A Splash of Style Renovate Your Lobby Without Breaking the Bank

Nothing beats a good first impression. That's why a building's lobby can be the most important space when it comes to keeping residents happy and property values competitive.

When lobbies begin to decline, it's bad news for everyone involved from shareholders and unit owners to board members. Keeping public spaces up-to-date and looking good is vital, but not every building board has hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on complete renovations every few years. Happily, there are a number of options available to those who need to design on a dime - or at least keep their budgets within reason.

Getting Started

That said, however, renovating a lobby is no time to be cheap. It's important to do the job right, and one of the keys to doing that is organization. There are three things that need to be agreed upon before planning for a renovation should even begin. "There needs to be agreement on quality, budget and timeline," says Joel Ergas of Forbes-Ergas Design in Manhattan. Often, it's best for a board to appoint a committee to manage the decorating task at hand and to work with the designers and contractors necessary to get the job done.

Working within a tight budget does not mean that boards should forego the expertise of a qualified designer. "Get a designer," says Michael Love of Interior Options, a Manhattan firm that specializes in lobby design. "Even if you only pay $1,000 for a consultation, it's worth it."

Stay on target with your budget though, right from the start. "Don't ask the designer what the project will cost - tell them what you want to spend," Love says. "You can give them your wish list, but ask what can be done within your budget. That's very important. You should have all of the money planned out before you even call anyone." With the decimals in place," says Love, "it's important to have realistic expectations."

While it may cost a few extra dollars to hire a designer, in the long run it can save money. An experienced lobby design expert will be able to work within your building's existing framework and find its strengths, renovating within a complementary style. A building may have beautiful tile floors that have grown worn and shoddy over the years; a designer will be able to determine if those tiles can be saved and repairs made, rather than launching an expensive replacement of the whole floor. They also may be able to find less expensive materials that could last longer and work better in the long run for your building.

A designer also may be able to preserve the artistic integrity of the building. "On a low budget, a good designer will be able to look at the innate style of a building and work with that style and flow," says designer Jonathan Baron. When Baron first inspects a lobby space, he examines traffic flow, security spaces, maintenance issues, blind spots and package rooms - in short, he ensures that all of the amenities that ensure functionality are in place and working properly. Only then does he turn to the aesthetics.

Putting On a New Face

There is a seemingly endless array of options when it comes to putting a new face on a tired lobby. From $20 repairs to thousand-dollar upgrades, there's a solution for every space and every budget.

Starting at the bottom is always a good idea, and designers will often have divergent ideas about flooring. "Floors are very important," Love says. "If they're dirty and cracked, no matter what else you do to the space, it'll still look bad." She does not recommend carpeting in the lobby at all for a simple reason: "It's a mess in a snowstorm." She recommends hard surface flooring - a good wood, tile or stone. "Often, one of the biggest and most important investments is the flooring," she adds.

Many times in older buildings, the original flooring is salvageable. "Maybe a lobby's tiles can be saved," Baron says. "If that's the case, it not only saves money, it saves the original look and feel of the building," something very important in maintaining a sophisticated aesthetic - or abiding by the law in preserving the interior of a designated landmark.

While many people automatically assume that the more expensive a flooring material is the longer it will last, it's important to keep in mind that there are lower cost alternatives and materials that wear just as well with less upkeep. "A lot of people want to put down marble," says Baron, "but there's another material that's just as good; it's a man-made porcelain tile where the color runs through and through - meaning the glaze will never chip or wear, and it doesn't ever need polishing. It's equal in price to the stone, but more durable."

Other minor adjustments also can be added to the floor area to give a lobby added "oomph." Baron recommends floor runners. They can be custom-made to fit a space for a one-of-a-kind look. "If they're maintained and kept fresh and clean, they can add significantly to the look of a lobby."

Those in search of design alternatives on a limited budget should not discount the importance of fresh color and paint. Baron is enthusiastic about a new type of spray paint, a multi-colored, flecked product that comes in hundreds of colors. Originally used in institutional buildings, the paint is now popular in design situations, offering a durable, easy-to-wash option that is ideal for heavily- traveled lobby areas. "This paint will last and resist wear and tear," Baron says.

To lend a special accent to a new paint job, many designers also recommend framed art posters or prints, which can add to the look of a lobby for only a few hundred dollars. "Decorative items should always be affixed to something," Ergas says. "Pictures should be attached to the walls with security mounts."

Not Your Living Room

Furniture, while it can add to the look and feel of a lobby, should be used sparingly. It's important to try to cut down on the homey feeling, the idea that a lobby is an extension of a living room. Deep, plush couches are a no-no, both because they tend to encourage loitering, and also because older residents may simply have difficulty rising out of them. And any furniture that's used should be selected with durability in mind. "Introduce furniture with style, but make sure it's not a residential style," says Ergas. "Make sure it uses durable fabrics and upholsteries."

When it comes to fabrics, Love says it's worth it to put fiber seal on chairs. Don't bother using Scotchgard fabric treatment, she says, because it comes right off with cleaning.

Sometimes, however, cosmetic touches are not enough to take a lobby to the next level. Minor construction can be the answer. Well-designed mailboxes, concierge desks and package storage areas are all important to a clean, functional lobby style.

"Some of the old lobbies don't have decent doormen's stations, and that says a lot about the look and feel of the space," Love says. "Make sure whoever is on guard has a spot of his or her own that's in step with the building." Having ample, secure and discreet package storage is also important. "Try to think of ways to make the lobby look neater," she says.

Lobby specialists are in universal agreement that good lighting is key to a pleasing lobby. "I can't emphasize lighting enough," Ergas says. "If your designer is not talking about lighting, they're missing a whole area of design." There are several different types of lighting: built-in or architectural, decorative - such as sconces or chandeliers - and task lighting, which involves lighting specific to certain areas like mailboxes or doormen's desks. Tweaking, modifying or replacing any of the existing lighting in these areas can make a significant difference in the lobby's overall appearance.

Baron suggests that if buildings are going to replace their lighting, they should investigate energy-efficient alternatives. "That's going to pay off in the long run with lower energy costs for the building," he says. "It's really the way to go." He suggests mini-fluorescent lamps, which come in decorative and recessed styles that have come a long, long way from the greenish, buzzing glare associated with the fluorescents of yesteryear.

Whatever decision is made, however, Love suggests not getting too carried away. "Make sure you put nice lighting in dead corners of the room," she says. "But budget and architecture should dictate what's possible. Don't get into huge relighting projects. Simple things like little wall sconces can add a lot."

What Not To Do

Now that the list of "dos" is complete, there's a short list of "don'ts" to go along with it. Budget by committee, and put forth some ideas, but don't design by committee, the designers say.

Board members also should not try to impose their own personal preferences onto a lobby renovation project. If you're on a lobby committee, it's important to remember that you're not redecorating your living room; you're upgrading spaces that everyone else in the building will use each and every day.

It's important, too, not to design against the architectural grain of the building. There are a lot of horror stories out there of what happens when a 1960s glass-and-chrome lobby is redressed against its will into a faux prewar interior. "It's important to think, "˜What was this building?' "˜What did the architect have in mind?'" Baron says.

As painful as it is, sometimes a board needs to spend a little more money than they had in mind to get the result they not only want, but need. Too often, a board will just try to get by when instead a real investment needs to be made to do the job and do it right. Installing new elevators - and decorative elevator doors, for example - can be a pricey prospect, but redoing them well can pay off. "Often, [the elevator] is the first part of the building a person touches, smells and sees," Baron says. "Riding in an elevator, being in that enclosed space, it's the most intimate moment that person is having in that building. If it's all scratched up and damaged, it will not create a good impression."

In the long run, any investment made in bettering a lobby area will pay off. "It can increase your property values from seven to 15 percent," says Love. "It's worth every single penny."

Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

For more tips on renovating your lobby, click here.

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