Designing Lobbies For Good Security

By Michael Silva
From the September/October 2015 Issue

(Credit: Thinkstock/PhotoDisc)

The lobby is the primary point where visitors and other members of the public enter your facility. As such, it is one of the most critical areas to design properly from a security standpoint. Having a poorly designed lobby makes it difficult to control access properly into the building, requiring that additional security measures be provided at the interior of the building. A poorly designed lobby can also increase operational costs by requiring that additional staff be provided to overcome the security weaknesses created by the lobby.

Many lobbies are designed primarily with aesthetics and convenience in mind, with little or no thought given to security. Oftentimes this is because the architect and owner lacked an understanding of basic security concepts, or failed to consider security during the architectural planning process.

It is our opinion that a lobby can be designed to look good while at the same time providing excellent security. Within this article, there are provided guidelines that can help to plan a building lobby successfully.

Basic Concepts

Before getting into specifics, let’s talk about some basic concepts when designing a lobby for good security.

(Credit: Silva Consultants)

At the exterior of the building, there is typically an unsecured, public area, such as a public street or parking lot. Usually, any member of the general public can freely enter this area without permission. We refer to this area as the “Public Zone”. On the interior of the building, there is typically a secured private area, which may contain offices, production facilities, and other spaces related to the business. Usually only employees and invited guests may enter this area. We refer to this area as the “Private Zone”.

The building lobby acts as a “portal” or “conduit” between the Public Zone and the Private Zone. The lobby also provides an area where members of the public can transact business with the company without entering the Private Zone. Because of this, we refer to the lobby area as the “Semi-Public Zone”. One security layer exists at the point between the Public Zone and the Semi-Public Zone, and a second security layer exists at the point between the Semi-Public Zone and the Private Zone. This concept is illustrated in the drawing below.

During normal working hours, the exterior doors of a lobby are typically left unlocked. This allows people to enter the lobby (Semi-Public Zone) to interact with the receptionist. In cases where the person has legitimate business with the company, he or she will be signed in as a visitor, and allowed to proceed into the Private Zone. Depending on company policy, the visitor may or may not need to be escorted by an employee while in the Private Zone.

If a person arrives, but does not have legitimate business with the company, he or she will be turned away by the receptionist and denied access to the Private Zone. Physical barriers should be provided that prevent people from passing between the Semi-Public Zone and Private Zone without permission. These barriers should be designed in such a way that they make it difficult for an unwanted guest to force his or her way past the receptionist or to sneak past the receptionist unnoticed.

In cases where the lobby is also used as an entrance by employees, a system needs to be provided that allows authorized employees to pass through the barrier into the Private Zone, while at the same time keeping unauthorized people out.

Problems In Lobby Design

While the basic concepts for lobby security are simple, many problems can occur that prevent these concepts from being successfully implemented in an actual building. The drawing to the right (top) shows some common security weaknesses that often exist in commercial building lobbies.

(Credit: Silva Consultants)

As seen in the top drawing (1), sometimes there is no physical barrier between the Semi-Public Zone and the Private Zone. This leads to complete reliance on the receptionist to control access into the building and to prevent an intruder from entering.

When the receptionist is facing perpendicular to the flow of traffic (2), it is difficult to observe who is entering the building. Because of its location, visitors are not intuitively drawn to the receptionist’s desk.

If an entrance to a second floor stairway (3) or building elevators (4) is located ahead of the receptionist’s desk, intruders can use them to gain access to upper floors in the Private Zone without checking in with the receptionist. Similarly, if a door to a private office (5) is located ahead of the receptionist’s desk, intruders can sneak through the office to gain access to the Private Zone without checking in.

Another lobby design flaw is that restrooms are located in the Private Zone (6). This requires that delivery drivers and waiting guests enter the Private Zone in order to use them.

Additionally, if a frequently used customer service counter (7) is located in the Private Zone, customers who wish to visit the counter must be signed in as visitors, creating considerable additional work for the receptionist.

A Well-Designed Lobby

The drawing to the right (bottom) shows an example of a lobby that has been well-designed from a security standpoint.

A barrier wall (1) can provide needed physical separation between the Semi-Public Zone and the Private Zone while a card reader controlled door (2) can control access between the Semi-Public Zone and the Private Zone. (This could also be a card reader controlled gate, revolving door, or turnstile.)

When the receptionist’s desk faces the lobby (3), incoming traffic can be observed. And because of its location, visitors are intuitively drawn to the receptionist’s desk. Additionally, building elevators should be located behind the barrier wall in the Private Zone (4), as should stairs to the second floor (5).

Regarding restrooms, a small one should be offered to visitors in the Semi-Public Zone (6), eliminating the need for them to enter the Private Zone to use it. A small conference room in the Semi-Public Zone (7) is also a good idea so employees can use the lobby for short meetings with guests without requiring them to sign-in as visitors or enter the Private Zone. And lastly, a customer service counter (8) in the Semi-Public Zone can permit customers to be served without signing in or entering the Private Zone.

Additional Suggestions For Lobby Security

When possible, the lobby should not be used as a primary employee entrance point. If practical, provide a separate entrance point for employees and discourage them from entering through the lobby. Reducing traffic through the lobby makes it easier for the receptionist to observe activity and reduces the chances of an intruder “tailgating” in behind an employee.

The receptionist’s primary duty should be to manage the lobby and to greet incoming guests. Do not give the receptionist other duties that distract from this primary function or prevent continuous observation of the building lobby.

If at all possible, deliveries should be routed to the loading dock or mail room and not be received at the receptionist’s desk.

lobby-design-securitySilva is the principal of Silva Consultants, an independent security consulting firm that specializes in the evaluation and planning of security measures for new and existing facilities. Silva has over 40 years of experience in serving clients in manufacturing, technology, financial services, and healthcare environments.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below. Or send an e-mail to the Editor at


  1. Joyce,
    I would suggest widening the counter as well as providing some type of barrier above the counter to prevent climb-over. Often this can be done with glass or Lexan panels so that the barrier doesn’t obstruct visibility but does provide some protection. If you want to email me some photos of your existing desk, I may be able to provide some more specific ideas.

    Michael A. Silva, Silva Consultants, email:

  2. I am the office receptionist in a small office. When guest enter the office, they are stopped by a 4 foot high counter that is only about a foot wide. What can I use to create a barrier at this counter. The counter, in my opinion is low and wide enough for someone who really wants to to just hop over. What can I use at this counter to create a barrier. I thought of widening the counter by a few inches or so. Just wondering if you possibly had any other ideas.

Comments are closed.