Q+A: Catherine Heath, AIA, IIDA, Director of Interior Design in HOK’s Washington, DC, Office

Catherine Heath’s interior design team in HOK’s Washington, DC, office has nearly doubled in size since she joined the firm in 2008, the year the Great Recession began.

“I arrived a few weeks before the stock market crashed,” she says.

In addition to leading the DC interiors group, Heath heads HOK’s law office design specialists firm-wide. She has worked with more than 20 law firms during her career and is currently involved in more than 10 different law office projects across the US and internationally.

How did the DC interiors practice manage to grow during a down economy?

CH: When I started, most of our interior design work was supporting the office’s architectural projects. That is still an important and exciting part of our work, but we have expanded to build a strong standalone practice. We have attracted extremely talented designers and as a result have landed great clients.

What are some of your team’s recent law office projects?

We’re designing law offices around the world for Arnold & Porter. Our core team in DC provides oversight for HOK’s teams in other cities.

We are designing the headquarters for Arnold & Porter, a 375,000-square-foot office in Washington. They are the anchor tenant for a new building at 601 Massachusetts Avenue developed by Boston Properties. Arnold & Porter is completely reinventing its work environment to support how they will be working in the future. They are making significant improvements in efficiency as well as in the quality of their workplace. We created an extensive workplace strategy to help determine how to shed space that would be irrelevant, keep what was essential and design the rest to adapt to new criteria over time. The office will be light, bright and capture their unique culture.

We just completed a 60,000-square-foot law office project for Dechert in a building on K Street here in DC. The team created an extremely efficient space without compromising on quality. Their offices are spacious and filled with natural light. One challenge was that Dechert’s people needed to move into the office less than 10 months after we were brought on board. Even with the accelerated schedule, it is exquisitely detailed and precisely built.

Dechert Law Office in Washington, DC

What do you enjoy about working with law firms?

I like the dialogue that results when law firms are very interested in improving their workplaces to keep pace with new ways of working and technology. Lawyers are very smart and ask thoughtful questions that help us improve the quality of our work and, as we respond to them, our methods of presenting information.

As evidence-based decision makers, lawyers need to be convinced to change their traditional approach to offices. They are adept at challenging information because that’s what they do for a living every day. The workplace design firm must make a strong business case for changing its approach to office design. If they can’t, law firms will stick to what they know.

They like to see examples of what other law firms have been doing. At HOK, we don’t say, “These are the law office trends that many firms are following, so you should do them, too.” Instead, we talk to them about their vision, values and business goals. We help law firms understand which strategies are relevant to how they do business – or create new strategies based on their unique needs. Then we design for flexibility so their new workplace can change over time as technology and work processes continue to evolve.

When we help law firms make decisions about their real estate and facilities, we are extremely clear and logical in how we communicate. This rigor raises the bar in how we interact with clients and how we help them build consensus within their own organization.

Tell me about your project for the National Cancer Institute.

Another project opening this year is a new research campus for the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Maryland. This is a 575,000-square-foot campus that our interiors team designed in collaboration with HOK’s architects, planners, landscape architects, sustainability specialists and graphic designers.

This is an innovative workplace. More than 60 percent of the offices are enclosed to support the highly focused work of NCI’s researchers. Our planning concept pulls many of the offices away from the exterior wall and arranges them in neighborhoods so daylight can reach into the center of the space. As a result, a much higher percentage of workers have views to daylight.

NCI has a strong mission of leading cancer research and training. The design integrates their mission into the space with features like the gorgeous green, living walls in the lobby. A fitness center and cafeteria overlook an outdoor terrace space. The space is fresh and energizing so it can help researchers focus on their important mission.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?

I like creating space and then seeing how it comes together and being able to walk through it at the end. It’s exciting to experience the built product.

We design a lot of office space. Because people spend so much time at work, we want them to think of their workplace as a fun, pleasant place. It’s very rewarding when clients tell us how much they love their space and what a difference it makes in their lives.

What do you enjoy about living in the DC area?

The city was planned with lots of light and air moving through the streets. It’s bright and energizing. We have access to lots of outdoor space and so many things to do. It’s an easy place to live.

Our office is great. It is in a beautiful, old warehouse in the cool neighborhood of Georgetown. We have huge windows overlooking the C&O Canal.

HOK DC office in Georgetown

Do you have advice for young designers entering the profession?

Absorb everything around you like a sponge and develop strong communication skills. Rather than carrying out one person’s vision, we work as teams at HOK. People succeed when they listen to what is going on within the team and feel confident adding their own ideas.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I’m creating a long-term strategic plan to make my dad’s farm more sustainable. It’s a 250-acre Black Angus cattle farm in Virginia that has been in our family since 1939. I’m learning about farm business by taking an online class from Virginia Tech.

The farm has many different ecosystems and different types of terrains. I have lots of ideas on how to use this space and one day make it sustainable and maybe go off the grid. Farming is a lot of work, but developing this plan is really fun!

One Comment
  1. June 11th, 2013 - 12:08 pm

    Catherine’s advice for young professionals is spot-on. Nice article, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

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