When’s the last time you set foot inside a bank? Financial institutions just generally aren’t built to support sociability. They’re designed around the single act of carrying out business in front of a banker, hence the tall cubicles and anonymous design. Acru, a community bank in Woodstock, Georgia, has subverted that system, hiring architecture and interiors firm ai3 to create a dedicated cafe environment that encourages locals to come on by and stay a while, whether or not they’re taking care of business. You can think of it as a direct reaction to the visceral sense that many people now have of banks as cloistered, opaque, and self-interested.
Acru (formerly CNT) was established a little over a decade ago, but this updated approach was in the works for about a year before the new location opened in 2011—fortuitous timing that coincided with the Occupy movement. "Our inspiration came from listening to what people shared with us about the burden money represented in their lives and their lack of access to a trusted adviser. As we designed our business model to change the way the world views money, we wanted a retail space designed to facilitate conversations and relationships to that end," Acru CEO Matt Hames tells Co.Design.
The company’s ultimate goal is to humanize interactions, so it’s ironic that tech-centric transactions have actually given Acru a leg-up on their conglomerate competition. "Technology has neutralized the advantage big banks have historically enjoyed with their huge networks. And with many small banks refunding foreign ATM fees, access to cash isn’t inhibited either. But there is still a need for a physical location." An apt word-of-mouth referral led him to hire Patrick and Lucy Johnson of ai3 to helm the project; they had just finished a coffeehouse in town that captured the spirit Acru was after.
The original plan Hames laid out developed considerably through ai3’s collaborative "vision process," a daylong retreat to achieve clarity and accord. In addition to the professional necessities—offices and individual spaces, conference room, open work areas, kitchen break area, server room, and storage—Hames left some room in the plan for a coffee bar. "At the time, the square footage devoted to this was significantly less than the other items. We chose to push the idea of community as far as it could go," Patrick Johnson says. They took cues from restaurant, retail, and hospitality design, and ultimately readjusted the ratio of business to pleasure. "Essentially, we wanted to shift the program balance to the ‘social’ side and give these spaces more than 60% of the program, while blurring the line between where those areas start and end."
We wanted to shift the program balance to the ‘social’ side.
The result is a well-integrated mixed-use space that’s more inviting than a standard Starbucks—or Bank of America. Booths, sofas, and bleacher-style benches are strategically placed for maximum comfort, whether you’re doing a crossword while sipping an iced java or puzzling over your investments. A "wisdom bar" is available "for wealth strategists to quickly identify or triage what a person’s needs are and if they are interested in the financial aspect of what Acru provides," Johnson says. "If a client wants a more detailed conversation, or more privacy, they can move further back into the space and spend some time in the reinvented living room area." Acru has hosted open mics with live tunes from local bands, and some folks have even found love.
It seems unlikely that this unique alchemy between bank and cafe will ever surpass the ease of ATMs or online banking, but it’s an interesting strategy to build loyalty nonetheless. "I think there is a misconception that if you work with a community bank you will have to give something up. This just isn’t true," Hames says. "Although transactions can go mobile and digital, access to wisdom about the financial implications of a life event is still best done face-to-face. In Woodstock, Georgia, we have found that our community enjoys talking over a cup of coffee or tea."