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.


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.

Here are some early images developed for the Workantile Exchange renovation.

The basic idea is to create a more casual front space which will be inviting and appealing to passers by. The main working area further back will be more visible with windows between the two spaces. (Mike has some wire glass that can be used for these panels and which, to my mind, is perfect for the space. Wire glass and checkerplate go together like peanut butter and jelly.)

A knuckle vestibule between the two spaces will house the coffee maker and the printer. Having people using this space throughout the day will further enliven the space to outside viewers and provide something to see.

Mighty Good Coffee has announced that they are moving their cafe out of the front of the Workantile Exchange space and relocating a few blocks north. For WorkEx, this means that there are going to be a couple hundred additional square feet to be integrated into the coworking space, and I’ve talked with Mike and Trek about helping with the space planning and design of the remodeled space.

It’s more than a little bit appropriate (to my mind, anyhow) that one of my first projects is going to be a coworking space; my thesis project was to extend the (still new) idea of cohousing to work space. I was excited that a coworking space was coming to Ann Arbor when I first heard about it. I have found it a useful and congenial space to work since I’ve been out on my own. And now, I am looking forward to helping make it an even better space.

I’m planning to hold a charrette at Workantile (tentatively on August 26, after the usual Thursday pizzas for lunch) to discuss ideas for the new space, and how best to make use of it. I plan on that being mostly an information gathering and idea generating process. These are a few of the questions I have thought about:

Street presence – MightyGood has been a buffer to the street for us. How will the change affect things? Will someone need to be doorkeeper/greeter/host? Do people want to “work in the window” or is some kind of vestibule or buffer be more desirable?

How much public interface is wanted? New members may still come from walk-ins. How accessible is the space going to be for the general public?

MightyGood seating – the seating area for MightyGood connects to the shop, but also has a door to the building lobby. Does this get closed off, or is it useful to keep? The whole space has 4 points of entry (front door, back door, side doors, and MightyGood seating). Should any of these be closed off?

Permanent presence – with MightyGood, there was someone watching the space and the street during their business hours. Is there a way to make sure someone is closing up at night?

New work configurations – are there other kinds of work spaces that would be useful for WorkEx? Would alcoves or nooks that could be used for meeting, without being a closed meeting room be useful? Are more phone rooms needed? Do the current options (stepping into the hall, the “Agony Room,” taking a call at your seat, etc.) meet current needs?

There seems to be a preference among a sizable number of people for sitting next to a wall; is more wall space needed?

Does display space make sense for some part of the new configuration? Will there still be artwork from WSG (or elsewhere)?

Discussion here is fine (I don’t mind getting comments here at all), but if you are interested in participating, I hope you will be able to come to the charrette. And I’ll post some followup about this afterwards.

[Originally posted on WorkShifting.  It’s already drawn several comments from other coworking sites from all over.]

Phillip.jpgIf you’re a WorkShifter, that great coffee shop may be a nice environment for you to work in, but where do you go when you need to meet with someone? Holding a business meeting at a cafe table might work in some instances, especially if the person you are meeting with is not a complete stranger to you. But what if you need to meet a new client? Then things can be a bit more difficult.

Home office workers can face the same problem, too. Not everyone keeps their house in presentation mode at all times. The distractions of a personal space may not be the right environment for some meetings. And family and pets can be added distractions, as well.

Coworking can provide a good option for a workspace with the characteristics of an office, but without the associated overhead. Coworking spaces are, first and foremost, work spaces. So there are fewer extraneous distractions than you are likely to find at home or a coffee shop.

Those of us with young children face the nearly insurmountable task of keeping toys and clutter out of the way. Staying on top of that, as well as running a business is just one more headache to deal with if you are meeting people at your home.

Some pets may not be conducive to a good meeting environment, either. Not everyone’s dog is calm and quiet when strangers come to visit. Even locked away in a back room, a barking dog can disrupt a meeting. And a visitor with allergies to your pet may be uncomfortable in an environment where the animal has been living.

Another problem that neither the cafe nor the living room address very well is the kind of furniture that is available. Meetings with more than a couple of people are often difficult with the small tables found in most cafes. And very few homes have tables other than a kitchen or dining room table that are the size and scale of a meeting table.

Coworking spaces not only have work furniture, but private meeting rooms are the norm, so that you don’t have to disturb your fellow coworkers, either. My coworking space has two meeting rooms, one that will accommodate 4-5 people, and the other for as many as 12. There’s also a small phone room that sometimes gets used as a two-person meeting room.

Even with a home office, it can be useful to have a coworking space available as a place for meetings. For people who don’t need full-time access, but who may occasionally find access to a coworking space useful, some coworking spaces offer day-passes or other short-term options that allow use of the facilities on an as-needed basis.

Do you have other options for meeting space?

Photo credit: Workantile Exchange

[Originally posted on I am going to be contributing articles about coworking for that site on a regular basis.]

For many people who want to work someplace outside the company office the options are either a home office or working out of a commercial space, like a coffee shop.  But another option for workshifters and independent workers is coworking space, a dedicated workspace in a group setting that offers a number of advantages for non-traditional workers.

Coworking is a dedicated workspace that is shared by a number of people. They are typically membership-based, but with costs lower than those associated with a small private office.  Usually, membership in a coworking space is far simpler to coordinate and manage than a private office would be, and offers far more flexibility.  Coworking spaces typically offer amenities including wifi access and copious electrical outlets, as well as desks and work seating.  Most also have conference rooms, storage lockers, and are in closer proximity to other businesses and services.

While a home office can be set up to provide many of these features, the isolation of being alone away from the company of other human beings can be a drawback to home office spaces.  Coworking provides a space where work is the primary focus of the space, unlike a coffee shop where it is incidental to the main business of the space.  Being in the company of other people is something we humans like, even if we aren’t doing anything directly with any of them.  Home offices can be isolating, and having a place to go and be where other people are working can be surprisingly energizing.

Some people may be able to find this degree of social connection with the other regulars at the local coffee shop.  But the social contact with other workers, even if they are not business colleagues, and being in an environment that is intended to be productive workspace, rather than an appendage of a commercial enterprise, are definite advantages a coworking space provides.  Coworking also sets up synergies and networking opportunities that occur naturally in the course of meeting other people.

Coworking has really only started over the last decade or so.  There are coworking facilities in many major metropolitan areas, with more being developed.   Coworking is certainly not the solution for every worker. But for many workshifters, it can be a solution that serves needs better than the other, more familiar options.

Apparently there’s also a coworking space in Ferndale.

Came across this post on about setting up a home office and chimed in with a comment about co-working spaces.  Even if you have a work space at home (and I have a home office down in the basement, myself), there are some things that don’t work well in a home office setting.

I’m not too thrilled at the prospect of meeting clients or manufacturers’ product representatives for a meeting here.  We have young kids, and it would be next to impossible to keep the place presentable for meetings; I’m not sure that’s the best use of my time, either.  I can stand a degree of kid-messiness and -chaos, but I don’t want to subject business contacts to that.  My living room is also not furnished with a conference table and business seating.  So, even if it was exceedingly clean, it’s not an ideal setup for meetings.  We also have a corgi who is loudly opinionated about the proximity of strangers, even if I lock him in a back bedroom.

A coworking space gives me a chance to have a place to go, and people I see somewhat regularly, much like it was when I was working at a firm.  I like taking the bus and having that transition into work-mode, just like when I was working for someone else, and the ability to be able to stop at the end of the day and go home.  Going up and down the basement steps can accomplish the same thing, I suppose, but having the transition take a few minutes rather than a few seconds is helpful for me.

Our local co-working space, Workantile Exchange, offers a bus pass and local merchant discounts (and potentially a corporate-level membership in Zipcar coming soon, too, which would be very tempting for me), and even pizza Thursdays.  It’s more than just renting a desk.  It’s a destination and a place that helps provide some work/life separation in a very compelling way.

I have now officially joined Workantile.  As I said in my application form, I’ve been practically stalking this place since it got started.  There are good reasons for that.  And, back in December, I came in for a couple of weeks and did the two week free trial of the place.  Now, I’ve officially joined.

It’s nice to have a destination and a place to go and work.  I’ve got space in the basement at home, and I’ll be spending plenty of time there, as well.  Variously known as “The Lair” or my “man-cave,” it is the home to my collection of books, product catalogs, material samples, as well as all the supplies I’ve accumulated over the past couple decades.  I have my grandfather’s drawing table, which I cherish despite the fact that I’ve done almost no hand drafting since I got out of school.

Workantile was intriguing to me as soon as I learned it was going to be starting in Ann Arbor.

My architectural thesis project was a Cohousing and Co-working space located in Chicago.  The idea of a shared work facility, telecommuting center, meeting space, etc. was the interesting part of that project, and I’ve been continuing to follow the coworking movement as I have seen more and more articles talking about it.

Google must be spying on me.  I can’t believe my own work would be the first thing to come up on a Google search for “dwelling work post-industrial.” If you really want to read the thesis, you can find it on OhioLINK.  There aren’t many of Miami University’s architectural theses online, but mine is one of them.