You don’t hear much about building lobbies lately, what with the cacophony of the open office debate still drowning out most everything else. Maybe that’s because lobbies are quite literally on “neutral” ground, surrounded by the workplace evolution raging at their fringes.

And what is a traditional lobby anyway? Does it really have a true identity today aside from some upscale finishes surrounded by what many would call pure, wasted space? Consider this statement:
“Not so long ago, the lobbies of even the most architecturally distinctive office buildings were little more than sterile spaces connecting the front door to the elevators.”

Seems like a rather strong indictment of the built environment in general, already tasked with expanding the alternative workplace without sacrificing sustainability. The thing is, this was the lead sentence in a summer, 1990 New York Times real estate feature. Clearly, the function of office building lobbies was every bit a topic of speculation and analysis then as it is today. And today’s challenges are significantly more complex.

A multi-tenant building lobby is a wholly shared space, which tends to be misleading if there is essentially nothing in the space to “share.” That is, a few chairs and a sofa sitting atop thousands of square feet of the finest Italian marble are unlikely to qualify as amenities to the majority of today’s tenants who must share the cost of that space. There simply has to be more.

Call it the appetite for newer working environments, or the proliferation of millennials, or the continued push for sustainability, or any combination thereof. It’s just a fact that even the premium class A lobbies of the late 1980’s buildings are sagging under grandiose design schemes meant solely to make an aesthetic statement to tenants and visitors. The point is, for many decades, building lobbies were designed for a singular purpose, and that purpose is no longer viable in a marketplace that demands collaboration and connectivity, more flexibility and less waste. Even with floor-to-ceiling remodels every five to seven years, repurposing these cathedral-like spaces can be a daunting endeavor. But there are fixes, for those owners who are willing to allocate the funds.

Dallas-based Granite Properties, for example, borrowed from the hospitality side of interior design, coining the phrase, “the corporate living room” for both new and existing lobbies where changes of work environment are meshed with conventional lobby space and other amenities.

Other models include transforming under-utilized lobby square footage into “third space” work areas which function as a cross between an office and a lounge with a high emphasis on good design and quality materials. Even millennials who boast of being able to work anywhere at any time realize that rolling in a coffee cart for three hours a day usually doesn’t do the trick when other, better options are available.

Lobbies which can integrate the outdoors certainly have been able to add value and attract tenant interest when conditions are favorable. A building lobby usually does not change in size. But opening a wall onto a green belt or other outdoor work/break area can dramatically change the purpose of the original space and add value to the building that did not exist before.

In fact, owners are keenly aware that any lobby is an opportunity to make a dazzling first impression. Marketing prospective tenant space through lobby design is not a new concept. For a great number of Class A properties, the lobby design simply had to pass the eyeball test. But that is rapidly changing. Lobby spaces now are shared extensions of tenant suites in a way they’ve never been before.

Today’s lobbies are expected to work smarter, and compete on multiple levels that didn’t even exist a few short years ago. New buildings of course, have the advantage of hindsight along with the pressures of existing sustainability standards. Their lobbies are smaller, more efficient, more “nimble.” They’re built with an eye on recruitment and retention from the outset, supported by flexible design and quality components. Those models are largely a work in progress, but their success is catching up fast. As one Denver-based property manager summed it up, lobbies are being shaped much more by tenant demand than developer whims. “One thing for sure is that lobbies have gone from big and grand to convenient and connected. It’s always about being connected. Don’t look for that to change anytime soon.”

Katie Winter is a Senior Project Manager at KIEDING. She can be reached at kwinter@kieding.com. This work originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Building Dialogue magazine.