Hack Hitchin

Aviva Community Fund: The dust settles

November 21st, 2017

The vote has closed

Back in early October, we spotted the Aviva Community Fund competition, and that if you were entered by an Aviva customer, you would automatically be awarded £200. On our tiny shoestring budget, £200 is a nice little pot of cash, so we submitted an entry.

From looking at the previous year we knew that winning entries had to have several thousand votes, which seemed like an impossibly large amount. But we went for it anyway, and now, just over a month later, the voting has finished.

And our final total is an amazing 4791.

A huge thank you to…

Everybody! It’s impossible to know exactly how many people took the time to vote for us, but based on the final total, we’d estimate something like six hundred people made the effort, sometimes in the face of difficulties with the voting site, to give us their vote. That’s an astonishing amount of support for our tiny Hackspace, and we’re extremely thankful for it.

We know that not everyone was able to give us 10 votes; there are a lot of very worthwhile projects out there and some people would have wanted to share their ten between two or more, but we really are grateful for every vote.

As well as friends, family and colleagues who suffered our increasingly frequent requests for support with good grace, and a good crop of clicks, we also reached out across the internet to ask for help.

We had help from (I hope they’ll forgive the term) geek royalty with Robot Wars’ Dr Lucy Rogers and Raspberry Pi creator Eben Upton retweeting our request to their thousands of followers on more than one occasion. The official Raspberry Pi twitter account also did the same. As big Raspberry Pi fans, we were very excited by this.

Hackaday covered the Aviva vote in an article, with Hitchin top of the list of contenders (a couple of other hacker/maker spaces also had entered). Many other spaces across the country were only too willing to allow us to promote our cause to their members via membership mailing lists or web forums.

Mike Horne, organiser of CamJam and the annual PiWars competition, took the time to write a whole blog post explaining in his own words how we should win.

Read all about it

The local newspaper, The Hitchin Comet, gave us some very welcome coverage. We’d been told that the article would feature “prominently” in the print edition, but no-one expected it to be the main headline on the front page.

We’ve had lots of support from local businesses, both online and good old fashioned posters in shop windows.

Far more people and organisations than we could possibly mention individually helped promote our entry, and we’re incredible grateful to every one of them.

So thank you again, everyone who tweeted, retweeted, Facebooked, wrote about us, commented on us, replied to say they’d voted for us, and most especially to everyone who voted for us.

And the winner is…?

The Aviva competition is partly public vote, and partly judged (insert your own comparison to Saturday night entertainment shows here). There are four categories, and four funding levels. We’re in the Skills for life category and the £10,000-£25,000 level.

In our category and funding level, the top 8 entries by number of votes go through to the final judging round, from which two are awarded the funding. The other six receive £500.

The official results aren’t emailed to us until November 28th, but by our own unofficial reckoning, checking against the other entries, we came in 6th place.

We’re eagerly awaiting official confirmation, but as we seem to be in the top 8, it appears that we will be awarded at least £500. And, of course, there’s the possibility of winning an award of between £10,000 and £25,000. The difference that would make to the Hackspace is incredible.

Thank you again, and hopefully we’ll be able to announce early next year that we’ve won the full funding. But more than anything else, we’re amazed and delighted by the support and goodwill our little project has, and we look forward to bringing you our refurbished toilet block Hackspace, whatever the final result.

 

 

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Piradigm – Approach to Piwars challenges 2018

November 12th, 2017

Quick progress update: chassis wired and driving in remote control mode!

 

So now I’ve got the basic functionality working, I can start on programming for the challenges. In principle I could compete in three of the challenges right now, as they’re intended to be entered with manual control. As I mentioned last time though, I’m hoping to attempt them autonomously, as well as the mandatory autonomous challenges. Here’s how I’m intending to approach them all:
Somewhere Over the Rainbow (driving to coloured balls in sequence)
I’m hoping to use OpenCV’s contour detection for this challenge, to spot shapes which can then be filtered by size, shape and colour, to identify the coloured balls, then use the size of the ball and possibly the height of the arena to help judge distance to the ball. I have a few ideas to help make the image processing quicker and more reliable – have the camera at the same height as the balls and prioritise looking where the balls should be based on their expected height and angle relative to the start position.

 

Minimal maze
To help with many of the challenges, I’m intending to use external markers (like QR codes) to help track the robot’s position and orientation on the course. This year the minimal maze allows markers to be used, so I’m intending to put an ARuco marker on each corner, with the hope that a wide angle lens will always be able to see one marker, giving me position on the course at all times. I’ll preprogram waypoints for each corner of the track and use the markers to help navigate to them in sequence.

Hitchin Hackspace built a copy of the minimal maze last year. its the same this year, with different colours for each wall

Straight line speed challenge
Like the maze, I’m intending to put a marker at the far end of the course and just drive towards it. Once the marker reaches a certain size, I’ll know I’m at the end of the course and can stop. This is the first challenge I’m going to attempt to program. If I get all the others done and working reasonably reliably, I may come back and try to do it without a marker, just using the colour of the edges of the course as guidance.

 

Duck shoot (target shooting)
This challenge is intended to be shooting targets by manually steering the robot. I’m hoping to do autonomous aiming through object detection. I’ve picked a gun (blog post coming up on that) and got it to be electronically actuated, so I “just” need to find the targets and aim. I’m hoping the targets will be rectangles of a consistent colour, or at least something easily identifiable using opencv, but that’s up to the organisors and course builders to let me know. I know roughly the size, position and distance to the targets, so I may be able to use that to narrow down which detected shapes are targets.

 

Pi noon (1 v 1 balloon popping)
This is going to be tricky! I’m again intending to put markers at the corners of the arena so I can judge position. After that, I can either drive around randomly or look for coloured round things (balloons) and drive towards them. Hopefully after I’ve got the code for Over the Rainbow and Minimal Maze challenges working, this one should be more than halfway there. I think spotting balloons may be tricky though.
Slightly deranged golf
The golf challenge is a little like pi noon, in that there’s a round object on a course that’s going to be difficult to catch. I’m going to attempt it the same way, programming a waypoint for the hole and looking for round white objects that might be balls. Very tricky.

Golf Course from last year, note the steep hill at the start that caused the ball to roll into a hazard

Obstacle course
Again, by having markers on the corners of the course and programming waypoints, like the minimal maze, I’m hoping to autonomously navigate the course. The extra 3D-ness of the obstacle course will make this more difficult, as the markers may not always be visible. The main difficulty will be the turntable though. I may need to put a marker on the turntable or some other trick. I’m leaving this challenge until last, as its so difficult.

 

Obviously its still early days so these plans may change as I get into and find image processing is too challenging for some reason, but hopefully I can complete at least some of the challenges using the camera.

next week: design and build notes

 

Reminder: please vote for Hitchin Hackspace on the Aviva site here:  Hitchin Hackspace Community Workshop  We are very close to getting funding to enable our Hackspace, we just need a few more votes.

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Pi wars 2018

October 29th, 2017

Its Pi Wars time again! If you were following along the last few years, you’ll know that Hitchin Hackspace has previously entered the Raspberry Pi powered robot competition with some innovative and challenging robot designs, sometimes with great success, often with stress and very late nights towards the end. This time we’re doing things a little different, On the one hand there’s the A team of Dave, Martin, Brian, Mike and Paul; taking the typical Hitchin approach and on the other hand, there’s, well, me. I’m being politely referred to as the rebel, or more frequently Team Defectorcon.
Why the split? I want to take a different approach; a somewhat risky strategy that’s unlikely to be competitive, and I knew the rest of the team would prefer something more along the lines of what they’ve done before.
So what’s the difference? Hitchin Hackspace typically goes for highly optimised designs, with attachments specifically tailored for each challenge, attached to a high performance drivetrain and using carefully selected sensors. I’m going to be using a robot kit as the basis of my entry, and my only sensor is going to be a camera. I’m hoping to use off the shelf items wherever possible even if they may be a little compromised. In addition to that, I’m going to attempt to enter *all* challenges autonomously, even those intended to be driven using remote control. By starting with a kit, I’m hoping that I can get a moving chassis very early on, so I can get maximum time to develop and test the software.

Progress has been very good so far. I decided to use Coretec robotics ‘Tiny’ chassis very early on, as its a nice, popular platform that other pi wars competitors will recognize, its not that expensive and its not super fancy (important as I want this to be a relatively budget build and show others what can be done with simple and cheap mechanics). I saw them at the competition last ear and was impressed how well such a small chassis coped with the obstacle course. In fact in many places it had an easier time than its larger competitors.

The tiny kit comes with the basics of a moving chassis: wheels, motors, chassis (including camera mount) and motor controller. At a minimum, that leaves me to select the Raspberry Pi board I’m going to use, along with the battery, voltage regulator, camera and LEDs. All piwars bots need extra LEDS :-). Taking those in order:

Pi board: This was an easy one. Since I want to use computer vision for the challenges, its inevitably going to be computationally intensive, so I wanted the fastest board I could: Pi 3 B.

Battery: As above, due to the processing power (and therefore power consumption) and learning from previous years, I knew I wanted the highest capacity battery I could fit in. Lithium polymer batteries offer the most energy density and the best value at this scale, so that decides the battery technology. The stock Tiny kit motors are rated for about 6V, but I expected they’d cope with being slightly over-volted for a bit more speed, so I went with a 2 cell pack (7.4V nominal). Hobbyking do a vast array of lipo batteries and I knew from previous projects the quality is ok, so I used their battery chooser to find the highest capacity pack that would fit within the kit chassis – 2.2Ah, that will do nicely : – )

 

Voltage regulator: Hobbyking also do a bunch of regulators (often called a BEC in radio control circles, a Battery Eliminator Circuit, i.e. it eliminates the separate pack that used to be used to power an RC receiver). I picked a 5A version so it was definitely adequate for the burst current a Pi may need.

Camera: I went for the Raspberry pi branded camera as I knew it would *just work*. I’ve also bought a clip on wide angle lens to hopefully reduce the amount of turning needed to spot things. The quality of the wide angle lens isn’t great though, I may have been better getting a Sainsmart Pi Camera as it already has a built in, well matched wide angle lens and is a bit cheaper.

LEDs: most Piwars bots have some flashy RGB LEDs on them for decoration. I also wanted to have LEDs but, after a suggestion from Rob Berwick, I’m going to try to use the lighting for something functional. One of the challenges with computer vision is variable lighting conditions, particularly shadows and colour changes. Sharp shadows can create edges and shapes that the detection algorithms can mistake for the actual target. By having very high power white lights, I’m hoping I can balance out the sun, reducing the affect of shadows. Beating the sun requires *a lot* of light though, about 15watts by my calculations (1000lux over about 1m^2 requires 10-20watts). Sparkfun do a pack of 5 3 watt LEDs, so I’m going to setup an array of wide beam headlights.

 

So those components cover the basics. I also wanted a screen on the bot for debugging, so went with a fancy touch screen from Adafruit, so I can also drive menus. Unfortunately, after buying the screen, I realised It had created a bit of a challenge. The screen uses about 8 of the Pi’s GPIO pins, and many of them clashed with the pins of the explorer motor control board that comes with the tiny kit. that controller also doesn’t work well when stacked under a screen, and it can only drive the motors at 5V (from the Pi), not battery voltage. I went looking for another motor controller
but couldn’t find one that meet all my needs, particularly the need to stack. The best I could find is a Picon zero from 4tronix, but that doesn’t stack, so I needed to find a way to get the neccesary control signals to it. Luckily the Adafruit screen includes a second set of pins on the underside, duplicating the full GPIO array, so I’m planning to use a ribbon cable to connect them to the motor controller. Getting this to fit turned out to be a much bigger headache than I’d expected.
With my component selection covered, I’m going to leave it there for this week, other than to say a CAD model of the current design is now on Grabcad here: https://grabcad.com/library/pi-radigm-v1-piwars-robot-1

I’ve done a wiring diagram with Fritzing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the build currently looks like this:

 

Next week I’m hoping to get the wiring finished, some basic software going so that its driving, and I’ll talk about how I’m planning on attacking each Piwars challenge.

Reminder: please vote for Hitchin Hackspace on the Aviva site here:  Hitchin Hackspace Community Workshop  We are very close to getting funding to enable our Hackspace, we just need a few more votes.

Thanks

Mark

*Thanks to Pimoroni and Coretec robotics for letting me share CAD of their parts.

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Aviva Community Fund: Vote for us!

October 24th, 2017

We’ve applied for a grant from the Aviva Community Fund. Organisations are invited to submit a request for funding. There is then a public vote, and the projects which get the most votes are put forward to a judging panel for approval.

The applications have closed and the voting is under way.

We need your help

Please vote for our application here: Hitchin Hackspace Community Workshop

Voting is open to anyone who registers with the Aviva Community Fund website. Each registered voter gets 10 votes, and you can use all ten to vote for Hitchin Hackspace. Obviously we’d like it if you did that, but of course there may be other projects you’d like to support too. Please give us as many votes as you can. The more votes we get, the better our chance of securing funding to carry on developing Hitchin Hackspace’s new permanent home.

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

October 16th, 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.

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Making a Hackspace, part 4

September 5th, 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

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Making a Hackspace, part 3

August 1st, 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

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Making a Hackspace, part 2

June 26th, 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

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Dates for your diary

May 2nd, 2017

Just a quick update this time.

Our build nights for May will be on the:
1st
8th
15th
22nd
29th
As usual, these will be held from 7:30pm in the pavilion on Ransom’s Rec, off Nightingale Road.

The social night is going to be on the 9th. This will be in The Vic, at the end of Bancroft, from 7:30pm.

Progress with the Bancroft toilet block is slow and steady. There is a fair amount of grunt work, as well as more specialised jobs to get done. If you’d like to get involved with the renovation process and think you have skills we could utilise, please get in touch. The sooner we can make this our permanent home, the better.

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Making a Hackspace, part 1

April 4th, 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…

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