February 2nd 2011
The Wall Street Journal
Curb appeal figures prominently in the saleability of single-family homes. But in a condominium or cooperative, the equivalent of a drive-up first impression is the walk-in reaction to a lobby. In the competitive world of real estate, that critical space can mean the difference between a buyer continuing on or turning back.
Lobbies communicate the vibe and the tone of the building, how the building is maintained and the caliber of the owners who live there. It gives prospective buyers an idea of what they can expect in terms of style and services throughout the rest of the property, setting the building’s value and establishing the level of luxury from the very first step.
“The demographic of the residents being targeted drives the size and scale of the lobby, how impressive it is versus how practical,” says Jon Krueger, of Robert Hidey Architects, in Irvine, Calif. Address plays a factor. The firm just completed the interior architecture for a 21-story luxury condominium tower at a prime location on the Wilshire Corridor, where prices are set to start at $4 million. Krueger said the design takes a classic and timeless approach with a focus on high-end materials like stone and exotic wood veneers. Indirect lighting emphasizes the beauty of the natural materials.
Kevin Tomlinson, of ONE Sotheby’s International Realty in Miami Beach, Fla., says those are just the kinds of lobbies his elite clients prefer — classic, timeless and understated. “Buyers looking to spend in excess of $5 million would never touch a building with a themed lobby or anything that’s too dated or too trendy.”
Buildings associated with celebrated designers like Philippe Starck, Michael Graves and Yabu Pushelberg up the ante, says Tomlinson, and they especially resonate with international buyers. “Those names get dropped. It’s a calling card.”
While a fabulous lobby in and of itself may not sell a buyer on a building, an uninspiring or tired-looking one risks making a poor initial impression which can impact the perception of the apartment itself. It throws up a red flag. A buyer may rightfully wonder if the lobby is an indication of how the rest of the building is maintained. In Bratislava, Slovakia, Alexandra Laubertová of Corpia Sotheby’s International Realty says, “Even if the apartments are beautiful, we’ve had clients who refused to buy [because of the lobby]. A small elevator, old staircase, low security and dark spaces very negatively influence the purchase decision.” Lobbies and common spaces have become increasingly important as the real estate market in her territory has become more competitive. Buyers are demanding a certain level of luxury in their lobbies and are less willing to settle.
Tomlinson figures the shelf life of a lobby design at about a decade. “At the ten-year mark, [building] owners are typically making plans to redo the lobby, since it’s the key to holding the value of the building.” It’s difficult to quantify how much a lobby actually adds (or detracts) from the price of a unit. But real estate professionals agree it is an intangible that makes a difference in its ability to drive a transaction. “It adds that little bit of sparkle which could be just enough for a buyer to proceed if it’s a close decision,” Tomlinson says. In one New York condominium conversion last year, sales were slow with eight units languishing on the market. The building’s management decided go full throttle on a gut lobby renovation.
Before the city even approved the permits, the apartments sold out. The building now has a waiting list.
Lobbies have evolved from purely transitional spaces to lounge areas that exude a sense of clubbiness and exclusivity. In New York’s Financial District, the lobby of the luxury condominium known as 20 Pine has been designed as a haven, a counterpoint to the frenetic streetscape, says Lori Ordover of Africa Israel USA, the developer of the building. Armani/Casa furnishings, a soft palette of grays and creams, plus wood, bronze and glass combine for a Zen-like feeling. It is an aesthetic that has attracted both a Wall Street clientele as well as international buyers, who represent more than 40% of the owners.
The 1928 neoclassical building was originally the headquarters of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company. It was renovated by the architecture and design firm of Gruzen Samton in such a way as to pay homage to its history without dating the building. Of the design process, Ordover explains its genesis: “We know approximately how much it’s going to cost to renovate the building, so we know how much we’ll have to sell the condominiums for. If we need to make X on a condo, who’s going to buy? Where do they come from? What do these people want in their lives that’s going to make this building a building they’re going to choose over another building?” The answers to those questions inform the design direction.
Ordover says you can essentially date a building by the elements in its lobby. Water features, fireplaces and continental breakfast stations all had their moments as the “it” lobby amenity for a time. But the key for buyers is how the space makes you feel. “You want to feel an instant break the moment you walk into the building from outside,” Ordover says. “The lobby is an extension of your living room.”