Hackerspaces have been flying under the radar for a few years, but now it seems as if they’re starting to encroach on the public consciousness in both good and bad ways. In the latter category, recently Nashua, NH’s MakeIt Labs was shut down for code violations. Recently I emailed Adam Shrey and Joe Schlesinger of MakeIt Labs to find out what was going on.
If you’d like to help out the space, you can make a tax deductible donation via the link on on their website.
JB: Why do you think you were inspected? Was it just a routine peek or was there something else?
Adam: We had an article done on us in the Lifestyle section of the Sunday paper from a neighboring town that caught the attention of the inspectors. We’ve been featured in multiple front page articles in the local paper without incident, so I don’t know why this one was different, all the articles have been favorable.
Joe: The inspectors noticed several things in the photos of the shop that caused them concern, and more when they went to the website, and thought they needed to act quickly before anything happened, as if something did happen before they inspected the place it would have been a liability both for them and us.
JB: What specifically did the inspectors want fixed?
Adam: A variety of things. They wanted a layout plan to better understand what we would be doing in the space, and so the fire department would know where any potential hazards might be if they ever needed to deal with an emergency. We had one for our own use, they just didn’t have a copy of it. The bathroom was probably the biggest issue. Since the bathroom was considered “New Construction”, we had to re-build it to meet ADA standards. The electrical issues were by and large simple fixes to problems that existed before we leased the building – things like plugging open holes in junction boxes and installing missing covers. There were no faulty wires sparking all over the place or anything like that. We’re also taking advantage of the closure to install some extra circuits and outlets in areas that could use them. Additionally they required us to have lighted exit signs and emergency lighting.
JB: Do you have any suggestions for new groups looking at renting space? What would you have done differently if you could do it over?
Adam: The main problem the city inspectors had with us was that we didn’t have an occupancy permit. Up until this incident, we weren’t even aware we needed one, and we have since come to find that this is something that is often handled by the property owner. My advice would be that any groups looking at a perspective rental ask that the town officials (building inspector, fire marshal, etc.) be brought in to review the facility before signing the lease. That way if it has a lot of problems you can have the landlord fix it before you move in, or just walk away from the deal. I’d also recommend that anyone thinking about starting a hackerspace get in touch with their local Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Committee. These two groups have been an immense help to us and they understand the value a hackerspace can bring to a city. They know the way the local government works and can help you efficiently navigate the system. It’s easy to blame the city for forcing us to close temporarily, but it’s not their fault. The inspectors’ job is to make sure everything is safe and up to code, and they have been extremely accommodating in expediting things like the permit process so that we can reopen as soon as possible.
JB: What about ways existing hackerspaces could “scrub” their spaces to ensure they’re in the good graces of inspectors?
Adam: Find a few local tradesmen (architects, electricians, plumbers, etc.) willing to come in and take a look around. They know the building code and can point out anything that might raise an eyebrow or two on the inspector. Don’t build any new infrastructure or wire any electrical unless you pull a permit first. Also, fire departments HATE extension cords, so if you have any being used for permanent wiring rather than temporary extensions, those need to go and get replaced with proper outlets.
Joe: Get the place checked out ahead of time, but then don’t assume you won’t need inspections, either. Any non-residential building needs an occupancy permit, and as we learned, the inspectors will find out that you exist sooner or later. It may hurt to have to do the required work, but its a lot easier to address these issues from a position of “we want to make this place safe, please help us” than through a surprise inspection and getting shut down. The city has been positive, recognizes our value, and can be a helpful partner if you work with them rather than against them. “fight the bureaucracy” attitudes are only going to hurt you.
JB: I kind of got the impression that you were shut down immediately after the inspection. Normally an entity failing an inspection get a period of time to fix things. How much lead time did you get and why weren’t you able to fix stuff in that time?
Adam: 8am on the day of the inspection we were informed by our landlord’s head facilities person that city inspectors would be there at 10am. This was on a weekday, so most of us had to be at our 9-5 jobs and there was no time to so much as empty a trashcan before they got there. Because we did not have an occupancy permit, we were told that we could not use the space, effective immediately. Since then we have filed for and received a building permit that allows us to be in the space to work on renovations. Once those have been inspected and signed off, we can apply for our occupancy permit, and once we have that we can resume semi-normal operations. A few of our more industrial activities may still be unavailable until additional changes are made, but the city is allowing us to reopen first and add those in as we’re able.
Joe: It was also closed because of immediate concerns since they faced as much liability as we did. If inspectors know about a potential problem and it happens, they’re at fault and can get sued, too. It’s absolutely not a case of “those bureaucrats wanted their due”.
JB: How much do you have left to do before you reopen?
Adam: We’re making great progress. The new ADA compliant bathroom has been framed and the plumbing roughed in with initial inspections scheduled for Thursday. We’ve been addressing the electrical issues and started work on the new circuits last night, which includes adding emergency lighting and exit signs. We’ve also done a lot of clean up and organization, gotten rid of some accumulated junk, and increased our storage capacity.
Joe: We should be able to re-open the simpler (from a regulations and permit perspective) parts of the space quickly and resume making (things like electronics, programing) while re-opening the more complicated parts (welding, metalwork) as fast as we can provide approved areas to do such.
JB: Thanks! (and feel free to add anything based on what you wanted to tell readers.)
Adam: I will add that this closure hasn’t been entirely a bad thing. There were a lot of infrastructure related projects we have been wanting to do for quite some time now, and this gave us the perfect opportunity to do them. For instance we’ve wanted to paint the floor under the lift, but it’s such a popular feature that we hadn’t been able to block off the area for a week to let the paint cure. We can also wrap up a multitude of things that were started then stalled when they were “good enough”, like drywall that was repaired but never painted. We’ve always been safety conscious and require members to be trained before they use any potentially dangerous equipment. We’ve gained a ton of supporters and friends, and while we’ve lost a few members due to the closure, I think we’ll have a net positive with all the people who have said they want to join as soon as we reopen. Some of our hardest working helpers have been people that weren’t even members before this happened. We have no employees (directors pay dues like everyone else), everything is done by volunteers, and we couldn’t do it without them. Once this is all done we’ll have a much better organized and impressive looking facility than we did before.
Joe: Although there are a lot of positives, it has been a drain on our finances. We’re not charging members dues during the closure (though several have graciously volunteered to pay anyway), and we have a lot of costs associated with the construction on top of still making rent. We could really use help through donations and want to give a shout out to Space Federation, a non-profit we’ve been involved with that is set up to help hackerspace-like groups throughout the world. Paypal donations sent via the link on our web page are handled by them, and thus are tax deductible. They’ve also been extremely helpful in providing advice and guidance.