The making of a makerspace

by Amanda Vigneau

Makerspaces are everywhere. They are popping up in schools, community centers, libraries; emerging as hubs for experimentation, learning and cross disciplinary inquiry. As we envision these spaces, we often ask: What makes a makerspace successful? And how can we design with our clients’ present and future needs in mind? We often prompt them with these questions.

Have a clear vision for the space.

Who are your major stakeholders, and what do they desire from the space? Makerspaces can house a wide range of activities, so getting all the intended users—students, staff and community members–on the same page will ensure you are planning with a shared vision. As you define the function and the components of the space, the necessary infrastructure becomes clear.

Design with the users in mind.

How will your makerspace function daily? We asked this as we started to design a makerspace as part of the Research Commons renovation project for the University of New Brunswick’s Harriet Irving Library. Inspired by the success of an existing makerspace on campus—that serves the Engineering and Computer Sciences department—and the school’s desire to turn the library into a central hub for interdisciplinary research and collaboration, we are creating another kind of makerspace. Equipped with analog and digital tools—from worktables to 3D printing—as well as amenities including lockers for student projects, the space will offer the librarians, students and faculty a chance to further define its present use and future potential.

Consider the look and feel of the space.

How should your makerspace look and feel? The aesthetics of makerspaces implicitly and explicitly indicate how users can engage in the space. Unfinished floors, moveable chairs and tables, overheard power reels, suggest that they can adjust the environment to suit their activities.

When we were asked to design the new Crafts Center at UMass Amherst’s Student Union, a student-run space that dates to 1971 and has deep roots in craft making, we envisioned a space that reflects that history and looks both industrious and open to future experimentation. Sealed concrete floors, exposed ceilings with industrial lighting and lots of access to power convey a workshop feel, while a variety of display areas showcase a variety of supplies as well as student creations. The full process–beginning with raw materials to making and creating the final product–is rendered transparent.

Be creative with programming.

Is your makerspace well-activated? Even the best designed makerspacers are only be as successful as the programs that take place in them. The facilitators–typically a mix of designated staff and students–become the conduits for supporting and promoting project work in the space. Familiarizing users with how to use the space–through kick-off openings, workshop series, or demonstrations with makers—incentivizes them to make the most of this resource and even build a community around it.

Make it hackable.

Is your makerspace future-proof? Does it allow for new tools and technologies to be introduced in the space? Clearly drawing activity zones in the space–whether it be dry or wet, ventilated or not–can help users imagine how the environment can be modulated with use.  Moveable tables with heavy duty casters or in-place millwork can allow other new equipment to be installed in and other configurations to be set up.  Power stations along walls or overhead can also support appliances and tools that may be added in the future.

Makerspaces are truly what you make of them. The key is to build consensus around how they can serve your community, then plan and design inspiring spaces that will be successful now and evolve over time.