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Jan. 3, 2013

Selling Spaces

By Keat Foong, Executive Editor

The days of enclosed leasing offices with staff members sitting behind the desk are over. Some interior designers suggest that open-space leasing offices represent more than a passing fashion—they constitute a defining feature of the new “Best in Class.”

“In the last development cycle, you had a fairly distinct leasing office, serving one manager and two assistant managers,” says Rohit Anand, AIA, NCARB, principal of KTGY Group Inc., Architecture and Planning. In the current development cycle, says Anand, “the leasing office is coming out into the lobby area.” The management office is smaller. And instead of three people sitting in the office, only one staff member stays, and the other two staff members, equipped with I-pads, are mobile and sit with prospects in the lobby, according to Anand.

There are a number of points that come across from experts discussing what constitutes best-in-class sales spaces in apartments. Clearly, best-in-class leasing offices and model units today are defined not only by aesthetics, but also equally by function. Second, the presence of the most expensive, highest-grade materials is not necessarily a defining feature of a top-level leasing office or model unit—there is a plethora of cutting-edge and/or great-looking materials today that are affordable and long-lasting, say designers. And in terms of aesthetics, it should be noted that best in class does not necessarily mean “hip and edgy.” Best-in-class leasing offices or model units can range from traditional to urban hip depending on which market is served.

“The design does not have to be edgy. Cutting edge has to be appropriate to the market, and a traditional look can also exude a sense of excitement,” says Sandy Moon, president and CEO of Focus Design Interiors. “You won’t want to say to someone ‘your design is not best in class because it is super traditional.’”

Hotels are held as the latest model of excellence in the design of these key areas of marketing spaces. “We are trying to adapt to a more ‘hotel-like’ setting,” says Rebecca Jones, principal of the design company RD Jones + Associates. “The leasing staff will meet and greet prospects in an open lounge concept versus having prospects come into an office and sitting at the desk. The leasing center is now a very open part of the lobby space.” As a sign of the times, RD Jones is a hospitality design firm that has, in recent years, extended its services to the apartment industry.

Preferably, there should be a direct line of sight from the first point of entry in the lobby area through to the outdoors including, possibly, the pool, says Anand. And the leasing area should also be in proximity to the front door within sight to the concierge, says Jones. If there is a desk in the common space used by the leasing staff, it would be dedicated for business functions from, say, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and merge back to common use after the office hours, adds Jones.

Other rooms in the leasing area are also being opened up. What is known traditionally as the “closing room” is no longer dedicated to closings, says Anand. “You do not give up one room for closing. The room can be used by residents as well.” And the business center no longer exists as a separate room but is also incorporated into the lobby area, says Anand. The faxes or computers of the center are now located in the common area—for example, in a bar-like space.

Separations between the various uses of the open space and between the private and public zones can be achieved by the use of barriers such as low walls, screens, fireplaces and different types of ceiling heights, says Jones. And the use of glass separations, if appropriate to the design, creates a subtle message that “we are a transparent organization,” adds Anand.

Self-service kiosks and touch screen technology, whether to display the units or the contract agreements, are also necessary components of a top-rate leasing office. And many designers say that including a bar, a coffee shop or even a restaurant in the lobby area would be best-in-class treatment for the lobby—if the developer could afford to offer those amenities.

Certainly today’s best-in-class leasing office features “a high level of design, detail and finish,” involving the use of, for example, millwork, stone, fabrics, lighting and furnishings, says Jones. Attention should be paid to furniture, wall hangings and floor finishes, adds Anand.

In the final analysis, the most successful leasing offices are located in a space that exudes immediate energy to both prospects and staff, says Focus Design Interiors’ Moon, who also consults for the hospitality industry. “Consumers are savvy. They make decisions quickly, so the energy has to be there. It is a snap feeling you get,” says Moon. One of the important characteristics of a best-in-class leasing office would be its location in a lobby area with a certain amount of activity.

“People want to see people,” explains Moon. “It’s important to show activity, movement, people doing things, whether it’s at a coffee bar or a computer.” And, just as important, the design should encourage intimacy between leasing agent and prospect by seating them in a lobby environment. “That intimacy is critical,” says Moon.

Model units meet the test

As far as model units, best-in-class examples resemble custom homes as much as possible. Moon points out that some residents live in apartments because they can’t afford a house. For this demographic, as well as the renters by choice, best-in-class model units are no longer “white boxes,” Jones notes. There should be at least two to three different wall colors featured per unit. Accent walls, even stripes, can be used, and the bathrooms should be full color, says Jones. Primary colors—bold and edgy—are featured on the walls of best-in-class model units in urban properties, says Anand. These colors may appeal more to the younger, hip set. And in suburban properties, warmer colors, darker browns and greys can be used, says Anand. Generally, cabinetry should be dark if the counter tops are light, and vice versa, he says.

To be best in class for model units, developers would also do well to focus on two areas: the kitchens and bathrooms, Jones advises. The key, says Jones, is to pay great attention to detail in terms of sinks, faucets, cabinetry and hardware. Some features that are seen as best in class include pull-out sliding pantry systems and high-style cabinetry in the kitchens, as well as 360-degree lighting achieved by front, side and back lighting in the bathrooms.

In either kitchens or bathrooms, solid surfaces—rather than veneers—go a long way in achieving the Class A look. Solid surfaces made of materials such as stone or quartz-composites from Silestone or Cambria are becoming fashionable, and they are not necessarily expensive, says Moon. Other solid surfaces that resemble concrete without the cost can contribute a fresh and high-grade look, according to Jones.

Top-rated model units also frequently incorporate glass, stone or ceramic tile as back splashes in kitchen and bath areas. Ceramic tile, notes Moon, can be economically priced and still have lots of “wow.”

The point is to check out some of the offerings that are eye catching, perhaps because they are new. “Product development and interior surfaces have come light years even when compared to five to six years ago,” says Moon. “If you use the same old, same old, people will eat your lunch.”

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