Lobby Design: Extending the Workplace

A Q&A with SMMA Interior Designer Benjamin Abbett on the importance of lobby design.

Q: When designing lobbies, who should the audience be?

A: Everyone from brokers to tenants. The owner of the building and the broker should be on the same page, thinking about the potential employees of their tenants. Though lobbies are not within the bounds of tenant space (since it is not their dedicated space), they have still chosen a building as a home for their company. This means that lobbies act as the front door to both existing and future employees. The broker should want the company to succeed, to grow, to need more space — They need to think about lobbies as a first impression to tenants, visitors, and even passersby. Luckily, from my experience, most brokers already do!

Q: What are some of the biggest considerations surrounding lobby budgets?

A: There are a few pricey considerations that need to be addressed up front during the programming phase of any lobby project. For example, security and reception desks are very involved, very necessary, pieces of millwork that require a high level of coordination with the building owner for its needs to be tastefully accommodated. There are also additional security features, such as turnstiles, that take up space (and budget!) and should be established as soon as possible with the client.

Then, there is building energy code. Vestibules with revolving doors and air curtains are all expensive, especially if your client wasn’t planning on putting one in to begin with. This is particularly impactful on lobby refreshes, where the requirements and code have changed since the building was built. Thus, designers need to prioritize energy code analysis as soon as possible to determine the most meaningful places to spend money for long-term investments.

If you don’t know what your building requires until you’re too far along in the process, you’ll end up settling for solutions that seem like an afterthought.

There also needs to be a focus on flooring! That terrazzo floor that was installed in the 60s, the solid brick floor from the 80s, and even the beautiful natural stone floors from the 90s are all materials that aren’t easy to break up and remove. They can really hold a building back from attracting fresh tenants and keeping current tenants happy, especially if loud demolition is required in an occupied building. Creative solutions balance strong technical knowledge, an understanding of current products, and the ability to educate clients on their options.

  • Lobby space design by SMMA in 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.
  • Lobby Space Desiged by SMMA.
  • Lobby space designed by SMMA at 321 Harrison Avenue.

Q: What other concerns should owners and brokers be mindful of?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is the “trend bandwagon.” A lobby should be timeless and versatile, and the best way to do that is by laying down a strong architectural foundation that’s not held captive by whimsical fast-fashion. After that, I’d say timing is everything. When property investments are strong, construction is also at a premium and schedules tend to be tight.

Another helpful suggestion is to always assume there isn’t enough money. There seems to be a higher baseline for design and finish quality as time goes on since brokers and end-users are expecting more out of lobbies as they transform into multifaceted interior plazas that function as extensions of the workplaces they serve. If a broker is requiring thousands of dollars in VR, renderings, and final photography, designers need to make sure the space lives up to the hype.

Lobby wall space at 89 A designed by SMMA.

Q: Three low-cost, high-impact features for lobbies?

A: To start, art and/or environmental graphics! Using blank canvasses of drywall are great, since they provide places to create a big splash that can fit into any client’s aesthetic. Though well-coordinated custom graphics cost more than paint, they are still much more cost-effective than using wood veneer, stone, or glass to give the space an identity.

There’s also furniture. Making furniture and accessories a focal point in a lobby can allow the rest of the space to be simple and act as a clean backdrop for trendier furniture. The best part: furniture can completely transform an environment! It’s easily re-arranged and replaced to keep up with contemporary trends and styles. However, this does mean that the evolution of the space depends on your client’s willingness and budget to refresh the furniture.

Finally, we can’t forget about plants. Plants and biomimicry are a great way to soften large spaces that contain lots of hard surfaces. They also help achieve wellness standards and the interior plaza feel that modern lobbies strive for. While they do require some maintenance, there are more companies than ever that currently help buildings install and maintain interior plantings, making it an easy option.

Biomimicry wall at EMD Serono.

Q: What is usually cut from lobby scopes that shouldn’t be?

A: I would say ceiling treatments and lighting. Ceiling treatments, priced per square foot, aid with the building’s acoustics and help give the architecture of the space more personality without needing to build further. Lighting, of course, affects everything. You can have the simplest cost-effective interior space and good lighting can make it look incredible, or you can have the most stunningly detailed lobby with high-end materials and poor lighting can make it look cheap.

I like to say that lighting is your most valuable friend.

Q: How can designers make lobby spaces stand out?

A: We can make lobbies stand out using strong feature items that are complementary of the brand identity and speak to the audience that the client wants to attract. A few examples:

On SMMA’s 89 A project we included a large graphic wall as a custom solution for the client and their property. Likewise, on our 100 Hood Park Drive project we implemented a cherry wood custom sculpture in the ceiling that flows with the architecture. We’ve also included a monumental stair for the Cambridge Savings Bank corporate offices. All these features serve as a main focal point upon entry.

We also can’t neglect the outside when thinking about lobby spaces — As designers, we must create an outdoor space that celebrates the event of entry, giving people a journey that unfolds as they cross the threshold with a variety of things to discover. Everything leads back to a simple vision:

If a building is a design story, you don’t want that story to end right when you walk in.
Monumental Stair at CSB in Waltham, MA.