Hack Hitchin

Making a Hackspace, part 5: 16 cubic yards of waste

16th Oct 2017

Skip

After the walls started coming down, it was very quickly apparent that we’d soon be drowning in brick unless we had somewhere to dispose of it. In other words, we needed a skip.

Like milk, beer and newborn babies, it seems that skips have avoided the general trend towards measuring things in metric. Investigations soon showed that skips came by the cubic yard, and that the biggest one we could get and fill to the brim with bricks and rubble was 8 cubic yards (bigger skips are available, but have to be mostly filled with lightweight items or the skip lorry can’t lift them).

So we got one.

Empty skip

Empty skip number 1

And filled it up

Full skip

Full skip number 1

And another one

Empty skip

Skip number 2. Tesselating the bricks apparently means more can fit in

Block-paving a skip

And filled that up too.

Full skip

Full skip number 2

Between the skips, the Hippobag, and odd bits that people have helpfully taken away, roughly 21 cubic yards of rubbish have left the building since we took over. That’s 16,000 litres.

Or, less usefully, one-seventh of a double-decker bus.

The inside of the building has been transformed into a large open space which can be divided into two areas.

Ladies side (workshop area) where the janitor’s room used to be

Gents side (office area) looking through the doorway to the workshop side

Ladies side (workshop area) looking through the doorway to the office side

The difference in floor height between the ladies and gents/cistern room that we weren’t aware of before we started

Other activities

Two urinals, various sinks, a pair of girders, many bits of pipe and a load of wire were taken to a scrap merchant and exchanged, to the surprise of everybody, for nearly enough money to cover the cost of the second skip.

The gutters under the tree were cleaned of leaf litter, as was the roof. Despite us cleaning it 6 months ago, it had already accumulated enough bits of discarded tree to start to cause problems again. This is clearly going to be a regular maintenance activity.

The Freecycle/Freegle scouting continues. We now have a nice porcelain toilet instead of the steel horror we were previously forced to contemplate using.

Next?

The unused drains need to be stopped up and capped off.

The walls and floor need to be made good where walls were removed. The ceiling also needs to be fixed or, more likely, replaced.

The walls around the old disabled toilets (which will now be a toilet on one side and a small workshop on the other) need to be built up to the ceiling

We need secure external doors. And internal doors. The windows need to be repaired or replaced.

The lighting needs to be rearranged to meet the need of the new space. We need to put power sockets in place on both sides. Toilet, sinks and kitchen need fitting and plumbing in.

The roof still needs to be fixed.

If you can help with any of this, please get in touch or pop along to see us in Ransom’s Rec Pavillion on a Monday evening.

Making a Hackspace, part 4

5th Sep 2017

Remember the little hole in the wall in part 3?

It got bigger

Large hole in the wall. The toilet block is now unisex.

What’s been happening?

We got the necessary approvals to start knocking down walls, along with some very helpful advice from Building Control on the best way to do it. It turns out that our previous approach of “whack it with a big hammer” is not recommended.

We  now have a (slightly rubble-strewn) doorway between the two sides, largely thanks to one man and his SDS power drill/chisel.

Paul and his mighty tool.

In addition to the doorway between the cistern room and the ladies, which has been mostly opened, we also need to get rid of two-thirds of the wall between the gents and the cistern room, and most of the janitor’s rooms walls.

View from the ladies side to the gents via the new doorway. Work has started to remove the wall on the other side. The wall on the left will also go.

The view from the gents into the ladies. This wall is in the process of being removed.

What’s next?

More wall removal.

And a skip. We really, really need to get rid of some bricks and rubble.

(A more comprehensive list of things we still need to do appears in parts 2 and 3)

Can I help?

As ever, yes please. We would particularly welcome any assistance (financial or an actual skip) with getting rid of the rubble, as well as practical help (ie, moving stuff) when we get something to put the bricks in.

If you’re a metal recycler and can collect, we have some scrap metal (toilet, urinals, sinks, water heater, RSJ, other misc bits) you can have. Similarly, if you want a load of red clay brick to reclaim, and can come and pick it up, contact us.

New members are always welcome; get in touch, or pop along to the build night or monthly pub meet

Making a Hackspace, part 3

1st Aug 2017

Previously, we had finally agreed on how the building would be arranged, but needed permission from the local council (in their role as landlord) before we could start on any major work.

Original building layout

Diagram of layout M

What it will eventually look like

Approval

The drawings were sent over to the council, and they’re happy with what we’re wanting to do, so finally there’s nothing standing between us and a fully kitted out-hackspace.

This, of course, assumes you redefine “nothing” to mean

  • building control consent
  • money
  • somewhere to put the waste
  • time
  • effort
  • more money
  • more effort

The local council’s building control people are mostly concerned that removing the internal walls doesn’t destabilise the external walls, making the whole thing fall down. The next step is to find a structural engineer who can give them (and us, since we’ll be the ones in the building!) suitable reassurance that everything will be fine.

Unexpected discovery

There are certain things in life you take for granted. Death, taxes, the rising and setting of the sun. And that a group of people with a wall they want to knock down, and a collection of tools, will eventually make a hole in it…

Hole in the wall. The floor on the other side is higher

Something else we had taken for granted was that the floor in the new space was level. And, after bashing the wall a bit, it turns out we were wrong, to the tune of about 15 centimetres. The gents and cistern room are level with each other, which is fortunate as we’d agreed to turn them into one room, but their floor is higher than the ladies. The reason for this is that Bancroft (the road the building is on) slopes very slightly, so building the floors at different heights means both entrances are exactly at pavement level.

In practical terms, this means there is a fairly small step between the two sides, and it could be left as such. However, our aim has always been to make a fully accessible hackspace, so it will mean building a ramp up in the workshop (ex-ladies toilets). A ramp down to the level of the ladies on the office side (ex-cistern room) isn’t possible as it would involve digging out the floor in that part of the building, which is actually manhole covers over a sewer.

Hungry, Hungry Hipposkip

Hippo, the yellow waste bag people, were kind enough to give us a free Hipposkip and collection under their Grants Up For Grabs scheme. We managed to get rid of 4.5 cubic yards of waste, including toilet doors, doorframes, cisterns, concrete slab cubicle walls from the ladies toilets, a load of bricks, pipes and other rubbish.

Before the clear-out

Before the clear-out

Before the clear-out

After a solid Sunday afternoon of shifting and tidying, the place is looking a lot cleaner now, and thanks to Hippo’s generosity, we have a bit more space to work on the things we need to do next without risk of tripping over a load of rubbish.

After the clear-out

After the clear-out

After the clear-out

A big yellow bag of waste. And, just off the left of the picture, a telegraph pole. Sorry.

Extra special thanks to the Hippo vehicle driver, who managed to collect the bag from under the phone lines that I forgot were there despite the clear instructions that the collection area must be free of overhead wires.

Let there be lights

As alluded to above, money is not sloshing freely around this project, so several Hackspace members have taken to watching the local Freecycle and Freegle groups for anything which could be useful. We hit a small jackpot with some brand new office lighting which had come, unused, from a warehouse clearance.

Eight new, never-used office light fittings ready to be put into their new home

There are three long light fittings, and five short ones. No decision has been made yet about where the lights will go, but this gives us more options to move lights around and find the best solution for lighting up the entire space.

Water tank platform

As part of the building’s history as a public toilet, there was a pretty solid wooden platform in the roof space, sitting on the walls of the cistern room. It was there to support two large water tanks (and 2 tonnes of water) for washing hands and flushing toilets.

We’d already removed the tanks themselves, and the plumbing which they were connected to.

Water tank platform and insulated shed

Since we want to get rid of most of one wall, and cut a big doorway in the other, the tank platform which it was supporting also had to go, along with the “shed” of polystyrene-insulated walls which surrounded it to protect the water in the tanks against freezing in winter.

Polystyrene insulated walls removed, and water tank platform taken out where the cistern room wall (behind the ladder) will be demolished

Over the course of two evenings, we removed the insulated shed walls and the floor of the platform, before taking up the support beams between the two cistern room walls. A few beams at the back of the building were left in place, where the cistern room walls on both sides will be retained (backing on to the old disabled toilets)

What’s next?

As mentioned above, we need to get building control approval to take down the walls we want to remove, and put a new doorway in from one side to the other. Once we have that, the walls need to actually come down, ceilings and floors need to be patched up, unused drains need to be filled, a ramp needs to be made, and so on. There’s a more comprehensive list in the previous post.

And… money. We need more of it, so fundraising is going to be a thing. You might well see us out and about in Hitchin town centre in the near future. If you do, please chuck us a quid or two. Or come and get involved…

Help wanted

As always, we would welcome any assistance, financial or practical, particularly if you have any relevant building experience (but enthusiasm and a willingness to help is a good substitute). New members are always welcome; get in touch, or pop along to the build night or monthly pub meet

Making a Hackspace, part 2

26th Jun 2017

Previously, we were working on our biggest challenge, namely getting a large group of people to agree on the layout of the new space.

We finally managed it.

Original building layout

Diagram of layout M

Layout M

It should give some idea of the scale of the task that the winning layout is “Layout M”, the previous 12 layouts A to O having not passed muster for whatever reason. We were seriously concerned at one point that we’d run out of letters in the alphabet and end up building something like Layout Eye Of Horus.

So, what are we going to do?

The wall between the central cistern room and the former gents toilets will be demolished, opening the “office” space up. The office area will have desks and benches for using laptops and doing “clean” craft activities and electronics (the sorts of things we can do at our current rented space on Monday nights).

A doorway will be created from the cistern room to the former ladies toilets, which will become the workshop.

The janitor’s rooms in both sides will be knocked down, with a half of one wall retained in the office side to separate the tea-making area from the rest of the room. Some sort of device for producing boiling water will be added (maybe a kettle, maybe something better if we can stretch to it), along with tea and coffee, a sink for washing up, and at least one passive-aggressive reminder to wash up after yourself…

The disabled toilets cubicles will be built up to ceiling height to become an accessible toilet on the office side, and a small room for anything especially messy, smelly or unpleasant on the workshop side. Extraction will be fitted to both those rooms, as well as for the laser cutter and possibly some of the dusty machinery. The back wall of the toilet features a gable end, meaning we can vent the air well above head height so as not to annoy (or choke) passing pedestrians.

The main entrance will be on the office side, with a fire escape/secondary door in the workshop.

Other than deciding how we want the building to look, what have we done to get there?

The rip-out of the old toilets has continued, with the ladies janitor’s room being emptied of shelves, sink, broken water heater, sockets and so on. Sinks in both the ladies and gents have been removed, and the remaining toilets have been uprooted and put aside for disposal. After a lot of hammering, drilling, chiseling and levering, one of the trough urinals in the gents has been removed. We would do the other one too, but it’s behind a lot of bricks and other rubbish.

The lighting in the building has been reconnected to the power, and other than a couple of broken bulbs, it works. This has allowed us to get more done in the evening, with Thursday nights becoming “hack the Hackspace” night.

Also reconnected to the power, and the water, is the remaining water heater. After a bit of poking and a lot of descaler, it is now producing buckets of hot water. It’s also in the wrong place, being mounted to a wall which we plan to demolish, so it will need to be moved.

Having power has also meant we could tackle the water tanks in the loft, which needed cutting up into smaller pieces before they could be lowered through the loft hatch and into the big pile of rubbish. A couple of itchy evenings chopping up the fibreglass tanks later, and, bar a few stray bits of pipe, we have now removed the last major pieces of the old plumbing.

Unwanted doors and doorframes have been removed, along with extraneous conduit, wiring and pipework from the cistern room, everything from the ladies disabled toilet cubicle (which will eventually become the dirty/smelly/noxious work cubicle in the workshop), and a heap of junk from the gents.

The only thing which has so far stubbornly resisted any attempt to remove it is the old hand-dryer in the ladies toilet. It’s made of cast iron and is held together by two bolts which we’ve been unable to undo to get at the screws holding it on the wall. At this rate, it’ll probably be there until the wall is knocked down, which is certainly one way of shifting it.

At this point, the toilets have largely been stripped back to an empty building, and it’s time for the building to begin.

What next?

We have accumulated a huge pile of rubbish to get rid of. We’ll probably use our free Hippobag soon to get rid of some of the bricks (the first tonne of them) and the lightweight rubbish. The rest will have go into a skip.

The big thing, once we’ve got plans approved by the council, is to start knocking down walls. The janitor’s room walls are relatively simple; a single skin of brick which doesn’t hold anything up. The cistern room walls are a trickier affair; our current belief is that they only hold up the platform on which the water tanks we removed sat upon (which, at 2 tonnes, is a lot of water), but someone cleverer than us will need to confirm it before we start swinging hammers about carefully removing bricks.

Other things which need doing after that, in no particular order:

  • more rubble disposing of. Knocking down the walls will create a lot of waste brick
  • ceilings made good. They weren’t in the best condition even before someone made a foot-shaped dent near the loft hatch, and there will be gaps where walls are removed
  • walls tidied up and decorated somehow
  • lighting moved or replaced and rewired. Two of the lights sit across where we want to build walls up from the tops of the disabled cubicles, while the lighting in the three janitor/service rooms have their own switches which won’t make sense once walls are removed
  • floor tidied up. Like the ceiling, there will be gaps where the walls are removed, as well as where the urinals are, and the cistern room has manhole covers over a sewer which need sealing.
  • unused drains capping and filling in
  • doors fitting to replace the iron gates which block the doorways
  • the windows need replacing.
  • the roof needs fixing. We’ve managed to source a load of tiles to replace broken or missing ones, but even after that there’s still the small matter of the rotten rafter to replace.

As before, we would welcome any assistance, particularly if you have any relevant building experience (but enthusiasm and a willingness to help is a good substitute). New members are always welcome; get in touch, or pop along to the build night or monthly pub meet

Making a Hackspace, part 1

4th Apr 2017

On March 14th 2017 Hitchin Hackspace celebrated its fifth birthday. For most of the last five years, we’ve met once a week in a hired room, but the limitations of that, such as only being able to work on things on a Monday evening, having very limited space for tools and equipment, and not being able to store projects, were becoming a problem. However, just over a month before the celebrations, we got an early birthday present: the keys to our very own space. Not that it was ready for us to walk in and start Hackspacing. It needs a bit of work doing first. In fact, it was a bit of a toilet.

Literally.

Plan of building

Current building layout

In late 2007, North Herts District Council closed up the public toilets on Bancroft, a road in Hitchin running from the pub where we hold our social evening, to the town centre. A few years later, a large mural was placed over the front, in an attempt to make it look less like an abandoned toilet. Some time later, we expressed an interest in using the building, and finally, after an epic set of bureaucracy, we have a 5 year lease on the building.

So what do you do with an abandoned public toilet? How do you turn it into a Hackspace?

Blue mural

The mural covering the front of the building

Opening the door

Mark and Dave attempting to break and enter

Open door

Success! We have since made this more secure

The first thing we did was have a good look around. Our lease started on February 9th, but it took a few more days to ge the keys to the padlocks which would allow us to enter. Reasoning that we couldn’t get into trouble for “breaking and entering” into our own building, we managed to bypass past the padlocks (priority number 1, improve security) to inspect what we’d agreed to look after for 5 years.

The most obvious problem was that after being abandoned for almost an entire decade, the back of the building was in danger of being engulfed by triffids ivy and other plants, while the roof was covered in a thick layer of moss, twigs and decomposing leaves.

Overgrown building exterior

Mark and Dave removing plants from the rear of the building.

It soon became apparent that these plants were doing more than just looking a mess; they were damaging the roof too. It had leaked in a few places, with some rotten roof beams the unwelcome result (priority number 2, clear off the plants).

Rotten beam

Rotten beam

Other than the roof, the rest of the building was thankfully free of damp. It was also pleasingly free of rats, insects (other than the million* spiders who made working in the loft a thoroughly revolting task), feral cats, foxes and people, although we did find evidence (in the form of beer bottles, fag packets, a pair of trainers, a removable car stereo faceplate and some classic pornography) that someone had been squatting in the loft before the building was closed.

If you’re that person, I’m afraid we threw your stuff in the bin. Even the porn. Sorry about that.

Also making an early trip to the bin were the accumulated leaves and litter which had blown or otherwise found their way into the building.

There was mains water to the building, at least as far as the stop tap, and electricity, but that got no further than the main fuse, which had been removed. The electrics were grubby and rusty in places. There are no doors; back when it was a toilet, the building was secured at night with iron gates, more recently the board which hosts the mural has doubled as an added layer of security against intruders. The windows are in poor condition, most are damaged or broken and some of the frames are rotten.

So what have we been up to in the last two months?

Well, we’ve had a smashing time. Most of the cubicle walls have been removed to open the space up. The gents’ walls are brick-built, and were dismantled with extreme prejudice by Rich, Alex and Paul. The majority of the ladies’ side walls were a sort of concrete slab reinforced with metal, which turned out to be impossible to shift. They too were broken into smaller chunks for removal.

Toilet cubicles

Before (gents)

Toilet cubicles

Before (ladies)

Pile of bricks and rubble

After (gents)

Open space with rubble

After (ladies)

The disabled toilet cubicles on each side are still in place, until we can decide how we want the new space to be laid out. We’ll need a toilet, and it’s almost certain that it will be in one of those cubicles**

For the same reason, although we’ve stripped out the contents of the cistern room in the middle of the building (toilet cisterns and their associated plumbing, mostly), we’ve left the plumbing for the disabled toilets, until we decide which one we’re keeping and whether we need to replace it.

Cistern room

Before (cistern room)

Plumbing removed

After (cistern room)

The exterior of the building is now a lot cleaner. The ivy has been pulled away from the walls and roof, and the moss and decomposing plants removed. The last few stubborn bits of ivy will hopefully succumb to a good pressure washing.

Building, minus plants

Noticably fewer plants on the outside of the building

Removing moss from the roof

Alex removing the moss

Removing plants from the rear of the building

Andy clearing plants

The plumbing has been mostly cut off from the water main, leaving just a couple of sinks for handwashing. We quickly discovered that the plumbing had become entirely disconnected from the water main; it seems that the stop tap had “fallen off” where it met the pipe from the loft which distributed water around the building. After reconnecting the pipe and stop tap, it also turned out that although the pipes were lagged (and warmed by trace heat tape, but this is no help when the electricity is disconnected…), at least two pipes had burst. And that’s just in the small amount of pipework we reconnected.

Burst pipe

“Oh fiddlesticks”, or similar words to that effect

We contacted the water company to arrange billing. They can’t locate any records of our building. Sadly, we suspect this doesn’t mean we’ll get free water.

On the subject of electricity, Dave had not one, but two electrician friends who were willing to come and help us sort out the power. Special thanks to David Hill who spent a long Sunday afternoon removing the rotten old fusebox and replacing it with a modern, safe consumer unit and isolator switch. Finally, just before the end of March, the power company came out and replaced the ratty old meter with a smart (in every sense) new one. They also fitted an isolator switch which can isolate our isolator switch, for some reason we’re not entirely clear about. At the moment, the only thing wired in is a double socket next to the fusebox, as the rest of the wiring needs to be checked, but it has allowed us to grind away some troublesome metalwork which was posing a trip hazard.

Old meter and fusebox

Before (electricity)

New consumer unit being fitted

During (electricity)

New meter and consumer unit

After (electricity)

So what’s next?

Submit plans for the interior to the council. We’re obliged by our lease to run our ideas past the local council, at least when it comes to knocking holes in their building. We’ll probably end up taking out one central wall to open up the cistern room, and putting a doorway through the other wall. The question is which wall, which represents the biggest challenge we have faced to date:

Get a group of hackers to agree on a layout. Tricky. Proposals here

Strip out the remaining toilet plumbing. There are still water tanks in the loft, sinks where sinks aren’t needed, a water heater which appears to have rusted through, two urinals and their plumbing, and at least one cistern which needs to be removed. Not to mention 8-9 stainless steel toilets in need of a new home, and a number of connections to the sewer which need to be permanently filled.

Knock down the remaining walls which need to be removed. Make a doorway between the two sides of the building.

Fix the roof. This is a big one, and other than a brief word of advice (“rafterectomy”) from a structural engineer who has seen some photos, we’ve not done much to address it yet

Get rid of some waste. We’re accumulating a signficant pile of brick, tiles, cement, plumbing, electrical junk, fixtures and fittings, and so on, to dispose of. Hippo Waste (the company which makes and collects those yellow waste bags) have kindly donated a Hipposkip bag (and collection thereof) to us under their Grants Up For Grabs scheme. Hopefully we’ll be able to fill this up soon and have it taken away.

Can I help?

Yes, please! We particularly need people who can fix the roof, or knock down a wall without taking the whole building with it, or advise on structural matters, or help seal the drains. We’ll also need to remove at least one skip’s worth of bricks at some point. On the materials side, we need paint, plumbing materials, new wiring and trunking, doors, windows, and lots of other things. If you can help, or know of some grants we can apply for (or would like to make one yourself), we’d love to hear from you.

* May only have been a few hundred, mostly dead, but that doesn’t make it any less unenjoyable
** Yes, we’ll build the walls so they reach the ceiling…

Monthly recap and dates for you diary

2nd Apr 2017

The last couple of months have been very busy for the members of Hitchin Hackspace. Not only were members meeting twice weekly to finish our robot for Pi Wars, but we have also (after an arduous 2.5 years) been given access to the abandoned toilet block on Bancroft.


 

We’ve already spent many weekends there, tidying, repairing and planning what will be our very own bricks and mortar Hackspace and though we’re still a way off being ready to move in permanently, we’re eager to get there. These are exciting times.

 


 
 
On the 14th of March we celebrated our 5th Birthday. What started as three strangers meeting in The Vic for the first time has turned into a most excellent community with many members who love to make and have fun doing it as a group. We had a good turn out of members old and new, and there was even the traditional Hackspace birthday cheesecake.

 

 


 

The Pi Wars team have spent today at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory for the first day of competition – school teams. They’ve been having a lot of fun meeting the other teams and even had a VIP guest bighak commander – Dr Lucy Rogers, a judge on BBC Robot Wars and the head judge for Pi Wars.

Our team will be competing tomorrow and we are all keen to find out how well they they do.

 

Dates for your diary

Our weekly Build Nights for April:

  • 3rd
  • 10th
  • 17th
  • 24th

These events will be held in the pavilion on Ransom’s Rec between 7:30pm-10:00pm. Everyone is welcome to come along and see what our group get up to. You can bring a project along if you’d like, or just pop in for a chat. New people are always welcome and we enjoy seeing what projects they may bring.

Our social is on the 11th. This will be held, as always, in The Victoria at the end of Bancroft. This is an informal event and again, everybody is welcome. We start arriving from 7:30pm and it usually goes on until 11:00pm.

We hope you can make it to some of these events and if you know anyone that might be interested, bring them along. The more the merrier!