The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.
Less than 24 hours after I landed in London, I went to visit the city’s largest open workshop, called Building BloQs. Olga is the development staff member who arranged our meeting. She previously worked on R&D projects with ETH Zurich and the Bartlett at UCL. She took a substantial pay cut to work with Building BloQs, because she believes so strongly in their mission. She tells me all this with a smile, and it’s contagious. The whole staff, and all the members I’ve spoken with, are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. They seem juiced just to be there.
And with good reason, as the workshop is an exciting place to be. At 11,000 square feet, with over 300 paying members and 8 paid staff, there’s a lot going on. A social enterprise, their goal is to make workshop space available to professionals, and connecting craftspeople, artists, and makers with the resources they need to make a living from their craft. They boast over £200,000 of equipment: a 3-axis Biesse CNC mill, Trotec laser cutter, spray booth, wood and metal working tools, and a textiles studio. Their members pay a monthly fee of £10 per month, and then pay-per-use for most of the equipment and table space, provider users with a great deal of flexibility. Rather than rent a studio for months at a time or buy expensive tools, members can just pay about £25/day at BloQs. Because there are so many people sharing the space, it’s available to everyone for a much lower cost than anything they could get by themselves. Because people use it flexibly as-needed, there are exciting new projects and people in the space every day.
That model is just now being recognized by people outside BloQs. They’ve just recently won £2.7 million from local and regional governments to renovate a 55,000 square foot warehouse a stone’s throw from their current location. Just today, the project won a New London Award from the NLA, too. While Enfield was formerly an industrial hub of England (Edison’s first factory was just down the road), most of that industry has since left. Building BloQs represents a new kind of industrial model, filling the void that previous industry left. Rather than putting out millions of one part or product, BloQs has a radically diversified, decentralized production model that’s proven successful in the area. It’s for that reason they’ve been built into a new multi-billion pound effort to regenerate the local area with Meridian Water: an investment in creating new jobs, affordable housing, a new metro station, the new Building BloQs workshop space, and ACAVA artist studios.
And below, the new building as it stands now:
A lot still has to happen before they can move into their new space though. In the meantime, they’re continuing to support their members: Rob Quirk’s makes highly awarded custom bikes at BloQs; Offset Studios made props and sets for the Amazon Prime show, American Gods; Material Evolution Lab has developed “smart material” installations for L’Oreal and Wonderland Magazine. Working in wood, metal, textile, digital, or entirely new materials, BloQs members are taking their projects places. It’s invigorating to know that anyone can join BloQs and work alongside these talented and accomplished makers. While the model emerged out of financial necessity, to make equipment and space available to makers as-needed, several members told me they would prefer to work at BloQs even if they could afford their own space. Being at BloQs, surrounded by hard-working professionals, inspires you to work harder. Participating in the BloQs community also helps some members get work, find collaborators or contractors for parts of projects, teach and learn new skills, and maintain a generally more social practice than possible in a more isolated, solitary workshop.
That being said, BloQs doesn’t currently cater to everyone. At only four years old, they are yet to develop specific curricula. They don’t focus on teaching or inspiring emerging makers so much as they support people who already have some idea of what they want to do or already know what they’re doing. While BloQs does have tailored training resources, it’s much more individually guided than a curriculum might be. At least for now, BloQs is for professionals more than it is for hobbyists. However, as they scale up their operations (which they’re doing very quickly), they’re continuing to develop more teaching programs and structures to help get beginners started.
In the meantime, if you’re a hobbyist looking for somewhere to go, there are plenty other places that fit the bill. London Hackspace for example, is open to pretty much anyone, no matter your level of experience or financial means (membership starts at 5 pounds per month). Because spaces like Hackspace London lower the barrier for entry, they can bring in way more people. With about 1,200 paying members and more than 2,000 people on their mailing list, they’re the largest open workshop in London by membership. Their membership quadruples BloQs’, despite having only about half the physical space.
London Hackspace can serve as a kind of foil to BloQs in many more ways than just size and membership. The differences between the two provide a window into the incredible diversity of London’s open workshops. For example, while BloQs is just at the edge of London, Hackspace is closer to the center of the city in a hip neighborhood. Also, BloQs has a paid staff who manage members’ access to the space, all kinds of communications, etc., whereas Hackspace has a radically decentralized leadership structure without hierarchy or paid staff. That means all of the organizational and logistical work is done by members. Communication and decisions mostly happen through an online forum, and members show up to work whenever they like without any top-down governance.
Because Hackspace is run by its members, all of their equipment is accessioned organically to facilitate members’ projects, without as much planning as BloQs. That leads to a seemingly more random array of stuff that reflects the diverse interests of their huge hobbyist membership: a Staubli robot arm, Ham Radio, huge electronics lab, 3D printers, laser cutter, a biolab, and various wood and metal working tools.
It’s actually amazing that the Hackspace has so many different expensive and interesting tools, when their membership is mostly hobbyists and the membership fee is so low (but it does work! You can see a quick breakdown of their expenses here for “proof”). A member who gave me a tour told me that the space sells club-mate tea to help pay the bills. There were conflicting accounts of how much money they make from it, if any, but one member told me they sell about £10,000 of the stuff annually (I still cannot confirm).
Regardless of whether or not that’s true, all the members I spoke to agreed that their income from all other sources is eclipsed by member contributions. The average monthly contribution is almost double the minimum, because members truly appreciate the community and want to keep it going.
That’s really at the core of what makes the Hackspace work: people really care! Members step up to do everything that gets done, which is actually quite a lot. Members pay the bills, build infrastructure, and keep others safe – they basically do everything. If you ask a question out loud, you can expect at least several members to debate the answer fiercely. Everyone seems intensely passionate about what they do and sharing their knowledge with people – even if it’s sometimes too much.
Some people care so much that they’ll watch the Hackspace’s livestream all day and call up whenever someone commits any minor infraction. That doesn’t seem so bad to me, but my tour guide expressed utmost exasperation with what he thought a pedantic and inhibiting practice. Again, that story was debated by different members I spoke to, but that disputed fact raises two thoughts. First, when you make resources super available, people can abuse them and probably annoy you. Second, when everyone has equal leadership, everyone has access to the wiki, everyone has equal right to their own truth, and equal authority to try to convince everyone else of their own. In the Hackspace, and some other democratic open workshops I’ve spent time in, that can sometimes lead to counter-productive conversation and argument.
The Hackspace provides other, more common examples of the tragedy of the commons. When so many people use a space, stuff’s more likely to break or be stolen. And apparently those two things happen a lot. When everyone has access to the site’s wiki and calendar, sometimes mistakes happen. I originally showed up for an event called “MathSpace” on their calendar, which supposedly happens every other week. But when I showed up, the event clearly wasn’t happening, and nobody seemed to know anything about it. On the other hand, when I came to their advertised open night, it was happening, and about 30 or so really nice, genuine people were there to share what they were doing and just hang out. It was such a nice vibe, where self-identified misfits seemed totally comfortable, that I almost forgot about “MathSpace” like everyone else. In that moment, I had a really hard time imagining anybody in that community stealing or not taking care of equipment. And even though some equipment and supplies are sometimes compromised, it seems like things always get fixed in the end…even if it takes a while.
So despite ups and downs, the Hackspace is certainly an incredible value for your money. I find it mind-boggling that such a wide range of equipment can be made accessible to so many people. It’s truly inspiring that they’ve been able to keep it up for so long. Building BloQs is much more professional and runs much more smoothly than Hackspace, but of course it comes at a higher cost. Neither of these models are perfect yet, but between the two spaces, almost anyone can find the space, tools, and community necessary to make in the way they like to. Neither calls themselves a “fab lab,” but between them, I think it’s true that you could “make (almost) anything.” And remember, these are just two of about 50 open workshops in London! So while you can expect more stories from these two spaces in particular, I’ll also be sharing profiles of the many other London Workshops. Stay tuned.
An artist, engineer, and researcher, Liam makes all kinds of things, including public policy, fine art, electric motorcycles, and computational models. His passion for making is rivaled only by his dedication to ensuring other people have the resources they need to make, too. In that vein, as a 2017 Watson Fellow he's exploring how open workshops democratize and decentralize education, innovation, and industry to make better things, people, and communities.View more articles by Liam Grace-Flood