Hackerspace Architect: Finding Spaces
In my city, Nottingham, which is in the UK about 130 miles north of London, rentable light industrial space is around £1 per square foot per month plus bills. Rental costs can vary depending on location and condition of the facility of course. Shops & retail premises, though often at least 1 in 3 are empty can be considerably more money and depending on location the rates can be very expensive and the facilities offered very poor.
On founding Nottinghack the idea of renting space seemed impossibly complicated and expensive. I recall we made an arrangement to rent a tiny office on Station Street for £100 a month (frankly I’d bite a hand off to get such a deal today in such an amazing central location for an office) it wasn’t so much that this was really really expensive, it was more that we (and by that I mean me) were more of less clueless about business premises. I think if I’m honest, I thought magic sky people gave other hackerspaces their premises or at least I had a suspicion there was a branch of every local council responsible for bunging property at people with a “good” idea.
When you look about at similar groups, that’s sort of how it seems. One example is Primary, an open arts environment in Nottingham which accommodates around 40 artists.
It’s an old (and lovely) Primary School. Some of the studios are in high ceiled class rooms and I always wondered if I could get the city council to give me a lovely old building like Primary to put a hackerspace into? A few years after founding Nottingham Hackspace, I managed to get a little glimpse behind the curtain.
I was contacted by the New Art Exchange (NAE) in Hyson Green, a more deprived part of Nottingham, with an opportunity for the Nottingham Hackspace to run a 2nd site out of the adjoining Hyson Green Library. I got to meet with a few people including a man called David Hill, a Leicester based consultant, who specialised in arranging for significant property to find grant funding to ensure its ongoing survival. The proposal was to turn the old library into an extension managed by the NAE and providing a resource for the local area. The space would have been shared with a dance and music studio, taking half of the library and the other half would be a hackerspace run with Nottingham Hackspace. In the end, the interest in Nottingham Hackspace being a part of this project slipped by, mostly because the way hackerspaces are organised simply didn’t lend well to interfacing with the NAE or the project as a whole. Once the Nottingham Hackspace learned that the space would be £1k a month (basically the same as renting any commercial premises) interest in participation sort of withered on the vine.
Where premises has been offered to other hackerspaces from other organisations, it’s not always gone well. Oxford Hackspace being a case in point, the basement of a building as well as staff and funds was offered to them, but the two organisations never did see eye to eye, though I’d be reluctant to tell the story as I’ve heard it, there is an element of Oxford Hackspace biting the hand-that-fed-them or more precisely a miss-understand of objectives between the two organisations resulting in tension.
Sometimes an opportunity comes up, there is space in a poorly maintained and unused property. Sometimes these dilapidated buildings that require a lot of work can seem like a cheap option. The deal usually goes something like you will renovate our building and we’ll let you stay there for free”. If you have the experience this could be great, however in reality, buildings that need a lot of work cost a lot of money to renovate. If you DO renovate the building (and this is going to sound cynical) it is not unknown for the renovating free loader to be off loaded for a richer rent paying client.
A few hackerspaces have a member with means, or a large company connection allowing for the member to buy a premises and rent it to the hackerspace on good terms. I believe this to be the model at Reading Hackerspace, which changes its name fairly often and I think is still called R-Lab. This is probably a great option, though I do worry that in an organisation with a theoretically flat hierarchy, if this doesn’t create a power-member with unprecedented sway in how that organisation will be run, which some could argue, is more than fair. Or less than fair, it really depends on your outlook.
There is the peppercorn rent that some organisations manage to secure. A good case in point would be Cambridge Makespace who pay the University of Cambridge a tiny amount of rent (or possibly non at all) for their chunk of prime Cambridge riverside real estate. To my mind, this is both a blessing and a curse. At their last annual accounts filing, Cambridge Makespace logged reserves of over £290k. They are holding onto this vast sum of cash, just in case they get evicted from their current space. Property in Cambridge is quite expensive and light industrial space to rent in the City is near non-existent. Makes me wonder what the contingency is? Buying some land?
The most common misconception for me is the idea that you can pig-back with another, usually more embedded organisation. A Men’s Shed or a Model Railway society, something with a notionally similar goal (another “man” who likes tools?) a set something up in the notion that the one will benefit the other (“we bring the 3D printers and laser cutters to the the mens shed and they teach us all about wood work have you seen this one guy who make miniature boats etc etc”). Sadly these competing objectives, so far in my observations, rarely work, with the Hackerspace (members and all) either getting fully absorbed into the original host organism or the host ultimately rejecting the parasite.
I have as yet no conclusion to this rant.
Today’s thumbnail is a TO LET sign (for a defunct property agent) on a site in West Nottingham that I snooped for a potential new workshop.