As I write this, I’m on a workshop tour of Midwestern U.S. hackerspaces, teaching people of all ages how to solder and make cool things with electronics.
The tour is an outgrowth of Noisebridge, a hackerspace I that co-founded in San Francisco three years ago. On the tour with me is Jimmie Rodgers, co-founder of the Artisan’s Asylum hackerspace in Boston, and Matt Mets, a blogger for Make: Online and member of Hack Pittsburgh.
On our travels, we’ve asked lots of hackerspace members how they got their spaces going, so that we could share their experiences with you.
Three years ago there were only about 50 hackerspaces; now there are hundreds forming all over the world, and some are even calling themselves “makerspaces.” Wired’s GeekDad blog calls it “an international movement to bring technologists and their projects to the same physical spaces.” And you can be a part of it.
What’s a Hackerspace and Why Do I Need One?
If you’re reading this magazine, you already have at least one amazing DIY project in mind. But to make it real, you might need to use a way-cool tool that you don’t have (or have a clue how to use), say, a computer-controlled mill, a laser cutter, or an industrial sewing machine.
Or maybe you want to learn to solder, or build musical instruments. Maybe you don’t have enough room in your apartment to put up that space probe balloon.
Or maybe your project could be more awesome if you could get together with other cool-minded makers, hackers, and nerds in a friendly space with shared tools and other resources, where you can learn, teach, and help each other work on the projects you love.
That’s basically what a hackerspace is. If you can’t find one around the corner, it’s time to make one! Here’s how.
1. Get the bug and spread it.
Chris Anderson of Hive13 hackerspace in Cincinnati got the bug at a monthly technology-geek meeting called 2600.
“Attending my first 2600 meeting in Cincinnati washed away all my frustrations about being a lonely geeky guy,” Anderson says. Then he realized: “Starting a hackerspace in Cinci could get me my 2600 fix whenever I want it.” He got excited after reading the Hackerspace Design Patterns online (see Resources on page 11), and told everyone at the next meeting.
“I became the guy who wouldn’t shut up about hackerspaces,” continues Anderson. “I posted about it on all the local blogs, talked about it at parties, talked to all the maker types and weird artist types I could find, and through all this, met others who would become founders of Hive13.”
Anderson’s story is typical. Hackerspace founders get the bug, and then spread it by telling everyone they know to tell everyone they know, utilizing local organizations, the internet, posters on lamp poles — whatever does the job.
Hackerspaces run the gamut from anarchy to structured democracies to benevolent dictatorships. When you create one, you’re creating a culture that you want to be part of, which will attract others who fit in. Not all groups are for everyone; this is fine.
The first thing the founders of Noise-bridge did, even before we had the name, was create a Google group so that anyone could communicate about getting involved. Within weeks we’d registered our chosen name online; started our website, email list, and IRC channel; and begun meeting every Tuesday night at a local café. As excitement grew, so did our numbers, and we soon moved our weekly meetings to people’s apartments.
Deech Mestel, president of Arch Reactor in St. Louis, Mo., told me of a similar process. “We grew out of our pizza parlor, and started meeting in an empty apartment owned by one of our members. It’s where we threw our first open house party that attracted lots of new members. It’s also where we wrote our bylaws.”
3. Incorporate (recommended).
Though some are informal collectives, most hackerspaces form some type of corporation. This gives the group a legal entity to sign contracts, and also limits individuals’ personal legal liability. Some groups form for-profit corporations, others form nonprofits.
Bre Pettis, who started NYC Resistor, went with an LLC (limited liability corporation). “It was just way easier,” he recalls. “We went online, filled out a form, and we had our corporation.”
At Noisebridge we pooled our money and paid $2,000 to a lawyer who took us through the entire process with the IRS, becoming a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation, called a 501(c)(3). Artisan’s Asylum is taking a similar approach. (Noisebridge and other hackerspaces have their 501(c)(3) documentation on their websites.)
Arch Reactor plans to become a “social and recreation club” nonprofit corporation, called a 501(c)(7). Sounds fun!
4. Make the rules you want to live with.
Some hackerspaces have a highly refined set of rules, others are ad hoc. Noise- bridge has only one rule — Bill and Ted’s “Be excellent to each other” — from which everything else follows.
Cowtown Computer Congress Kansas City (CCCKC) has 10 rules, starting with rule 0 and ending with rule 9: “Turn off the lights when you leave.”
When choosing your rules, keep in mind one of the unofficial Design Patterns, discussed at hackerspaces around the world: “Don’t solve problems that haven’t happened.”
What about the inevitable misunderstandings that arise in any group? “We haven’t had a situation yet where someone hasn’t stepped up to talk things through,” says Anderson at Hive13. This is how most hackerspaces deal with conflict. Though not always easy, it’s important to let people know if you’re having a problem with them.
5. Find your space.
You’ve got the hackers, now get the space. Hackerspace organizers have found a few strategies to rent spaces and build them out for not a lot of money.
Typically members donate the labor, and in a down real estate market, landlords are willing to deal, especially if you’re willing to make improvements to the space.
Jeff Sturges of OmniCorpDetroit (OCD) says, “Detroit has a lot of really creative people who are un- or underemployed. Because of this, our members have lots of time to donate their skills to help get our space together. We can’t get as much money together as spaces in other cities, but we got our huge warehouse for really cheap.”
In smaller cities, it may be helpful to team up with existing groups. Nathan Heald of Indiana’s Bloominglabs says, “Bloomington is a small university city, so there are not as many people to draw from. But after we put out the word, we found an organization that has arts and crafts programs. They had extra space in their building, and since there was synergy with our group, they gave us a really good deal on rent.”
For the All Hands Active hackerspace in Ann Arbor, Mich., the connection was gamers. “A few gamers in our group connected us with a network gaming store in town who gave us a corner of their store for free,” says Bilal Ghalib. “We only pay a minimal amount for utilities each month.”
Chris Cprek of LVL1 in Louisville, Ky., recommends finding as many spaces to choose from as possible, so you know you’re making the right decision. “We put out a big call for all of our members to contact anyone they knew who could help us find a space. … We had a vote, for people to rank all the spaces we found according to personal preference. Then a go/no-go vote to be sure everyone was onboard with this space.”
6. Fix it up.
You’ll probably want to update the space to accommodate your work areas. Sturges says OCD knew they had a good landlord when, “He told us that we could make improvements on the space and deduct all materials expenses from our rent.” The landlord also gave them an entire extra floor in the building because he liked what they were doing, and knew he had a good tenant.
Steve Hamer of QC Co-Lab, in the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, teaches at a technical college that no longer needed a large section of one of their buildings. “Besides the obvious advantage of having a space for free,” says Hamer, “is the bonding experience of everyone working together to build out the space — ripping up the ugly carpeting, polishing the cement floors that revealed, removing unneeded walls, setting up work areas, chill areas, and a kitchen.”
7. Fund it.
On top of rent, your space might have other operating expenses, such as utilities, internet, and insurance.
Most hackerspaces fund their operations through membership dues and donations. If you go this route you’ll need to pick a dues structure that takes in a bit more each year than you spend, ideally with some buffer in the bank — “at least three months of rent” in your bank account at all times, recommends the Hackerspace Design Patterns.
Some hackerspaces, such as Artisan’s Asylum, or Pumping Station One in Chicago, make a large percentage of their income by charging for classes and workshops, or by selling T-shirts or kits.
At Metalab in Vienna, Austria, it’s beverages. “We make about a third of our income selling Club-Mate,” says Paul “Enki” Böhm. (It’s a popular yerba maté energy drink among hackers in Europe.)
NYC Resistor has been known to have very popular rent parties on months when they were short.
At Bloominglabs, Heald and another member took a leap of faith and funded their first month’s rent out of pocket, since, he says, “We didn’t have enough members to pay for it all, but knew that once we got our space we would soon have enough members.” And they now do.
When it was time for Noisebridge to rent its first space, five of us took a similar leap, signing the lease and paying the rent for our first space. We then put out a call for donations to cover it all. We received $12,000 in 24 hours.
8. Get your tools.
While you’re collecting the normal tools you’d expect at a hackerspace — soldering irons, drills, mills, saws, and so on (see pages 64–67 for the ultimate workshop tool guide) don’t forget to look for the bare necessities, too: tables and chairs, AC power strips, lots of shelving for people to store their projects, and appliances to make up a kitchen — a great place for doing a project as well as sustenance!
Surprising to people unfamiliar with hackerspaces is finding that MakerBot 3D printers (see page 58) are practically ubiquitous. And, given the multi-thousand-dollar price tag, so are the laser cutters you see at so many spaces. (But they’re too cool not to have!)
And there’s Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner. Roombas are fun to hack (and some spaces actually use them to vacuum).
Some spaces, such as Artisan’s Asylum, have incredibly nice machine shops, complete with industrial milling machines, lathes, grinders, and much more. I3 Detroit has a space suitable for welding and for making machines that shoot out fire.
Tools are typically donated or loaned by members, or purchased outright from member dues. According to Cprek from LVL1, “When we first rented our space, we had nothing. So we put out the word, and saw what we got donated. We’re still pretty new, but we already have most of what we want. We’ll give a little more time to see before using some of our funds to buy a projector and MIG welder.”
Jonathan Guberman, who helped start Site 3 Co-Laboratory in Toronto, says, “Right off the bat we tried to get nice equipment, such as our laser cutter (60-watt!), metal lathe, and industrial sewing machine. This will attract new members, and gets us going and keeps us going.”
While everything at Noisebridge is donated, with no strings attached, many spaces, including Arch Reactor and Hive13, have some of their nicest equipment on loan from their members.
9. Get insurance (recommended).
Insurance is easy enough to get, and it’s a good idea for protecting your group from liability. At Noisebridge we contacted a broker, told them exactly what we were up to, and they came back with a few companies that would sell us liability insurance. (We chose one that didn’t have a reputation for refusing to pay out claims.)
We also got D&O insurance, which covers our directors and officers in case anyone sues them personally. All this costs us about $2,000 per year.
10. Teach skills.
“I love teaching!” says Site 3’s Guberman. “It is very empowering for people to teach them subjects they think they can’t do. People think, when they see a project I make, that I’m some kind of genius. I’m not — anyone can do this. And I want to show them. Facilitating collaboration is what hackerspaces are all about. We can teach people that they can do whatever it is that they are interested in.”
Teaching also helps the hackerspace itself, says Anderson at Hive13. “To avoid mishaps, we have a qualification process, where people need to be taught how to use each piece of equipment before they can use it.” Noisebridge and other spaces have similar training.
Hackerspaces offer a unique opportunity to build confidence, to make teachers out of every learner and vice versa, with instruction on almost any topic: mechanics, chemistry, biology, photography, machining, painting, comics, games, astrophysics, video … you’re limited only by your imagination (which is limitless).
As public schools are eliminating classes in art, science, music, technology, and other important fields, hackerspaces are creating educational environments to fill the void.
TechShops and More
Coincident with the hackerspace movement is the rise of co-working spaces, tool libraries, start-up incubators, and TechShops. All of these are helping self-employed people to work in a community of like-minded people,rather than at home alone.
TechShop (techshop.ws) is a for-profit, high-end version of a hackerspace that provides high-tech tools and classes. Their shops are packed with expensive equipment like CNC mills and plasma cutters that they make very affordable and accessible to the general public. CEO Mark Hatch says they’re able to do it because of “the precipitous drop in the cost of new machine tools — some of which are 90% cheaper now than they were ten years ago.”
For the price of a monthly membership, any aspiring inventor, hacker, maker, or entrepreneur can use TechShop’s sophisticated tools to bring their ideas to reality using the materials of their choice. With locations in Portland, Ore., Raleigh, N.C., and Menlo Park, Calif., they have plans to open more, including San Francisco, San Jose, and a 15,000 square-foot TechShop in the Detroit area that they hope will spur innovation to help the local economy.
This is a great time to be a geek! The internet is full of resources, technology is cheap, MAKE magazine is showing us how to make anything and everything, our current economic down-times are giving many of us more time to explore our creativity, and there are more hacker conferences and Maker Faires.
We don’t know where this new hackerspace movement is heading, but we’re creating it with every person who joins in every day. Together we’re creating a community that can benefit each of us, and everyone, far into the future.
Hackerspace Design Patterns is a very useful compilation of what has worked, and hasn’t, for hackerspaces over many years. Topics include sustainability, community, meetings, and conflict resolution. hackerspaces.org/wiki/Design_Patterns
Hackerspaces.org is a great general resource, with the best directory of hackerspaces worldwide, as well as a 24/7 email list and monthly call-ins for people to ask questions and share experiences.
The New Wave of Hacker-spaces
A timeline of shared spaces for project makers:
1980s: 2600 and Phrack create community for hackers through their publications.
1990s: Early U.S. hackerspaces form, including New Hack City in Boston and San Francisco, the Walnut Factory in Philadelphia, Hacker Halfway House in Brooklyn, N.Y., and both L0pht and the Hasty Pastry in Boston. Primarily collectives of software hackers, they’re not open to the general public.
Early 2000s: Many hackerspaces form in Germany when Chaos Computer Club (CCC) starts actively supporting them. A few appear in other countries.
Mid-2000s: Hackerspaces such as C-Base and Metalab actively help other spaces get going, and support diverse, open hackerspaces worldwide.
2005–2006: MAKE magazine starts publishing, bringing together large, diverse communities of people who make just about anything. Subsequent Maker Faires and hacker conferences worldwide reinforce community.
August 2007: Hackers on a Plane trip to Chaos Camp inspires participants to start hackerspaces in their hometowns: HacDC in Washington, D.C. (hacdc.org), NYC Resistor in New York City (nycresistor.com), The Hacktory in Philadelphia (thehacktory.org), and Noisebridge in San Francisco (noisebridge.net).
December 2007: Hackerspace Design Patterns presented at the 24th Chaos Communications Congress (24C3) by three hackers from the CCC Cologne hackerspace. Their intent is to help start hackerspaces worldwide (see Resources).
July 2008: Hackerspaces.org is launched, in time for The Last HOPE conference.
2008 to present: Successful U.S. and European hackerspaces, networking through hackerspaces.org, show the world that hackerspaces are awesome and they work, spurring many to start their own spaces all over the world.
Present: Hundreds of hackerspaces and makerspaces all over the world are now listed at hackerspaces.org.