First impressions are the most lasting, especially in commercial real estate.

You only have seven seconds to make a great first impression –  or so you thought.

In 2014, psychologists from the university of Glasgow, Scotland and Princeton, US, showed that a simple “hello” is enough. In other words, you may only have a tenth of a second to make a strong first impression.

A tenth of a second is barely enough time to crack a smile. So exactly how do we prepare for this crucial moment? How do we introduce ourselves to the world?

We dress appropriately, we smile and we strive to look confident. In the event of a misunderstanding, we sometimes get a second chance and turn to words to make ourselves understood. But what about a building?


How does a building make a good first impression?

If entrances, lobbies and washrooms could speak for themselves, what would they say and most importantly, how would they say it? 

I enter a building, see a room and – in the fraction of a second – have this feeling about it, Peter Zumthor.

Thinking about first impressions is particularly beneficial in commercial real estate where business is key, investments are not light and the word ‘profit’ is on everyone’s lips.  

An entrance becomes the mirror of a company, a chance to convey your brand, convince of your abilities and show that you care. Just like you want to impress your future employer in an interview, you want your office reception to impress your future client, tenant, or prospect. 

So what do you have to do to impress?

Good design and emotions go hand in hand

In his book titled Atmospheres, architect Peter Zumthor, known for his sensuous architecture and attention to materiality, says that architectural quality correlates highly with emotions.

"What do we mean when we speak of architectural quality? It is a question that I have little difficulty in answering. Quality in architecture … is to me when a building manages to move me. What on earth is it that moves me? ... One word for it is Atmosphere."

We often talk about atmosphere and quality of space in the workplace but what about those public spaces – defining spaces – we all experience on a daily basis? How and, just as importantly, why should you strive to create this atmosphere in your office reception?

Design is a powerful tool

A successful office reception should set the tone and create a positive experience for your staff but also any potential prospect: clients, suppliers, business partners should all be engaged as soon as they cross the threshold.

In order to achieve this, you can choose to make a bold statement, like Gensler did for Olswang, an international law firm with over 500 employees.


Olswang's headquarters in London. 

Olswang’s headquarters, located on 90 High Holborn, in London, stands out with its 6m high, backlit onyx feature wall, visible from the street. The warm, amber glow of the onyx and its expressive, organic patterns, make it a focal point of the lobby, thus an inviting entry to a firm that describes itself as pioneering, with a distinctive approach to business law and an immersive culture.

A feature wall is a great way to engage visitors but there is a lot more to consider when designing an office reception. According to a 2014 Forbes magazine article, colour psychology can have a great impact on human behaviour and emotions. Choose your colour palette right and you could change the way visitors perceive the temperature of your reception area.

“Business owners can use this to their advantage by saving on heating and cooling costs. For example, if you live in a cold environment, painting an entryway a warm color may cause people to think your establishment is a few degrees warmer than actually is. This may allow you to keep the temperature at a slightly lower setting” says psychotherapist, speaker and college psychology instructor Amy Morin.

While different colours can give the illusion of a warmer or cooler entrance, they can also be used to convey a certain emotion. “Painting a common area of an office building blue is likely to satisfy the majority of people” Morin continues to say, so be sure to choose wisely if you want to maximise the potential of your reception area.

Broadgate tower's main lobby with colourful escalators

London's Broadgate Tower, main lobby. 

So colour schemes can alter your perception of the space. What about patterns? And have you thought about flooring, chosen your furniture, agreed on the lighting and decided on the temperature? Is your reception area accessible? Is it sustainable?

Although they may seem like a series of unnecessary expenses, thinking about and focusing on such elements can turn a public space into a sales point for your office building.

What if high-quality design could lead to higher returns on investment?

Good design adds value

This is not news to anyone: London is expensive. In 2014, The Economist published an article entitled ‘Bodies, bombs and bureaucracy’ and even though it may well inspire the title of a horror movie trilogy, it actually reflects on the capital’s costly construction.

Narrow, medieval streets, conservation areas, protected vistas and to top it all, unexploded bombs from WWII found on construction sites… “All this raises costs, which are passed on to business tenants.” According to The Economist, the rent of an office space in the West End was “twice as expensive as in Madison Avenue in New York" in 2014.

Knight Frank's newly released Skyscrapers Index, part of the Global Cities 2016 report, puts a number on this, with a London office rental price averaging £79 per sq. ft. per year, not including taxes or service charges – enough to make our heads spin.

At this rate, landlords and developers can’t waste an opportunity to optimise every space and make it cost-effective, even those forgotten spaces we often neglect: washrooms.

Good architecture has its price. But bad architecture – or no architecture at all – will cost you more, Ruth Reed

Let’s think about it for a second. Washrooms are the first place a client might visit when they come to your business. Along with the reception area and the lift lobby, your washroom should convey a positive image. Clean lines, durable materials, high-quality design that shows clients and staff that you care.

As expectations rise, landlords should see commercial washrooms as valuable marketing assets  in other words, an opportunity to help attract prospective tenants or buyers.

High-quality washrooms reflect you and your business

There are countless factors to take into consideration: hygiene, cleanliness, privacy, suitable lighting and ventilation are only a few of them. Details are of the utmost importance: smooth-locking mechanisms, sensor-activated taps, high-performance materials such as Corian or laminated glass, solid vanity units for a seamless, contemporary look (less joins also means less dirt-infested gaps where overtime, germs can accumulate).

Durability is key, particularly in high-traffic spaces. Designing commercial washrooms with that in mind will help reduce further costs related to maintenance. Non-corrosive metal fittings, resilient laminate panels are hygienic but also cost-effective options.

Modular, integrated-service vanity units are becoming increasingly popular too, pre-plumbed systems can help save time and money when it comes to specification and installation.

Commercial washroom in Broadgate Quarter, by Maxwood

Maxwood's washroom for Broadgate Quarter, London. Photo source

The new tenants of Broadgate Quarter in the heart of the City of London benefit from luxurious washrooms featuring innovative materials such as Swisslamex glass. Designed by Maxwood, in collaboration with fit-out specialists ISG, the washrooms also include lockers and benches for the rising number of London commuters who cycle to work; according to The Evening Standard, an average of 155,000 a day cycled to work in 2015.

In a report titled “Good design – it all adds up", Ruth Reed, British architect and former president of the RIBA, states there is a "danger that in the rush to cut costs we lose more than money from our building projects. To avoid diminishing the quality of life that good design brings, it is necessary to identify the value created by thoughtful and responsive architecture.”

What is good design and how to use it in commercial real estate?

There are countless trends for commercial interiors, from large-scale geometric patterns to collaborative, break-out spaces, but what about the bigger picture? How can we use design to optimise a reception area all the while turning it into an asset?

The recently unveiled Hiscox office in York could teach us a lesson or two about optimising while generating more revenue for the owner. Designed by MAKE, the office boasts a spacious atrium, featuring a 12-metre-long, decommissioned Soviet missile as a centrepiece and a grand staircase with balconies designed to encourage interaction.

Hiscox office building by Make architects

The Hiscox building boasts an airy, mixed-use atrium. Photo source: supplied. 

Aside from the bold statement the atrium makes, the latter also serves multiples functions, gathering a reception, a café, an informal meeting area and a break-out space for staff all in the same area.

Flexible spaces help landlords enhance their revenue

The 2016 Gensler Design Forecast report states the importance of mixed-use commercial office buildings. “As workers gravitate toward social settings, apart from home and work, new and repositioned “office buildings” will make room for them. Openness and connection to adjoining buildings and districts will gain importance. As mobile workers switch between office space and “third place” alternatives, owners and developers that focus on transit-served, mixed-use districts may have an edge in attracting them.”

Taking cue from residential properties and hospitality, office buildings with mixed-use lobbies could generate more revenue for owners by integrating settings that will draw traffic, even outside of work hours. Coffee shops, restaurants, conference halls, retail and even concierge services will raise the destination value.

Sustainability is a front-and-centre issue

For tenants looking for a new office space, sustainability is also a much sought-after factor and developers should see this as another resource to further drive innovation and efficiency.

A ‘green’ office reception can convey the right image and set the tone. Where possible, entrances should be bathed in natural light. Not only does this reduce the need for artificial lighting, it also creates an inviting entrance and positive atmosphere.

“Going green is good business” says Johan Karlström, president and CEO of world-leading development and construction company Skanska in the 2013 Business Case For Green Building report. The latter also states that “as investors and occupants become more knowledgeable about and concerned with the environmental and social impacts of the built environment, buildings with better sustainability credentials enjoy increased marketability.”

Green office buildings attract tenants easier and this philosophy needs to be clear from the onset. Not only will this command higher rent, it will also increase marketability.

Reception desk in the Ampersand Building by Darling Associates

The timber reception desk and wall graphics create a striking first impression. Photo source

The Ampersand building, completed in 2015, boasts a sustainable, light-filled reception intended to draw passers-by into the reception area, made accessible to the public. Designed by Darling Associates for developer Resolution, the office and residential building embraces sustainability through the use of passive design and energy efficient materials. As for the reception area, it doubles as an art installation – proof that furniture can make or break a space.

So how important are first impressions in commercial real estate?

Landlords who understand that good design adds value, also understand the importance of high-quality reception areas and washrooms. If an office reception imparts a positive feeling, if a washroom tells a story of quality, then the rest of the space is bound to follow the same principles.  

Ergonomic furniture, exquisite materials, eye-catching details, all join forces to ensure those public spaces make a good first impression. Such functional, optimised areas will increase the office marketability, particularly if sustainability is taken into consideration.

Reception areas that integrate amenities such as coffee shops and retail will also generate more revenue for owners, thus making mixed-use spaces particularly profitable.  

In the words of Oscar Wilde, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression”, especially in commercial real estate, where valuable customers like being identified as such. So if your business relies on a fraction of a second, how will you make it count?

The sound of silence: pitch-perfect acoustics in the workplace

Bad acoustics are a by-product of busy open-plan offices that continue to thrive. Is it time for a change? 

Fine-tuning the open-plan office

Offices are inherently loud, open plan offices even more so. Loud conversations, phones ringing, keyboards clicking... Energy becomes dissonance and poor acoustics end up hurting wellbeing and productivity in the workplace.

By its virtue, sound reverberates with every surface. Picture an office with a polished concrete floor, an exposed concrete structure and a glazed facade - every ringtone and phone conversation bounce from one hard surface to the next until finally, it is absorbed by nothing other than the ears of the workers. Before long, employees lose focus and the workplace turns into chaos buzzing with distractions.

EchoPanel ® office partitions by Kirei

1. Sound absorption

Using sound absorbing materials can provide some acoustic relief and restore much-needed levels of peace and quiet in virtually every area of your office. Think reception areas, conference rooms, breakout spaces and open plan offices with activities ranging from phone intensive to focus work.

Where can you use sound absorption? 

Acoustical ceilings

The American Ag Credit Union headquarters in Santa Rosa, US boast a smooth visual ceiling with total acoustic performance, by Armstrong Ceiling Solutions

To absorb a significant amount of noise in your office, you can use high performing acoustical ceiling tile with an NRC rating (Noise Reduction Coefficient) of .75 or higher. The NRC rating indicates how absorptive a material is. Ratings of .50 (50 percent) are typical of an average acoustical ceiling tile while some of the best acoustical panels boast a rating of 1 (100 percent.)

Although not a favourite in terms of aesthetics, acoustical ceiling tiles are easy to drop into your standard ceiling grid, thus making for a quick fix to bad acoustics at the office.

Sound absorbing panels

Felt acoustic wall panels, Cleveland House, London. Designer: Anne Kyyro Quinn

If an acoustical ceiling is not the right design approach for your office, you might want to consider baffles or decorative acoustic panels, both available in ceiling and wall-mounted versions and in every shape or form imaginable.

How do you choose between baffles and ceiling panels? The main difference lies in the mounting. While panels are fixed horizontally, baffles are mounted vertically – the former allows for optimal sound absorption while the latter is perfect for busy ceilings or in offices with skylights that wouldn't be blocked.

Acoustic panels come in varying forms and sizes, from large discs to leaf-shaped panels and by placing them in strategic, loud places in the office, the noise levels can be significantly reduced. 

Cork board tiles

Composite cork tile. Lars Beller Fjetland for Spinneybeck

This is your ticket to blissful acoustics with added aesthetic value. Expanded cork wall sheets offer a perfect vibroisolation, thermal insulation and acoustic isolation. Cork panels can be left to shine or finished with paint, lacquer or wood stain.

Use warmly textured cork panels to lend character to your office and, depending on location, transform parts of it into a decorative yet functional tackboard for ideas to be pinned down. 

Acoustic office furniture

Soft Seating Collection for common areas, by Boss Design

Sound absorbing furniture is yet another creative way to manage poor acoustics in the workplace. From high-back acoustic sofas and privacy lamp shades to sound absorbing dividers and work bays, there is a plethora of innovative acoustic furniture designs on the market.

Perhaps best suited to intimate meeting spaces and waiting areas that are part of open plan office, wrap-around furniture offers a cocoon of silence that fosters privacy.

There is plenty of research that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations.

Julian Treasure

2. Sound masking

Interestingly, sound masking is the physical opposite of sound absorption – instead of removing sound, it adds it. It isn't about making the space noisier though, but rather about distracting the ear from other noise.

Small speakers placed in the ceiling or mounted to posts emit pre-programmed, frequency-appropriate white noise designed to mask conversations. The soft, uniform background noise elevates the ambient noise level so that conversations at a distance becomes unintelligible.

This technique is ideal in offices where quiet is too quiet, where the sound of a pen dropping or a bag of crisps being cracked open echoes throughout the space, making for an uncomfortably eerie environment.

A well-tuned sound masking system will deliver uniform sound at the right volume and within the right spectrum, halving the radius of distraction from an average of 13 meters to 6.

Cost-effective and easy to install, a sound masking system will not affect the aesthetics of your office; it will however highly improve its acoustics.

The Bridgespan Group office with integrated QtPro™ Sound Masking System by Cambridge Sound

Which acoustic solution is best for me?

Many variables come into play when deciding which solution is best for your office but the likely answer will often be: a little bit of both. Most open plan offices often sway between loud and dead quiet several times a day. In such instances, absorption would help subdue the loudness while masking would ensure the right levels of privacy between desks with the help of a quiet hum.

Fine-tuning your office may be hard but it is not impossible. With a little help from a professional, your office can quickly become an acoustic feast for all five senses.

We experience every space in five senses so it's strange that architects design just for the eyes

Julian Treasure
Opening photo: Architecture Research Office Collection - wool felt modular panels by FilzFelt