Guiding Mithun’s Focus

Mithun | Solomon San Francisco San Jose LEED BART Bay Area Silicon Valley Anne Torney architechure design multi-family SPUR
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Photography courtesy of Laura Kudritzki

Anne Torney and Mithun commit to community and sustainability in design as well as growing their business.


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nne Torney is a partner at Mithun, where she serves on the firm’s board of directors and leads the Mithun | Solomon office in San Francisco. Torney is an architect who has made affordable multi-family and housing and transit-oriented urban infill the focus of her work for more than 20 years. Her affordable housing work includes award-winning projects in San Francisco as well as San Jose, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Torney brings a deep commitment to community outreach and sustainable design to her projects, which range from supportive studios for formerly homeless seniors, to the revitalization of isolated public housing sites into walkable, mixed-use and mixed-income communities. Her sensitivity to client and user objectives animates her leadership of complex projects with multi-layered client and consultant teams.

Through her volunteer work for organizations such as SPUR and the AIA, Anne is an active advocate for mixed-income, transit-oriented development. She is a LEED Accredited Professional with a degree in architecture from Princeton. She is currently pursuing her masters in architecture at UC Berkeley.

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TR: Given that architecture and design are usually at the front end of the real estate cycle, how would you characterize the state of the architecture industry today? Is Mithun and companies that play in its space busy today?

TORNEY: Architecture and design firms are indeed busy, along with the rest of the industry. One thing that’s exciting about the current cycle in architecture is the new wave of designers coming into the profession with a great deal of energy and strong commitment to sustainability and community. The field lost a lot of experienced people during the last recession but this new cohort is completely committed to values that have been drivers of our work for a long time.

Some of the newer thinking reflects how millennials and Gen X, and even those of us in earlier arcs, are wanting a lot of the same thing: Communities that are healthy, well balanced, more complete because the greatest neighborhoods in the greatest cities have a wide diversity of uses and users. We’re seeing more symbiotic approaches in the built environment, because people are seeking more integrated ways of looking at traditionally separate uses. For example, there’s been a lot said about live-work spaces, but there are also learn-live, work-learn, live-work-learn and the like. This interdisciplinary approach is driving a lot of design and has become an organizing principle for our firm.

TR: Are there any concerns that you see on the horizon that give you pause?

TORNEY: As cities get denser, we must also have the transit, the green space and infrastructure that make cities livable. For example, the second BART tube under the Bay is becoming a critical need, not the far off idea it’s been labeled. It will require tremendous public and private effort to make it happen, but we need it now, today.

On the housing front, Bay Area cities and especially San Francisco need to stay committed to creating affordable and workforce housing while we have the political will and public support to do so. It is how we maintain the diverse and welcoming cities we know and love. At the top of the list is creating of Housing Trust Funds at both the local and state levels, as San Francisco has done. We can’t count on just federal money. By developing funding in partnership with federal and other sources, local communities also have a stronger voice in its creation.

We also really need cooperation between Bay Area cities to build housing everywhere and defeat the “not in my backyard” mindset. It’s particularly painful in the increasingly Balkanized Silicon Valley where there are dozens of jurisdictions that need housing, transportation and everything coordinated so that the regional impact is shared efficiently.

Employers are even seeing they have to act in the void of local and regional planning for housing. Those that are creating or accessing housing for their employees are doing it out of self-preservation, to continue attracting top talent that loves the idea of working in Silicon Valley but are starting to choose other regions because of the housing and infrastructure problems.

TR: How optimistic are you about 2016? Why?

TORNEY: I tend to be more optimistic in general, as long as people recognize challenges and work on them. The current focus on creating well-designed, well-located housing is one of the most supportive I’ve seen in pressing the issue the past 20 years, so that’s very encouraging. Transportation and infrastructure are getting more attention as well but need to move up the list. All in all, the Bay Area has shown incredible talent and innovation in solving business challenges globally, and we just need that same energy applied to our local problems. Groups like ABAG, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, SPUR, San Francisco Housing [Action] Coalition, and many others are working tirelessly to achieve the cooperation and results we need for a livable Bay Area. And more elected officials are seeing the value of stepping up to a regional mindset while serving local constituents. If the economy stays healthy, then 2016 holds a lot of promise for easing these regional/local problems.

TR: What are some of most interesting developments in the industry that you are seeing evolve today?

TORNEY: One of the most exciting new developments in real estate is the interest in health, and how the built environment can contribute to better health. Not long ago, the idea of design for productivity swept the real estate world so that it’s commonplace to have more daylight coming into workplaces, homes and hospitals. It’s fascinating now to see that healthcare professionals and real estate people are working more closely than ever in looking at design’s broader impact on health and well-being. The increase in obesity rates and lifestyle-related diabetes is costly to the individual, but also to overall society so that the incremental changes we can make to promote active, healthy living is better for everyone.

The issue is cross-industry, as you’ve seen with the Urban Land Institute’s initiative called Building Healthy Places and the American Institute of Architects’ Design and Health.

TR: Your organization is based in the Bay Area and the Seattle region. Are you focused on work in those regions exclusively or are clients from those regions also taking you to projects around the globe as their needs are expanding? Is this different from the way your business was managed in the past?

TORNEY: I think each of the principals of the firm, throughout their careers, would say they go where the client work takes them, and it’s a combination of local and national. Mithun, which includes our main Seattle office and our Mithun | Solomon office in San Francisco, is a unique interdisciplinary design firm with a mission to create the greatest impact on people’s daily lives—where they live, work and learn. By refusing to create specialty silos in the firm, Mithun is experimenting with the synergies between housing, workplace and education project types. Our ability to expand the possibilities of design solutions is supported by our inspiration: focusing on the needs of the user, a culture of curiosity and discovery, the patterns of nature. It’s also our ethos, “Design for Positive Change.”

TR: All indications point to the fact that sustainability is table stakes in design today in the Bay Area and elsewhere. How much of that design makes it to the actual projects, and do you see cost containment eat away at some of the sustainable features that were designed earlier? 

TORNEY: We design with sustainability ‘baked in’ to the bones of our projects in ways that reflect the needs and values of the specific clients and communities. Student-life centers such as those we’ve designed at the University of Washington, UC-Irvine and UC-San Diego have different sustainability emphasis than, say, our office spaces in Silicon Valley or the multi-family we’re doing in the Bay Area. The key is to focus on the needs of constituents, such as the productivity and employee health for office space design, or the emphasis on durability, energy efficiency and indoor air quality in low-income housing. How our designs support community, whether through transit, contributing to a beautiful public realm, or through the creation of indoor-outdoor social spaces, is recognized by clients and cities alike as deeply valuable.

Principles drawn from the natural environment are key to good design, for people. Humans have intrinsic needs rooted in our DNA to connect to nature. These needs are crossing project typologies and scales from urban design to buildings to furniture and the smallest details.

TR: What defines a successful architect in the future? Is it harder to do your job today than perhaps it was in the past?

TORNEY: I think strong architects are taking a bigger role not just with their projects, but with the larger context that makes them ultimately more successful. You have to be willing to embrace and tackle the big picture, to know about transit development issues, employee-retention trends, what generates great urbanism, the pendulum of politics and energy policy. It’s important for architects, planners and designers who want sustainable, beautiful, choice-rich cities, to help convey those big picture issues to clients, to elected officials, to everyone.

It’s particularly challenging to keep that perspective when a single project can take years, some even more than a decade.

Architects have to be very nimble in responding to market changes and political realities that can change a project mid-stream. Keeping the project in line with the client objectives in the face of ever-changing regulatory and political frameworks is indeed challenging.

One response Mithun has taken is to develop an integrated design practice that incorporates all the core design disciplines—architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, planning—so that we can work nimbly with most anything in-house and stay focused on the end objectives.

TR: In our ever-connected and diverse world comprised of individuals from different countries and cultures, how does great design transcend those differences and accomplish to please so many?

TORNEY: Great design is in the eye of the beholder, but we believe great design that works for the client, for their constituents and for the community occurs when the spaces provide comfortable, welcoming environments that enable people to come together. It’s what makes a home feel like home and an office or commercial environment feel engaging and welcoming.

An exciting theme taking greater hold in real estate development is the incorporation of nature and natural elements. What was once on the edges of design thinking is now moving to the forefront—that bringing people closer to nature, indoors and out, is also a great way to create mixing and gathering space. We all gravitate to outdoor decks, open atriums and beautiful landscapes, and it enlivens a project to include natural elements and the outdoors.

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