The Library and the Bazaar

In Christopher Alexander’s discussion of his Workspace Enclosure pattern, he mentions this interesting concept:

You should not be able to hear noises very different from the kind of noise you make, from your workplace. (Your workplace should be sufficiently enclosed to cut out noises which are of a different kind from the ones you make. There is some evidence that one can concentrate on a task better if people around him are doing the same thing, not something else.)

This is an idea that seems simple, perhaps common sense, but as I’ve come to realize through my investigations into office design, common sense is not so common.

Here’s a paraphrasing of the idea, as simply as I can state it:

Put things that sound similar together, and isolate them from things that sound different.

This idea (should) affect every aspect of office layout.

Here are some examples:

  • Don’t put people who talk on the phone often within earshot of people who don’t. Put the “phone people” together, away from the non-phone people.
  • Don’t put a copy machine and/or printer within earshot of desks. Machines and people make different sounds.
  • Team rooms: people who work day in and day out on a certain project should be sound-isolated from those who don’t. Overhearing someone’s conversation is a lot less annoying if it’s highly relevant to you.
  • Group non-work things together and sound-isolate them from work things. It’s cool if the microwave and the air hockey table can hear each other, but put a wall between them and any desk.
Nope Yep
Ping pong and desk bad Ping pong and lunchroom good

There’s a fantastic white paper written by the GSA called Sound Matters, which is free and a quick read. Within, they explain the concept of the Library and the Bazaar:

The contrasting needs of the modern workplace can be seen as “The Bazaar” and “The Library,” with different acoustic needs and responses appropriate for each.

“The Library” is an analogy for a workplace environment where both quiet and speech privacy are expected to optimize the ability to concentrate.

“The Bazaar” is an analogy for the expectation that the area is not private, where sharing is the norm… Noise is far more acceptable to workers in the bazaar and a high level of intermittent background noise is expected.

The workplace needs libraries and bazaars, with sufficient noise isolation between them. The problem with many trendy open-plan offices is how they place everyone’s workspace into a bazaar.

Which way to the library?
In staged glamour shots like this, no one has to work at these desks.

There’s a certain fantasy promoted by open plan enthusiasts about how surrounding your people with a sea of random conversations and noises all day will lead to serendipitous collaboration / synergy / magic. What I’d suggest is that the bazaar is the place for these conversations, not the library.

Even if you don’t believe in a private office for every individual, don’t force everyone into a bazaar.