Updated: Apr 15
MKThink was formed on Leap Day, 2000. 20 years and only five anniversaries later, we reflect on the leap from that February day to the world of today. As we ponder, we consider our heritage and our development from quasi-traditional practice through our progressive discovery of what practice could be.
Our discoveries have led us to understand that our work, our service, our creativity would be more relevant if we accelerated a practice shift from that of the master-builder to the more relevant role of problem-solver who contributes to thoughtful places.
To know where we are going, in light of the acute revelations that annum 20-20 provided, here follows our journey noted through stories from our representative assignments.
These stories reflect our heritage and contribute to our trajectory learning forward:
1. MKThink v.1.0: Names Matter
We started with intention and a drive to challenge conventional practice. We wanted to build a practice that was as much about creating physical spaces as about challenging ideas around how space is made, used, and maintained in relationship with the environment and culture. Most of all, we wanted to project our identity as thinkers, problem-solvers, ideators. That laid the foundation for our name, and our first brand expression: MKThink, the IDEAS company for the built environment.
2. Start Big: General Motors and the Saarinen Legacy
Our first assignment was a continuation of our work as leaders within KMD, where we had worked with General Motors to plan their campus expansion and unification in Warren, MI. As MKThink, we continued to guide the company in its planning and design process and pioneered methods that integrated building, site, and brand. We leveraged Eero Saarinen's lasting campus legacy of building as a system, leading to the National Historic Landmarks distinction by the National Park Service, which enhanced the campus brand and earned tax credits of $150M+. Meanwhile, we focused on delivering a vision that integrated the campus' physical spaces with product placement, marketing, wayfinding, and branding. Key to our planning and architectural guidelines was focusing on creating a high-performance workplace and ROI, an approach less common among architecture practices at the time.
3. Survival Notice v.2.0: Commitment to the Idea
Though highly successful, the GM project reminded us how resistant conventional architectural practice was to the informative potential of organizational, behavioral, and cultural research. The experience quickly focused our original, founding intentions as we realized that, in order for us as architects to be truly relevant, we needed to engage with organizations at the heart of improving society-at-large. While working with commercial clients was rewarding, we wanted to focus our drive on places where our skills and approach would be of highest value: educational and institutional settings. We set out to work with mission-driven organizations.
4. Stanford Law School: Listen to the Experts
In 2002, we had our opportunity: we embarked on updating the Stanford University Law School’s master plan with the Future Forward Plan, an engagement that would lead to a long-standing relationship with the University. The Future Forward Plan placed the focus on Law School faculty, acknowledging their essential role in advancing the school’s mission, and their expertise as key users of the spaces we were designing and planning. To this day, we continue to work closely with our clients' stakeholders through all stages of work.
5. Higher Authorities: Woodside Priory School, Father Martin and Education Places
Two years later, we met and were taken with Father Martin, the head of the Benedictine community at Woodside Priory School. He and the community at the school inspired us to push the boundaries of traditional educational spaces. Woodside Priory is a college preparatory school with its roots in a 1500-year-old tradition of Catholic Benedictine education that nurtures heart, mind, and soul. Many of our private and public education clients over the years have benefitted from our holistic approach to learning environments.
6. Stanford Graduate School of Business: Space Counts
Back at Stanford University, the Graduate School of Business (GSB) was no longer supporting its teaching methodologies, undermining its ability to stay competitive with peer institutions. For the GSB, MKThink conducted an extensive stay-or-go analysis that assessed the utilization and needs of current facilities. This represented our first foray into a more analytic, data-driven approach to space, occupancy, and utilization, in connection to the organization and culture we were serving. Informed by stakeholder interviews, site observations, and surveys of peer institutions, the project team defined optimal design criteria and space requirements and proposed three strategic alternatives. The GSB opted to relocate its campus on an accelerated schedule. The Knight Management Center opened its doors in April 2011.
7. Mission Bay Pavilions: Small is the New Big
Small projects can have a big impact. We tested this thesis in 2007 when developing the once-abandoned lot under Highway 280 in San Francisco into what is now known as Mission Creek Sports Park. After negotiating requirements with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, MKThink transformed this former brownfield into a community resource featuring creekside park with basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts. Anchoring the park at either end are the Kayak House and the Maintenance Pavilion, which stylishly house recreation equipment and public restrooms. With their design, we aimed for creating delight while staying cost- and schedule-conscious. The result is much appreciated. So much so that, in 2009, urban design critic John King wrote: "Kayak House is the most lyrical shed you'll ever see. It also delivers a moral: The public infrastructure around us need never be mundane."
8. Stanford d.school: Architecture Out of the Way
If small was the new big, could we consider a new paradigm altogether? What if architecture were a framework, an infrastructure for human activity and dynamism? What if it "got out of the way," so that people could populate and flexibly reconfigure their space for their evolving needs? Our Stanford d.school design accomplished just that. In 2008-2009, MKThink restored the historic Peterson Building in the design of a space that has become the hub for Stanford’s creative groups, bringing the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, The Design Group, and the Center for Design Research under one roof. The d.school space is the physical expression of design-thinking—fueling brainstorming, rapid prototyping, and the cross-pollination of ideas. In the d.school founders' own words: "The whole culture of the place says, ‘we’re looking for better ideas...’ Every element is meant to stir innovation."
9. Project FROG: Move the Needle? Solve for Scale
In 2006, we realized that, in California public schools, 80,000 of 270,000 classrooms were portables. Intended as interim solutions, portables are often utilized beyond their recommended lifespan and commonly suffer from inadequate ventilation, poor indoor air quality, and substandard lighting and acoustics. What could we as architects do to address this issue at scale? Recognizing the need for an alternative, we developed a pre-engineered building system that is energy-efficient, greener, healthier, and more affordable. The modular design expedited construction and was easily configurable to any space requirements. We called our initiative "Project Frog." Project Frog was incubated into its own company in 2010, and its solutions have gone on to be implemented in more than twenty school districts statewide including: Los Angeles USD, SSFUSD, Long Beach USD, Oakland USD, and others.
10. Town School for Boys: Tight Education
At the Town School for Boys, we wanted to create a building that itself acted as a teaching tool. The design strategy coalesced around four themes: building systems and tools, environmental context, social interaction, and historical context. Recognizing the building systems' role in creating comfortable learning spaces, we worked to reveal how the building and its mechanical, plumbing, and IT systems mitigate noise, glare, and other nuisances. We exposed the building as a mediator and interface to its natural environment. We thoughtfully placed nodes and flexible open spaces to foster project-based learning, structured collaboration, and constructive informal interaction. Lastly, we created spatial connections that enabled students to better perceive the history of the site, region, and geology.
11. Survival Reminder v.3.0: Solve-at-the-pace-of-need: Crissy Field Center
Architecture moves too slow, need things more relevant, need to liberate / think beyond the box. Shift to a product platform so can solve 300k modular classroom in US that were underperforming and not purpose designed. Crissy field is about relevance.
12. Avoid Obsolescence: RH1, Analog Assets, Digital Age
We recognized an "innovation gap" between the exponential rate at which mobile technology was developing and the glacial pace of evolution in architecture. To avoid obsolescence, we needed to leverage this gap as an opportunity, so we incubated our next enterprise: "RoundhouseOne." We had already built an expertise on treating the built environment as a system rather than as an object. Understanding the measurable interdependencies among built assets, organizational culture, and resource consumption had provided us a roadmap to devise meaningful strategies for both facilities management and organizational development. With RoundhouseOne, we invested in accelerating our capacity to collect, generate, and synthesize large amounts of qualitative and quantitative data as an integral part of the design process. We started developing sensors and platforms through which buildings could become active data-gathering resources that provide organizations with insight. In short, we laid the foundations of what we refer to as "Spatial Intelligence."
13. OUSD: Intelligence for Equity
In 2008, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) was $89 million in debt and faced an $18-million structural deficit for the 2010-2011 school year. This fiscal crisis demanded cost-cutting strategies to manage its 6,000,000-SF asset portfolio. MKThink conducted a system-wide assessment of 108 sites, 1,334 buildings, and 12,188 rooms. Analysis of this data identified factors that affect facilities funding: school choice policy, enrollment projections, feeder patterns, classroom capacity, and utilization. We proposed a strategy to manage assets as a system (not site by site) to support OUSD’s vision for an equitable, Full-Service Community Schools district. The strategy was the basis for the 2012 Facilities Master Plan, unanimously adopted by the Board of Education and funded by a $475 million bond. MKThink has gone on to work with the district again, most recently on the 2019 Facilities Master Plan, which paved the path for the successful passage of another bond program, which will support $750 million in needed projects.
14. San Francisco Unified School District: Eat Well
We never shy away from big questions. In the context of the sustained obesity epidemic, the San Francisco Unified School District hired MKThink to address one part of its 10-point strategy for reforming the school meal program: its supply chain. The district, which served 58,270 students, was seeking to deliver healthy, fresh meals reliably and within budget, while continuing to grow its enrollment and meal program participation. We applied a systems-thinking approach to examine the components of the supply chain system and understand the interconnected and interdependent feedback loops that define it. Our team surveyed kitchen facilities and equipment at 114 sites to assess their potential as regional production kitchens. Using this data, we modeled scenarios for a network of high-volume production kitchens and mapped out a phased implementation plan that factored in the cost of kitchen renovations, equipment upgrades, and projected demand. The recommended network and plan delivered financial and operational sustainability and the desired nutritional standards.
15. Stanford Medicine Clinical Excellence Center: Health Well
How could a workplace program recharge intellectual, collegial, and physical needs in a technologically advanced and healthful environment? Working with Stanford Medicine to answer this question for its 400 faculty and 340 staff, we developed a vision centered on a building as a service-oriented concierge model. This would be a well-serviced and highly responsive building that delivers “what they need when they need it” and leaves its users feeling rejuvenated when they depart. The emphasis on service garnered broad support, as it offered faculty time-saving resources to enhance their professional performance and improve their personal well being. The vision was translated into a flexible programmatic "kit-of-parts" that utilizes space efficiently to create the shared amenities. The flexibility of the model would enable 10 distinct departments to easily customize it to their needs and adapt it over time.
16. REACHE: Knowledge Intersections
In 2010, we started collaborating with the US Office of Naval Research to address the Navy’s need to better position its physical assets for success across local culture, environment, and energy requirements. We developed the REACHE program (Renewable Energy Architecture for Cultural and Human Environments), which began with research into the various ways Culture, Architecture, and Environment impact each other. The program then progressed into a series of field studies in the Philippines and Hawaii, investigating the extent to which these impacts manifested themselves in the real world. The data collected during these field studies was stored in a longitudinal data management system developed by MKThink. It continues to be used today in projects across MKThink’s portfolio, providing a multi-dimensional look into the performance of facilities across many different environments and cultures.
17. ECCL: It Takes a Multigeneration Village
At the Emeryville Center of Community Life (ECCL), we worked to create a community anchor, enhancing the lives of residents of all ages. How did that come about? The ECCL is the result of an innovative partnership between the Emeryville Unified School District and the City of Emeryville—one of the first joint-use facilities in the nation. MKThink collaborated with numerous stakeholders over 20+ community design workshops to ensure a facility designed by the community for the community. Scenario modeling established a strong case for the financial and community benefit of consolidation and secured city council and school board approvals. The 12-hour-per-day hustle and bustle of the site is a testament to the dynamism that can come about when generations, disciplines, and agencies work together to build community.
18. Relevance: Analog assets, digital age
In 2016 we gave a talk at the Academy of Architecture's NEXT conference where we bemoaned the fact that space is "heavy". It's "analog". And we're in a "digital age" where everything is "light" and "fast". And changing rapidly. Architecture simply can't keep up. But if we could re-think what architecture is... we might have a chance!
19. Air Angel: Care, know, decide
Over the last 10 years we've worked with numerous clients trying to make good decisions about their spaces. The problem? They don't have any data to base those decisions on. It's all anecdote. So we decided to get our hands dirty and build some sensors to collect the data they needed. That work led us to build a company and a product series called Air Angel, a healthy spaces as a service company. Today we deployed Air Angel sensors in gyms, grocery stores, schools and elsewhere to assess the health of those spaces and keep people doing what they love.
20. Lagom: Just enough is a feast
Over the last year I've discovered one of my favorite words: Lagom. Lagom is translated from Swedish to mean "just the right amount". That's what MKThink is about. Build less, solve more. Don't over do it. Don't use too much data, just the right amount. Don't add too many square feet, just the right amount. Americans love "more" and "bigger". But there's a deeper value out there, and that's what we're after.