Accessibility, transparency and connection: inside the design of FAB9

FAB9
Pat and Laurie at Laurie’s wood workshop, Tasmania

What do you think of when you think of a workshop?

Something between a hardware store and a shed, full of worn benches and noisy machines? Sawdust, metal shavings and sparks flying through the air? People bustling about, focussed intently on whatever it is that they’re making?

There’s a rustic charm to spaces like that. They’re imbued with the hearty, earnest, fuss-free spirit of getting things done. But where do such spaces leave designers, engineers and makers who want a more refined making experience? One connected to a deeper level of enquiry, artistry and precision?

Unlike traditional workshops, which tend to be open-plan, garage-like spaces, makerspaces have well-defined floor plans with different areas allocated to different making processes. They’re also equipped with adequate ventilation, fume extraction and robust safety protocols and procedures, as well as high voltage electricity that is suitable for industrial grade machinery and equipment.

Open Works Baltimore makerspace

At FAB9, we’ve surveyed the makerspace phenomenon as it’s happened around the world, identifying all that is effective about different makerspaces, while looking into ways those models could be improved.

Now, on the cusp of opening to the public in March 2019, we have completed turning the physical space of FAB9 into a material embodiment of our philosophies. By weaving functional flow and literal transparency into the architectural design of the space, FAB9 welcomes the people of Melbourne to engage with making in a way that is inviting and sophisticated, while setting a new standard for the nascent, ever-evolving makerspace.

Embodying ideals in a physical space

From the beginning, architects Jas Johnston of Ample studio (and workshop manager of University of Melbourne’s MSD makerspace) and Alex Lake of Therefore worked closely with FAB9’s CEO Hans Chang and Creative director Ying Zhang to ensure that the company’s values were translated into the physical shape and functionality of the makerspace.

First and foremost, FAB9 had to be accessible — both functionally, and ideologically. By employing certain visual and spatial principles, we’ve aimed to make members’ on-site experience a kind of metaphor for the aspirational goals of a makerspace — the practical empowerment of makers, the personal growth of individuals and the development of strong, collaborative communities.

Light, space, air

FAB9 Assembly area

When you first set foot inside FAB9, you immediately notice that it is light, spacious and airy.

Along with the building’s numerous exterior windows, the large, internal windows allow generous levels of natural light to spread throughout the space. It’s not standard practice for workspaces to have windows internally — most would consider this feature an unnecessary expense. But the use of interior windows is very intentional at FAB9, not just for the diffusion of light, but they allow members to see the making that is happening all around them and be inspired to try new pieces of equipment, like the CNC router, for example.

The star of FAB9, the large format 1.2m x 2.4m flatbed Trident CNC router by Multicam is housed in its own room for safety reasons, but because it is an incredible piece of machinery (and the routing process so is mesmerising to watch) we have fitted the room with large windows.

The visual transparency not only embodies our ideals, it allows members to see FAB9’s technology, tools and processes in action — an excellent way to educate and inspire our members about what is possible. Beyond representing these ideals, the interior windows also serve the very practical purpose of enhancing visibility, making it easier for our staff to monitor the space.

Inclusivity

While catering to experienced makers, FAB9 is also a space that’s designed for people with little or no making experience, who may have felt curious but unsure about using some of the pieces of equipment that will be available for use at FAB9.

The concept of standardisation assumes that all human beings are the same — an assumption we actively reject by accommodating as many different types of people as we can at FAB9. Starting with an elegant DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliant ramp (which has integrated seating so it can transform into an indoor / outdoor congregational area) at the main entrance on Parker Street, FAB9 is fitted out to suit the needs of a broad range of members.

Ramp access from the Parker street

Our custom-designed workbenches are of varying heights to ensure they’re comfortable for people of different sizes, with hooks underneath so members can conveniently store their bags out of the way, and avoid creating a tripping hazard. The workbenches come in both fixed and movable types to suit different projects — lighter workbenches are on castors (wheels) for flexibility, and heavier gauge metal frames for heavy-duty projects where stability is crucial.

Gender neutral signage at FAB9

We have male, female and gender-neutral bathrooms, and have used gender-neutral signage, symbols and colour coding around the makerspace to cater to people for whom English is not a first language.

Materiality

The material palette of FAB9

One of the values we have at FAB9 is to ‘embrace failure, share learnings’.

We want to create an environment where failure is considered as useful as success, and where unexpected outcomes are appreciated. This active thinking, continuous iteration, and adaptation forms the foundation for progress and the clarification of ideas. We believe in a process of test, trial, failure and repeat. Our emphasis is on process, exploration, and unrestricted making.

We’ve woven this anticipation of imperfection into FAB9 by using a building materials palette that is robust and durable, by having refreshable, repairable elements throughout the space, like our plywood walls and the tops of our workbenches.

Aside from coming in a range of heights, the workbenches at FAB9 are fitted with three different kinds of surfaces to support different types of making, including raw plywood for messier, rougher work, vinyl for finer work like jewellery making, sketching or electronics assembly, and self-healing rubber for work that requires the use of sharp tools.

Heritage

FAB9 has the unique privilege of being located on the factory floor of a former rubber plant, built at the turn of the last century. The building is heritage-listed, which means adapting it for our intended use has come with a host of challenges. From the outset, we’ve worked with great care to respect and protect this significant piece of Melbourne’s industrial history, while meeting the stringent code requirements of a makerspace.

The Barnett Glass rubber factory now home of FAB9

Safety

As Melbourne’s newest makerspace, we want FAB9 to be an exemplar of OH&S excellence. Safety considerations and procedures have been at the forefront of all our decisions, and integrated into every aspect of our design, from our facial recognition software, to our gradated access system, where access to certain labs or machines is tied to each member’s training records. Traditionally, workshop spaces have been designed using a binary model where access is either permitted or not. This model exposes users to all the tools and equipment within the space, regardless of their experience level or familiarity with the machine, and places much of the onus on the user to not hurt or injure themselves. As a result, many workshops have to set their entry level at a hauntingly high standard — a potentially discouraging barrier for beginner makers.

Map of the OH&S risk level

FAB9 has adopted a gradated access system which allows users to gain access to the space incrementally. Each making process and its associated equipment is analysed and categorised into one of three risk levels — low, medium or high. The low risk area of FAB9 is accessible to the general public, with no safety training required.

The medium risk area is restricted to FAB9 members who have completed safety training and on-site orientation. High risks areas such as the timber shop and CNC lab are completely enclosed and physically separated from the low and medium risks areas, accessible only to FAB9 members who have completed not only the initial safety training and on-site orientation but also the safety and induction training specific to those areas.

This system means that FAB9 members with little making or machine operation experience can access and use the low risks areas relatively easily, whilst being protected from the high-risk equipment.

The FAB9 space has then been shaped around keeping the movement of materials out of public areas, isolating dust, fumes and sounds. From its heightened position on the mezzanine floor, the staff room has a clear view of each lab — a critical safety factor that operates alongside the cameras positioned around FAB9 to ensure everyone in our makerspace feels secure at all times. There are also a number of emergency stop buttons around FAB9 that will cut off power to relevant machines when necessary.

The big, custom-made, automatic, glass doors on the CNC lab and timber shop came strongly recommended by Jas Johnston, who worked on the new MSD workshop in the John Wardle designed building, and now wishes they had allowed for this feature. Jas’s reasoning? Often, when entering these spaces, users are carrying materials or work pieces, and automatic doors allow for safer, more seamless entry and exit.

Workflow

The spatial layout and adjacencies at FAB9 facilitate a logical, safe and natural workflow — our generous thoroughfares and spacious labs mean members can move in and around each area with comfort and ease.

Each of our labs are set up to accommodate similar processes and technologies, which is this is why the electronics lab and digital lab are side-by-side, and why the timber shop and CNC lab are in close proximity to each other. There are many instances where this layout will be beneficial to FAB9’s members, for example, if you designed something on one of the high-powered computers in the electronics lab, you could then produce the design on one of the 3D printers in the digi fab next door, or if you have routed a timber piece on the CNC router, you could continue post-production in the timber shop immediately across the corridor.

We’ve followed the same principle of optimised workflow within the labs, too, putting complimentary machines next to each other, such as the thicknesser and the planer in the timber shop, for example.

FAB9 Timber shop

The FAB9 dream

Like the space, our message at FAB9 is clear: we prize transparency, personal development and community. With enough curiosity, training, persistence and work, anyone can use anything we have on offer, and be the maker they have always wanted to be.

Tours are the best way to experience FAB9. FAB9 will be running tours. Book a tour today

Article authored by Genevieve Callaghan from research conducted by Ying Zhang, for FAB9.

What did you think of it? Got anything to add? We’d love to hear from you. Send us your thoughts, questions, facts, frustrations, feelings and / or anything else — hello@fab9.com.au

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