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.

Here’s what it looks like to have a sample for the Workantile phone booth project fabricated with a CNC router (at the U of M FabLab) today. Or rather, here’s a link to my G+ account, where I am able to upload the video (about 2 minutes), since I can’t do so directly in WP:

The tool itself is a pretty impressive piece of machinery.

Thanks to Kareem for the tour and assistance with making the sample.

There are a couple little things I’m working on.  These aren’t the big glamorous projects all the cool architects in TV and movies are working on; it’s not even terribly green. But even small projects and little things can have their own meaningfulness.

One thing I’m working through are some ideas for re-roofing a cottage in Canada for a friend of mine.  I’m likely to help with the installation of this, as well as trying to weigh different options for materials, though that’s not going to be a deciding factor in the selection.  This is for a roof roughly 9 squares (900 square feet) in area; no valleys or complications other than a stone fireplace chimney in the middle at the ridge.  Originally the plan was just to do a tear off of the existing shingles (which are at least a couple decades old at this point) and put down some ice & water shield in some areas, make sure the underlying sheathing boards are all still in good condition, and put on new asphalt shingles.

But I mentioned having seen some salvaged green-glazed roofing tiles (while I was researching another Inhabitat article) that are available from a building materials recycling facility, and that started the gears turning and the ideas being considered.  I don’t know the cost of the material (though I expect even as salvaged material it wouldn’t be free) and it would still require shipping.  If we’re going to do the installation ourselves, the amount of work required would also be a consideration.

If we’re considering alternatives to shingles, then metal roofs are also worth considering.  Metal would be lighter weight (which might be a consideration) but would also have a longer life than asphalt shingles.

In any case, it’s probably going to be next year’s project.  I like the idea of something non-asphaltic, especially given how close this place is to the edge of Lake Huron (we’re talking feet, not miles).  Since it is only occasionally occupied, the idea of something durable and low maintenance is certainly appealing.  I’m concerned about branches or other debris causing problems for the tiles.  And, of course, cost is a consideration, as well.

The other project is a chicken coop competition.  The competition has been set up by the Poultry Project, which is a charitable organization in the US and Uganda helping families affected with HIV/AIDS to have small-scale poultry businesses.  Since I’ve already designed and built a coop that houses the chickens we’re currently getting our eggs from (over at the neighbors’ house), I’m probably already one project up on most of the entrants.  It’s an October deadline for that one.

I drove an all-electric version of a Chevy Equinox a few weeks ago and have now posted my review and a couple of pictures on Ecogeek. I still find it confounding that I have ended up writing about cars, but I enjoy the chance to see some interesting vehicles from time to time.

I am headed to Washington DC for a few days to be on a peer review panel for the EPA, so it’s likely to be quiet here for the next couple of days.  This is the second year that I’ve been an EPA peer reviewer.  It’s interesting to take part in these panels and to find out about some of the developments and technologies that are being explored.

When I get back, we’re going to have the Workantile charrette to examine ideas for renovating and adapting the space once Mighty Good Coffee moves out and up the street a couple of blocks to their new space. It’s not going to be any sort of extensive reconfiguration; Mike and Trek want to make things more workable and find a way to adapt the additional space in a way that’s going to work well for the coworking environment. I’ll have more about that coming next week.

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.