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How to renovate a lobby and keep (almost) everyone happy

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An apartment lobby is not only the common area where you'll spend the most time, it's also a major component of your building's curb appeal, and thus, an influence on property values. Compared to replacing a boiler or even adding a roofdeck, lobby renovations are among the most divisive and delicate building projects a condo or co-op board can undertake. 

“A lobby is the entrance to everyone's apartment in the building and every person who cares anything about decorating will have strong opinions,” says real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Wagner Berkow.

But paint gets chipped, front desks wear out, and a lobby spruce-up is as inevitable as the fuss it usually triggers. Horror stories abound of rancorous renos—neighbors fighting neighbors, clueless boards designing in a vacuum, and annual meetings where building leadership is voted out over dicey design decisions. 

True consensus is usually unrealistic, but there are ways a board can keep residents happy, whether that’s surveying them about their use of the lobby or keeping construction to daytime hours. Below, the do’s and don’ts of keeping the peace: ​

Encourage participation from residents

Though not recommended, it's perfectly legal for a board to renovate without consulting fellow residents, says co-op and condo attorney Scott Greenspun of Braverman Greenspun. “The owners voted in the board and, as such, empowered them to make decisions” on everything from the budget for the job to the artwork that hangs on the walls, he says. (The one exception would be if the board “acts in bad faith.”) 

That said, the best way to avoid civil war is to be as open and transparent as possible, soliciting feedback from residents at critical steps along the way.

“You should always make sure you include everyone['s opinion], but you have to do it in a way that causes the least amount of stress for a board or building architect,” says Allston Lipscomb, co-founder of interior design firm The 3rd Floor Lab

Form a committee, preferably made up of both board members and building residents, to decide on a design. (It’s a bonus if one or two of them know something about design or architecture.)

With a design committee, you’re empowering a manageable number of apartment owners to oversee the project and have the final say, while still giving residents a chance to join in. 

Early on in the planning process, the committee should send out a survey to residents asking what they’d like to see in a lobby and where they'd like to see money spent. Sample questions include, What do you use most in the lobby? Or, what do you think is the most beneficial lobby space? 

Have your designer submit several proposals, and give residents more than one option to vote on.

Put mock-ups of the renovated lobby (or options the committee is considering) in the lobby for several weeks so shareholders can see them, ask questions and offer comments. 

After you’ve displayed the designs, call a meeting to let residents ask questions of the designer, architect, board and design committee. You could also hold a vote at this point, Wagner says. The benefit of a vote is that even if residents don’t get the lobby design they preferred, they can register their preference by casting a ballot.

Remember: your lobby is more than just a pretty face

While beautiful communal spaces are certainly not a bad thing for a building to have, don't forget that you're not designing the lobby purely for its aesthetic value: the area will get a lot of use, and should fit in with the building as a whole.

  • Choose furniture, flooring and other decor that are durable. “Lobbies usually don’t change very often,” Lipscomb says. “They’re meant to last, they’re meant to function.” On a similar note, make sure you account for maintenance, Arnie Lauri, a senior property manager at Argo Management. That may involve keeping extra paint around for touch-ups or budgeting for a new chair for your doorman. 
  • Opt for a design that fits your building and its exterior. If it’s a classic pre-war, use traditional elements; if you’re a bunch of creative types, something more modern might work better, Lipscomb says.
  • Use attractive lighting that creates an inviting ambience and doesn’t overwhelm with glare.
  • Don't design in a vacuum, without taking into account the hallway, elevators and other public areas of the building. Make sure the lobby blends into the rest of the ground-floor common space. 
  • Avoid doing everything in white--as much for political as aesthetic reasons.  "It will get dirty quickly and stand as a reminder of how incompetent the board is to the people in the building who are decorating experts and to all of their spouses,” says Wagner. 
  • Unless your lobby is horrible and someone with impeccable design credentials recommends a cheaper, stopgap measure, wait until you have enough money saved up to do a first-class job, says Wagner. Skimping on a renovation is a bad long-term investment.

Hire the right designer and contractor for your project--no inside jobs!

Hiring an outside designer or architect with residential lobby renovation experience will result in a better finished product and take some of the responsibility for the renovation off the board or design committee. However, it's almost universally not a good idea to let the board president—or a spouse or best friend—pick the decor, even if this person is a designer.  

“While hiring the board president’s best friend to do the job is not ‘per se’ a breach of any duty, particularly if the relationship is disclosed and the hiring is done after competitive bidding, it is generally not a good idea to retain the friends of board members because of the appearance it creates,” Greenspun says. (Not to mention the awkward elevator rides with the neighbors who don’t like the final product.)​

Similarly, don't hire someone who lives in the building—you’re only opening that person up to complaints from her neighbors. Also, “some people may feel it’s a conflict of interest,” says Lauri. ​​

Contractor-wise, ask for referrals from your designer/architect, residents and your management company. Argo, for example, has a “purchasing department” that connects boards with contractors and other professionals. 

Get 3 to 5 bids, then interview the contractors who submit the top two or three bids, Lipscomb recommends. Be skeptical if one contractor’s bid is a lot lower than the others. Narrow the field down by calling references and going to see prior jobs.

Double check that they’re licensed with the city Department of Consumer Affairs.

Get it over with as fast as possible

If you can, order materials ahead of time, and don’t change your mind in the middle of the process, Lipscomb says. 

Get the right permits from the city Department of Buildings. “As long as you’re just doing a cosmetic reno—meaning if you’re just painting or hanging wallpaper, refinishing floors—things along those lines don’t require a permit,” Lipscomb says. But if you take down a wall or break the floor to add electrical conduits for extra lighting, you’ll have to get it approved by the DOB.  

Inform residents of the construction schedule: when it will start and finish, and the hours it’ll take place. Make special efforts to communicate with lobby-level residents, who will be most impacted by the construction.​

Also, avoid scheduling major work for high-traffic times like weekday mornings; if possible, do construction while everyone’s at work, Lipscomb says, and be sure to follow the city's rules for when construction is allowed to take place. Keep construction materials stored properly so the lobby can still function.

Related:

9 apartment lobbies that make a great first impression

Don't get blindsided by these common building repairs

What's an expediter--and do I need one for my reno?

7 tips for finding a great contractor

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