The Workantile Phone Booth project has tapered off as an unrefined but mostly-finished thing. I haven’t been spending as much time at Workantile for the past couple months as I would like, so it’s not something I’ve done much with since finishing building it.  But, a couple things have prompted thinking about this right now.

A recent email from someone who is part of a co-working startup asked a few questions about the project, since they are going through the same questions for their space. The whole issue of phone rooms and privacy is something under discussion at Workantile right now, as well, as we contemplate building a couple more phone rooms into the space. So it’s time to revisit the topic for a couple of different reasons.

At Workantile, the lack of enough spaces for phone calls is rising to problematic levels. More and more members want to have spaces where they can make and receive phone calls with some privacy and without disrupting everyone else. The “conference rooms” (there is a smaller one – roughly 12′ x 8′, and a larger one – roughly 16′ x 10′) are most often seemingly used by single individuals on conference calls or the like. Very few conferences actually take place at Workantile.

We have begun talking about doing an internal fundraiser for some renovations to improve this. The current proposal is to carve out two additional small phone rooms out of the large conference room and to divide the current phone room ( which is roughly 5′ x 8′) into two smaller rooms.

We seem to be favoring hard construction instead of phone booths as a solution for our need for more private conversation areas in the space. The sketch below shows how we are planning to revise the space.

Workantile-renov2013-Model

This isn’t phone booths.  This would be building new walls and creating new, little rooms people could sit in for phone calls.   But how did we end up here?

The discussion about the phone booth started when a couple of the Maintainers saw an old, wooden phone booth in a nearby sports bar, and wondered about building something like that for Workatile. This led to me looking at phone booths and starting to design the Workantile Phone Booth.

I also quickly settled on wanting to develop a design that could be a kit that could be assembled as an IKEA-like project.

There were a couple different materials I looked at. I was initially very interested in using metal for this, but the fabrication costs were extremely high. Wood is more workable and more adaptable by others, so that seemed like the better option. Even if it was a completely worked-out kit, people will want to make changes and modifications, and the wood option works better for that.

The first phone booth has been built. Doing the fabrication with the ShopBot was a great experience. I got to use our local maker-space, Maker-Works, to build this. The pattern on the sides (an interpretation of the Workantile logo checker-plate pattern with holes) was something that could only have been done with the ShopBot, and I like the detail and fitting of the corners on the box.

After looking at a number of possibilities, the best idea for a door seemed to be a heavy cloth curtain. That would do more to muffle sound than any kind of hinged door, and the construction would be simpler and less expensive, too. At the moment, though, the only curtain is a thin, single sheet of material we found during cleanup a while back. Adding a door and hinge is something that can be added, but the curtain would be cheaper and easier for a first version.

Some things remain unfinished. The full number of screws haven’t been installed, and instead of putting a continuous base in place, I just used a couple of blocks, since it if needed to be broken down or moved it would be easier with fewer fasteners in place. But, it’s finished, at least as version 1.0, and it’s available for use.

wx-phonebooth

So, what’s wrong with phone booths?

Firstly, let me say I think phone booths can – and do – work, but they have to be used in appropriate places and in appropriate ways.

trek-workexA couple of Workantile members found an old therapy chamber at the University’s Property Disposition, and that serves as a phone booth for the upstairs Loft area (photo by Brendan Chard). That works for short calls, but gets uncomfortable after more than a few minutes. Since this was originally a 6-figure piece of medical equipment (picked up for under $100), it is pretty airtight, and that helps limit sound transmission, so it’s noticeably quieter than if someone outside the booth is talking at similar volume. Airtight is good to prevent sound transmission, but it’s not very comfortable.

Thinking about the acoustics, a phone booth for a coworking space or an office of any kind is fundamentally the exact opposite of a traditional phone booth. The idea wasn’t to keep inside noise from getting out, but to keep outside noise from getting in.

The classic 1950s phone booth was something located on a busy, noisy streetcorner. The soundproofing it provided (to the extent that it did any) was to keep the outside noise from reaching the inside. You needed some noise reduction to be able to hear the person at the other end over the background noise that was around you. Muffling that noise and lowering it somewhat makes it easier to hear the other end and to have them be able to hear the person in the phone booth more clearly. That’s how it works in the sports bar, as well. It’s an oasis of relative quiet in an otherwise noisy place.

A phone booth in an office or in a co-working space is the exact opposite. It’s a fundamentally quiet space. The person having the conversation is far louder than background, even if they are talking quietly. Someone talking in the space is a noise mountain in an otherwise silent desert. If they are in a phone booth, it’s reduced somewhat, but it’s still the biggest thing in the area. That calls for it to be a completely different thing.

For acoustic separation, background noise actually helps. If there is enough other activity in the space, other conversations are going on, background music is playing, etc., then the phone booth works better, since it can drop the noise level to a point closer to other noise in the area, and the conversation is not dominant. But when there are just a few people all diligently working heads-down on their own projects and someone gets a call, it’s a huge spike in the noise level in the space.

One of the things I’ve suggested for the new phone rooms is to install bathroom-type vent fans in each of them. While this was originally an idea to reduce the cost and difficulty of getting ventilation ductwork (which might not work especially well, in any case) to these small spaces. But, in addition to circulating air, the right fan will make enough white noise to help obscure some of the voices in the area.

The fundamental problem with the phone booth is that it doesn’t do enough (and probably can’t do enough, in any comfortable fashion) to knock down the noise level of a conversation in an otherwise quiet room.

Three things help with noise reduction: separation (barriers), distance, and masking (other sounds). If conversation is 60 dB, and the space is otherwise library quiet (40 dB), that conversation is 4 times as loud as the background sound level. Even with really good construction that cuts noise in half (which would make it 50dB), it’s still going to be twice as loud as the background. Short of heroic measures (which would be both costly and unwieldy), a ‘Cone of Silence’ solution is unlikely.

So then, what should be done? The barrier helps, but only somewhat. Having more background sound will help to make other people’s conversations less obtrusive. At Workantile, there is an AirPlay system in place that anyone on the network can tap in to (if they have an iTunes account) and play music over the speakers. And when the place is busier, with people talking and moving around, that helps, too.

The other thing is to move the phone booth out of the main work space. Getting phone calls out of proximity to quiet work areas can also help make phone conversations less of a distraction to other people in the space.
(The fact that Workantile is a very ‘live’ space with two large brick walls, a hardwood floor and ceiling, is a further complication to all of this, but that’s a whole separate topic for another time.)

The Workantile Phone Booth needs to be relocated to a more appropriate location; that has been held up in large part due to the art show that is on the walls right now. If it was near the Kitchen (red square on the plan above), it would be by a spot that no one spends a great deal of time (unless they are using the sink, which provides fantastic white noise).

A phone booth can transform an otherwise under-used area into a phone space. The Kitchen nook isn’t a good phone space as it currently is, because it’s also a hallway and too many people go through it for it to be a comfortable phone space. But it’s away from the other work areas, and it could be a place where one might take a shorter phone call. Right now, though, it doesn’t seem appropriate to stand in the Kitchen area to do that. The phone booth could make a space in an area that otherwise serves another purpose, so that someone could have a conversation on the phone with less worry about disrupting the rest of the space.

Think again of the 1950′s phone booth on the street corner. It takes a public area (much like the hallway and kitchen nook at Workantile) and carves out a small space for a more private conversation to take place in the midst of that. In this way, the phone booth is as much (or more) a social marker than it is a technical solution to noise. It’s a way of making it comfortable for a person to have their conversation in what would otherwise be an uncomfortable place.

Neither hard constructed rooms nor phone booths are going to be the perfect solution for all phone privacy needs. Both options have their place, and each has benefits and disadvantages.

The evolution of the design for the Workantile phone booth project has been far more convoluted than expected. Flat-pack plywood wasn’t the initial concept (and, in fact, I tried to avoid that early on). But the elegance of working with just one material, and of having fewer pieces to assemble, makes this seem like the right way to go. One of the design goals for it was that it be something that could be reasonably easily assembled, and the flat-pack design should be that.

Members at Workantile are excited about it, too. There was an internal kickstarter (has kickstarter already become a generic term for crowd-source fundraiser?) to raise the funds for building the initial prototype. This includes materials costs as well as some funds for a one-month membership at Maker Works in order to do the fabrication of the pieces. It was announced on Tuesday afternoon, and now, just a couple days later, it has already met its goal.

On Thursday, at lunch, I presented some of the concepts that are still under consideration. Since it has evolved into an essentially all-plywood design, it became clear that the window openings for the booth could be *anything*. There’s no need for it to be rectangular windows. Typical muntins are linear because they are built-up stick construction. The windows for this are going to be cutouts in wood panels, so it’s a completely different kind of fabrication. The two layers also do not to match each other, so there can be some play between the interior and exterior. Some of the examples for window options include the Millenium Falcon (which is also a sort of Art Nouveau look), a Penrose tiling, and a gear pattern. These are being considered by the Workantile membership, and there will be a final discussion and vote once it’s ready to go to fabrication.

The overall evolution of the design has been interesting. I’ve worked with concepts for this using both steel framing as well as wood. I also looked at a plywood flat-pack version, but at first just as a notional concept, rather than as a real direction for the project. It didn’t seem right to experiment with the ShopBot without any experience with previous projects, although that is the solution that has finally been selected.

The first concept for the phone booth was a steel frame with glass panels, using structural sections (steel angles and the like). However, steel has proved to be very expensive, even for a more simplified option. Then, it seemed that wood frame was going to be the way it needed to go. Using a steel baseplate seemed like a good option that would allow experimentation with different kinds of walls and structure. The metal base would be re-usable, even if the phone booth required a design change. But that would make it a design with multiple materials (which makes fabrication more difficult to coordinate, since it requires multiple sources). A kit of steel parts would be fairly straightforward, but that’s going to be left for version 2.0.

So now, the design is an all-plywood version that only requires some fasteners and a couple of short lengths of 2x lumber, along with the glazing and the curtain and curtain rod. All in all, it’s pretty minimal.

In addition to getting it fabricated, there will also be a public kickstarter to do some further development and refinement of the design and to make the plans available to other coworking spaces and other places that have a need for a small, private booth of this sort.

Another furniture project is moving forward.

Today, I met with the Workantile maintainers group to discuss the phone booth. They were uniformly in favor of moving forward with it, so we are going to build a demonstration version to try out some of the materials and to get a sense of how the whole things may work. I posted some earlier images (on G+) of the phone booth concept for a glass door version. This updated one (click on images for larger versions) envisions a bi-fold wooden door with glass or polycarbonate infill panels.

A shared workspace like Workantile can sometimes be a hard place to work when you need to have phone conversations. I’ve seen times here when it has been so busy that the phone room (we only have the one right now) and all the other remote places and corners that people typically retreat to in order to talk on the phone were in use. A small phone booth will offer some acoustic separation so that more people can have phone conversations without disrupting the rest of the space. Although it’s being designed for use in a coworking space, there are probably lots of other places where something like this would be useful.

The first phase of this is going to be an internal Kickstarter to build one model and see how it works in practice here at Workantile. The first one is not going to be the all-steel frame version, for now. But we’ll do it with some materials we have available and on-hand, like some wire-glass for the side panels, and that will give us a chance to try it with different materials. Door options may include a cloth curtain, a wood bi-fold door with some kind of vision panes, a salvaged wood door we have with full-lite glass, and the all-glass door (shower door style, with the sexy stainless-steel hinges).

From that, we’re probably going to be running a Kickstarter project to fund development, refine the design, and build a couple further examples. The plan is to eventually make the plans for it open-source, but supporters of the Kickstarter wil lhave a chance to have a say in the features incorporated into the base design. Among the options I would like to make available for premiums at higher levels will be customization consultation (for organizations and people who would like their own version of this, but with some modifications; the industrial aesthetic is ideal for Workantile, but it may not be for everyone) and a full, pre-manufactured version of it, including all the pieces necessary for building one of these packaged up and shipped to someone who wants to buy one and put it together as an off-the-shelf system (much like an Ikea product, but presumably somewhat more robust). Another Kickstarter option might be to request a particular feature be incorporated as part of the set of plans. I don’t think we’ll have a fully pre-assembled version available, but if there’s enough call for it, that could be another possibility, I suppose.

The whole thing will probably be a couple months away, once we’ve had a chance to try it out and see how the basic version works.

With buildings, the completion comes more slowly, and things need to be tweaked and balanced, whereas, with furniture, it’s more of a binary proposition. Of course, even in this case, there’s a bottom shelf to be adjusted a little bit, and the one cable needs to have a little more attention.  But, substantially, the L/S shelf is completed and assembled.  More importantly, and a vital concern for these clients, it was completed in time for their huge holiday party, which takes place next weekend.

The final assembly compares pretty well with the rendering.  For now, the steel is just gray; we weren’t able to get this done in stainless.  Later this winter, the plan is to disassemble the whole thing, and have the frame finished in some manner (probably powder coating, but maybe galvanizing) and make any other adjustments that need to be done.  Mike also wants to touch up the wood finish at that time, though it was fun to see everyone petting the new furniture once we had it up.

It took a little more fussing and adjusting than an IKEA shelf would for us to assemble it, although I did give the 1/2″ Allen wrench to the clients (it’s for the socket head screws connecting the arms to the base), but then we squared it up and leveled it much more carefully than just putting together an IKEA project.

That said, though, I think that this could be done as a kit shelf.  It’s a bit of an undertaking to put it all together, and needs a bit more ability than just putting together commercial furniture.  Locally, I’m sure something could be arranged for us to come and assemble it.  Shipping the pieces would be a possibility, too, though the steel pieces are not light.  The modular nature of it also makes it possible to come up with other material choices for the shelves other than the wood (though I do really like to combination of steel and birch).

Thanks to Klapperich Welding (steel fabrication), Kessler Design + Build (wood shelves and installation assistance), Gyfford Productions (cable assemblies), Stadium Hardware (connection hardware).  Better pictures will be forthcoming, as well.  This was just the quick and dirty point and shoot as we were putting it together.

I had hoped to have the L/S Shelves installed this weekend. Ideally, the shelves were going to be completed and installed for Thanksgiving, since they had guests coming for the holiday. But with family commitments and other delays, it didn’t work out that way. Fortunately, getting it done for Thanksgiving would have only been a bonus, and not the real deadline for the project, so no one was disappointed.

Instead, we got together on Saturday to get it assembled and see how it looked – at least that was the plan.

The arms and the base went together without problems. I’ve been able to locate stainless steel hardware for all the parts I wanted for this. And I really like the socket head screws (allen head screws) as the connectors. No one (or at least only a very few people) will ever notice them, since they’ll be mostly hidden by the shelves, but I’m glad I went with the more industrial aesthetic.

When Mike got there, he only had one of the four shelves with him, because he had been having trouble with getting the last coats of finish on the shelves. We still set it in place, and were trying to get a sense of how it would all go together, and at least get the cables installed on it when we discovered a problem. While trying to get it level, we were checking various measurements to get the arms even, and the top was not measuring close to the right length. After checking around some more, we discovered that the contractor had built the base as a 5′ wide base, rather than as a 6′ wide base. So, even if he’d brought them all, the shelves wouldn’t match the frame. We discussed the options for how we would go about fixing it. Eventually, it seemed to make sense that keeping it with the smaller base was better for the space, and the two lamps that are eventually to go in on either side of the shelves, as well.

The problem was a change between the preliminary design that was used to get the job quoted and the final drawings with the additional details that I included. The steel fabricator built the base off the preliminary, rather than the final drawings. As a result, Mike is going to adjust the shelves to be a foot shorter than what he originally built. So the finished version of this prototype will have 4 shelves ranging from 5′ to 7′ in length, instead of 6′ to 8′.

We are also going to modify the configuration of the cables slightly. It’s the kind of thing that probably needed to be seen in the space, with the actual materials in place. It would be fine as originally designed, but I think the look with the adjustment we’re going to make will make it even better. The arms aren’t even in the photo, but this was a look at the revised cable configuration, which we’ll complete when we put in the shelves. Wood should be finished and we’ll take a second turn at getting it all put together later this coming week.

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