kwartzlab turns five–reflecting back and looking ahead

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Meet four of the hardest working meta-makers in Waterloo Region. Four of the seven kwartzlab founding directors, from top right, Ben Brown, Steph Smith, Cedric Puddy, and James Bastow. kwartzlab is WR’s most excellent makerspace, a fully equipped workshop and community for makers of all ilk. I sat down with these old friends this week on the eve of kwartzlab’s fifth birthday to talk about where we came from, where it’s going, and the rise of the maker movement.

The TL;DR: there’s a party at the lab on Friday and all are welcome. You should go. Short of that, you should definitely get down to Charles and Kent Streets for one of their free Tuesday Open Nights to learn more.

Click through for the interview and to see what we all looked like back in 2009…

KWartzLab_first_official_board_meeting 001

Here’s a shot of us from July 2009, before we had a physical home for the lab. The first official meeting of the board of directors. Left to right: James Bastow, Bevan Lantz, Steph Smith, Cedric Puddy, Eric Gerlach, Ben Brown, Gus Gissing. The Barley Works was very accommodating of our crazy project show-and-tells and we reciprocated by buying a lot of beer.

KWartzLab_first_official_board_meeting 007

I had the privilege of working as a founding director for two years before heading off to start makebright. Though not now a member, I call the lab my third child and continue to be a card-carrying, cheerleading friend-of-kwartzlab. As such, I think the lab has a lot to be proud of turning in five years of awesome makery. They are quintessentially Canadian in their modesty, often working in the background to make things that make around our community. On to the interview.

Darin White What has surprised you in the kwartzlab journey?

Steph Smith That we’re still going. I’m amazed that we’re still awesome and we’ve paid
our bills every single month for the last five years and we’re just getting
more and more people and we’re doing more and more things. It’s constantly getting better.

Cedric Puddy There should be a gold star for most-financially-under-control

Ben Brown I think the standard test for that is if the doors are still open after a

DW You’ve maintained that as an ethos of community since the beginning.

SS Community is still huge. It’s interesting because we’re a lot bigger than
we were then and so the way community plays out has certainly changed.
We’re at the point now where any one person doesn’t know everyone else and
we’ve been forming these special interest groups and little cliques around
different projects and different styles of making. They all still talk to each
other. It really hangs together, and if anything we’re stronger for it because
we have these little insular groups that are really tight.

CP It’s getting to the point of critical mass where we can do things like the
kwartz-copter project, which is going really well. Previously we had the
kwartzlab space balloon [group] which was going to launch low-orbit space balloons,
but we just didn’t have enough critical mass, enough people to keep it
vibrant. I think that was one of the issues there. With kwartz-copter, there
are six of seven functioning ones, depending on how the last flight

BB We’ve got to conquer the skies before we go out into space.

CP Apparently avionics is tricky.

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DW Talk about the diversity of projects.

SS We’ve got the blacksmiths and we’ve got a really awesome craft corner now.
And we’re still making clocks.

DW How does that persist?

CP The kwartzlab clock fetish?

DW The diversity of projects.

SS I think a lot of it is that makers are interested in making and it doesn’t
matter what you’re making. If you come in here and you’re passionate about
something we’ve never heard of before, we’re really into that and we want to
know all about it.

BB Our last artist in residence was Drew Ripley

SS Balloons!

BB It was wall to wall balloons for months and projects with LEDs and 3D
scanning, trying to figure out how to scan 70′ long [balloon] sculptures and trying to
replicate them on a computer because plastic lasts a little bit longer than
the balloons do.

CP That was the yellow submarine wall.

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SS There’s no judgment. You want to make something that is really awesome and
we want to watch you do it and if we can help, let us know.

CP One thing I find most interesting about this as an organization is that its
mandate is so strictly about simple empowerment. Every other organization has
a mandate to empower you to do something specific. Here, we just want to
empower you to do whatever you want to do, and help you find a community around
that. It’s amazing what something as simple as a warm dry space that’s got
heat can accomplish.

SS And some warm bodies too who can give you a thumbs up and say “That’s a
good idea! You should totally do that.”

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DW I’m seeing a more even balance of gender in the lab now than in 2009. Is
that a wrong perception?

SS Actually, it is. I was checking that out. The actual number of women is as
high as it has every been. The percentage of women is not as high, because our
membership has grown. We’re twice the size we used to be and now we’re about
one fifth or one sixth women. At our best we were one third.

CP On the other hand, in terms of the percentage of members you’re likely to
run into here on any given day…

SS Yes, the women that we do have are a lot more active in the space.

DW In leadership roles?

SS Leadership within. Just being present.

CP Steph counts as being in a leadership role.  Agnes very much so as well.
Christine also tremendously active. I’d say there are seven names I can think
of off the top of my head in terms of active women I see around here a lot.
When you stop by you’re very likely to see that represented all the time. One
of the things that has helped membership across the board is this location.
The old saw “location, location, location”, it’s true.

SS It’s a friendlier space. Whether or not it’s a safer neighbourhood, people
feel safer in it. It certainly looks a lot safer which is excellent. We have
more female members who are bringing their families in.

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DW You certainly have higher visibility here in this location.

SS We’re right on the Iron Horse trail for people that are walking or biking.

CP That’s the #7 bus route which is heavily used.

BB With all the redevelopment going on down the street…

DW The neighbourhood has changed since you moved in.

BB Across the street was nothing and across the road was wild brush, but now a
lot of stuff is being redeveloped, so there’s some progress going on here.
Once the LRT stop goes in 200m down the street there will be a lot more going
on here. We got in at the right time.

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DW How do you account for the sustainability, Ben?

BB Well, a lot of it is that there is a core group of people who are
perpetually pushing things along, as much as some of us want new members to
take a more active role at the very base level of things here. We’ll still
jump in and do whatever needs to be done.

SS And also talking about it, reminding people “We want this to happen: somebody
needs to do it”

BB A lot of the new board stuff goes through the members list so there’s more
visibility. It’s not so much “we’ll let the board handle that” and they have
their own process. Especially new members are starting to take notice. At the
last election there were new members that wanted to run for the board. They’re
feeling comfortable enough to jump in and see what they can do.

DW Does that distribution of responsibility lighten the load on board members?

BB Big time. We’ve got members who are not on the board taking roles on the
heavy lab or upstairs [workshop] or taking care of events or contacting outside
organizations. When it’s not the core group of ten people, it’s definitely
nice to spread that kind of work around.

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CP And there are key infrastructure things that have happened without the
board being particularly involved, or being involved as a rubber stamp. Our
previous Trillium grant was not a board project. We’ve got another Trillium
grant firing up and it’s not a board-driven thing. It’s that the membership
wants some cash to do some cool things. The community vibe
supports that. In every board election there’s been good turnover in terms of
new and old. As in a lot of hackerspaces, the role of the board is
de-emphasized. The core function of the board is to make sure that the
corporation’s legal responsibilities are discharged. That we file taxes. That
we pay for the heat. That membership dues are deposited in the bank. Beyond
that, as in most hackerspaces, it doesn’t have that big a role.

DW You mentioned finances, and in hackerspaces that is a particular challenge.
Ben, as a former treasurer, if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the
space, right?

BB Yes, and when thinking of more people getting involved in the lab, part of
that is location and part of it is finances too. When we’re not worried about
the bare necessities like paying rent or making sure the building has heat or
that we’re not going to get flooded, then people are happier with the way the
space is going and want to take a more active interest.

SS And they can start focusing our time and our money on making things even
better. The heavy lab, a lot of work has been going on in the last few months
to make it a more functional, organized space. And it shows and members
appreciate that. When people come in, they are impressed by the heavy lab.

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BB There are things about the Trillium grant, when we applied for it the first
time it was a wish list of things we wanted to have, and now with that spent
and we have all that stuff in here, and there’s talk of reapplying, there is
more focus [on specific projects] for the grant rather than just “we need chairs”.

DW Talk about the importance of community engagement with respect to your Repair Café days, Hacky Halloween, public classes, and artist in residence program. Is it something that is consciously happening?

SS Absolutely, it’s something we talk about. We’re looking for opportunities
to make sure our name is still known and people are aware of us as not just an organization
that does things, but as a group that is interested in community and in making
KW a better place and helping to support and facilitate things that other
people want to do as well. We’ve partnered with CriMeLab at UW providing some
course content which they weren’t able to do for themselves. That was a
very rewarding experience. It’s all about making more makers out there.

DW Does it also enhance the diversity of the lab?

SS Absolutely, yes. It’s all opportunities to reach people who aren’t coming
out to a Tuesday Open Night. There are a lot of reasons why somebody may not
make Tuesday Open Night. It could be because of scheduling. It could be
because they’re introverted and not into that big hyper-social scene. Or they
might just not be aware of that going on. We need to approach the community in
different ways.

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BB Part of that helps sustainability, too. We have had people come and go,
members who have left. To keep our regular expenses going, so long as we’re
above that threshold of x amount of members that are required to keep the
lights on, the more events we do the more exposure that the lab is getting
too. So we’ve had new members peek in from Maker Faire last year. There’s
some of that self-reliance of bringing people in. Having new members just stop
in and not know about Tuesday Open Night, or they might catch one of our once
a year events like Hacky Halloween, but then a few months later they forget
about it. I think it’s a mixture that helps get more members into the space
and to get other organizations interested. We’ve had high school kids come in
here and do things. We’ve had student groups from the universities approach us
outside of the general university framework.

DW Ben, did you stand up the Repair Café day I visited here on Sunday or are you
helping someone with that?

BB The Repair Cafés were organized by Transitions KW, and we’ve always hosted

DW So is that more of a focus on a social good?

BB Yes, I think it’s kind of two fold too. Not just making in general but the
do it yourself ethic which hackerspaces fall into.

SS And it’s a reaction to consumer culture.

BB So, if we can help people fix it or learn skills or go through problem
solving and save a little money on the side, then that’s better for everybody.
Plus it helps get people who otherwise may not know about kwartzlab through
the doors, because they might not be into what we’re doing here. There is more
of an altruistic slant on it where we’re promoting DIY culture as opposed to
just making or the space itself.

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CP For myself, it’s always been a mechanism to make new friends. There’s this
thing that I find valuable and fun that I find worth contributing to and I
know there’s a great community here. It seems reasonable to tell people about
it. Ways to express that. Given that the concept of a makerspace isn’t
necessarily mainstream, it’s a niche, and it’s not something that people
broadly speak of like “I gotta find me one of those”. The only way to
express the concept in a way that’s useful that people will understand so that
they may seek you out and get involved is to go and do things in public with
the broader community. That gives people a chance to see first hand. To see
this thing in action. It’s as simple as that.

DW James, has making gotten easier? From the broader maker ecosystem

JB Oh, absolutely not [laughs]. I can’t think of much that you can’t make now.
Find a YouTube video or Instructable on it and then come here and make it. We
have pretty much everything you’d need here for any project. Yes, it’s getting
easier. And there’s a lot more support, too. We have a diverse group of
people, so if I don’t know something about metalworking or woodworking or sewing or
knitting or whatever else goes on here, then I can ask someone and usually get
pretty good answers. On Tuesday Open Night I got a lot of questions answered
on making my knife. I talked to Gus. I talked to Richard. Richard pulled out a
knife he made and showed me some stuff he did. He said I should use this
wood and he told me where to go to get it. You can’t really get that anywhere
else. Maybe the internet…

DW But not locally.

JB Yeah, not locally. I wouldn’t know where to start.

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CP I’ve been saying for years, you can pick any hobby and get into it for next
to nothing and the only thing holding you back is knowledge, but the other
thing is that so many of these things you want to do are becoming
interdisciplinary. So as much as you might be interested in this one thing,
the path there might be a bit winding. You may find yourself hung up on stuff
you’re not interested in at all and if you’re alone in your garage only your
family can hear you scream. They’re used to it. Whereas if you are here, people
would say “It sounds like you’re frustrated there. What’s up?”

DW I spend a fair deal of time at the Communitech Hub and the startup ethos is
very much concerned with profitability. They are definitely making. With the
expansion of the Velocity Foundry, a hardware incubator, with the interest in
IoT, compare and contrast kwartzlab to that environment. I see any number of
cool things here that could be products, but they don’t seem headed in that
direction, or at least not at the same speed.

JB I think a lot of what goes on at kwartzlab is just because, or just for
fun. Or just because you can do it.

SS It’s a hobby. It’s a break from what we do at our day job.

JB It’s to spend money rather than to make money.

BB It’s the creating without the requirement for generating income from it.

SS It’s the process of making as opposed to the product of making.

JB There’s no obligations to shareholders.

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CP One of the things that I remember being very explicit when we founded this
was to be seriously beholding to nobody. That it be pretty much decoupled from
the necessity to make a buck. We felt it was necessary to empower people to
try to make what they wanted to make as opposed to looking over our shoulders
wondering how we’re going to make rent next month. As an organization it made
no sense to be anything other than financially self-sufficient.

SS And also non-profit.

CP Yes, and as an organization whose mandate is simply to creatively empower,
full stop. For us as an organization to commercialize or productize something
made no sense because on whose behalf are these hypothetical people going to
develop this? I suspect that has bled into the culture. Or that’s who we
happen to be encountering at the moment. Though we certainly have  a few
people are at least loosely coupled to the lab, if not members, who think very
much in terms of product engineering and have backgrounds in that and that’s
the lens through which they see the world. Other people are [taking the approach that] this
is the stuff they do for fun. “I get to do enough of this at work” Some of the
people here who are into costumes and textiles get enough of that at work, so the
the temptation to bring commercial projects in here to see if they can work
them out in the lab is lower.

JB We do have one maker that uses the lab for commercial purposes.

SS We’ve got a couple. And that’s fine.

BB And a good cross-section that may do prototyping here and then works on
manufacturing somewhere else, through regular channels.

SS But it’s not why the lab exists. It’s just a happy coincidence for them that the lab
is able to facilitate that.

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DW And that seems to have worked on an ad hoc basis very well, has it?

SS Exactly.

DW I remember we worried about that a lot. “What if somebody comes in and
starts running an assembly line here?”

SS Yes, but we’ve so far navigated that just fine.

CP In practice, the people who are churning out little prototypes on the 3D
printer tend to buy their own filament. And everyone has to bring their own
stuff to cut on the laser cutter. And so it will go with the CNC router as

SS Somebody might borrow the Silhouette [cutter] for a couple of days but they
clear it with everybody and it’s all good.

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BB Some of that too is that we’ve always tried to foster sticking to the same
ideals we started with. There’ve been talks of moving the lab more toward
education or toward being a startup incubator or something like a TechShop,
but there’s been a fair amount of resistance to that [within kwartzlab]. We’ve actively been
trying to keep kwartzlab steered toward the original ideals. It’s here, made
by makers for makers and artists and other folks in the community.

SS And keeping the making community central.

BB Yes, it’s not just a space where somebody can churn out a bunch of stuff,
or get free labour from other members as some people have asked about.

CP “Can I drop off the idea and pick it up in a couple of weeks?” [laughs]

BB We have had external folks try to do it that way. Like “Can you laser this
stuff and then we’ll come back and give you some money?” But we’ve always
tried to tout the same philosophies that if you want to come work on things,
this is what the space is for, but keep in mind if you’re trying to run an
assembly line out of the space or to convert it into a school, get ready for
resistance from the [kwartzlab] community.

DW Ok, make a prediction: five years down the road for kwartzlab. What does it
look like?

BB I don’t see us stopping any time soon as far as growth is concerned. I
think we’ll continue to get bigger, better tools, attract more members.

SS I think we’re heading towards owning our own property.

BB Yes, I think the next jump off point will be something building related,
but we’re going to stick pretty close the core values we started the space
with, but it’s really the will of the membership at large. Hopefully it’s not
going to deviate into some weird territory. We’ll continue keeping the
community engaged.

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SS I think it will be interesting to see how the community evolves as it gets
larger. How they find new ways to navigate a larger number of people, but
still keep them engaged with each other.

CP I think that’s going to be the biggest, most interesting challenge. With
people constantly coming and going, that does a lot to keep things fresh and
evolving. I agree that one of the challenges we face is what we can get out of
the rental market. A lot of us are interested by what things like the
community wood working group has managed to pull together over the years.
They’ve got a shop that’s well-tuned to the makerly activities that they’ve
got. It’s theirs. Or it’s the community’s. It seems to have given them some
real stability in which they can develop. Culturally speaking, they’ve got
some good shop discipline in terms of keeping the space useful, that I think
we’re developing a bit towards.

DW I can see that with the new shelving system. And the new shed.

SS Yes.

DW You’re evolving.

JB It only took five years [laughs]

CP If you’re going to have proper tools that involve high precision assemblies
that have to be treated properly and all that kind of stuff, it requires a
certain level of maturity. I know there’s big cultural differences in
hackerspaces, like in Europe where it’s very legitimate to squat in unused
industrial spaces, but how are you supposed to maintain an ecosystem of tools
worth a hundred thousand dollars in that sort of environment? We see ourselves
going in the direction of a shop full of nice stuff. That’s worthless if it’s
not treated nice.

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DW Anything to add?

JB We seem to be sailing at a steady pace. I think kwartzlab, it’s a
corporation but not really a business. We don’t have shareholders that we’re
accountable to, so we don’t need year over year exponential growth to consider
ourselves successful. The fact that we’re still here with the lights on and we
don’t need to hold a pay-our-rent party, I think we’re pretty successful. And
we’ll continue to be successful without huge growth.

SS We’re still finding new resources to offer to members. Each year that goes
by, we have more to offer members, not less.

JB And we’re still figuring out exactly what we’re doing.

CP I think that’s my core measure of success for the lab overall. We’ll meet
new people and they look around and they go away and they come back and they
sign up because they see the value here. The main reason that people leave is
that they get jobs somewhere else. If we could close down Ottawa and close
down California, we could get some members back. [laughs] I think that’s the
main metric. That we’ve got something to offer and when you come through the
door it’s got that homey vibe. Like ah, this is comfortable. If we can keep
that going, then the tools and the infrastructure is just going to follow
along like a happy puppy.

SS I love meeting people here. I’ve had to meet people here for accepting Coke
deliveries. We had a property assessment recently for ION [light rail
transit]. I met with a number of accounting people for potentially doing an
audit. Every time I bring somebody in here who is not related to making, I
watch their face light up [as they realize] this is a thing that exists. It’s
like Wonderland and they want a tour. It’s exciting and wonderful.

DW So that validates what you have built?

SS Absolutely. When somebody is not here because they’re into making, but
they still get it.

BB The Repair Cafe is huge for that. We had tons of people go through. We give
tours. Just seeing what people are working on. We had a retiree come in to get
a laptop fixed and she was here most of the day hanging out and talking with
people. And a lot of people want to come back on Tuesday. And those are people
that would not have walked through the door otherwise.

DW And even if they don’t turn into a member, they are like me, a friend
of kwartzlab. They have this positive connection.

SS Exactly and they’ll know someone who is interested so they’ll mention it to
somebody else.

JB A lot of people ask me, and I don’t have a good answer for it, they ask
what do you do at kwartzlab? Half-jokingly, I say “Whatever we want.”

DW Thanks very much.

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3 Responses to kwartzlab turns five–reflecting back and looking ahead

  1. Stephen Preece says:

    Truly inspiring. Happy birthday Kwartzlab!
    Thanks Darin!

  2. paul puddy says:

    Great idea and if you were closer to Quadra Island, I would be a regular. We all need to make things for ourselves. Creating the space for making is meta-making and a thoughtful contribution.

  3. NoseyNick says:

    Hey, if KWARTZLAB wants any help with near-space balloons, speak to your local Amateur Radio Club, KWARC, who already launched and retrieved one – . We have lost Justin our mission commander (yes, to California, grrr!) but there are other members who would probably enjoy helping with a joint KWARC/KWARTZLAB mission, and hey maybe we could cooperate on that California mission too 😉
    Nick (KWARC VP, and dad of the kids on the HAVEN-1 pics)

Comments are closed.