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Third Places Count – Coffee Cup Cheers

Retail, Third Places

Third Places Count

Maybe you've heard the term "Third Place" lately, but aren't sure what it means? Well, we here at Board & Vellum love us a good Third Place, and our own Charles Fadem is here to walk you through what Third Places are, why they matter, and what it takes to make a good one.

February 22, 2017

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on my couch with my dog resting his chin on my lap, trying to mull over a major personal decision. I just couldn’t concentrate; instead of weighing my options, or listing the pros and cons, all I could think about was my backlog of errands, the housecleaning that needed to be done, or the emails that needed responses. I tried moving to a lounge chair, the kitchen table, and finally the front steps, but still couldn’t find peace of mind. Frustrated, I grabbed my notebook and went for a walk.

I ended up at a nearby coffee shop a few blocks away, and took a seat at a small table on the patio. The sun was low in the sky, the breeze pleasantly chilly. There was music and some chatter filtering out from the shop’s windows, a soft murmur that put me at ease. After I ordered, I looked around at the Capitol Hill streetscape, watching an eclectic mix of Seattleites winding up their days before heading off for their evening plans. With my mind relaxed, I opened my notebook and my thoughts began to flow freely before my coffee even arrived.

This profoundly human and modern experience is one that people in cities, towns, and communities all around the world often crave. We want not only a home where we can be at rest and an office where we can be productive, but also a Third Place where we can be both.

Third Places Count – Coffee Cheers

What Is a Third Place

In many ways, a Third Place is like a tide pool, where the cycle of the tide washing in and out creates a unique environment of very specific conditions that allow rare organisms to thrive. They are rare, fragile ecosystems where organisms special to this environment can thrive.

When we want a place to be with our thoughts and a sketchbook, spend an afternoon with friends, or read a book while connecting with the goings on of our neighborhood, we become very much like one of those little organisms. A neighborhood pub might seem perfect, until we need a moment of silence to gather our thoughts. A local library might have the opposite problem: creativity might be stifled in silence. A spot on the beach might sound appealing — until it’s time to plug in that laptop or cellphone.

Everyone has their own idea of a perfect Third Place. But the more common examples (think coffee shops, bookstores, and parks) are all similar on a basic level: they are places where we can be simultaneously at ease and engaged, social and private.

Third Places Count – Tide Pool – Image Courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife
third_places_count-tidepool-credit_oregon_dept_of_fish_and_wildlife

Image courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Third Place Design


Sometimes, Third Places happen quite by accident. People might discover an otherwise random space that offers a unique view, or a nook in a public space with just the right balance of privacy might become a popular refuge. By taking advantage of the characteristics that these types of accidental spaces exhibit, designers can create deliberate and unique Third Place experiences. In addition, because they can do well in small, out-of-the-way spaces where rents tend to be lower, opening a Third Place can be a smart choice for first-time entrepreneurs.

There are some relatively straightforward aspects people typically look for in a Third Place: comfortable seating, low-decibel background noise, decent Wi-Fi, and an inviting interior that offers a balance of privacy and visual connection with others. Beyond these characteristics, the interior design of a Third Place can vary widely; no one aesthetic has been proven to be more successful than another. A growing trend is to balance residential features and finishes with natural light to make visitors feel both at home and in a special, protected, creative atmosphere. That was B&V’s goal when we designed Ada’s Technical Books and Café on 15th Avenue in Capitol Hill.

Bookstore nook. – Ada’s Technical Books & Café – Retail Design – Board & Vellum
Ada’s Technical Books & Café

Photo by Cindy Apple.

One of the most often misunderstood aspects in Third Place design is sound. Although many people think that what drives us to a coffee shop or bookstore is silence, research shows that we are most relaxed socially, and work best, in an environment that has a limited (yet present) amount of background noise easily provided by music or light conversation.

Access to power outlets is often overlooked, as well. Some Third Place proprietors are wary of their space being overtaken by an army of laptops, but even when ample outlets are provided this is rarely the case. Espresso Vivace on Broadway in Capitol Hill finds a balance by providing a quiet room with extra outlets where those who wish to work on laptops can charge in peace.

Rethinking the Third Place


There are so many extremely unique ways to approach the program. Vancouver-based HCMA Architecture + Design worked with social artist Julien Thomas to launch Faraday Café, a very low-tech alternative to the typical plugged-in Third Place. The pop-up coffee shop — named for Michael Faraday, inventor of the Faraday cage, an enclosure used to block electromagnetic fields — required visitors to stow their phones in a locker at the entrance, creating a haven for friends to spend genuine, quality time with each other.

Some, such as The Station's original location in Beacon Hill, take a unique site with limited space and décor and create a place where you can strike up a real conversation with a neighbor. The Station revels in its role as a facilitator of social and political activism, which adds a fascinating programmatic element into the mix of Third Place design.

Third Places will continue to evolve into places of greater and greater importance as the daily havens of our lives. The design of these Third Places should be as thoughtful, welcoming, and vibrant as the design of our offices and homes. In the next installment of this series, we will take a closer look at some unusual Third Place design choices that push the boundaries of the spaces that we seek out, including private clubs, independent event spaces and even arcades!

Coming Next: The Future of Third Place Design

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