What can we learn from COSI: adaptable space

September 28, 2006, 11:04 am

When I worked around the DC Metro area I would frequently have lunch at Cosi , a nice ‘upscale’ sandwich spot. One thing I noticed was that the restaurant (as place) changed throughout the day. During their heavy lunch rush, they accommodated the needs of their customers who were in a hurry, while in the evening they slowed it down and offered a more social and ambient environment. Libraries are typically built on the one-size-fits-all model, but what can we learn from Cosi? My central question: is there a difference between day and night users of libraries?

COSI – Day

People are in a rush. They grab their food, eat or take it someplace else. Customers go through a line and place orders a la Subway style. Speed is critical. You don’t want long lines to discourage people. The primarily cliental are local business/govt employees on their lunch break, who want fast food, but not fast-food.

During the day, the space features a few large tables and permanent booths, but the central dining area consists of small tables and chairs. This allows them to accommodate a larger mass of people. I imagine that people commonly eat lunch in pairs, so smaller tables are efficient. Cosi also has two exits (or entrances), opening on different sides of the block, which cuts down time travel time in the city.

Overall, it’s a quick and convenient place to grab a quality sandwich.

GT Library – Day

Our rush begins around 11:00 am and lasts until about 2. Monday – Wednesday are the peak days. In theory, there are not supposed to be any class sessions from 11-12. This is designed to allow students a chance to eat, talk, rest, and prepare for the afternoon. The Library is always packed and we often have long lines (20+) of people waiting for computers.

During the day, students are stressed out. They typically come in to print, finish assignments (papers, coding, modeling, PowerPoint) or for last minute studying. Of course they socialize too, however the mood is very determined. Most of them are here for a particular purpose and are extremely focused.

COSI – Evening / Night

At night, Cosi transforms itself. The smaller tables are removed and/or combined to form larger sitting areas. Customers don’t stand in line, but rather, are served by a wait staff. The mood is chill. The music is fun. The lighting is soft. People are there to unwind after work. Maybe they are waiting for traffic to die down. Maybe they are going out to a show or to a Caps game. Cosi realized this and adapts to accommodate these different needs. It becomes a coffeehouse / Parisian café. It’s not about the rush anymore, but about relaxation.

GT Library – Evening / Night

We typically hit a lull from 3 – 7. Classes are wrapped up. Students go home/dorms. They go to work. They eat, sleep, relax, socialize, etc. But then around 8 pm they are recharged and ready for more academics. Our library gets packed again, sometimes even more so than during the day. There are lines for the computers and a buzz of conversation. The mood is different. Students do not seem as stressed as they are during the day time. They still need to be productive and want to print, study and work on assignments, but it is not as frantic. They are typically working on projects due the next day (or later) as opposed to during the day time when everything is due in five minutes.

In the evening our two main floors are very dynamic. Students are collaborating together, teaching each other, socializing. It’s an energizing environment. It’s comfortable and inspiring to see all these people doing work.

Some thoughts….

Obviously for us, students use the library differently throughout the day. We are a large residential campus, so that probably impacts our fluctuation. But what could we do better?

First, every library needs more computers. The major obstacle isn’t really costs, but rather space. We’ve maxed ours out and until we get rid of some of these dusty old books, we can’t offer any more computers. But, if I were renovating or planning a new building, I would explore adaptable furniture.

Is it possible to easily change the design of productivity areas? Does it have to be so static? Cosi uses different tables and configurations, why can’t libraries? Here we have moveable tables and chairs (and walls!) but we don’t reconfigure differently for day/night. Should we? Or should we just leave it up to them?

Is it possible to increase computer access during the day rush? Is there any adjustable furniture that would allow us to quickly and easily raise/lower the tables so that banks of computers could become standing-only during the day and sitting areas during the evening? I know there are wires involved, but let’s think long-term vision here. How might we adjust the layout of a room if it were possible?

What if half of the computers were in static (traditional) sit down stations, and the other half set up with more flexibility? During the day, the flex half would be standing only, put the chairs somewhere else, and aligned in a rows. Get in, get out, move on. This way we could form two lines, those for the quick-use computers and another for those wanting to sit down or who have long-term use needs. Then, during the afternoon lull, we could lower the flex computers and adjust space for the evening crowd. Allowing them the ability (at night) to re-adjust the space on-the-fly themselves too if desired.

What about creating a whole room with maybe 40 computers that is isolated from a main commons area? Put some cool art and posters on the walls, do something fun with the lights, play music, build an enclosed zone that resembles an internet café. The goal is emphasize that quick needs could be met here, while the more serious work (MATLAB, AutoCAD, Word, Excel, Maya, Photoshop, etc) would be out in the main area. Would this help?

And while we’re at it, a third zone designed for group work. Large desks for groups to work together and around a computer and perhaps a few closed rooms for study and rehearsal presentations. I just love the idea of zones or separate area each having a distinct feel and function.

Should we staff definitely? During the day, when we have a heavy concentration of librarians, most of the questions are pretty simply. Is it in the evening when students really do their research? During the lunch peak, should we have two student assistants to refill paper trays, fix paper jams, help with the plotter printer, and other in-demand needs such has staplers as well as software needs? How could we make the service and environment more convenient for the day rush?

I mentioned before the concept of a mental recess . Are there services and events we can offer Sunday through Thursday from 7pm – 11? (Note: at 1am we average over 60 students in the building, with a steady decline—but just like the long tail , we’ve found that if we’re open, there is always someone in here doing something.) so during our primetime, what about tutoring, writing help, math help, programming help, social help —we’ve built the environment, we’ve got the bodies in the building, how can we make them to be more productive? More satisfied? What incentive can we give them for coming to the library?

I think that Cosi provides an interesting case study in adaptable space. They understand the varying needs of their customers and I think that libraries could learn something here. There is a lot of rhetoric toward listening to patrons and redesigning to fit their needs— but do these needs change throughout the day? Is it possible to tap into the different moods and maximize efficiency with special configurations? I highly recommend that any admin types out there spend a little time in your libraries in the evening to see what’s really going on. It’s very likely to be a totally different place at night—and you could be missing out on opportunities.

PS: I really hope I get the chance to renovate a library some day down the road…


  East_1 East_2 West Flex_computers

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