Building BloQs

I spent a few days/week for 3 months at Building BloQs in London. They're currently working on an expansion that will make them the largest Open Workshop in Europe.

You can read more on their website above, and more about what I was doing there on their blog here. They also published a piece I wrote called How to Make a(ny)thingThere will be more information on how to get a copy in print soon, but here's a direct link to the pdf.

You can read a thing I wrote about Building BloQs early on in my time there, comparing it to another London workshop, here.

To get a feel for workflows there, and specifically workflows on their new CNC machine, I made a chair:

(more images of the finished product are pending. Even in its unfinished form, it got some attention online, most notably from design bunker and student.design.

To see more early drafts of CNC-able furniture, peep this)

(1st and last photos' credit to BloQs' Andrew Catcheside)

 

TL;DR: Here's a v rough draft of my thoughts on BloQs & "making" in retrospect:

Most of the work I did there was to try to understand how they do what they do– they've organically come to solutions to many of the problems the "Maker Movement" has constructed. The first problem being the notion that there even is a maker movement. That phrase implies some kind of centralization or cohesion, when really, it's structure should mirror its philosphy: democratic, decentralized, and diverse. BloQs arose organically in response to the need they saw for such spaces, and have thus spared themselved most of the paradoxes//problems endemic to makerspaces and fablabs.

For example, most makerspaces cater mostly to hobbyists. So most "makers" are really just excited about the cool tools their space offers, rather than the important social change they could spark. Most makerspaces are content agnostic, meaning they don't care what people make, just that they make. And that leads to a lot of waste (eg. 3D printing yoda heads over and over without considering possible uses or alterations— for some reason this seems like a recurring theme). And when 3D printers, laser cutters, etc. are so incredibly costly, it's wasteful to buy those machines if that's all they're going to be used for. BloQs is designed to help people make a living off their craft, so their members NEED the tools in order to support their practice– which makes it easier to justify buying expensive tools, and to then extend the space's reach to more amateur users. 

That raises another problem with the makerspace stereotype: their reliance on and obsession with digital fabrication technologies. Many spaces buy CNC machines before they'll buy traditional wood working tools– 3D printers before thinking about who will actually use them. Many makerspace users were never trained in traditional techniques, so they continue to re-solve problems, and use digital tools where traditional tools may be more appropriate. BloQs' pragmatism solves this problem. They started by acquiring traditional tools their users needed for their work. Then, they attracted experienced makers. Then, it was easier for them to expand to digital fabrication technologies, not because of the hype surrounding them, but because of a geniuine usefullness. That progression means that users have experienced craftspeople around them who can help them decide which machine is right for their project– rather than just using digital fabrication technologies because that's all you have or because they seem easiest or the flashiest. And that's good– because when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail. Also, while digital technologies have an allure, they mostly seem to attract people who've historically been likely to use engineering tools– most makerspace users are white, middle aged, educated men. BloQs' decision to use a wider variety of tools, from metal and wood working to textiles and digital fabrication has attracted a wider range of people. Having all kinds of people and facilities in one space leads to more, and different collaboration.

One part of that deserves extra attention in BloQs' case: makerspaces' obsession with tech and innovation is often in ignorance of tradition. BloQs doesn't just have people experienced in traditional techniques because they started with practical, traditional tools. They made a conscious effort to recruit old people to pass on traditional wisdom. So when people at BloQs do innovate, it's with more knowledge of what is actually an innovation— they are more aware of what's been done in the past.

It's also interesting (especially in the wake of TechShop's recent bankruptcy) that they take a service approach more than a community approach. To explain: some spaces start as a community that develops a need for a space, and others take an if-you-build-it-they'll-come approach, establishing a space to attract a community. Usually the former works better in my experience, because community members are community members from the start, they feel a greater ownership of and responsibility for the space, so they take care of it. The latter usually has less buy-in from community members and creates a more transactional feel. I've been in a lot of those spaces that feel really icky, or simply don't work as well. BloQs doesn't feel like that— I think in large part because (even though they weren't exactly made by their members) the directors could be members. I mean they are themselves exactly the kind of people that they made the space for. And while that's usually not as good as actually having the people the space is by be the people the space is for, at BloQs, it is enough.

In summary, they're good! and while much of what they do could be seen in the context of the maker movement, they came to it without any knowledge of it. It just made sense for them. And it still makes sense.