Made in Baltimore: What Kind of Makerspace to Make?

In 2013, I moved back to my native Baltimore to join a team tackling an incredible challenge: turning a vacant warehouse into one of the country’s largest makerspaces. Two years on, we have raised money, finished our architectural plans, and started construction. We will open our doors this coming fall, offering access to tools, classes, and community programs for local residents.

In partnership with Make, we will be sharing the Open Works [] story over the next 9 months in an online column called Made in Baltimore. In keeping with Make’s mission and the open-source spirit of the maker movement, the column will be structured as a step-by-step guide on how we created Open Works, providing a template applicable at any scale. Each post will be split into two parts: a close examination of one aspect of development, and a construction update from the previous two weeks. We hope you’ll join us on this incredible journey over the months to come!

Step 1: Research and Development

So, where to begin?

The idea of a “makerspace” is a shaggy concept, encompassing a wide range of ideas and no foolproof recipes for success. While community tool shops and research labs have been around for a long time, the popular idea of makerspaces has only been around for about the last 15 years. Before we could move forward on any concrete aspects of our plan, some research was in order.

We started with history. Baltimore’s oldest college, the Maryland Institute College of Art, was founded as a mechanic’s institute in 1826. Mechanic’s institutes were a worldwide movement to educate tradesmen (carpenters, masons, engineers, architects, etc.) in an era where the lines between “designer” and “builder” were much blurrier. They provided libraries, laboratories, and lecture halls, accessible to anyone for a small fee. Started in Scotland in 1821, they quickly spread across the English-speaking world. Many turned into colleges and universities that still exist today.

Fast forward to the 1970s, here in America, and a radical philosopher named Karl Hess. His book Community Technology [] described a network of what he called shared machine shops in the then-neglected neighborhood of Adams-Morgan, in Washington, D.C. While his full vision never materialized, he laid the groundwork for today’s maker movement: open source, community-based, and welcoming to all.

Many of his ideas were implemented in the mid-eighties by the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB), which set up five “Technology Networks,” neighborhood centers where unemployed manufacturing workers could re-train for new jobs. They hoped workers would also use the facilities to invent new products that could then be sold; ultimately, it didn’t work, and the project petered out. The GLEB and Hess experiments were both hampered by the technology available to them at the time. To really take off, makerspaces needed the Internet.

What is widely believed to be the first “hackerspace,” C-Base, opened in Germany in 1995 as a shared electronics laboratory and free Internet access point. In 2001, MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms opened their first Fab Lab, which connected digital tools to a worldwide network of similar spaces. Five years later, the first commercial chain of makerspaces, TechShop, opened their first location. In addition to physical workshops, a whole host of innovations — from Etsy to Kickstarter to 3D printing — has kept removing the barriers preventing citizen innovators from getting their ideas to market. Today, the movement is in full force, with over 300 makerspaces open in the U.S. alone.

Armed with this history, we now set out to do some first-person research. We visited the Center of Engineering, Innovation, and Design at Yale; the Fab Foundation, in Boston; AS220 in Providence, RI; TechShop in Arlington, VA; the Sears think[box] at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; and the Columbus Idea Foundry, in Ohio. Closer to home, we checked out the Station North Tool Library; Baltimore Print Studios; the Baltimore Node; Baltimore Underground Science Space; Baltimore Clayworks; the Digital Harbor Foundation; Fab Lab Baltimore; and the Foundery. I also personally immersed myself in maker culture, attending World Maker Faire New York in 2014 and 2015; visiting out the Museum of Art and Design’s Maker’s Biennial; taking a class on building my own 3D printer; and building furniture with a CNC machine.

All the book knowledge in the world couldn’t compare to walking into actual makerspaces, talking with folks, and learning about their successes and challenges face-to-face. This research led us to think about makerspaces in four basic categories (other insights from this research will be shared in future posts):

  • Institutional: supported by a company or university, free or nearly free to user
  • For-profit: business based on selling memberships and classes to users
  • Club: dues-based organization with social contract membership, i.e. one has to be voted in by existing members
  • Non-profit: like a YMCA for makers, set up as a nonprofit and running on a combination of grants, public money, and user fees

Each model has its benefits and drawbacks. Institutional makerspaces tend to only benefit a select group of people — students, faculty, or employees — but are insulated by the stability of the larger institution. For-profit makerspaces have had sustainability issues, making up the smallest category with the most expensive memberships. Clubs can be a great, supportive environment, but their organizational structure limits growth. That leaves non-profits, a category that comes with many challenges but also the greatest opportunity to serve the widest swath of people.

Given Baltimore’s own challenges, and opportunities, we decided to structure Open Works as a non-profit. That means we will charge for memberships and classes, but we will also offer a variety of subsidized or free programs paid for through grants. It also allowed us to finance construction in creative (if complicated and headache-inducing) ways, which we’ll get into next on Made in Baltimore.