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30 March 2017updated 12 Jun 2018 4:14pm

How a big orange shed became manufacturing’s new black

Start-ups and sole traders have long struggled for affordable workspace. Building Bloqs co-founder Arnaud Nichols talks to Rohan Banerjee about a solution.

By Rohan Banerjee

It’s odd to think of an industrial estate unit as inspiring, but Building Bloqs, the brainchild of five co-ordinated creatives, breaks the mould. Located just off the north circular road in Edmonton, north London, an 11,000 sq ft workshop is home to more than 300 different manufacturers. It’s that difference, co-founder Arnaud Nichols explains, that is defining. Building Bloqs is not one single factory but a gestalt network of makers and artists, renting a shared space and equipment under the same supporting non-profit banner.

Surrounded by mostly grey hangars, Building Bloqs’ carroty paint job suggests it is something unique – and that it is. A tour around the site today, which could look totally different tomorrow, doesn’t disappoint, and witnessing ‘work’ seems anything but. There’s even a friendly French bulldog called Hemingway who accompanies his owner to his bay.

“Building Bloqs was born,” Nichols begins, “out of a need, more than anything else. It was started by a group of makers. We [the five co-founders] used to have a workshop in Manor House, with a few freelancers and sole traders. It was a small workshop; then gentrification came along and did a good job of getting rid of workshops and replacing them with houses. There was such a large network of freelancers throughout London and they were also having the same problem. We decided rather than trying to just find another space, we wanted to solve the problem.”

Sporting sandpaper stubble while sipping at a coffee in Building Bloqs’ on-site café, Nichols typifies the relaxed vibe that exudes from the place. The pressures of living and working in London are well-documented. It is Building Bloqs’ aim, however, to provide a comfortable headspace as much as a workspace for its manufacturers.

The plaid-clad 37-year-old continues: “One of the main reasons for setting up Building Bloqs was basically to empower people to access amazing equipment. If you have that all under one roof, then it reduces overhead costs and creates a platform for innovation, new jobs and start-ups.”

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Building Bloqs sees collaboration at its core and pooling has themed its organisation from day one. “We started with no funding, just an idea that we wanted to share resources, machines and space. We wanted to reflect the needs of the industry. Five co-founders took out a lease on the building with a few machines and whatever we could scrape out of our pockets. This was the back end of 2012. We put together around £50,000 and our vision was to just get the ball rolling and it’s definitely worked out.”

Asked about a potential loan from the bank, Nichols rolls his eyes. With piercing sarcasm he adds: “Well as you can imagine, banks were doing a really great job of lending money to entrepreneurs,” before qualifying: “starting a business that needs access to expensive equipment is difficult for the one or two man band.”

While Building Bloqs might be a non-profit organisation, it still needs to make money in order to make its service sustainable. So, how does the company keep costs down – its key selling point – while doing enough to afford bespoke, first-rate facilities and equipment? Nichols points out that while other rental spaces operate on fixed-term contracts, Building Bloqs has fluidity and its network of freelancers are only charged for what they use, when they use it. “We’re on a pay-as-you-go system. If you have a company rooted to a workspace for, say, six months, that means they’re going to be not only taking up that space for six months, but also paying for it even on their days off. We do get instances where people work seven days in a week for an extended of period of time, but once that burst is over, there’s no obligation for them to keep on paying. By freeing up new spaces at regular intervals, that’s how we attract so many and such a range of clients.”

Renting a workspace at Building Bloqs starts as low as £20 per day, with add-ons for specific machine use. A spray-booth day costs £70, while use of the laser cutter is £120 for the day with half-rate and half-length sessions also available. A report published by Workshop East in 2015 found that the average rental costs for London workspaces across a variety of manufacturing disciplines – including woodwork, textiles and glass-making – were £800 per month. That didn’t account for any machine usage.

The capital’s primacy in many industries is, of course, pronounced. Nichols contextualises much of what he says as “in London” but why is this important? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to relocate a business to the north? “Maybe it would be, but London is where the work is. It’s a hub for business, innovation and invention. It is where the ideas and jobs happen.

Nichols’ London’s focus might sound flippant but it isn’t entirely without foundation. A recent government investigation into regional and local economic growth found that The Big Smoke’s £378 billion GVA accounted for 22.9 per cent of the UK’s total, with the south-east contributing a further 15.1 per cent. The north-south divide notwithstanding, though, Nichols is right that London is “full of small, freelance, one-off traders” and indeed about a need to protect them. The Guardian’s architecture columnist Oliver Wainwright noted recently: “The capital is cannibalising its industry, eating its productive space from the inside out, as the manufacturers and makers are moved to give way for the incessant march of housing. In attempting to solve one crisis, we are walking blindfold into another.” Nichols agrees and says: “Building Bloqs aims to preserve London’s manufacturing scene.”

Is Building Bloqs a trade union, by another name? Nichols smirks. “We’re a community and a support network for small companies, sole traders or start-ups. And having all of these different people and disciplines under one roof is massively useful.” How so? “Well, consider that when I had my old workshop, I didn’t have a spray booth so if I wanted to spray paint something, I’d have to finish my work and then travel somewhere that did. That will cost even more. Crucially, though, I think that having different types of manufacturers in one place means there is access to a knowledge pool that you wouldn’t get by working in isolation.”

Rob Quirk, founder of custom bike makers Quirk Cycles, has based his company at Building Bloqs for two years and feels Nichols’ knowledge economy comments are accurate. “Admittedly, I’m quite niche and I do work alone, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from having people around me. You’ve got two guys in the metalwork section here and between them they have around 40 or 50 years’ experience – that’s invaluable. If I need to know something, say, about a specific tool to use or properties of a material, then I can just turn around and ask them. If you’re working in isolation, sure you’ve got Google on your phone, but you might spend ages trawling through the search results. It’s easier to have that expertise from a real person to hand.”

Joe Buckingham, whose company The Gentleman Blacksmith also rents a bay at Building Bloqs, concurs. “It’s an ecosystem; I’ve made a lot of contacts through Bloqs. If I’ve got 20 regular clients and someone else has the same number in another discipline then suddenly we’re sharing 40 contacts.” Building Crafts College graduate in fine woodwork Ollie Morrion, meanwhile, says: “You’d be hard pushed to find another environment that covers so many disciplines, and with staff so friendly and supportive of whatever your ambitions may be.”

But what happens when a start-up ceases to be a start-up? Nichols speaks in glowing terms about Duncan Strong, a former Building Bloqs user and proprietor of Bespokea, a designer that specialises in customising IKEA kitchen units. Strong left Building Bloqs when his company grew in 2016 but has not forgotten where he came from. The 50-year-old, whose past clients include Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher and TV talk show host Graham Norton, says: “I came across them on the internet, got in touch and arranged to rent space on a monthly basis. My rental costs went from £1400 per month to just £650 per month, with access to all the equipment I needed to test the potential of the business. I am still a member of Building Bloqs and maintain the friendships and business contacts I made there. I am involved in two projects that will be fitted by other members. My website generates a lot of leads that do not fit my business model and I normally pass these to other members. I am very grateful to Building Bloqs for the opportunity they gave me to explore a new business whilst minimising the risks.”

The Building Bloqs vision became a reality, but what’s the dream? Setting down his coffee on the table which could have conceivably been made a few feet away, Nichols responds: “Scalability is related to space. What we have here is a proof of concept – we’ve been going since 2013 and aren’t letting up – and a very functional space, but it’s not enough.” Not enough for what? “Well we can’t build a bridge in here, for example. That’s why we’re moving to a new building, on the same site, but it’ll be five times the size.”

Building Bloqs prides itself on being the leg-up onto the ladder and a sign of encouragement for those just starting out. It is this that Nichols wants to develop the most. “If the UK is going to be a country of innovation then you need to have the skills to deliver that. We want to bridge the gap between new cutting edge digital fabrication and traditional analogue making. We’d like to have a stronger relationship with the local colleges and universities, and the makers of the future.”

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