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Design at Work> Toronto Law Offices
SOM pushes aside the typical stodgy law firm design to create refined offices for Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg.
James John Jetel Photography

Law office designs rarely stray from convention. Large firms need lots of separate offices, with upper-level staff typically claiming the window frontage, and they need to convey an air of professionalism. That has translated into stodginess for some corporate offices over time—a pitfall Skidmore, Owings & Merrill hoped to avoid in fashioning a new home for Canadian legal heavyweight Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg.

“Our client was very specific about wanting to create a space that was timeless, very restrained,” said SOM Design Director Jaime Velez. After decades elsewhere in downtown Toronto, Davies Ward was drawn to the Royal Bank of Canada Centre, in part for its LEED Gold ranking. RBC’s open floor plan, however, posed challenges.


The building’s under-floor air distribution system transmitted too much sound throughout the space for an office whose core needs include acoustical privacy. Acoustical consultant Cerami & Associates helped SOM tamp down the sound between rooms. A double-size conference room with two large conference tables can be divided with a retractable skyfold wall that reaches from floor to ceiling.

But privacy wasn’t the only goal. Spread across four and a half floors, totaling about 150,000 square feet, the office layout isolates internal circulation from spaces frequented by visiting clients and guests. A staircase conveys employees to two pantries, a lounge and lunchroom. Its attractive mix of materials is meant to encourage use and chance interaction.


Shaw Spun Tile
Decoustics Cellencio
Delray Lighting
Edison Price


“We debated a lot should the stair be on the public side or the private side,” said Velez. “The whole idea is there’s a public face to the firm and there’s a private face, and they don’t mix.”

Dark strips of oak appear at first to be steel, spaced close enough together to partially obscure an onlookers’ vision of who is using the staircase. Aluminum treads satisfy the building’s requirement for sustainable materials with a modern feel. A walnut enclosure, echoed throughout the office, lends the law firm a traditional touch of wood, albeit sparingly.

“The practice of law has a tendency to be isolating because of how much time you spend in your office,” Velez said. “They wanted to strengthen the sense of community.”


On the walls throughout, cords and computer monitors take a backseat to Davies Ward’s extensive collection of Canadian art. Buttons on conference room tables will reveal monitors, but at first glance the spaces aren’t overwhelmed with technology. Instead, light bounces off the 11-foot-high exposed concrete ceilings onto uncluttered spaces.

The large rooms double as event spaces (for cocktail parties, lecture series) and auditoriums of a sort for the several dozen law students completing “articling” internships—year-long legal apprenticeships that are part of Canada’s track for young lawyers. Small inboard offices absorb each class of students with a mix of single and shared spaces.

Although the building wasn’t designed to house a law firm, you might not know it from the handsome walnut enclosures that clad the conference rooms. Floor-to-ceiling glass lets in light, which can penetrate open corridors and large rectangular clerestories on the sides of many offices and conference rooms. On the 40th floor, with few neighbors tall enough to block views, employees and guests are greeted with ample light and clear sightlines to Toronto’s skyline, including the CN Tower.

Chris Bentley