[With the new website, there is no longer a built-in blog for CoStudio Architects.  So if things are a bit more tangential (as this article is), this may be a better place to post. There will be articles on the website, as well, but this will be home for things a little farther afield. This is also going out as the first installment of the CoStudio Architects Newsletter.]

The EntreArchitect community on Facebook started a discussion about recommended podcasts. Since this is a group for (primarily) small-firm and sole-practitioner architects, some of the top recommendations (starting with the Entrepreneur Architect podcast itself, and also including Business of Architecture podcast, Archispeak podcast, and the Archinect podcast) are not going to be high on the list of most non-architects, but non-architectural recommendations were also requested. After a brief answer to the question, I wanted to expand a bit more on some of my favorites, and share them with non-architects and architects alike.

In the past couple years, I have assembled a set of podcasts that are my regular rotation. Although I was a long time getting to podcasts, once I figured out I could listen to some of the over-the-air programs I sometimes missed, and when I was regularly commuting while I was working for another firm, I started using the time to listen to things by choice, and so developed the habit of being a regular podcast listener. Several of these are radio programs that I’m just time-shifting so it’s more convenient for me. These are programs that I think will have broad appeal to architects and non-architects alike.

99 Percent Invisible [http://99percentinvisible.org/]
The title comes from a quote by Buckminster Fuller, “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” The show examines how design (not just architecture, but typography, acoustic design, graphics, and more) is a part of everything we encounter in our lives. This show has become a juggernaut; producer and host Roman Mars has turned a little show about design into a whole blossoming media empire called Radiotopia. (Frankly, I haven’t delved into the other Radiotopia programs too much yet, but I’m sure there is more awesomeness to be found in there.)

Quirks and Quarks (CBC) [http://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks]
A long-running science program on CBC Radio, it could be subtitled “All Science Things Considered.” Each hour has a handful of stories about hard science research and new discoveries. Not just the stuff that breaks through, like New Horizons or the Large Hadron Collider (although those are there, too), but everything from dinosaurs to deep space.

On the Media (WNYC) [http://www.onthemedia.org/]
This is another one of the first programs I started with. I’ve been a longtime NPR listener and supporter, and I started listening to this program as an over-the-air broadcast from my local station. But it’s aired at inconvenient times, and I’d often miss part or all of it, so this was one of the first shows I started following as a podcast. The show is not a straight news program, but discusses the news, as well as other media issues, with a critical eye that harkens back to the days when NPR news programs offered thought-provoking content (which I find to be less and less the case these days). Far and away the most informative and critical program about news and the media landscape.

Spark (CBC) [http://www.cbc.ca/radio/spark]
A program about technology, “tech trends, and fresh ideas.” This has been the first place I’ve come across a number of new technologies, Like other CBC programs, it’s currently on summer hiatus, but that gives you the opportunity to catch some past episodes.

Reply All [http://gimletmedia.com/show/reply-all/]
On the Media had a spin-off show called tl;dr for a while. The program was chiefly about Internet-specific topics and focusing on that growing segment of the mediascape. The two hosts for that show moved on and are now making a similar program as a podcast.

Note to Self (WNYC) [http://www.wnyc.org/shows/notetoself/]
A new-ish program, previously called “New Tech City.” They did the Bored and Brilliant project with NPR earlier this year, which was a compelling series about re-engaging your creativity and unplugging from the constant connection to our smartphones. Even if you don’t go for the whole show, I highly recommend the Bored and Brilliant project to everyone. Bringing some mindfulness to how you are using your smartphone (and other tech) can be an enlightening step to help regain some focus in your life.

My podcast app of choice is CarCast for Android operating system.  It is simple, minimal, and the basic functions can be fairly easily accessed if you are driving. “Optimized for use in a daily commute, it features big buttons, large text, remembers last played location.” It’s free, or you can get the paid version which is identical in features, you just contribute a couple bucks to the developer; absolutely worth it, to me.

In the next few months, p s proefrock architecture is going to start dialing back. I am in the process of merging my practice into a new firm. Those of you interested in my work will probably want to follow over as a new practice is coming together and we are getting ready to launch our new firm at the beginning of next year. We’re still putting things together, so this isn’t the big, formal announcement; it’s more of a soft-launch right now. But if you are close enough to be following me in some fashion, then you’re probably someone who will be interested in knowing what’s going on.

When I first started my own firm, I was pretty sure that I was going to work as a single-practitioner. The economy was going into free-fall (though I don’t think anyone anticipated the depths of that at the time). I wasn’t sure what other things I might be doing, along with architecture, so I saw my practice as potentially wide-ranging and unconfined, in a way that a larger practice might not be able to be. And there didn’t seem to be much work going on.

CoStudio-logo-greenEvery step of the way has not been exhaustively documented, but, although there have been forays into furniture design and other related areas, much of the work has been architectural. And, beginning about a year ago, I started again in collaboration with another firm (MSK Architects). That experience has been a positive experience for both of us, and beginning in January, we are going to be combining our individual practices to start CoStudio Architects (for right now, this forwards to MSK Architects website; this note will be removed when that is no longer the case).

It’s always good to start out a new firm with a new project, and in our case, we accelerated some of our decision making about the new firm name (and we gave due consideration to advice about naming a firm) because we had a project that came up even before we started doing any serious marketing. So there will be new projects as well as our current collaboration to talk about in the near future.

We are going to have a social media presence on places like Houzz, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook (ugh), and Pinterest, but don’t expect to see a whole lot there right now.

But soon, there will be more to follow.

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.


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.


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.

This is a screengrab from a Cleveland TV station (who sent a reporter to Ann Arbor to investigate a city without a daily newspaper; here’s the source article).

They did their interviews with Dave Askins (pictured) and Mary Morgan of the Ann Arbor Chronicle at Workantile.

In this picture, in the background, you see the phone booth I built for Workantile as well as the AIA board for AADL Pittsfield (a project I did while at Luckenbach|Ziegelman Architects) with my photograph of the building.


[I was reminded of this old article of mine after seeing John Robb’s recent post about cold frames. I’m sure there are better DIY instructions out there, but some people found this helpful and maybe a repost will be useful to some more.  (EDIT: Added comments at the bottom about angles and sourcing materials that I also posted on Robb’s G+ article about this.)

This was an article I wrote several years ago for Green Options, and was probably one of my most popular pieces. (GO eventually turned into a number of different blogs, including Green Building Elements, where I wrote for a couple years, and you can find the original there.)  It’s a longish piece, as well, since it’s DIY instructions, so I’m tucking it behind a cut. The links didn’t copy over (and are probably out of date, for the most part), but I’m tracking down a couple of the images and adding them back in. I had a nice hand-drawn diagram illustrating the construction, and I need to see if I still have a copy of that somewhere that I can add in here to help make this more useful.]

Weekly DIY: Cold Frame

This weekend we got the first tantalizing taste of spring as the weather was clear and bright and temperatures rose well above freezing for the first time in months. Snow melted (though not entirely yet), and started the thoughts of summer gardens in mind. But nighttime temperatures are still falling below freezing, and it’s far too early to put plants in the ground, unless you provide a little assistance.

If your garden has a spot with good access to the sun throughout the day, you can use a cold frame to start your plants earlier in the year than you would otherwise. A cold frame is a very simple item. It is really just a small greenhouse. Daytime sun will warm the air and the ground inside, making it easier for plants to start growing. Nighttime temperatures inside the cold frame may fall back close to outdoor ambient temperature, but the extra heat gained during the day and the wind protection the enclosure provides will help keep the plants alive even if there is an overnight frost.

Building a cold frame should be a simple project. An elaborate structure is not required. It should cost little or nothing to build and nothing to operate. Plants can be started close together while they are small, and then, as they get bigger and the weather gets nicer, they can be moved out of the frame and put into the garden. (more…)

There are a couple of new projects on the horizon, and although I’ve been working as a sole-practitioner the past couple of years, the new things are looking to be collaborations with other people. This is not a bad thing. Some of it is building on previous work on a project I started a couple years ago, and another is an opportunity to collaborate with another local, sole-practitioner.

Following on with the very successful addition to the Corner Brewery (and the significant energy efficiency building upgrades that were carried out) several of the people involved in that project are continuing to work together to provide consulting services for other beer-making operations. There was enough press about the project for the Corner that other breweries have called them to find out about doing similar sorts of things for their own facilities.

By way of a little backstory, one of the things I had thought about doing as a possible thesis project when I applied to grad school was something involving a brewery. The law had recently changed in Michigan at the time, and the first brew pub in Ann Arbor was getting under way. I thought that my recent interest in homebrewing might lead to working on brewpubs as a specialty, and I think I harbored some hope that I would be able to work on the first brewpub in Ann Arbor, though that didn’t happen. (I was working in a print shop before going back to grad school, and some of the early plans for Grizzly Peak came through the place while I was there. It ended up getting built while I was off at school.) Still, I continued as a homebrewer, and I really enjoyed it when the opportunity to work with the Corner Brewery came along, especially since it was a project that combined two aspects that were (and are) of particular interest to me: brewing and green building.

That whole experience had me thinking once more about working on breweries and related projects. It turns out, as I mentioned, that Jarett Diamond – the guy who served as the project manager for the entire Corner Brewery renovation project (and the storage addition I worked on was just one facet of that whole larger undertaking) – has gotten some inquiries about consulting on other projects. It’s something he wants to pursue, as well. The two of us have talked about working together on some of these things. He has gotten a lot of first hand experience with a number of the mechanical systems involved, for both the brewing process as well as building operations. He’s also gotten very familiar with the incentives and programs to encourage energy efficient building and renovation. My contributions to the team will be in providing architectural and building-related expertise, energy modeling, and other general green systems knowledge. There are a couple other people we’ll work with who have specific knowledge about brewery operations and brewing equipment (which is an order of complexity above and beyond simple homebrewing).

The other collaboration that is starting is with another local architect with a sole-practitioner practice. Maria Kook and I have a lot of parallels in our professional lives. We both came to Ann Arbor at about the same time, although neither of us attended the University of Michigan. We both worked for different firms in town, and it’s a little surprising that it took so long for us to cross paths with one another. She has been working on her own for about the same period of time as I have, and, in addition to working on AIA-related activities, we’ve been getting together periodically to stay in touch about running our respective firms.

[last paragraph removed for editing and revision; to be returned when re-written -psp]

It’s our season of hosting and domain renewals (and our DSL provider is also ending service, so we’re also having to migrate that service now, as well). So there’s a temporary (and hopefully only short term) problem with the psproefrock.com domain for web hosting and for email. If you’re trying to get in touch with me through those channels, things will be back in order shortly, but, in the meantime, you can also use my Gmail address (you know how it goes: psproefrock [at] gmail etc.) to contact me until normal services are restored.


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