First Impressions Are Lasting Renovate Your Lobby With Style and Durability

First Impressions Are Lasting

Just as the entrance hall of an apartment welcomes and sets the tone for the rooms beyond, a lobby creates an instant impression for anyone who enters, including guests and potential buyers. A lobby is a building's best foot forward and must be designed and maintained to reflect the character and personality of those who live there.

On my first visit to our building in 1983, I walked through the lobby thinking, Who would want to live here? The terrazzo floors and marble columns hadn't been polished in years, and the walls were covered in a red flocked velvet wallpaper that gave the impression of a Victorian bordello. All the mouldings were covered in thick glossy black paint, and dreary lighting and tarnished brass handrails completed the sad appearance.

Underneath it all, however, the building was quite handsome. It had been neglected and mis-decorated. The colors, finishes, and furnishings were grossly inappropriate for the structure. Five years after I first saw it, we undertook a complete renovation, stripping and cleaning the wax build-up and dirt off the floors and buffing them with a polisher. The marble columns were cleaned of grease and restored to their former shine by a professional restoration firm. The bordello wallpaper was removed and the mouldings were stripped and repainted a cream color, to fit in with the new color scheme. The dismal lighting turned out to be easy to fix; we simply substituted two bulbs in the overhead fixture, in place of one. Finally, the brass handrails were brought back to their original glory by cleaning and redipping the brass.

We did the best job we could afford, and after withstanding six years of abuse, all it needs today is new window treatments and new covers for the sofas. A very important bonus is that despite the stories of gloom and doom in the real estate market, our apartments have turned over quickly during these past six years and are currently selling for higher prices than ever before.

The lobby, canopy, entrance doors and elevator cabs are the most important public areas of a building. If well planned, they will require less maintenance and wear longer. Just as our apartments need occasional re-painting, weekly dusting, and so on, so does the lobby. The most successful lobby renovations are planned by boards who want to keep the spirit of the original design and create a positive image for themselves as well as those they wish to attract as neighbors.

Allocating Funds

Many boards make the mistake of relying on their personal experience with renovations to determine a budget or else they set aside an arbitrary amount of money. When they get the actual estimates, they find they haven't allocated enough. To avoid this trap, get estimates first and then see how the budget can be manipulated to best advantage. Replacing the old canopy can go on next year's budget and the building may be able to afford a nicer one at that time. However, we're all familiar with the I'll finish it next year syndrome. Next year arrives, another board is elected, and other things take priority. So do it right and complete it all at once.

When calculating the budget, set aside funds for the supervision of installations. Look for a designer or architect who offers a Design-Build service. They will have sub-contractors at their fingertips and ffb will save you time, money, and aggravation. In most cases, the managing agent cannot be available for the intense attention the many trades will demand. Neither he nor the superintendent, who is busy with daily maintenance, can be on hand when crucial design decisions must be made in the field.

Expect to encounter hidden conditions to contend with; details that no one could foresee because they are discovered after the work has begun. On one lobby project we were preparing a wall for papering when we found wiring that had been damaged by an old leak. Of course we needed to run new wires even though we had not allocated the funds. Boards should always expect the job to take longer and cost more than the original estimates, and plan accordingly.

Before meeting with a contractor or design professional, the board or lobby committee should consider the overall design plan. The more prepared you are, the more accurate a financial picture the professional will be able to provide.

Work With What You Have

Believe it or not, a common space is expected to last an average of five years. If your lobby has lasted longer than that, you did well. If so, using the same type of materials will serve you well. If it was more recently, upgrade the materials and maintenance for your new renovation.

When considering the design itself, discuss what you like and dislike about the lobby. It is often unnecessary to replace everything. Sometimes refinishing some pieces will work as well. In our building, we took the console tables down to the basement and sprayed the bases a different color, reset the original marble tops, and they fit in with the decor better than before!

Take a look at what wore well and what wore out. Perhaps the fabric on the sofa was badly soiled by leaky bags of Chinese food. Dollar for dollar you will get more wear from leather even though the initial investment is higher. It will clean easily and last through more than one renovation, and make a better appearance.

When it comes to finish work, it is much nicer to have a mold made of existing mouldings and have additional pieces fabricated to match, than to tear off all the original trim and replace it with cheap modern stuff.

Take a look at how well the present furniture and concierge desk function. Now is the time to make changes in locations and sizes. You should also consider the lobby's lighting; you may wish to increase light by adding fixtures, utilize what you have better by re-positioning fixtures, or replace them with something brighter, less glaring, or more in keeping with the new design.

Before choosing your design elements, take a look at your maintenance budget. Do you have the staff to polish brass, dust intricate mouldings, clean crystal, vacuum area rugs, or polish marble? Can you afford to replace lamp shades and candelabra bulbs? If not, you'll have to go with more simple, easy-to-maintain materials.

To choose a color scheme, embellish on what you have. For instance, a burgundy canopy is attractive, but will look out of place if you've already invested in brown doorman uniforms and the lobby has green marble floors. Repeat the green and brown as major colors and add a warm color like peach or gold for accents such as art work or flowers. If you try to ignore colors or work around them they will scream, Look at us! We don't belong here!

Stick to the Style

Along with a realistic budget, a color scheme, and professionals to execute them, you'll want to choose a style that compliments your building. The key is to use things that look as though they've always been there. When in doubt, choose items that are appropriate. The final result may not be your personal taste or the way you'd decorate your apartment, but being faithful to the architecture and details of your building is always correct and has universal appeal.

Although many older residential buildings were erected during the '20s and '30s, only a few were designed in the Art Deco style. Just as there is currently a resurgence in Shaker cabinetry, the original inhabitants of our homes may have been attracted to neoclassic styles such as Edwardian, Gothic, and Empire, as well as some rather unlikely combinations.

If you're not planning to invest in costly antiques or reproductions that emulate these styles, use simple, traditional furnishings that are usually fabricated in dark woods such as cherry and mahogany. Brass accents are more appropriate than chrome or steel and rich, deep-toned leathers always work well.

Contemporary works best in modern buildings where glass, steel, natural stone, and light woods are a perfect foil for the soft, rounded edges of Deco or the clean lines of Bauhaus.

Once all the choices are made and orders have been placed, you must do one important thing before any work begins: WAIT. Yes, WAIT! All furniture and materials should be ready to be delivered first. This is because unfortunately, the design business seems to be a favorite target of Mr. Murphy. Everything will take longer to be fabricated than you think, and many things will arrive with a vital part missing, be the wrong item, the wrong finish, the wrong color, or arrive damaged. If there is a full moon it goes down hill from there.

A newly renovated lobby can make all the difference in the appearance of your building and have a substantial impact on apartment values. If planned properly, you can avoid the common pitfalls of renovation and keep expenses to a minimum.

Ms. Regnier is president of Bebe Regnier, Ltd., which specializes in the design of apartment lobbies and other common areas.

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