Making Missoula —Where Progressive Design Equals Thriving Communities

MMW Architects
Written by Pauline Müller

A penchant for interdisciplinary exploration has been a distinctive element of MMW Architects since it was established in 1997. This skilled team of 30 creates buildings that enhance their surroundings while looking like they were always meant to be there.

At MMW Architects, progressive design means creating balance across several spheres of design. During a time when architects navigate the housing crisis alongside climate change, it is good to know that there are firms passionately committed to doing that with as much integrity as MMW. With a growing team recruited from across the country, the company’s contemporary offices extend across two buildings in Missoula, Montana. Beyond creating modern, technically sound buildings, the firm’s strong sense of harmony informs design that serves clients, communities, and the Earth.

Senior Associate Architect and Project Manager Shane Morrissey, who has been with the company for nearly two decades, is proud of the distinct lack of ego in its offices. “It is pretty easy to have a great workplace when the people you hire are smart, talented, ambitious, and socially conscious,” he says.

Creating future-proof buildings constructed to last at least half a century is simply part of what this firm does. This company believes that no matter how many clean, alternative energy sources are incorporated into a design, no building is energy-wise if it needs tearing down a few years after construction for being dated or dysfunctional.

“We know that our work has an impact on more than just the client; it impacts the community, the Earth, the next generation,” says Morrissey. Therefore, the team leaves no concept untouched in the search for practical design solutions to modern-day concerns like extreme weather and protecting the planet.

One such high-tech project earned the company great recognition. A consciously designed building with more than 340 parking spaces, the mixed-use Park Place parking building in downtown Missoula includes retail spaces and the largest solar panel array in Montana at the time of construction. The perforated anodized panels on the façade screen the cars, shift hues with the path of the sun, and retain their appeal and connection to the surrounding landscape. Designed and built between 2010 and 2013, this project is an example of the company’s knack for future-proofing buildings through timeless design.

Park Place was selected based on a design competition, and MMW won several awards for this work. In 2014, it received the International Parking Institute’s Award of Excellence for Architectural Achievement, while 2015 saw the arrival of two more awards: the Montana Innovators Award and USGBC Montana Sustainability’s Commercial Building Citation Award, Special Jury Award of Urban Design, and the Mobility Award.

Indeed, MMW Architects is improving how local communities engage with design. “We believe that everyone deserves the right to thoughtfully designed spaces, regardless of net worth,” says Morrissey. While such altruism may go against the grain of many hardline commercial designers, the company has completed several prestigious projects that prove that well-managed generosity bankrupts nobody.

True to its ethos and to help its local communities thrive and make intelligent design accessible for everyone, the company is well-known for pro bono work that helps support and develop opportunities for young and old alike. As a result, its staff also commit to a generous amount of annual volunteering, represent the industry, and donate time and knowledge to local government boards.

“We look at the big picture policies in our community and try to shape these policies to improve the place [we] live,” says Morrissey. MMW staff serve on a number of boards in the community. Currently these include MUTD (transit), Planning Board (zoning and subdivision), Home Resource (recycling and waste management), Historic Preservation, and Mountain Bike Missoula (trails and access).

The company’s involvement with Climate Smart Missoula is another exciting collaboration, with a range of disciplines from finance and engineering to climate activism and architecture joining forces for good. As an outflow of this, the group initiated Building(s) for the Future, a think tank where carbon sequestration in construction is the main focus. It also started the Footprint Fund, a carbon offset scheme with the potential to deliver dividends for the health of Missoula’s natural environment.

In addition to its social contributions, the company entered the 2030 Architecture Challenge, established in support of the United Nations’ Paris Agreement initiative. Just under 40 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be generated by buildings themselves, so the race is on to turn the situation around. As part of its entry, the company reports all of its energy modeling projects to the American Institute of Architects’ AIA2030 DDX program, where it can measure its performance against other new construction. With such a go-getter spirit, there have been several standout projects over the years.

One of the firm’s most recent gratifying projects was the Cornerstone Apartments. As a proof-of-concept project, these affordable units showed stakeholders that low-cost, quality building is possible while minimizing the overall carbon performance of a project. MMW was also responsible for Montana’s first new LEED Platinum building at the Missoula Federal Credit Union’s Russell Street Branch, now known as Clearwater Credit Union. Featuring many firsts, like fly ash and glass concrete, passive heating and cooling, and greywater recycling, the project was a signature step into the world of conscious commercial building in the area.

There is also the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Conference Center, a modern building that reflects the natural textures of the surrounding wilderness. Contributing to this sleek yet textured aesthetic is a selection of carbon-restricted materials, including cross-laminated timber. Current calculations estimate the sequestration of more than 100 tons of carbon on this building alone.

Other notable projects include the net-zero uptown Butte branch of Clearwater Credit Union, boasting a 66kw photovoltaic array system with air-to-air heat pumps. Another unusual project of which the firm is proud is the Tower Road Corner Farm Village. This farm village has community housing with direct access to a farmers market store, all revolving around the task of creating and retaining healthy agricultural soil.

Finally, MMW Architects is also involved in the design of the Montana State University Wellness Center, which will see its big opening celebration later this summer. Centralizing student care in one advanced space on what used to be a brownfield site, this chic building is planned to qualify as LEED Gold standard, with solar wall technology, geothermal cooling and heating, plus a full 432kw photovoltaic array.

To achieve such sophistication, staff members must keep up to date with all the relevant qualifications in the field. Several of MMW’s designers hold Phius and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications. While LEED certification has become an industry standard, Phius is a non-profit organization striving to establish top-quality passive building as a commonplace standard in the general market by minimizing the carbon contribution of buildings.

The firm also recently became Just-certified. Just—part of the Living Future Institute—is an organization committed to driving corporate transparency, describing itself as ‘a nutrition label for socially just and equitable organizations.’

“As the first, exceptionally proud Just-certified design firm in the state, the company is happy to illustrate its commitment to sustainability in this way,” says Morrissey. “We like to think of sustainability in our firm on all fronts—not just the work we produce but how our firm achieves sustainability in business, for the environment, and for our company.”

MMW’s Just application also allowed the company to reassess how it invests in its people. Above the standard perks people have come to expect, like family leave, 401(k) matching, fair and accessible salary structures, staff enjoy paid time off to invest in social causes that matter to them.

MMW Architects not only designs for the planet; it designs for comfort to suit customers’ daily routines, as big and small pleasures also guide design decisions. “Beyond being progressive, everything we touch, as a firm, is designed for the clients’ rituals and experiences at the forefront,” Morrissey adds.

Technology that improves productivity is also always welcomed here. “Our design work is top-notch in the inter-mountain west. Couple that with our progressive sustainability work, and I think we offer a pretty unique client experience,” he says.

While some of its software suites, like Revit, are commonplace, others have re-sculpted the company’s labor landscape. Some of these include names like COVE, software focused on improving sustainable building design; Lumion, which comes with a Live Sync plug-in for real-time syncing across most CAD tools; and Twinmotion, another potent real-time visualization package also with easy syncing between collaborators.

The company is not all work and no play, however. With a thriving and active social schedule, it welcomes anyone in Missoula and area to join its rafting, golf, fishing, running, and biking clubs. As well as having good, clean fun together, the team also knows how to get its hands dirty with plenty of environmental clean-ups, trail maintenance days, food drives, and more keeping everyone working together outside of the office.

“These aren’t really services but they are fun, and we have a good time with them!” Morrissey says with a smile. Add to that the lunch runs it hosts to get to know customers and consultants better and one understands why everyone here is so relaxed and happy.

Intelligent companies work hard to maintain and retain the talent they have, and happy offices are a part of this. In this regard, Morrissey sees the industry improving significantly. “The young people in our office and our industry are bringing their energy and social consciousness to the work we do to create the future they want to live in and hand down to their children,” he says.

As MMW sees its role as continuously progressive within the greater Missoula community, the company looks forward to even more cross-pollination with those in its industry—engineers, partners, and organizations working toward social change and improvement. The team would also like to see national leaders join the sustainability and design picture.

“We have the opportunity in Missoula to move our community forward in a thoughtful way and export the work we are doing to other communities,” he says, highlighting just how special that is.

Where there is no trail, MMW Architects builds one or several; where there are no solutions, it will create them. With such a positive attitude, there can only be many good things to come.



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