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Office Lobby Design is Going Through an Experimental Phase

Lobbies may not be where all the work gets done in an office property, but it’s the first thing people see when they enter a building. They serve a purpose as a reception area for guests and tenants, to guide people on their way and on their way out. They have always been a part of a building’s functioning, but this important component of an office property is getting a lot of attention at the moment as landlords and tenants look to bring tenants back to the office. As remote and hybrid work trends have taken hold, it has pushed office owners and developers to supercharge building features and amenities to compete for workers’ attendance. An “onslaught” of renovation work is taking place at buildings across the country, including lobby areas, according to the American Institute of Architects. 

In trophy office buildings, lobby areas often have a museum-like quality: cold and beautiful. There’s the hustle and bustle of people moving in and out, but also a hushed seriousness to it all, with doormen in formal uniforms behind a huge statement desk. Lobbies historically weren’t designed for people to linger for more than a few minutes, and many didn’t offer much more than some light seating. But that has been changing, as architects and office designers have seen over the last few years. A shift toward warm and inviting rather than cold and austere wasn’t spurred by the pandemic, but it has accelerated it. Activating space within lobby and mezzanine areas by adding programming is growing in popularity as owners look to bring a fresh new feel and look to lobby spaces. After all, what better way to draw people in than the front door?

Historical reboot

One of Manhattan’s most storied office buildings recently undertook a major renovation to the building’s 50,000-square-foot, two-story lobby. Built in 1963, 200 Park was formerly known as the Pan Am Building and has been known as the MetLife Building since the early 1990s. Owners Tishman Speyer and Irvine Company enlisted architecture firm MdeAS to work with the firm on creating a new vision for the lobby and reception areas at the Midtown trophy tower. 

“It was reimagining how to take an existing, aging building and really try to breathe new life into it,” said MdeAS Principal Mike Zaborski, who worked on the project. The building’s ownership wanted to restore a striking, modernist mural by Josef Albers that had originally been a centerpiece of the lobby in the early 1960s. The 28-foot piece, called Manhattan, now sits just above the entryway to Grand Central Terminal, which is connected to 200 Park’s lobby. “It’s like a gateway into New York,” Zaborkski said of the dramatic artwork.

Tishman Speyer and Irvine Company’s renovation of 200 Park Ave. included the restoration of a 1960s-era mural by Josef Albers. (Image credit: Dave De Armas Photography)

On the lower level is the public realm, where Zaborski and his team worked carefully to create a new space that “didn’t feel like walking into a mall” but that had amenities and retail just adjacent to the main area. New lighting brightened up the visitor reception area, and new travertine stone matched the original, while a lounge space was added just off the reception area. A new approach to office lobby and reception space was starting to evolve before the pandemic hit and turned the office world upside down, but the health crisis was also a catalyst that forced the industry to rethink what a lobby could do and represent for an office property. “The workplace has always been a place to do business, but what we’ve come to grips with is it’s also a place where you have a social experience,” Zaborski said, adding that younger building tenants, in particular, are demanding more of an experience in these spaces. 

In thinking about what a lobby can do for a building, looking at it as a component of an overall ecosystem is something that the design world and developers are thinking about right now as offices and, more importantly, cities have been changing around the world. “We’re looking at office buildings that are no longer office buildings,” said Gensler Principal Sheryl Schulze, who leads the design firm’s repositioning and landlord services practice. “Everything has a mixed-use element to it.” 

Business districts aren’t just business districts anymore, either, she added, and with a glut of office space in the market, how do we reimagine areas that need new invigoration and life? Schulze and her firm look at creating an experience that will both intrigue and encourage workers to come back to the office, and that starts with a mix. And the first part of that mix that people will see is the lobby. “The first-floor mezzanine needs to be more inviting to the public and community at large,” she said. “It’s not just a container for office workers.”

A ‘playful time’ for the office

Some changes already happening are with security desks, typically enormous statement pieces, getting smaller. Reception workers and doormen are taking a more hospitality-like approach and greeting tenants and guests at the door instead of behind a desk, often dressed less formally than has been traditionally done in the past. “Office developers are very much open to that kind of inviting lobby,” said Schulze. “They know what they have to compete against.” The major architecture firm SOM suggests clients lighten up lobby spaces in what they call an “anti-anxiety office entry,” which involves tweaking the flow of the space to make it easier to navigate and to create less crowding. Self-check-ins, another takeaway from hotels, are also popping up in office buildings, while security lines are being tucked away from the main lobby instead of being placed front and center. Food and beverage uses are an in-demand amenity for lobbies, as dedicated space for lounging and getting work done is encouraged. 

MdeAS Architects is behind the redesign of the lobby area of Penn 2 in Manhattan. “It exemplifies the new world of hospitality just like 200 Park Avenue,” said MdeAS’ Mike Zaborski. (Image credit: DBOX)

Opening up additional entrances that may have been shuttered or unused has been happening in some buildings, as well as a softening of security areas, said Schulze, who thinks about how owners can create a lobby experience that doesn’t feel like a “security fortress” but is nonetheless safe and secure. In office buildings that have transfer floors, where tenants have to switch from one elevator bank to another to reach the ground floor, some owners are adding coffee kiosks or grab-and-go food carts to give workers a better experience and provide extra revenue for the landlord. But there should also be space for tenants to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, Schulze said. “A building also needs quiet moments,” she said.

Designers stress that when planning a lobby for a building or reimagining an existing one, it doesn’t have to lock you in for life. It’s important to build in flexibility to a design so you can try some things out and see how they work. Doesn’t work as you thought? Just change it up and try something new. “In the end, these things are really an experimentation,” Zaborski said. Short-term pop-ups can be easily tested out within a lobby space. At 200 Park, the Brooklyn-based, woman-founded beer company Talea has a temporary spot in the building’s lobby while restaurant tenants in nearby spaces are turning over. It’s also to create a “fresher, new atmosphere” around the building. Grab-and-go coffee carts are also brought in on a regular basis featuring different brands. “It’s a very playful time right now,” MdeAS’s Zaborski said. “Ownership groups are willing to take calculated risks of creating these experiences on the ground floor.” 

These days, upgrading office amenities is almost a requirement in order to stay competitive, and lobby redesign is an important part of an overall repositioning plan. Activating unused spaces, bringing in fresh food and beverage uses, and cultivating more of a hospitality-like vibe to entrance areas are all part of a new wave of renovations happening at the moment. As owners are learning, experimentation is the name of the game. Factoring in a certain amount of flexibility to figure out what works and what doesn’t can help office building owners and developers find the right groove.

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