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.


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…