2023 Outlook: Miller Hull’s Rob Misel Discusses Future Design Trends

Miller Hull, Seattle, San Diego, San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Rob Misel

As design trends continue to evolve, so do the architecture firms behind those trends. Miller Hull has recently experienced some notable change, with the retirement of Managing Partner Ron Rochon. Rochon is retiring after 22 years with Miller Hull, and in his place will be Rob Misel. Misel has also been at the architecture firm for 21 years and brings his experience working on large-scale projects like the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, the C Concourse expansion at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and other major projects. The Registry recently reached out to Misel to learn more about changes at the firm as well as, on a broader scale, what architectural changes and trends might be expected over the course of the next year. 

When it comes to the architectural design of commercial spaces, what trends can you say have emerged in 2022?

The impact of hybrid work with our commercial clients, both on the public and private sides, has driven a lot of conversation about right-sizing buildings. Particularly with our public clients, we’ve been performing a lot of space needs analyses because there’s a concern about overbuilding the program. Generally, we’re seeing our clients committed to a hybrid working model, acknowledging that they are reaching a broader talent pool who otherwise might not be as interested due to the opportunity for hybrid and remote work. 

But it’s still a balance to get to the right size. For example, how can we ensure there’s a desk for everyone who’s scheduled to be there when there’s a peak need in the middle of the week when most employees are in the office? How can we schedule that? Most people seem to be coming in one to two or three days a week. Finding the right size but allowing for (future) growth is a key part of the discussion.

We’ve been looking at modular system models in which office areas are broken into suites, with space standards for both small/medium conference rooms which are equal in size to small and supervisor-type office spaces within the same space. For now, this gives us the opportunity for more equity and flexibility within the space, with fewer enclosed manager’s offices and employees in “cubicle farms.” We’re seeing this with multiple clients. The great thing is that, if desired, there’s an opportunity to flex back and implement privacy within the model, so we’re establishing a kind of “Privacy on Demand.”

What about multifamily properties? What trends have you seen evolve there in 2022?

In our Seattle market, a couple of administrative moves by the City are beginning to impact the multifamily market. One is the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program which requires developers to provide affordable housing units in their projects or contribute directly to the City’s efforts to develop and build affordable housing. Affordability is getting away from the median income, and the MHA is taking hold and making a difference. Also, the Design Review Board (DRB) process has added a lot of administrative costs to developers, which has contributed to higher rents. So, the City has listened and is revamping the DRB process to be less cumbersome and more administrative, thereby diminishing opportunities for NIMBYs to drive the DRB process, which has limited the number of housing units coming on board and has contributed to significant costs to developers—costs which are ultimately passed on to tenants.

In San Diego and Seattle, we’re seeing smaller units overall, with an emphasis on developing and landscaping shared public and private spaces for building tenants, particularly on the ground plane, but also in communal spaces intended specifically for the building tenants. Right now, landscaped, green, and planted areas are being considered just as much as the building design.

What surprised you the most over the last 12 to 18 months? Do you think that trend will continue into 2023 and beyond?

As a person who acknowledges the benefit gained from performing certain tasks in a remote work environment, within an area of personal comfort, privacy and efficiency, I can see that a hybrid work model is with us to stay.

While we do not mandate time in the office, I believe the hybrid model will undergo a more rigorous structuring in the coming year, where firms will lean into the best aspect of teams and individuals working both at home and in the office. Already, we’re seeing our staff drawn back to the office for the reasons of camaraderie, professional development, and being better able to engage as a cohesive team. As the managing partner, I know the quality assurance process is inherently better when teams work in person, and a quick question can be answered without scheduling a 30-minute Zoom call on your calendar. I believe in 2023, this will result in a more normal ‘before times’ feel in our studios, balanced by focused, working time at home when appropriate.

How did 2022 end for you and your firm? Was it as expected or were there some surprises along the way, too?

At Miller Hull, 2022 was surprisingly strong and we grew in numbers in both of our studios to meet the demand. Our working portfolio of projects was buffeted by a robust and balanced client mix in both public and private sector work. In past years, as the economy has ebbed and flowed, Miller Hull has diligently worked hard to flex into the strength of our public sector work when our private and developer work has waned, and vice-versa. 2022 was fortunately a strong year for both. At the beginning of 2022, we were poised for a very good year, and much of that came to fruition, but in the third and fourth quarters, market factors along with strong competition in our project pursuits contributed to a slightly weaker second half, a pattern which appears to likely extend into the first half of 2023.

As you look at the market dynamics in 2023, what do you think will be the most significant things that will define the industry in the coming year?

We are cautiously entering 2023 with an eye on what will likely be very healthy competition for our work in the public sector. And the Commercial office market appears to have weakened somewhat, demonstrated by soft office occupancy rates. Many developers seem to have pressed ‘pause’ on current work until there’s a clearer sense of what will happen in the economy. Interestingly, many of the market indices remain strong, yet the market narrative right now tends to be about recession. The data does not support the recession story, and I’m in favor of simply changing the narrative. My hope is that people will realize that the sky is not falling, and by the end of the year, I believe we will have a better-than-anticipated 2023!

What opportunities do you see in the coming year, and how are you and your firm preparing for the year ahead?

Miller Hull works in a variety of market sectors, but in 2023, I believe there are two things all architects must consider in every aspect of our work and practice; we must consider everything we do through a lens of equity and inclusion, and through a lens of sustainability. If we do not earnestly commit to this, we will find ourselves behind those firms that are already committed to equitable and sustainable practices. 

At Miller Hull, this means consistently challenging ourselves to ensure we’re providing a place of employment where everyone feels included, safe, and supported in their work; that we work to diversify our firm and provide opportunities for all our staff. We’re looking for equity in our project teams and our project outcomes, and are actively seeking to be inclusive of the people and communities that use our buildings and influence our designs. We are diligently working to meet the goals of our own JEDI Initiative. We are also rapidly moving toward our commitment to the 2030 Challenge, which presently requires that our buildings achieve a 90 percent reduction in fossil fuels and increased energy performance for all new buildings and major renovations by 2025. Lastly, we invite you to join us in our EMission Zero initiative, which targets the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions in the buildings we design as we work toward meeting the 2030 Challenge. Each of these things takes serious work to put into practice, and the time is now.

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