Electrolab’s 120 members are working relentlessly to expand their hackerspace from 150 to 1500 m2 in order to accommodate all their reclaimed machines, in the parisian suburb.
Electrolab isn’t exactly the most famous of labs in the Greater Paris region, as it keeps a very low profile: minimal website, street address communicated exclusively by e-mail, limited exposure in the media… and yet, by late October it will become the biggest, best equipped and so far the most ambitious of European hackerspaces. We visited this developing work-in-progress, scaled up from a venue that these discreet hackers had finally outgrown. Seizing the opportunity to reclaim the vacant garage and ground floor of the existing venue, they are currently engaged in DIY repairs and renovation, with plans to open to the general public in November.
Back door entrance.
Hackerspace + co-working space + bar + …
The change in dimension is more than spatial. For its V2, the hackerspace intends to diversify and intensify its activities. A co-working area will be reserved for small businesses using the studio space, another area will be dedicated to training (security, machine operation, electronics…), a small (non-alcoholic) bar will occupy the central space.
Future training area.
Electrolab will not be a fablab
The collective will also show a new face. Funded solely by contributions from its 150 members and extra-curricular actvities (initiations, workshops), the Electrolab constituency overwhelmingly voted not to rename itself as a fablab in order to maintain its status as a hackerspace.
“We want to keep the hackerspace values of reappropriation and technological freedom,” say Samuel Lesueur, Electrolab’s president, and Jonathan Rebillard. “It’s also why we don’t show our address on the Web. We prefer to attract motivated people who are willing to learn and to invest in a community.”
The organization changed its status so that companies could also become members, but “we don’t want patrons or clients,” insists Samuel. “We don’t want to depend on anyone. We want to be able to say stop.” A full-time fabmanager should be joining the volunteer team in November.
Hacker construction workers
Electrolab is currently in the process of converting its ground floor and garage to meet official standards for being open to the public. “We’ve already spent 300 hours just meeting regulations, but there is no margin for error.” If the team of makers had relied on professionals, they estimate that the total budget for construction would have been somewhere between 1 and 3 million euros. By doing it themselves, and thanks to each member’s volunteer labor, the total cost (of materials) falls to tens of thousands of euros. Everything needs to be done, beginning with the floor. Then they need to demolish and rebuild the walls, reconnect all the electric cables, install a pump in case of flooding, paint, install security doors… Electrolab is now managing the second phase of work in DIY mode.
Hackers-cum-bricklayers are building their electronically secure cabinet.
A white room to open hard drives in privacy
Eventually, the space will be divided, around a small bar, into a co-working area, a projects area, a machines area, a “cathedral” area for laser-cutting metal, a white room, a gray room, a chemistry room… but no wood area.
“We have simple machines, saws, a small milling machine, but an entire woodworking workshop would be too dangerous,” Jonathan explains. “The safety regulations are very strict.”
The initial 150 square meters represent one-eighth of the total space (bottom right on the map).
DIY foundry and connected beehives
So far, Electrolab team members count a number of active projects: a connected beehive developed in two months by a complete beginner in Arduino, a hybrid rocket, a prototype medicine distributor, car repairs and improvements, an RFID pass to access different spaces, robots, robots, robots, homemade foundry machines that will soon solder the metal pieces of a 3D printer, drones, sea beacons, RepRap 3D printers using melted plastic or wax… all open source projects that are accessible on their wiki. “The fact that we arrange visits by e-mail appointment only on a single evening per week gives us the time to make things.”
Acquiring equipment through industrial reappropriation
Until the construction work is done and the building opens in November, the machines are spread throughout the space. During our visit this summer, we came across: a vacuum chamber (“Yeah, we found that too. It could be cool to use it for artificial crystallization.”), a plotter brought back from Clermont-Ferrand by someone who used to work in advertising “with supplies!”
The equipment of the hackerspace is beyond measure. But it didn’t cost much, as Electrolab members have a knack for industrial reappropriation. “It costs a lot more for industrial companies to have a machine picked up and discarded than for them to sell it to us for a symbolic amount. That’s how in Germany we acquired a giant laser metal cutter for peanuts,” says Jonathan.
In the background, the crowded 150 square meters of Electrolab’s former premises.
Reclaimed telescopic radio antenna, several meters long. The hardest part isn’t using it, but moving it, given its imposing weight.
The “cathedral” room, with its 6-meter ceiling, will soon be home to the laser metal cutter. The laser head alone takes up 1 cubic meter!
Reclaimed fire extinguishers. Tested by volunteer security professionals who are also members of the hackerspace.
The kitchen seems almost banal compared with the rest of the lab.
To avoid (another) flood, a tank is installed underground with a high capacity pump.
Current work plans, with oscilloscope, macroscopic binoculars, microscope…
Digital metal tower, also industrially reclaimed.
Future project area.
Other towers and milling machines.
One of the component cabinets of the electronics area.
The projects will soon come out of the shoeboxes to occupy the projects area, which is just as big as the current hackerspace.
It’s late. A few LEDs are blinking on the table buried in cables and computers. The active discussion is around possible uses of the vacuum chamber. For now, it looks like it will be used to make telescope mirrors. The last of the passionate leave the mezzanine just in time to catch the last train.
Electrolab’s website (not very pretty, but very rich in resources)
The position of the spot on the map doesn’t the exact location of Electrolab, but rather the location of the nearest RER train station, a few minutes’ walk away.
Words and photos by Quentin Chevrier