Place Matters for Gunderson Dettmer

Thank you to HOK San Francisco Senior Interior Designer Louis Schump for this guest post.

The interior design for leading Silicon Valley law firm Gunderson Dettmer’s 100,000-square-foot headquarters creates an environment that could not possibly exist anywhere else in the world. And it does so using new Workplace 3.0 ideas that blur the distinction between office and home.

There was a time when the interior environments in California were designed to look very differently than they do in Wisconsin. That changed during the second half of the 20th century, when ubiquitous central air conditioning and standardized building materials like 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood made it possible for architects and interior designers to ignore regional differences and instead design generic building solutions independent of place. So they did, and identical-looking McDonald’s restaurants and Holiday Inn hotels sprouted up across the land. This trend quickly made its way into the workplace, with interior design evolving into a site-neutral approach focused on accommodating an increasingly rootless U.S. workforce.

The truth is it takes a lot of work to eliminate climatic, building and program idiosyncrasies. The effort becomes a relentless design monologue rather than a conversation among a space, its users and the surrounding physical environment. We can see examples of this in some space designed for high-tech companies. The open-office environments, high-tech feeling and cool amenities may be there, but far too often absolutely nothing about the space addresses the specific nature of the inhabitants, the building or the site.

As we move toward the age of net zero emissions and zero energy projects – undoubtedly the future for our profession – interior designers will have no choice but to return to the notion that place matters.

Implications of an Integrated Practice


Practicing interiors within a multidisciplinary, global architectural firm like HOK offers opportunities that aren’t available in standalone interior design firms. Cross-fertilization across disciplines, client types and regions comes naturally within our firm.

HOK has publicly committed to designing all our projects to be carbon neutral by 2030. Reaching net zero emissions or net zero energy use will demand new levels of intense collaboration among all design disciplines in creating site-specific projects that respond to the local climate and geography.

Site-Specific Design

My favorite example of how a climate can influence a site-specific design is from the Sea Ranch condominiums designed by Charles Moore in Mendocino County, Calif. The design team spent lots of time and money performing wind tunnel testing to determine the optimal roof angle for creating a comfortable climate on the leeward side of the building. After constructing their buildings, they realized the angles they had used were exactly the same as the angles that the site’s cypress trees had already been sculpted into by the coastal winds. If the design team had paid more attention to nature, they wouldn’t have had to go through such heroic measures to develop a solution that was right in front of them.

More than just dealing with the geography, climate and existing built environment, however, site specificity has to do with culture. We need to design interior space that aligns with the shared attitudes, values, goals and practices of an organization.

Gunderson Dettmer’s Place

Gunderson Dettmer practices corporate law for entrepreneurs, emerging growth companies and venture capitalists. Architecture has always been part of its identity and, along with art, is one of founding partner Bob Gunderson’s passions.

The firm’s previous office space, which was spread across two buildings in Menlo Park, was thoroughly loved yet chaotic and cramped. Its leaders selected a three-story building at the Pacific Shores Center in Redwood City, Calif., for a new headquarters that would consolidate its space and unify staff. The building is part of a contemporary-styled bayside campus that sits less than a mile from the freeway and alongside restored wetlands within the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge.

In addition to creating offices that Gunderson Dettmer’s Silicon Valley clients would be able to relate to, one of the design team’s challenges was to create a rich dialogue with this place: a specific building in a suburban office park at the epicenter of the high-tech world.

A Tower in the Park

The office park and the tower set in the landscape emerged as a counterpoint to the congestion of the early 20th century city. With Gunderson’s new space, the design team wanted to explore that idea from a different perspective. We looked beyond the congestion found in the rabbit warren of offices so common in law firms to discover inspiration in the idea of a tower in the park. This urban design mindset helped us create clear public spaces in the office.

The tower in the park idea influenced the selection of materials, specifically the use of glass and all its properties, to address issues including:

  • Visibility to peers
  • Access to daylight by all
  • Connection to the landscape

Tightly wrapped by a continuous glass skin, the interior offices and workrooms form a building within a building. Nearly half the interior walls are glass, breaking down the boundary between inside and out and adding choice of occupant orientation. This interior ‘building’ aligns with the structure, and is free from the undulating perimeter that shifts from floor to floor.

Treating the ribbon of perimeter offices as a filter for daylight and views was a nonconventional solution for a 21st century law firm. One precedent for this ‘zone between’ concept was Sir John Soane’s museum and home built in London in the early 19th century. Soane added a projecting stone loggia to the south façade. When this outdoor space went largely unused, he enclosed it by glazing the arches. With this gesture he created a wonderful new space that he could use to control light and air for the comfort of the interior. Our approach to Gunderson Dettmer’s perimeter offices targeted that same desire to control daylight and views.

Frameless glass is supported by a channel in the ceiling and at the floor is adhered to a bronze-anodized angle with a structural sealant. Though this is a common architectural detail, it’s one that is not often seen on the inside of buildings. Mirrored glass typically used on building facades hides file storage areas and extends views. Depending on the level of privacy desired, frameless glass doors pair with either opaque black panels or frameless glass to enclose the conference rooms.

We know that people perform better when they have access to daylight. Our Ecotect environmental analysis model showed the daylight stopping at the perimeter offices and not reaching the interior. Yet often there’s a difference between perception and reality. The glass, reflections and visible light source create the feeling that even the deepest interior space is being illuminated by daylight. As a result, people keep their lights off more than expected. In case they’re needed, the fluorescent lights are 4100K, minimizing the difference in color temperature between artificial and daylight.

Connection to the Outdoors

Place was the driver for the selection of materials and finishes. Gunderson Dettmer wanted a physical, visual and emotional connection to the outdoor environment and the seasons. There are no bright accent colors or patterns on the interior to distract from the play of light on a neutral palette. When a cloud passes overhead, all the colors of the interior shift. The extensive use of glass throughout the space allows for views of the San Francisco Bay and of the landscaping at Pacific Shores Center.

Space Plan

The building was designed during the dot-com heyday to accommodate open offices. The irregularly-shaped perimeter is topped by five two-story spaces surrounded by clerestory windows. The design fills in part of those spaces with a mezzanine level that creates a loft “getaway” above two new offices. The remainder of the space is a “living room” surrounded by glass-fronted offices. The team carried that idea through all the floors, creating a total of 15 different living rooms, each with different furniture configurations and lighting solutions.

LIke a Swedish country house, there is very little dedicated corridor or pure circulation space. The living room spaces function as part of the circulation system required to move between offices.

The one-size attorney offices Gunderson Dettmer had inhabited in Menlo Park evolved into a universal 140-square-foot office size for all but 25 of the 275 occupants planned for in Redwood City. The one-size attorney offices reinforce a non-hierarchical culture and interaction while facilitating clique-busting periodic office moves and maximum ability to adapt to change. Making the offices slightly smaller than in the previous space allowed for the creation of living rooms, a third place to work that is neither private office nor conference room.

Workplace 3.0

HOK’s Interiors and Advance Strategies groups have been working on a next-generation office environment, dubbed “Workplace 3.0,” that focuses on people (not technology) and the interconnection between those design solutions addressing productivity and sustainability. These ideas made their way into this office space, which is flexible and highly collaborative.

One challenge in designing Gunderson Dettmer’s space was to provide employees with the comforts of home as well as a distinct set of experiences that aren’t available elsewhere – to give them a reason to come in to the office. Technology has enabled individuals to migrate from fixed workspaces to the world at large. The uniformity of our built environment has created a backlash and newfound desire for anything that makes a place, a building or a company unique.

Home or office? Both. In the past, work-life balance was defined by equal amounts of black and white. Now that balance has morphed into a uniform gray. In the same way that people work at home after the kids go to bed, the workplace is being asked to accommodate family members on the weekend. During these occasions, the Gunderson living rooms under the skylights are used by kids to play or do homework while their parents work in adjacent offices.

The Power of Choice

Employee satisfaction surveys show that people believe they will have enhanced performance and productivity when they can exert some control over their work environments. The design supports this power of choice by creating micro-environments that are suited to the location within the building and the occupant within that office.

Examples of choice in this space:

  • Six model offices showing different ways of arranging the furniture. Each private office comes with a table desk, a height-adjustable return, two file cabinets, a mobile pedestal, two stacking guest chairs, a task chair and six wood shelves. The only restriction is the shelves must hang on the one wall with integral standards. The balance of the furnishings may be arranged by the occupant according to personal taste, ergonomic considerations or work style. Today, there are a dozen different archetypes throughout the space.
  • Providing spaces that allow team members to choose an appropriate place for a particular task creates a physical environment in which choice and flexibility are cultural norms.
  • Respecting the often-conflicting needs for concentration and collaboration required that the firm evolve protocols around the way spaces are used, particularly concerning acoustics and distraction. The level of physical transparency now allows visual rather than verbal acknowledgment of a colleague.
  • The lunch room, training room and decks are connected by a long, transparent gallery. Bi-folding walls create a variety of different-sized spaces to control both sound and daylight. Adjacent offices were annexed and transformed into a gaming room.

Public Access

The office is organized like a very large version of the Swedish country house mentioned earlier. The front door opens onto a two-story space occupied by a stair and a receptionist-greeter. Potential clients remain on the ground floor. Existing clients know the way and go upstairs to a second set of conference rooms. The third floor is for the “family,” invited guests and special functions. This organization reinforces the idea of layers that extend from the landscape into the innermost part of the building.


Gunderson Dettmer moved into this space in February 2009. The new space adds amenities and creates more luxurious, productive, client-focused space while using the same amount of square footage per lawyer as its prior office.

Gunderson Dettmer’s business is a people business. The space helps them attract, keep and develop talented legal professions and do the best possible work for clients. Clients like the new office environment; it is welcoming, exciting, and unique. It is a destination.

Finally, the project has helped raise the consciousness of designers that an interior space can and should be in harmony with the exterior planning ideas.

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