Design Corner

Facility First Impressions
Lobby Spaces Set the Tone

By Tom Poulos


hen planning a new community or recreation center, don't diminish the importance of the design of the facility's lobby. This significant space not only sets the tone for the entire building and helps establish a facility's identity, but also should serve essential functions of providing a central informational and control point and offering space for community members to gather—formally or informally.

From a programmatic perspective, a community center's main lobby generally affords space for some key functions that express or support the facility's purpose. First and foremost, they are the main point of entry, providing welcome and reception, and serving to usher program patrons and other visitors deeper into the facility.

To be a welcoming point, a lobby has to be warm and inviting, have adequate light, and be informative and attractive. How do you achieve that? Through the selection of finishes that are esthetically pleasing, but also durable and maintainable to avoid acquiring a dingy appearance over time. Durable and maintainable surfaces can run the gamut, from porcelain to terrazzo to concrete, depending on budget and taste, but the trick is to reach an effective integration of materials in developing the selected architectural style.

Snacking & Socializing

Lobbies need to be designed in such a way that they create a welcoming atmosphere and provide an adequate level of comfort. Ample and ergonomically sound furniture and traffic flow options that allow for circulation and grouping are considerations not to be overlooked, while the building's overall theme can be expressed here through an integrated complement of materials, art and color.

The Park Center, in Glenview, Ill., for example, features a spacious lobby that reflects the 168,000-square-foot building's Prairie Style design. Aside from providing space to lounge, the generous space holds a café for snacking and socializing. The lobby also serves as a mechanism to inform, providing clues to the culture of the community. Works by local artists are on display for viewing and purchase, and a carved mural decorates the grand fireplace, depicting scenes from Glenview's history.

This type of display is one example of a design device that sidesteps functionality, but delivers a distinctive feature that can promote gathering, conversation and learning. Other examples include a dramatic open staircase and elevator that embellishes through architectural ironwork the contemporary lobby in the Bartlett, Ill., Community Center. Similarly, concepts are being developed for a decorative and interpretive display in a community center being planned for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that will commemorate the 2007 flood that hit the community hard.

Murals, ornamentation and architectural features, such as piers, can help set a tone for a gathering place, and establish or expand upon a theme. Even a functional element such as an elevator tower decorated with architectural adornments can draw the eye. A well-planned lobby design that delineates a hierarchy of internal spaces can create a multitude of smaller "alcoves" for smaller, interpersonal congregating.

Marketing Motives

One important function of a community center's main lobby is to "sell" the spaces within the facility—and the programs that are operated in these places. Promotion and information are accomplished in a variety of ways, but their respective propagation and dissemination need to be accommodated through good planning for maximum effectiveness.

An easy-to-locate, orderly and friendly front desk provides a place for helpful reception staff to function. The central control and reception desk can hold literature that advertises programs and events, and can even incorporate or have placed nearby a kiosk for visitors to access information on their own. Additionally, nearby or integrated display cases can house trophies, merchandise or art.

Also introduced in a well-designed lobby are the major program offerings of which those new to the facility should be aware. One way to do this is by visual presentation. From inside the primary lobby at the Centre of Elgin in Elgin Ill., for example, visitors can glimpse the community center's fitness center, main gymnasium, group exercise studio, natatorium and climbing wall, and entry point to the preschool wing.

To proclaim an overriding attraction, a lobby can be attached to the primary functional facility to which it will serve as a relief space. A lobby, for example, can expose and support a theater, an ice rink or an indoor pool complex. The question, "What is the building's true identity?" should be asked in planning for the lobby arrangement.

Decoration, Declaration

In embracing a design philosophy that promotes consistency and connection among exterior and interior spaces of a building, executing a lobby design that reflects its building's exterior through line, color and texture is critical. The lobby also represents an opportunity to tell the story of the community center's inception or vision.

The Pioneer Park Community Center in Arlington Heights, Ill., was the culmination of a process in which the building's owner, the local park district, wanted make a statement and set the stage for future facilities that would be modeled after this facility. The modestly sized building was intended to impart a "neighborhood feel," and be accessible from the outdoor basketball courts and playing fields. Durability and drama were infused into the design for the building in general, and for the lobby in particular, to create a manageable facility and set a tone for the district. The two-story lobby affords opportunity for future upper-level expansion to accommodate programs such as an indoor track, a general waiting area and group fitness/aerobics space. Early planning and understanding of the client's desires were the essential criteria that allowed for the functional, yet distinctive identity of the lobby's design.

In nearby Highland Park, Ill., the community's Recreation Center lobby proclaims a message of sustainability, in line with the green architecture applications implemented in this project. Natural daylight, visual connectivity to exterior wetlands, along with green finishes, including low-VOC paint and floor covering containing recycled content, were used to achieve sustainable design goals. Additionally, because the lobby was also to serve as a singular pivot point to an adjacent existing golf clubhouse, site and signage were given attention to avoid confusion.

If a literal theme has been established for the center, conveying its cachet can and should be done through the main lobby, in an "invitation" to see more of the creative applications within. The lobby of the recently opened Stephen D. Persinger Recreation Center in Geneva, Ill., for example, acts as a portal to bring in the barn-like exterior look of the building, and hints at other whimsical design devices that carry out the farm theme inside. Reclaimed barn siding and panels suggest rural rusticity in a striking and practical fashion.

Orientation Considerations

From a planning standpoint, a number of considerations can enter the picture in an effort to design a lobby that is accessible, comfortable and functional. First, how it will be situated on a site and positioned with drives, walkways or paths must be determined. A design that makes the lobby's entrance prominent is important in signaling its location to approaching visitors.

At the Monon Center in Carmel, Indiana's Central Park, a linear lobby space serves as a "free zone" that is accessible from the Monon Trail that runs through the expansive park. The two-story lobby not only links this trail to the park, but connects an active, athletic-oriented building with a passive, cultural-focused one. A variety of activity areas are on view to pedestrians traversing the lobby, guided by informational and directional signage.

If a lobby's entry is accessed from an outdoor plaza, a "seamless" connection is recommended, both for aesthetic reasons and to allow for the potential engagement of exterior activity areas that take advantage of the adjacency of the facility's interior support amenities.

Some simple tips to maximize comfort and to boost energy efficiency are:

  • Lobby entries being designed for cold climates with prevailing northerly winds should be planned to avoid facing north.
  • Entrances to lobbies in the Northern Hemisphere should incorporate overhangs to provide protection against the heat and direct glare from the sun's rays.

Ample light is important, and can be achieved through a combination of natural and artificial light, including emitting diffused and carefully managed direct daylight through the use of translucent and transparent windows, curtain walls and skylights.

Aside from the practical considerations of climate and traffic, a lobby's orientation can be derived to achieve other goals. The lobby in the community center recently built by the City of New Port Richey, Fla., for example, was designed to form a connection between two adjoining, yet socioeconomically distinct neighborhoods. To create a connection point and a sense of community, a "cross-axis" design was conceived for the community center lobby to bridge the disparate neighborhoods. A ramped lobby floor, traversing the atypical 12-foot grade change in that geographic locale, provides access to the various program and activity areas.

Control & Comfort

A well-integrated lobby, with a strong design and a logical connection to other parts of the community center begins early in the building's conception. It is the piece of design that typically gets put down first on paper; to properly "anchor" the building's other spaces the architectural solution for the lobby must not be an afterthought.

The function of control—that is, monitoring who enters and leaves the building, and allowing front-desk staff to maintain a command of activities in their general surroundings—needs to be addressed in a lobby plan. A number of strategies can be discussed, driven by the goal of striking a desirable balance for a particular community's concerns and challenges as they relate to security.

Ultimately, a good lobby design should synthesize defining materials and geometries that express the community center's overall design and delineate a space that will successfully integrate with the rest of the building. Finally, park and recreation agencies should avoid the mistake of skimping on lobby size and components.

With the resources given, they should try to make a lobby all it can be, and avoid having it be cramped or uninviting, as first impressions are everything. An effective lobby should provide for control, information dissemination, and for comfort and community—for that's where you go to have coffee with your neighbor!


Tom C. Poulos, AIA, is a registered architect and a principal with Williams Architects, Carol Stream, Ill., a leader in recreation facility designs. During his career serving public recreation agencies, Tom has worked on a significant number of community/recreation center projects. For more information, visit

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