by Robert C. Hicks, AIA, LEED AP

Makerspace, hackerspace, fab lab, incubator space, entrepreneurial center, shop, studio — the terms sometimes seem to be interchangeable and don’t suggest any clear distinction between them. Everyone now seems to want a “makerspace” — sometimes in the library, sometimes in the engineering department, sometimes in a building by itself.

So what is a makerspace? In its simplest form, a makerspace is a place to actively design, test, experiment, explore, build, innovate, and collaborate around the making of something. The complications begin with a determination of what is to be made. A group of students may come together to make a presentation for a group project. Another group of students come together to make a business plan or refine a business process. A third group might be making a physical prototype of a piece of research equipment or a physical model of a building component. Each member of the group may be working on a different part of the final product, and some may need help or training in how to make their piece. All of these individuals are making something, but their needs for a makerspace are very different.

For anyone planning a makerspace, the first question to be asked is, “What is to be made?” Once this is determined, it is possible to determine the characteristics of the project and to begin the design process for your makerspace.

Changeability and adaptability: support flexibility. All makerspaces share certain common requirements. They need to be easily reconfigured and adaptable to a wide variety of activities. Furniture must be moveable and support one person, small group, and large group projects.

Messy: encourage the spirit of exploration. Makerspaces must allow for messy work. Making is not always neat and clean. It is often messy, with parts and pieces spread around. By creating space that is functional and “not too precious,” the focus can be on supporting hands on learning and experimentation.

Access to tools: high-tech, low-tech, no tech.Whether it is used to create a PowerPoint presentation or a physical prototype, all makerspaces must provide access to the necessary tools and, in many cases, instruction in how to use them. Tools such as specialized computer software, a 3D printer, or a CNC milling machine might come with these spaces, but there are many others that will support a rich and robust experience: high-speed internet connection, sturdy worktables, or multipurpose hand tools. The purpose of the makerspace will dictate the tool sets required.

Places to meet: promote synergies and participation. Although much work may get done “at the bench,” there is a need for meeting rooms, and places for informal gathering. Having them proximate to and visible from the larger making space(s) encourages collaboration and spontaneous interactions.

Food: support a social and collaborative environment. Denizens of makerspaces are often there at all hours of the day and night. Providing a place to prepare and eat food will support usability of the makerspace.

Shared knowledge – encourage learning from one another. Makers tend to share knowledge and know-how with one another. It is important to encourage a collaborative, sharing environment, supported by faculty or staff with specialized training on how to safely use specific tools.

A sense of community. A successful makerspace encourages interaction between and among all of the users of the space. Everyone needs to be able to learn from one another. Problems are often best solved through collaboration and support from members of the makerspace community. A shared sense of accomplishment when something is completed and a convenient way to share your work with others is important.