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This Co-op’s Lobby Renovation Required a Quick Pivot

Upper East Side, Manhattan

Lobby renovation, waterfall, green wall, COVID-19, co-op board.

The lobby before renovation (left side) and after (right) (after pictures by Amy Barkow, Barkow Photo).

March 28, 2023

As part of our ongoing Problem Solved series, Habitat spoke with Louis Lipson, an associate at Ethelind Coblin Architects.

A cherished design feature. We had a project that started out in 2018 as a simple refresh of the original 1960s lobby. Over the course of a year of design development, the co-op board was able to increase the budget to really transform this simple design into a remarkable one. It was a full gut renovation everywhere in the lobby except for one critical area: an existing water wall — a vertical plane of granite, about 25 feet wide and 12 feet high, with water trickling over the top edge into a pool at the bottom. Everyone really liked this feature, and the thinking was that as long as it was cleaned and polished, it would be the ideal element to tie the original lobby to the new one.

Color clash and COVID. The original lobby was a dark walnut color that worked very well with the gray tones of the granite water wall. Initially, the redesigned finishes went from dark walnut to oak and limestone, with neutral colors. The water wall was on the opposite end of the color spectrum: a cool gray versus a light beige. We recognized there could be an issue with integrating the two colors, but then COVID-19 happened and this nonessential job was shut down. When construction in the city resumed in June 2020, the board didn’t want to further delay the project by trying to resolve the color issue.

Demolition began, and the water wall was covered up with plywood and plastic to protect it. Toward the end of December 2020, installation of the new finishes was under way, with the limestone arriving from Italy and the oak paneling being installed. In January 2021 the protection around the water wall was removed. That’s when everyone recognized the conflict between the old water wall and the new finishes of this really contemporary lobby. The water wall looked completely out of place. The only way to deal with it was either accepting this uncomfortable contrast or coming up with a change that everyone could agree upon. Quickly.

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From waterfall to green wall. We had weekly site meetings with the board representatives and shareholders. It was very quickly understood that the solution had to be something simple and easily implemented, but also as impactful as the water feature. We all recognized that the lobby had very crisp, clean lines, but there was  no texture to soften the space. Early on we had explored the concept of creating a green wall in a different area of the lobby to balance some of the contemporary details, so we brought back that idea. Everyone instantly loved the green wall concept. The full board agreed that an indoor garden, or green wall, was a fantastic direction to take this, and that’s where we ended up. We took what was once a waterfall and converted it into a mini garden.

A pop of color. When you enter the building, the green wall is the first thing you see. It’s really powerful because there’s a bright pop of color, even from a distance. It was probably the most impactful thing that could have been done other than commissioning a piece of artwork, which of course is probably the most contentious thing you can do in a lobby.

The key to getting this project done was that the project committee and the board moved quickly and entrusted their professionals to get it done right. If they had teetered on a decision for more than a few days, it would have posed an immense problem to get this done in a timely manner, especially during the pandemic. The project was finalized in March 2021. If we had waited another week or two, the project could still be ongoing now.

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