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A View from the Desk

Call it the Desk.

It is the place from which the “guardian of the gates” performs his assigned duties: greeting, announcing, and then directing visitors to their destinations; accepting and storing packages and dry cleaning for later pickup; and opening and closing the front door for residents and guests.

It is a special place that few consciously notice but which plays a crucial role in the ebb and flow of a building’s life. It is the concierge desk, a little-discussed yet vital station in a building’s lobby that must fit with the structure’s historic style even as it incorporates new technology for a new era.

Times – and needs – change. What should you be concerned about when redesigning your concierge desk?

If you’re David Moyer, sitting on the board of 50 Park Avenue, you are part of a team that put together a plan for a new lobby. As the chairman of the board’s committee on technology and security, you have to pay special attention to desk design. But it also means listening to his doormen first. Only then, he says, can the board go about working with the design firm. After all, he explains, you have to “give your doormen the resources to do their job better, and they’re the experts on that. We talked to them.”

Sightlines and Location

The first issue to consider are “sightlines,” says Joel M. Ergas, a principal in Forbes-Ergas Design Associates. “The desk needs good sightlines in as many directions as you can give it because it has to be easy for the staffer to go in and out, if he has to help anyone for any reason, such as helping someone out of a car and bringing in luggage.”

Your design should also place the concierge within easy proximity of a place “where you can store luggage and dry cleaning without walking half-a-mile and leaving his desk,” Ergas says. “You want to centralize the desk function with the package function.”

 

Packages and Dry Cleaning

Where package delivery was once a secondary concern for a concierge, the dual trends toward two-income households and online shopping have led to a huge increase in the number of items waiting for residents.

Dennis DePaola, executive vice president of Orsid Realty, a management firm, says that many buildings with just one concierge now have 30 to 40 packages coming in each day, as well as a great deal of dry cleaning. As lobby designer Marilyn Sygrove of Sygrove Associates Design Group points out, this is a potential security concern. “In a lot of old buildings, the package room is down the hall,” she notes. “So that means the concierge could be pulled away from the desk to handle a box from UPS and not [see] who’s coming in to your lobby.”

Consequently, many buildings are choosing to relocate their package rooms so they have greater proximity to the concierge. This is consistent with the belief expressed by Ergas that a good designer does not want to create a space where the concierge is “unduly distracted from the entrance. It’s a question of security.”

In itself this change can lead to complications. DePaola reports that in one Upper East Side building his company manages, the decision to move the desk from one side of the lobby to the other to accommodate an expansion in the package area stalled the lobby redesign by eight to ten months as residents vigorously debated the proposed change.

At the Brevard, a co-op with more than 400 units on East 54th Street, Forbes Ergas relocated the concierge desk to a more central location and added several closets directly behind the desk. Although it looks like an elegant wood-panelled wall, the structure is actually quite functional, hiding the closets that contain packages, dry-cleaning, and even laundry bags, which can be stored within easy reach of the concierge.

“We want to focus on residents – Mrs. Jones getting out of a cab with her packages,” 50 Park Avenue’s Moyer explains. “A desk is good for projecting authority, but we want the doormen to be able to get out from behind it quickly. So what we designed is more modest, friendlier and accessible – more of a perch than a nest.”

 

Technology

Another issue is that the amount of information that can be provided to the concierge and to residents is expanding. Part of this comes from improved security monitors and cameras that can better cover the hallways, elevators, and other parts of the building. Monitors can be placed within the desk so that a concierge is sitting or standing behind or just over them.

Alongside these monitors are screens that record what packages arrive. Popular security systems like BuildingLink allow the concierge to post lists of which residents have packages awaiting them. This information can be made available to the residents’ smartphones at any time. Indeed, such systems are often set up to automatically e-mail residents about incoming items.

Jason Gross, founder and CEO of Construction and Security Installations (CSI), a firm that specialized in security systems and general construction, says the new ones seem to be “50 percent desk and 50 percent tech.” Gross adds that New York building staff are no longer sitting behind the desk and need a more ergonomic design to suit the new standing concierge. Moreover, a well-designed desk, he says, should be arranged with a security camera screen, lock box for tenant keys, necessary fire alarm equipment, intercom system, and package delivery software, just to name a few.

“When you have the electronics package – intercom, key management systems, telephone – and you have your basic layout, you marry the two. You want to integrate the design with the lobby, not only location-wise but design-wise,” says Ergas, who adds, however, that with technology in a constant process of evolution, when he designs desks he’ll “try not to do everything too built-in because changes are taking place so fast, and there should be room left over for future updates of the equipment.”

Sygrove says all these changes and innovations mean any lobby that hasn’t been remodeled in the last 15 to 20 years probably should be – quite apart from the need prompted by ordinary wear and tear.

 

Lobby Redesign Is “Political”

In the context of building improvements, new desks aren’t a giant cost. Sygrove estimates that the typical desk she designs and builds from scratch costs $15,000 to $25,000, although that’s exclusive of the added technological components.

DePaola emphasizes the importance of understanding that any proposed change is “political. Boards have to take into account the views of shareholders. They’re high-profile. You’re dealing with aesthetics, and everyone’s tastes are different. There are issues of color and style. You have people who want traditional design and people who want modern.”

 

The Final Result

Ultimately the most important matter to most residents will be the look of the lobby and the desk at its center. Jon Reiner, former board president of a beautiful Art Deco building on Riverside Drive, had conversations with countless residents and meetings with five different firms before his board eventually selected Sygrove.

The choice was motivated, he says, by Sygrove’s willingness “to let us reinvent 1922 [when the building was built]. Some architects might find that stultifying.”

Reiner’s Riverside Drive co-op had already worked to replicate period details in other areas of the building, such as the cornices, for example. Now they were able to use a mix of marble and wood to make the entranceway conform to the building’s original Art Deco style. This also revealed the building’s original marble floors and walls and leaded glass.

The whole process took two years. Completion required Reiner to stay on as board president longer than he had intended, something that larger, more expensive building projects did not. But it “satisfied our aesthetic ambitions while meeting the aims for building functionality.”

And that was worth it.

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