Thursday, October 04, 2012

Brilliantly Big and Ingeniously Small

Q&A with Paul Sicari of McDermott Will & Emery LLP
and Terri Barnhart of Gensler
By Beth Herman

In a ribbon-cutting, red letter day kind of move from 600 13th Street NW, international law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP officially took up residence on Monday in the shadow of the Capitol -- 500 North Capitol Street NW. Surely a view from the top.

Jettisoning a 205,000 s.f. former floorplate with superfluous aspects—in light of current video-conferencing technology—such as outmoded two-to-six-person conference rooms for out of town visitors, the decision to relocate the 450-member firm to 185,000 s.f. in an aging 1966 structure was a two-year (ad)venture in the making. An aggressive renovation process took around six months. DCMud spoke with McDermott Will & Emery LLP office administrator Paul Sicari and Terri Barnhart, a design director in the D.C. office of architecture firm Gensler, both of whom, along with MWE’s design committee, imagined and executed the renovation.

DCMud: What can you tell us about the site?

Barnhart: When it was offered by Boston Properties and Clark Enterprises, it was a building on the boards for a renovation for a B-class upgrade. We ended up doing a much more extensive renovation than was originally intended.

Sicari: It was the first home of the SEC, and when they moved out, a division of the IRS moved in and had been there for years.

DCMud: So we’re talking about everything: mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems, elevators, a labyrinth of safety and security systems, aesthetics—a total gutting.

Sicari: On the dozens of hard hat tours I gave, I’d tell people the only thing that stayed was the concrete, but to that we made changes too. In fact we took the roof off the building and added a 9th floor with a roof terrace, (affectionately) called the 10th floor.

DCMud: Explain the program.

Barnhart: MWE put together a design committee, and we did a visioning session with them to see how to transform the building. We came up with the catch phrase ‘brilliantly big and ingeniously small.’ It represented how a global firm—there’s something very unique about them—how they hold their relationship with their clients, and they wanted to represent that. There’s a lot of client focus and community service built into the firm’s culture as well.

DCMud: So how did this manifest in the design?

Barnhart: We translated the culture into finishes and materials where we have this very large space for the conference center, and certain collaboration areas, but then we tried to focus it down into patterns and materials with different scales throughout. The artwork responds to that as well.

Sicari: The visioning session Gensler conducted with the committee was a virtual tipping point for me in setting the tone and design of the space. The catch phrase really helped define us: We’re an Am Law top 20 law firm, but what differentiates us from our competitors is we have a lot more of these customized smaller practice groups. Our competitors probably don’t have an alcohol/ beverage group. You almost never find a substantial IP prosecution group. We want clients to feel like it’s a boutique firm, even though we’re a giant footprint. ‘Brilliantly big and ingeniously small’ became the lens through which we looked to design our spaces.

DCMud: How did you define spaces?

Sicari: With a firm made up of a lot of small practices, it’s easy for people to get into their silos so they don’t get to know the person down the hall. Even though it’s still a law firm with a lot of walls, we talked about taking a space and making it more of an open concept. We used a lot of glass in the design. We created zones where people are forced to interact. Law firms in the past tended to create three or four copy areas— a copy area on each floor in the name of convenience. We said we don’t want that—we want to create one giant space where people might bump into one another and get to know each other.
DCMud: Doesn’t that mitigate productivity?

Sicari: We created spaces where people can grab coffee, or put their lunch, or pick up a color print job, and thereby interact with their colleagues. Knowing your neighbor is just as important to us as is someone being fast at picking up copies.

DCMud: Are there examples of how the firm may have increased productivity through design?

Sicari: A ‘team room’ is a great example of a concept that we had. It wasn’t about a room; it was about workflow and providing better support not just for our lawyers but for our clients in this more technological 24/7 age that we live in. A team room is a space for a collection of three or four secretaries working staggered shifts and hours, so that we can provide uninterrupted coverage 12 hours a day, five days a week. This kind of thing used to be called a secretarial pool, but that implies anonymity.

DCMud: We understand you are seeking LEED Gold for this reconditioned space. Can you talk about the materials used?

Barnhart: Veneers and substrates are FSC-certified. We used low-VOC paints, glues and sealants, and low-flow plumbing as well as higher efficiency VAV’s. Because of the building’s location and repurposing in an urban setting, we were able to obtain points as well. Occupancy sensors are in place and a lot of glass brings in natural light. There is a fitness center and bike racks.

Sicari: The building is now known as the McDermott building and is within eye shot of everyone who passes through Union Station. That was an exciting element for this location as well. We are really proud to be here.

Washington D.C. design news


Anonymous said...

If "the 1%" can't afford and don't aspire to have beauty and sustainability, what hope is there for "the 99%"? This project looks like lots of money, very well spent. Great job, gives optimism to the rest of us.

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