Creating the change we want to see in the world, one empty building at a time.

In the early days of Transition by Design, and after an age of struggling to find workspace that was functional and affordable, we benefited from free space on the outskirts of the city that enabled us to get our business off the ground. But during that summer while we were all on holiday, we received a call giving us a two-week notice period to vacate the premises, leaving us stranded until we found our feet again.

This experience highlighted the precariousness of our situation and the struggles faced by purpose-driven businesses like ours to get access to secure and affordable space in the city. As a city, Oxford is very fixed both spatially and institutionally. The history of the university has driven the way it has developed, how spaces are proportioned, and how accessible — or not — the city is.

The gates of Magdalen College, one of 30 Oxford Colleges which define the form and character of Oxford’s city centre. Photo by Motacilla

I recently learned that of the 4,580 businesses in Oxford, less than 2,100 of those currently have registered space. Some of those may be hot-desking, but what that means is that less than half of the city’s businesses will either be registered at home addresses, or are only present online.

Not only does this perpetuate the isolation and disconnection of many businesses, but that for organisations that thrive bringing people together to tackle local issues, they have no physical space in which to organise. The impact of COVID-19 has given the most extreme illustration of this, as the city is suddenly cut off from its citizens as workers and organisers are locked down in their homes.

It’s not that Oxford lacks the space — of the city’s 581 retail units, for example, 11.2% sit empty, and this is predicted by property experts to skyrocket to 20% in light of COVID-19 and forecast economic contraction in the year ahead. The reality is Oxford is totally unaffordable for small, start-up purpose-driven organisations. Office rents have grown over 40% since 2014, and with top city centre rents now in excess of £40/sqm they are comparable to some of the most overheated markets in the UK, including Stratford in London, and Canary Wharf.

We see this challenge as an opportunity. In 2015, Transition by Design came together with other community-led organisations to try a new approach, and Makespace Oxford was born as a way to bring empty and underused buildings back into community use, with placemaking, participation and purpose at its centre.

Makespace Oxford’s summer party at 1 Aristotle Lane, Oxford. Photo by Adrian Arbib

The first Makespace site opened in 2018 on Aristotle Lane in an Oxford college-owned building that is awaiting redevelopment. When starting, we had no idea that demand for such space would be so high — in our initial call-out for tenants, we were inundated with 76 applications for only 20 spaces. Today, in this one building, we have nearly 40 small social enterprises, charities, co-ops, creative individuals working from our co-working space, and we are a hub for community action where new ideas can come to life. Our lease on this building currently runs until January 2021, and we’re on the lookout for landlords of more empty and underused buildings who could use our help breathing fresh life into them, as part of the Makespace portfolio.

A testbed for innovation

Meanwhile sites like Makespace Oxford present an opportunity to reactivate boarded up city streets resulting from systemic issues of market failure, sky-high rents and a lack of investment into public infrastructure and affordable community spaces. The temporary nature of Makespace also means that we can challenge or temporarily change conventional building uses or planning typologies, gently probing at a planning system which has become increasingly rigid and is often more about enforcement than enablement, as it was first designed.

But rather than simply sticking a plaster on the wound of the cyclical issue of unoccupied buildings and a need for affordable workspace, Transition by Design’s part in setting up Makespace was a political act — a forward-looking catalyst for systemic change in the way that places can be built for people and purpose, rather than market forces alone.

At the forefront of Transition by Design’s approach is the idea of ‘strategic design thinking’. This is a collaborative process whereby problems are clearly defined with a range of actors, ideas are generated — which in Makespace’s case included the redesign of vacant spaces and the development of new business models — and these ideas are prototyped. We work iteratively to generate and refine ways of working through a continuous learning cycle.

A Transition by Design-led approach also means involving different stakeholders in a participatory process, and making sure that, as much as possible, the conversation involves those who need and will use the space. Crucially, we seek every opportunity to hand-over both responsibility and resource to communities of people.

Makespace is an encapsulation of this methodology. By putting two problems together to create a solution — the issue of empty and underused buildings, and the lack of affordable space — we turned this into an opportunity for the burgeoning sector of community-led social businesses in the city to take root. Much of our work relates to prefigurative intervention principles, meaning that we’re testing out the future that we want to create. Makespace is a physical manifestation of these ideas — we have created a testbed for experimentation and co-production where we can tangibly demonstrate how creating space for purpose and people can be beneficial for residents, landlords and citizens as a whole, shaping the narrative of what is possible.

Meanwhile; change is possible

The model of meanwhile use in the interim period of a site’s development is certainly nothing new, and we have been inspired by many organisations around the country who are finding creative solutions to the country’s vacant space epidemic. We’ve looked at Make Liverpool’s makerspace and business-hub model, and LJ Works for their purpose-built workspace for emerging businesses on the former site of an urban farm. And of course, Meanwhile Space CIC, which since 2017 has supported over 600 people (including LJ Works) into space in London, where over 24,000 commercial properties and thousands of hectares of land are sitting dormant.

LJ Works, a collaboration between Public Works, 00 architecture, Meanwhile Space and Lambeth Council to realise innovative and affordable workspace at Loughborough Junction, London

Where we think Makespace stands apart is through a collaborative team and board in which Transition by Design is embedded, it’s not just what we do, it’s how we do it. This maintains the emphasis on the design of the spaces and placemaking.

The configuration of Makespace at Aristotle Lane is quite unique. We are exclusively for purpose-driven businesses, creators and makers, and have a criteria which we expect all residents to meet. They must be locally rooted, have an environmental or social benefit for the local community, be a social enterprise, charity or startup, and they must be aligned to the Makespace ethos.

By co-locating creatives and makers with purpose-driven businesses, you can generate an interesting energy between practice and theory. We think of it as considered curation — creating a stage on which the actors (the residents) can perform to their best, and collaborate in unexpected ways by simply being in the same space.

For SHARE Oxford, a small start-up community action project, the idea of taking on our own space in a city like Oxford was totally out of reach — too costly and too risky. Makespace offered the right space at the right time — affordable and flexible space in which to grow. But more than this, we knew that to us comradeship, regular contact with other people thinking about some of the same sort of things as ourselves and full of creativity, and residents being the equivalent of ‘passing trade’ in the shared building, would prove invaluable. As indeed it all turned out to be.

Maurice Herson, founder at Share Oxford

Designing ourselves out

Though however beneficial, meanwhile spaces are a manifestation of market failure in a city, and we are parasites on the problem. Ultimately, we want to design ourselves out and remove the model whereby buildings are left empty, and instead design in affordable spaces and investment into public infrastructure for people and purpose.

In Oxford, perhaps somewhat uniquely, there will always be a role for nimbly adapting and filling empty space that arises from the continued growth and evolution of the universities and colleges, which generates a constant tetris shuffle of spaces. The longer-term challenge for an organisation like Makespace is to answer questions of how to ensure that it’s sufficiently easy and politically necessary for these institutions to open their doors and support the filling of spaces by community initiatives, especially for time periods that to a 1000-year-old institution may appear inconsequential. It is these windows of opportunity that are often make or break for a fledgling community initiative.

But for now, Makespace begins to plug the gap of what’s missing in our city and creates the fertile soil in which change can take root. It is within these interim periods of development that we can step in and make the case for a more citizen-centred way of developing the urban realm. If we can demonstrate the inherent value in enabling local, purpose-driven businesses to thrive and keep the city diverse, then we can change the future.

The meanwhile model is inherently precarious, and while it generates energy and excitement, it’s very energy intensive and there’s a question of how sustainable it can be in the long term. In the past two years of our residency on Aristotle Lane, we’ve demonstrated that we have a sound business model. We are able to generate surplus from the rental of space to be reinvested into bringing other empty buildings into use, build connections between communities and bring together different sectors to form fresh ideas and appetite for new ways of working. But above all, we’ve shown that there is space out there, all we need to do is unlock it. We can make space for creativity and purpose in one of the least affordable cities in the UK.

“Makespace Oxford and its particular approach have demonstrated they can bring empty buildings back into use quickly for the benefit of the local community without impacting on our longer term development plans. For a landowner this is a win-win, reducing the costs of building upkeep and security whilst a building is empty or under-occupied and also partnering with a capable enterprise that helps to benefit the local community. As buildings continue to have periods of under-use in Oxford’s city centre and elsewhere we would recommend that commercial landlords … consider this sort of interim use, and particularly in a way that responds to the needs of the local community.”

Peter Alsopp, Bursar at Wadham College, Landlords at Makespace Oxford’s hub at 1 Aristotle Lane

Radical yet reliable

Makespace is a respectable and safe tenant. We’re an accountable business, and a landlord can still maintain a certain level of control while we take care of their buildings in the interim period before redevelopment. While the DNA of our organisation might be radical (born out of collaborations between local community activists), the nature of the business is to offer a reliable partnership. Our ability to occupy buildings is based on our reputation of being respectable and safe occupiers, and there’s a really interesting tension that needs to be navigated.

Makespace Oxford’s latest project, opposite Oxford train station on Park End Street in Carfax Ward has been empty for over four years, now under refurbishment in partnership with Transition by Design

As we move forward, we’re seeking to intervene in more socially deprived areas, specifically in the city centre’s Carfax Ward, which is amongst the top twenty percent most deprived areas in the UK — a shocking accolade as it’s also nestled amongst one of the wealthiest institutions in the country. In the year ahead, Makespace Oxford intends to open a new community hub in the heart of Carfax in an empty college building. With the true impacts of coronavirus unfolding day to day, the terrain is moving rapidly. We’ll have to adapt our vision to a socially distanced world and listen carefully to the changing needs of businesses, local communities and the newly flourishing mutual aid groups that have kept our city connected through the crisis. The big question for us will be how to ensure that we are keeping the voices of those who are less heard and most affected by recent events at the forefront of our work, and avoid the gentrification that often comes with creative spaces.

It’s here where the value of being architecture and design-led can really shine through. Conversations about the design of spaces, who they are for and how to create a sense of place runs like a continuous thread through the project. We examine how spaces can be rapidly changed to be accessible to different groups in response to evolving needs, and how this in turn could unlock new business models, new collaborations and new approaches to inclusive placemaking.

Rapid response in a crisis

Transition by Design was set up off the back of the 2008 recession as we saw the opportunity to use design to offer visions of a just transition for Oxford that re-centered the voice of communities and put them back in control of shaping their own neighbourhoods. It’s in the nature of our work to respond to the opportunities brought about by a crisis, to make rapid and lasting alterations which could offer people a new way of thinking.

As Coronavirus has forced cities to a standstill, we’re continuing, via our Homemaker Oxford research, to think about tackling extreme housing need in Oxford, working in partnership with the city council and those driving the Oxford Homeless Movement. In recent weeks, we have been adapting the learnings from Makespace and bringing our understanding of meanwhile design to working alongside local charity Aspire, who have secured a building from an Oxford college to create emergency accommodation for people who are rough sleeping. In the months ahead we will unlock move-on accommodation for dozens of individuals without a permanent home (you can read more about this work here).

Such an opportunity seemed almost unthinkable before the virus, but what this situation has shown us is that all of this is possible — we’ve moved from hope to action in the blink of an eye. With a robust evidence base and ability to adapt and be flexible, we’re able to take action and leap forward with our demands at a time like this, with confidence in knowing that our model works and that we’re not afraid to iterate along the way.

As the bank of England predicts a slide into the worst economic recession for centuries, we find a strange muscle memory returning to Transition by Design. With our genesis in economic recession, we’re brushing off old tools and learning from our past. An unfortunate but inevitable impact of recession is that businesses will close, leaving people without jobs and spaces without people. We have a crucial moment to act, to use our ingenuity, to exercise some ‘design thinking’, and to create some truly wonderful spaces and places. Makespace has done it before and we can do it again.

Watch this space as we continue our design-led approach to bringing empty buildings into community use. We’ll be bringing some of the best people and ideas on meanwhile space to Oxford, get in touch if you’d like to help us bring empty spaces in the city back into use for the benefit of all!

Cofounder at Transition by Design Co-operative and Makespace Oxford CIC