about 5 years ago this week, a hackspace was born

I often get asked to answer questions for articles I never get to see or fill in surveys for research that’s never published. This week I’ve been asked some really good questions by Gareth Halfacre who in his website picture has a drill in his hand. You can also find his interesting tweets here!

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Sugru Hackquarium – the last Nottinghack meetup before getting Hackspace 0.1

You describe yourself as a ‘freelance maker’ can you elaborate on that?

Recently I’ve stopped working a 9-5 and gone freelance. Through contacts I’ve made by being involved with Maker and Hackerspaces and the Maker Faires I’ve been able to find varied and interesting work from running workshops and events (like Maker Faires for instance) and through my laser cutter import business Just Add Sharks Ltd (justaddsharks.co.uk) as well as taking commissions for work making items.

What attracted you to the maker movement?

Maps. I love maps, aerial photography, satellite images and wanted to make my own aerial photography pictures (NO NOT WITH DRONES) with kite cameras (known as KAP) I’d been messing about with making and electronics for years on occasion. I went down a bit of a YouTube rabbit hole discovering Maker Faire, Arduino, Chris Anderson’s DIYDRONES, talks by Adam Savage and this new thing Hackerspaces all in the space of about 4 hours… I found out about London Hackspace and knew if I wanted something like that locally I’d have to organise it. Oh and  I like making things.

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The cupboard we grandly called “The Studio” in Hackspace 1

You co-founded the Nottingham Hackspace back in 2010. Can you describe how it moved from a virtual meeting place to a physical location?

We had a site on meetup.com we always really met physically. It was always the plan to have “a space filled with tools and all the stuff we need to make things one day” I just don’t think I realised how quickly it’d all come together. We started meetings in a pub’s upper room about every 3rd Wednesday as I recall, we had to alternate with the LUG (Linux User Group) and the Skeptics Society. The bar keeper told me that the Skeptics were skeptical about everything, especially the pedigree of some of the fine ales on offer. We dreamed of getting a place we could start collecting tools together and leaving projects stored. London and Leeds already had places and we looked with envious eyes. One of the other founders had ties into an organisation with dilapidated property rented at a peppercorn rate. We struck a deal to rent a walk-in bathroom sized store cupboard in an old Police Station above a Tesco Metro literally a NERF dart shot from Nottingham Station. It opened out onto a shared room (breakout room as I called it) and on our first night it rained so hard the electrics started to trip and fizzle. It was awesome. The rent was to be £100 a month, we were terrified of the cost, though we thought between about 4 of us we could cover it if we couldn’t make it pay.

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In Hackspace 1 “the workshop” was very small

What were the biggest challenges you faced during that time?

Apathy. I made it a point, whatever the weather, our Free Open Night would always be on, even if no one else turned up. One of the worst mistakes I see potential Hackspace founders make is cancelling open nights due to illness or whatnot. You have to create a reliable always on event that people will head to. Make sure you can take pictures to remove the mystery. It’s always been my mantra… get them through the door. That’s the one biggest challenge early on.

Nottingham Hackspace moved to larger facilities in May 2011; in your opinion, what drove its growth?

We had our hand forced. Our landlords lost their lease on the old Police Station just at a time we were really starting to grow, we had proper banking, internet connection and about 20 paying, key holding members. We had to find somewhere bigger and quickly. That was quite difficult. Our budget was £250 per month but we couldn’t find anything suitable for less than £400 a month. We didn’t know what to do. Somehow we decided the best idea was to go big or go home. I managed to negotiate 2 months rent free then a stepped rent on our current 4300 Sq Ft workshops. We put out an appeal to help us get the £2000 together for the deposit. We were featured on BoingBoing and mentioned on The Amp Hour podcast and suddenly our paypal account was very full of kindly donations.
I think having a goal and a time scale was very important for us. The rent on our new place would be £1000 per month plus bills. We had graphs of how much money we’d need to make from donations, membership and workshops and a target for numbers of members to get on board. We also wanted to be innovative. We had (and still do have) Pay-What-You-Like membership fees and the whole space is run on trust. The minute you become a member you have 24 hour unsupervised access. Everything about the space is transparent, you can find pictures online of the sort of thing that goes on and you can use the space for free every Wednesday night. Today we over 350 paying members and a lot of impressive tools that we’ve purchased over the last few years.

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I was heavily into Blue Paper and SIlver Marker Pen at that time!

Have you ever had problems from the local council, or insurance brokers?

Our local Council, Nottingham City Council have always been helpful when we’ve interfaced with them. They’ve never really sought us out as such, though a few departments have such as “the Creative Quarter Company” which is a development group for the area of Nottingham we are in. We are also talking with a local gallery about partnering on the development of an old library into a Hackspace run in partnership which would involve the council. I suspect your question is something to do with Councils being a blockers. I don’t think they are generally, as long as you’re not a muppet. It’s true to say that people think Hackspaces are a counter culture but that’s really not true. It is true to say that Hackspace do attract people with mildly revolutionary and more often bonkers thinking and that I’ve always felt uneasiness from some members around trust in Government, corporation or anyone in a position of authority, but I tend to find that sort of thing immature and petty mostly.
Opinions and practice on insurance vary wildly. You can’t go on Compare the Market and choose “Hackspace” it just doesn’t exist, and I’ve been told if you ring a broker they freak out if you say “hackspace” hence the old Makerspace vs Hackerspace debate. Truth is it’s not easy to get insurance if you do anything out of the ordinary because they don’t have you mapped out in their systems and calculations and someone has to make a judgement. The Nottingham Hackspace has insurance as does the London Hackspace and Build Brighton. Many spaces probably don’t have insurance. You ask later about the UK Hackspace Foundation, I think a key task will be to arrange an opt in group insurance with some guidelines of safe working practice, how to do RA and how to generally be sensible about safety in your space. For me at Nottingham we have “Rule Zero DO NOT BE ON FIRE” sniggers all round right? No, we actually take safety very seriously and if you drill down into the rule you’ll see:
https://wiki.nottinghack.org.uk/wiki/Do_Not_Be_On_Fire.
We don’t dick about with safety. A good way I use to illustrate this is – “If the fire alarm goes off in our shared building, we evacuate. Every time. No questions. We know that every time has been a false alarm, but we don’t dick about with safety.” People also tend to think of our tools as being dangerous. It is true at power tools need to be treated with respect but the things that are much more dangerous are every day things. Not keeping the place tidy, trip hazards, not knowing where the fire exit is. It frightened me when I asked one of our 20 founder members “what would you say if you had to call an ambulance?” he didn’t know the address and said “We need an ambulance at Hackspace” I told him they wouldn’t know what that was and he started to panic and make up an address. I put lots of posters with our address up after that. Bandsaws? Anyone can see that’s dangerous. Not knowing what to do in an accident could be fatal.

What is the UK Hackspace Foundation, and how does it help with organising hackspaces?

The UK Hackspace Foundation is an idea and unintentionally shadowy at that. It doesn’t hold true that the best person to ask to get something done is someone who’s already busy. Currently made up of a few old Hackspace lags like me, the foundation was originally setup as a parent company to London Hackspace with the notion of forming a body to facilitate the “movement” for want of a better word, and help set up other hackspaces around the country. Today anyone can set up and call themselves a Hackspace and use the logo and all that stuff. In the future there may be guidelines to what is or isn’t a Hackspace, help (including money) to get one started, tools to help people find each other if they are hoping to start and links to useful information on starting one (like your article maybe).

As co-producer of a hackspace-themed podcast, who has been your favourite guest and why?

Did you listen to them? I’ve not done one for 2 years or more. BUT it’s interesting you mentioned it, people pester me about it all the time. My co-host Kate doesn’t want to make the podcast anymore and I’ve struggled to find the right person to take over. It needs 2 because I’m so deadly dull. I may have found a new co-host and there is talk of reviving it soon.
Favourite guest has to be Charles Yarnold from London Hackspace.

Have you seen an increase in interest in maker culture over the last few years?

That’s hard to say. It’s a bit like when you learn a new word or discover a famous person you’d not been able to place, suddenly you see it everywhere and seek it out. I’ve seen more Hacker and Maker spaces pop up for sure. But I’ve also matured myself and started to travel more within the movement (including a trip to the USA last September and one to San Fran this May – SELF FUNDED). I now see making going mainstream, though in truth I don’t believe it to be anything new at all. We’ve been making stuff for all our history. It’s only natural that as tools like Arduino, Laser Cutters and 3D printers become affordable that they’ll start to get used by hobbyists. I hope that the maker culture isn’t a fad and that it’s just a natural part of how people will choose to live their lives. I mean, Victorian ladies had desktop sized letter presses.. .was it a culture or just fun?

For people who live in areas where there is no existing Hackspace or collaborative making facility, would you advise them to take the initiative and found one?

If you’d like the experience of setting up a Hackspace do the 3 following things:

  1. Withdraw all the money you own in cash and then throw it out your window.
  2. Find all the heaviest things you own. Pick them up and carry them upstairs a few days later pick the same things up and carry them all down stair. Repeat.
  3. Have a party, buy booze and cakes and invite all the people you know and lots of people you don’t know. Sit and wait for no one to arrive. Hold the same part every week, eventually people will arrive. Let them criticise you for the type of cake you purchased and tell you what beer you ought to have brought them. You should know better, you organised a party after all.

All joking aside Yes, but I’d also ask them to look about and see if they exist already or if they can find one that started and stalled then inject new life into it. That can be hard and sometimes organising can be a thankless task, but in the end you might make something amazing.

If so, what advice would you give them to help them get started?

  • Start with a community. I’ve seen Hackspaces stall because they couldn’t find a pub with WiFi to meet in or that the landlord wouldn’t let them use soldering irons. Non of that matters. People willing to meet up regularly and get involved is the key. Have a big group of people and you’ve got a Hackspace.
  • Get a bank account. It can take a little while to sort one out, get one ASAP.
    Think carefully about how much work you want to put in. If you WANT a Hackspace you’re going to have to do it yourself, don’t imagine you can get it started and others will do all the work. That isn’t likely.
  • Think carefully about what YOU want. If you want to run a Hackspace to make you a living, you’re going to have a bad time. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but that’s not really a Hackspace, you’ve made a FabLab.
  • Your Hackspace will attract people with very strange ideas (I don’t mean cool ones), social problems, personal boundary issues, serious undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues and body odour (not necessarily all the same person) as well as what the internet calls “neck-beards”, lots of white middle class middle aged men too. I’ve strived to make sure the Nottingham Hackspace doesn’t become Middle Aged Men’s Robot Club with varied levels of success. Just try to make sure these people don’t put off anyone else who wants to use the space.
  • Trust everyone until they give you reason not to. All members must be equal, just have reasonable checks and balances. For instance members at Nottingham MUST pay membership by standing order. They then get 24 hour unsupervised access. However we have a proper paper chain for who they are (unless they stole someone else’s banking set-up which seems like an elaborate way to nick a broken 3D printer).
  • LOOK OUTWARDS… lots of people have done this before. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Visit other spaces be a part of the world wide community.
  • Be friendly (grumpy founder is excluded from this guideline once 4 years in).