Our office is a 1000 sqft sublet of a friend’s factory in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco. We chose this for a few reasons: it let us build a machine shop and coffee bar from scratch, we can borrow tools from the factory for projects as needed, and rent is about two orders of magnitude cheaper than standard SF office space.
One of the few downsides of the space was the absence of enclosed rooms — visiting entrepreneurs often found it difficult to pitch over the sounds of the factory. The landlord forbid us from putting up walls, so we improvised a solution over a few weekends and built our own conference room.
The conference room had to be comfortable and quiet; we also wanted it to match the aesthetics of the factory while supporting the connectivity and power required by a modern technology company.
We considered modifying a shipping container, but it wouldn’t fit through the door (there’s also a high probability of toxic off-gassing which is why you should be very careful about container homes). Ultimately, the closest we found to what we needed was a prefab cabin designed by SolidBuild. It gave us a free-standing structure with a lot of freedom to further modify.
The shed arrived on the back of a truck on a 900 lb pallet. Since the guys down the street that let us borrow their forklift weren’t around, we depalletized on the street and carried it into our office piece by piece.
We ran into an issue almost immediately. The foundation beams supplied were designed for outdoor storage use, and therefore not very precise. Unfortunately, they were unusable for the floor of a conference room.
The solution was to replace the foundation beams with high-quality ground contact pressure-treated lumber, available at any home improvement store like Home Depot (but try to support your local stores! I use Valu Home Centers when I’m back home in Buffalo, NY). Once the foundation was laid, the construction was straight forward — the prefab beams were basically a giant set of Lincoln Logs. It took us less than a day to get the walls stood up.
While the walls went up with little effort, we encountered a challenge with the roof. The shed had been designed with an awning to shade the entrance, but that was unnecessary indoors and resulted in more than a few head bumps. We modified the roof joists to a more appropriate length for an interior conference room.
After the roof was done, the last part of the structure was the floor. We laid a plywood sub-floor on top of the foundation to provide additional rigidity for the flooring — an upgrade from the shed’s original design.
The final major modification we made to the cabin was to add power, HDMI, and ethernet underneath the floor. Before laying down carpeting, we routed out space in the floor between foundation beams for two double gang electrical boxes. With the wiring installed, we were able to use carpet tiles and a razor blade to achieve wall-to-wall carpeting with minimum effort.
With the cabin completed, the next step was to furnish the interior. Next week I’ll document how we wired the conference cabin with a blend of retro technologies and smart home systems (built in-house, naturally).
Building something like a cabin has never been easier thanks to a Cambrian explosion of low cost digital manufacturing tools, driven by low cost computing, sensors, and actuators (thanks, smartphones!). Everyone — beginners to seasoned hobbyists — are benefitting from new tools. If you’re thinking about starting a project, do it!
From software to CNCs, there are dozens of new and up-and-coming digital manufacturing tools that we’re excited about. In no particular order, and by no means comprehensive:
- Shaper — handheld CNC; one of our portfolio companies, Shaper uses computer vision to precision-guide a router to achieve CNC precision with a handheld device. We could have fabricated the entire cabin from scratch using a Shaper.
- Carbide3D — desktop CNC routers; you can probably do 95% of small wood working projects with these and standard tools. Never overpay Crate&Barrel for a rustic wood widget again!
- Inventables — desktop CNC routers; another great option for small wood projects, with the added benefit that Inventables has an thriving user community and repository of projects and plans.
- Wazer — desktop water jet; holy cow! You can cut through most common metals with water jets, and these were traditionally available only in high end facilities. This fits on your desk.
- PocketNC — desktop 5-axis CNC mill; I’m coveting one of these for the office. This level of precision in 3D milling used to be a state secret.
- OtherMill — desktop PCB mill; for people making electronics, you can now machine your own printed circuit boards. No more waiting for weeks, no more minimum order quantities!
- GlowForge — desktop laser cutter; not as powerful as a water jet, but super precise, and you can work with really delicate materials like paper and leather. Laser is one of the easiest and most practical CNC tools, and GlowForge’s UI is lightyears ahead of anyone else.
- OpenDesk — open source furniture designs; The business model is fascinating: free plans are provided for all furniture for personal use. You can opt to have a local manufacturing partner build their idesigns, and OpenDesk make a cut of the commercial transaction (our office tables in the picture below were made in-house using OpenDesk designs — separate post coming soon!)
- Fusion360 — lightweight CAD; released by industry behemoth Autodesk, Fusion360 was designed to run on low power computers. Free for students and cheap for everyone else, 3D modeling has never been easier.
- Shapr3D — mobile CAD; if you have an iPad Pro and find it easier to draw shapes rather than define them using traditional CAD, Shapr3D is one of the slickest new takes of CAD we’ve seen.
If I’ve forgotten anything cool products, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org! We are truly in a golden age of manufacturing.