Life Audit

Adding Light Motifs

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VITAL STATISTICS Noland Hamerly Etienne & Hoss (Dave Merritt, executive director; Christine Kemp, partner) BUDGET $300,000 GOAL Update the firm’s Salinas, Calif., office space while keeping its sense of place in the community.

For most of its 78-year existence, Noland Hamerly Etienne & Hoss has resided in the same office building on a busy one-way street deep in the heart of Califor­nia’s Salinas Valley.

Built in the ’30s, the low-slung, single-story building that the firm calls home has a distinctively retro look. A decorative, patterned concrete-block screen covers part of the building’s front, and a flat metal awning and Deco-style signage sit atop the building’s main en­trance. Together, the pieces evoke another era.

Ditto the firm’s common spaces. Entering the firm’s of­­­fices, visitors walk through outdated glass doors and down a long wood-and-glass-paneled hallway. The firm’s main reception area, with its glass block and thick trim, follows a design dictum that’s long since peaked.

While not unattractive, it all looks a bit, well, tired. And that’s not the image this firm wants to project.

“We need an update,” concedes partner Christine Kemp. But Kemp and the rest of her partners are cautious about how far to go. With deep roots in the community’s agrarian-based economy, the firm wants to refresh and replace without adopting a look that’s sleek or slick. Just how to do that has been an ongoing conversation within the firm.

Two years ago, Noland Hamerly embarked on a new branding campaign that used bold color, catchy slogans and Web sites to play up firm members’ roots to the farming community while also letting clients know they were more than just “lettuce law­yers,” says Dave Merritt, the firm’s executive director.

The firm would like to capture that same energy for its facilities, especially its public spaces. Also on the wish list, Merritt and Kemp say, are updated bathrooms, improved storage and more functional secretarial bays.

The firm has budgeted $300,000, but where to start? Public spaces should come first, says Life Audit law office design expert Doug Zucker. That’s where the firm will get the most bang for the buck, he says.

Zucker’s plan starts with the exterior of the building. He’s a fan of the 1930s architecture, and he be­lieves building on that style will be far more effective than fighting it.

But it could definitely use some bright­en­ing. The first step is to give the entire building a fresh coat of white paint. From there, Zucker wants to add to the glow by painting the exterior wall behind the decorative concrete screen and installing some new lighting. He’d like to match that wall’s color to the grass-green shade used on the firm’s Web site—a touch that, combined with the new lighting, will make the building come alive.

Then come the smaller, more design-forward changes. For example, Zucker wants to repaint the red color on the top of the building and replace the building’s original sign­age, which spells out “Civic Center Building.” He wants to render the top trim a soft bronze color; for the new signage, he’d add to the building’s overhang a set of Art Deco-style letters that spell out the firm’s name in its entirety. A bronze sign with the firm’s new logo from its advertising campaign, placed on a white concrete-brick wall underneath the overhang, would provide stylish additional signage at the pedestrian level.

The planter that wraps around the front of the building and up into the entryway also needs some TLC, Zucker says. He’d like to add white tile and a wooden cap to modernize its appearance. And inside the space, he’d replace the current geraniums with more seasonal plantings like decorative cabbages or lavender.


Inside, Zucker wants to continue his campaign to lighten and brighten. Currently, visitors walk into the firm through the glass-and-wood-paneled hallway, and at the end of it they see locked dark glass doors. From those doors, they must make a sharp right turn to enter the reception area, creating the effect of a long, dark hall­­way that leads into a cramped reception room.

The reception room holds four chairs and a couch, all upholstered in shades of dark green and blue. The carpeting is blue, and watercolors of local scenes, painted by one of Kemp’s relatives, cover the walls.

To freshen the look, Zucker wants to replace the old main entry doors with a cleaner, lighter glass in a more contemporary frame. He also wants the firm to lose the glass paneling on the right side of the hall­way so that space can be visually incorporated in­to the reception area. The dark glass privacy doors at the end of the hallway al­so must go. Those doors, which control access to the firm’s non­public areas, can be replaced with a lighted green glass wall and moved to a less visible place inside the reception area, he says.

Putting the same vegetation in both the reception area and outside planters will provide symmetry, Zuck­er says, and it will also create a more modern visual pathway to a new, more contemporary receptionist desk that will wrap the corner of the former hallway space.


Zucker wants to decorate the new­ly enlarged reception area with colors and textures that play on the images in the firm’s new branding campaign. He also wants to remove all the glass block and wood trim—a look he calls “dated and fussy”—from the reception area. In lieu of those materials, Zucker would like to see new walls put up that are covered with a variety of textured wall coverings. He suggests cladding one wall in a rough-hewn wood, possibly reclaimed barn siding, to evoke an agricultural feel and add texture and interest.

Of course nothing adds light to an area like proper light­ing. Zucker would like to sink lighting into the ceiling of the former hallway area to create an overhead path leading into the new reception area. In addition, he would like the firm to carve out two or three large skylights in the reception area to bring in natural light. New plastic technologies also let skylights incorporate different elements, and Zucker would like to inset into the skylights some leaves and branches to evoke more of a natural feel.

Zucker also suggests changing out the furniture to a few large pieces that can wrap around the reception area, providing cleaner, more contemporary lines. Flooring should be muted but textured. Natural-fiber carpets or stones could be used to finish the look.

“The whole thrust here is casual but elegant,” Zucker says. “It’s trying to say, ‘We are not your uptight, wood-paneled law firm. We belong to this community.’ ”

OUR EXPERT Doug Zucker Doug Zucker is an architect and principal at Gensler, a global architecture firm specializing in the design of legal environments. Zucker is a frequent speaker and writer on the design of law firms.

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