A short guide to lobbies and entrances

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Michael Hass
Michael Hass

It will come as no surprise to you that the lobby/entrance area of a community is relatively high (although perhaps not first) on the list of ways to think about allocating interior design dollars among the various spaces in a building and how to prioritize those dollars to get the most effect from limited resources.

Plenty of experts will tell you — and you presumably hear endlessly — that a prospective resident or family will make a decision about a community within seven seconds of entering a building. I think that's a little misleading in that I believe that visitors form an impression in that short time, but I don't believe that they always decide, consciously or unconsciously, about a community that quickly. Nevertheless, the entry has a drastic effect on the marketing experience and is worthy of serious planning.

I'm an engineer by education and a developer by trade, so some of this feels a little subjective to me, but I have experienced dozens of projects that get lobbies and entrances right and several that got them wrong, so I do believe it in all of the topic's unquantifiable squishiness. Human instincts and emotions are at play in the arrival sequence. The major lesson I have for you: Everything that happens between the public street and your reception desk tells a story about your community and what it offers. It may tell the correct story or it may tell a misleading one, but it tells a story.

Providing a transition

Without a long architectural history lesson, take my word for it that the lobby and entry serve a purpose at a deep, almost primal level. Those spaces should aim to transition the moods and awareness of visitors from their trips to you to the moods and awareness they will have inside your building.

If your building faces a bustling city street and you want it to exude peace and calm, then your lobby is where you do that. If you are on the remote edges of suburbia and want to impart energy and connectedness to your visitors, then you do that through the arrival sequence and entry. If everyone will be coming to you by car (a semi-private mode of transportation), then you need to be deliberate in your lobby, assuming the philosophy of the community is very public and open. We typically want energy and liveliness in our lobbies because it knocks away at stereotypes of yesteryear, but that experience can be jarring to someone just stepping out of a quiet car.

If you happen to be surrounded by unsightly neighbors or located on a street with signs and buildings that are inconsistent with your culture, then try hard to emphasize a momentary view of something lovely, or put a small garden right next to the drive. Perhaps use trees to change the way light falls on visitors, or even vary the grade or pavement material. Do something to gently tell visitors that they are transitioning to someplace different.

Telling a story

Frank Lloyd Wright used ceiling heights to tell an entry story in his houses. They always had very low, almost cramped, ceilings right inside the front door. That was because he wanted to move people from the semi-public or public outdoors to the private home quickly via the entry but then “squeeze” them into the rest of the house with all its wonder and drama. He didn't want visitors resting in that vestibule when a great view or special room was waiting further into the house.

The first project I built moved visitors from the porte cochère through a soaring 20-plus-foot high vestibule with multi-story glazing and into a low-ceiling, comparatively dark reception area. This building “told” visitors the opposite of what Wright's buildings said: Stay a moment and enjoy the vestibule, but then quickly move through the human interactions.

One client we work with decided to offset its porte cochère from the front door to differentiate the community from every other community with which it is perfectly aligned. “Different” is inherent in the community's branding.

Another client builds low-slung, one-story buildings and was putting towering porte cochères at its entries to give a sense of arrival. They so drastically dwarfed the buildings themselves, however, that a transition into a community was unsettling and actually worked counter to the arrival. We've since lowered the profile of the porte cochères and the lobbies just inside (and saved a pile of money in doing so).

If your contracts are at the top end of the market and your lobby is spartan or dated, then you probably are delivering an inconsistent message. Similarly, if your offering is value-based and price-conscious, then putting expensive chandeliers and luxurious furnishings in your lobby probably is confusing to the visitor or at least confuses your branding. Cognitive bias is a powerful thing.

The space between car and lobby

The last piece of advice I would give you is to consider specifically that car-to-building transition deliberately. As an industry, we do a great job of providing visual cues for arrival destinations (that porte cochère has become almost stereotypical). And by and large, the lobbies do get attention and investment. But what about the space between the car and the lobby?

From the vehicle exit to the automatic front door, people begin forming that first impression I mentioned at the outset. Yet too often, that short walk to the front door takes place in no space at all. I like to think of this space as a separate room altogether — bounded with visual cues, a place to sit, spots to stand and wave, and areas to pause safely to adjust a jacket or give a hug. It should be distinctly separate from the car path, although it easily could incorporate any pedestrian pathways. In other words, you should know when you enter it, all its boundaries, and when you leave it.

Indeed, you never get a second chance, but your first impression is entirely within your control.

Michael Hass is a managing partner at Drive DP in Arizona.

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