Reimagining Condo Lobbies Today for the (Post-COVID) World of Tomorrow
Before the pandemic upended our world, most condo lobbies and multi-family residences were predominantly guest check-in points, designated waiting areas, and high-traffic spaces that residents scurried through with their parcels and take-out orders in order to get to the elevators.
And then, COVID.
The world as we knew it was turned upside down and many of the ways we used our old and familiar shared spaces have been changed — possibly forever. Gone are the days of residents gathering in close proximity to one another. Entering the mailroom with other people? Out of the question. Sitting on the lobby furniture as you wait for your Uber Eats to arrive? Unlikely.
Given that condo and apartment building common areas, such as lobbies, were among the spaces singled out as breeding grounds for COVID-19 due to the large number of people using them (upping the likelihood of germ spread between individuals), buildings had to adapt and introduce new procedures that prioritized the health and safety of both residents and staff.
As a result, condo and apartment buildings closed most of their common areas including pools, gyms, and party rooms, while general access for porters, delivery people, and guests was also altered and lobby use was reworked.
While every building may be designed differently, for the most part, throughout the pandemic condo lobbies transformed into security-focused checkpoints where plexiglass dividers separated mask-wearing residents from other mask-wearing residents and building staff, while hand-sanitizing stations popped up virtually everywhere possible.
Now, as vaccination rates and daily case numbers continue to improve, life is beginning to return to ‘normal’ and feel somewhat closer to how it did in a pre-COVID world. That said, as the world emerges from the grips of the pandemic, concerns of health and safety will continue to remain top of mind, and the public’s newfound hypersensitivity to cleanliness and proximity to unknown individuals will likely presume well beyond the era of COVID, especially in high-traffic common areas like condo lobbies.
Robert Klopot, president and chief executive officer of luxury property management company The Forest Hill Group, explained to STOREYS that he and his team are already stocking up on PPE and antibacterial agents to ensure the safety of their residents and employees in the future.
“My partner and I decided to order a whole new batch of PPE and antibacterial agents, similar to what we did in early February  before the pandemic eventually hit in March, just to be prepared,” said Klopot. For the past 17 months, The Forest Hill Group has taken on the large responsibility of implementing and maintaining appropriate measures to ensure staff and residents remained healthy and informed at its more than 90 properties in Toronto’s downtown core.
“We’re seeing headlines coming out from other parts of the world where they’re either reinstituting mandatory mask-wearing or even doing regional lockdowns. So, I’m obviously hoping that we will never have to go back to where we were, but we want to be prepared, you know, just like we were the first time,” said Klopot.
Health and safety protocols aside, the way lobbies are designed will also have to continue to evolve in the months and years to come in order to meet the needs of residents.
“Our developer clients have definitely changed gears in focus as it relates to reception areas and lobbies in particular, because you’re going to see a lot of people congregating there again as we come out of this,” said Klopot.
The Forest Hill Group was consulting on a project that was in its final design stages when the pandemic hit. As a result of COVID’s impact, the client was forced to rethink the project to such an extent that they ended up creating two lobbies.
One lobby was designated for general use purposes — residents coming and going, etc. — while the second lobby was designed to be the porter and valet area that could also act as a conduit for guests and most of the non-resident day-to-day interactions to take place.
“It kind of ensured that we were never in a situation, even if we go back to a lockdown scenario, where we’re kind of forcing congestion, almost like a funnel, as you wait for the elevators, or whatever else you’re trying to do while you’re on the lobby floor,” explained Klopot.
Planning for the Future
If one thing’s for certain, the pandemic has forced companies like The Forest Hill Group to change their thinking when it comes to planning for the future.
This means that common areas must be designed to not only accommodate those with heightened health and safety sensitivities and fears about sharing physical space, they must also remain an inviting and welcoming place.
An important component of how condo lobbies will function that will need to be reimagined is the mail and delivery rooms.
“What we’ve noticed throughout the pandemic is a continual and gradual increase in packages being delivered. I’m not sure if this is just the peak before we start to average down and normalize or if this is the new forever. Though, from what we’re seeing, deliveries are steadily increasing,” said Klopot.
Of course, most buildings wouldn’t have thought to plan ahead for the e-commerce boom that’s been driven drastically higher by COVID restrictions.
“We’re now asking clients to consider increasing parcel storage areas or adding an entirely new one. We’ve had to alter plans, and, in some cases, change (through re-drafts) other plans that didn’t quite accommodate the volumes that we’re seeing now,” said Klopot.
Klopot also explained that from a staffing perspective, condo buildings are going to need to hire more staff in the future to keep up with demand.
“About half of our portfolio has already increased staff and personal concierge just to meet the continued growth in demand for home delivery and services,” said Klopot, adding that he highly doubts we’ll ever get back to the pre-pandemic package volume.
“The jump has been so significant that people’s behaviour would have to change quite a bit to get back to where levels were before.”
What’s Staying the Same
As we continue to ride out what we hope is tail-end of the pandemic, it seems as if we’ll likely see most current lobby health and safety policies remain in place — at least until there’s more certainty of when we’ll actually come out of this.
In the dozens and dozens of buildings that The Forest Hill Group manages, staff at all sites will remain in masks and plastic dividers between staff and guests will stay in place.
“We’re still either carefully screening guests that come in that don’t necessarily need to go up or we can quickly resolve what they need to be there for without staying in the lobby for too long. We’re still trying to clear areas where we can, practice social distancing in elevators, and keeping most of the policies that we have had in place for more than a year now,” said Klopot.
While condo lobbies might look and feel a lot different now, even if they return to a more familiar feel, the heightened awareness of day-to-day cleanliness will likely stay a part of the psyche.
“I think you’ll always see sanitizer dispensers on the front desk, that’s the new norm. However, for masks, I think that will depend obviously on regional policies,” added Klopot.
Regardless of localized discrepancies, it seems condo lobbies of the future will always carry a piece of the pandemic with them — from design to sanitization — as they reconcile with the ongoing changes in consumer behaviour and residents’ needs.