becoming clarified as time goes on. Certainly with this size it provides tremendous opportunities to have some positive impact on varying scale projects."

It was, in fact, Mithun's culture as well as the opportunity to work on many different kinds of projects that first attracted Gregory to the firm in the mid-1980s. The road he traveled to get to that initial job interview, however, was not without a few bumps and detours along the way.

Gregory began his architectural studies in his hometown at the University of Colorado, where he stayed for three years until he unabashedly admits, "The fascination for ski slopes had a greater fascination for what was happening there." He spent the next five years working at various ski-related jobs, until he finally realized that this course probably wasn't his destiny. "It was paying the bills, but it was not paying the need for creativity that I had . . . and that was important to me."

So Gregory sold everything he had, bought an old Ford pickup truck and headed up to Montana State University in Bozeman to complete his architectural degree. He chose the school not only because it was highly focused and smaller, but, he laughs, also had a ski slope about 10 minutes away.

It was during his architecture studies, both in Colorado and Montana, that Gregory's personal love of the outdoors began intermingling with his professional aspirations. He recalls that during his time at the

University of Colorado during the early '70s, there was a tremendous influence on environmental design. He cites many of the great professors he was exposed to there—such as Richard Whittaker and Charles Moore—as significant influences on his respect for integrating buildings within the natural condition. He also holds special memories of his time spent studying Buckminster Fuller's principles as well as one of Fuller's very powerful lectures. "To this day, I have vivid memories of that and how brilliant he was," Gregory recalls.

His time at Montana State University was one Gregory says was focused on self-discovery. It was also a time of practical application; while there he won a competition sponsored by Reynolds Aluminum in which he designed a solar energy collector out of beer cans that collected heat during the daytime and released it at nighttime, using
paraffin as a phase change media for energy storage. His prize: $500 dollars.

Before completing his studies at Montana State, Gregory spent six months in Seattle in an internship position for a small practice headed by Joe Williams, one of the city's early Modernists. Williams was, described Gregory, "a highly skilled architect who taught me a lot about design, marketing and construction observations. I got a lot of responsibility and really enjoyed the city."

Upon graduation, Gregory considered his choices: travel to New York City, go back to Denver where he grew up, stay in Montana for a position in Billings, or head back to Seattle for a position at the practice where he interned.

"Weighing those options and knowing that even though I loved New York, as a mountain kid I probably wouldn't survive there for very long, I decided on Seattle. It had an international appeal and a kind of cosmopolitan feel to it, but it also had mountains a little bit away. And boats. So I headed out here."

The next few years were punctuated with short stints at a variety of firms in the Seattle area—the result of the 1980's challenging economy. In retrospect, he says, this exposure to many different firms was beneficial, allowing him to learn how they were organized, how they did their work, how the design process worked and what their value sets and systems were. "This helps me now to have an overall perspective about what's important to a young person and how that fits in terms of Mithun's value system," he notes. "When you're a young architect, you're finding your way as a person and also as a professional—where you belong and fit. For me, there was an energy about trying to learn a lot."

It can certainly be argued that the fit between Gregory and Mithun was a perfect one. When Gregory joined Mithun in 1985, the firm had about 30 employees, many of whom, Gregory notes, are still there. At the beginning, he worked closely with Don Bowman, one of the firm's two partners at the time, concentrating his efforts on a large-scale commercial project, which as a young architect was a very exciting opportunity.

"I surprised myself by staying so long . . . I had never worked in any place for more than three years, and I woke up one day and realized that I was at Mithun for far more than three years. It's a wonderful place to be; it's fun every day. We have a lot of people with great senses of humor and outlooks on life and the world."

As for his promotion to president of the firm in 2000, Gregory says he never really thought about it being one of his explicit career goals. "I was always focused on doing great work, which I think is most important—it's the passion of most young people. In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to be some place where I had a leadership position of sorts, but didn't really know what that meant."

This desire has translated not only into his leadership position at Mithun, but also as a leader in the architecture profession in general and the green design field specifically. He has chaired or served as a member of numerous professional and community organizations, chapters and project committees, and his calendar is often filled with speaking engagements on the subject of sustainable design. During Gregory's tenure, the firm has also been publicly recognized for its groundbreaking work and professional practices: in 2003, Mithun received Corenet Global's Sustainable Design Leadership Award; in 2004, it received the AIA Continuing Education Systems Award for Excellence. The firm also has been honored with awards from Architecture + Energy, Business Week/Architectural Record, the International Interior Design Association, the Urban Land Institute and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It also received a City of Seattle's 2005 Built Green Seattle Design Competition award.

These awards, Gregory says, serve as "validation that the direction that we are headed is having a positive impact and that's an important thing . . . there's a value system to peer recognition." Awards, he notes, also allow designers to acknowledge what they have achieved while encouraging them to ask, "Now, how do we go further?"

Certainly, Mithun's past achievements are impressive—and the firm's progressive philosophy virtually guarantees it is not expected to halt these pioneering efforts any time soon. The firm has successfully translated lessons learned from previous projects and are applying them to current projects with unparalleled success. For example, Gregory points to the first REI project as the one where the importance of an integrated design process was first fully realized.

"From my perspective, that was the first project where a truly integrated design process was starting to happen, getting the full team on board: contractors, engineers, building architects, landscape architects, interior designers—a whole gamut of people who said, 'Here's our objective. What can we do as a team to work toward this goal'?"

The project entailed designing a new retail space for REI, one that reflected the values identified by its members such as resource efficiency and the use of recycled content materials. "Back then, the corporate world wasn't nearly as tuned into what was going on as probably some mission-driven organizations or civic or university leaders were. For REI as a corporate entity, especially as a retailer, to step forward and say this is what it wanted was really quite unusual. It was exciting from our standpoint that the private sector was wanting to figure this out.

"That's still a big commitment of our firm today: to help understand how market forces can be changed toward the automatic direction to green design in the for-profit world," he continues. "We want the folks who do green building to make a whole lot more money than the people who don't do green buildings."

Subsequent projects provided additional learning opportunities. The REI Denver project, for example, found the firm exploring how best to achieve the delicate balance between preserving the important aspects of the structure as an historical artifact so that future generations could learn from it, but doing so in a way that was environmentally intelligent.

Many of the historic preservation lessons learned during that REI Denver project came into play once again when, in 1999, Mithun chose to relocate its offices to a 1900's warehouse property on the waterfront that had not yet been developed for office use. The project also provided Mithun the opportunity to learn firsthand about how particular environmental design strategies can deliver significant economic benefits.

After moving into the offices, Gregory says, the firm wanted to prove that it was more productive in the new space. But, as is the case with many professional services firms, it was difficult to do because of the myriad of variables tied into productivity. What Mithun did discover, however, is that its absenteeism rate is much lower in the new office, and it's also much easier to recruit and retain employees.

Gregory acknowledges that measurements such as internal rates of return, return on investments and risk reduction strategies can be important financial considerations for companies in their decision to go green. But he also argues there's another equally important factor: a corporation's values.

"A corporation has to determine what its values are as far as being a member of the global community. The leadership of the corporation is responsible for deciding that. Many leaders of these entities know that this is the right thing to do and that they need to do what's necessary to move in that direction." But still, he says, they may wonder: What's the payback on something as seemingly insignificant as recycled tile?

"Well, there is payback; certainly there is payback globally. But there's also payback in that you're expressing your values, you're sending a message to your customers and community, as well as a message to your employees about what kind of place they work for."

Mithun's message about its own corporate values came through clearly in 2005 when it announced its decision to join the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), an international market for reducing and trading greenhouse gas emissions. The first architectural and planning firm to join CCX, Mithun's decision to join came about as a result of research it conducted during the Lloyd Crossing Project on the reduction of carbon footprints. "We did a lot of research to get
ourselves smart on the subject," Gregory explains.

What it learned was eye-opening, especially when the firm calculated its own carbon footprint and what elements contributed to that. Mithun's annual greenhouse gas emissions amount to approximately 700 metric tons of carbon. As part of its footprint minimization, the firm now purchases credits to offset the indirect greenhouses gasses released from its office's energy consumption and its staff's business and commuting travel. Mithun's credits will neutralize 75 percent of the firm's emissions from corporate operations, while the remaining 25 percent will be offset via participation in the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which channels offset funds to renewable energy.

In the end, the decision to join CCX was a natural one, corresponding solidly with the firm's mission. "Voluntarily joining CCX confirms Mithun's mission to not only design sustainable places, but to conduct itself as a responsible member of the global community," Gregory noted in the firm's press release.

"Joining the climate exchange was a good vehicle for us to do our offsets in a rationale, economic way," Gregory notes. "Everybody should be doing this. From a practice standpoint, it shows what we can do with the buildings we design to help reduce their footprints. Personally, it makes us look inward; we learn that each of us is a part of the global system and this is a very small thing that we can do as individuals, as families, as well as a company, to demonstrate that what we do is to help drive change."

The past decade, Gregory describes, has been an "exciting and transformational time in history," a pattern he predicts will only continue in the coming years.

"If you take a look at the early part of this decade and the decades to come, and then look at all the history behind us—periods of population growth, resource stress, a tremendous age of information and availability—it's a very unique time in all fields.

In our practice, we are just trying to understand what the forces are and adapt, change and discover as rapidly as possible to keep pace with those changes, while fostering and driving positive change.

"The whole aspect of cross disciplinary and trans-disciplinary design, integrated approaches to projects—that's fundamental to where we are today and where we are headed in the future."

One of the great things about being part of the sustainable design movement, Gregory comments, is that anywhere you go, you can usually gather a wide range of disparate personalities, backgrounds and professions. "When you start rallying around the common goal of green design—it's a unifying thing. What that means is that as designers, we are all rallying around the idea that this is important stuff, and that none of us can figure this out on our own, but together we can make some good progress. We are sponges for information; good ideas come from anywhere. We like it when other people help us learn, so we are committed to helping other people learn as well."

"At the end off the day," Gregory adds, "we are all artists, . . . we are individuals who are all about creating beautiful, wonderful, great livable spaces that are imbued with meaning, have civic importance and are good community neighbors."

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