Open Space AVL and Asheville Makers create and innovate

By Bonnie Fox – bfox2@unca.edu – Staff Editor | April 15, 2015 |

The former Wee Wiggles Child Care location appears empty, but seems full of possibility, shining in its Makers’ eyes.

Their excitement is barely uncontainable as they remove nails, boards, and retaining walls to create maximum open space.

Three men line up, shoulder to shoulder, to push and pull a chest-high wooden partition out of the floor. One shouts in delight while throwing showers of sparks with his nail-grinder, while another snaps pictures with his iPhone for their website and Facebook page.

They are clearing the way for workbenches, tools and instruments for do-it-yourself tech projects, both practical and fun.

“We do a lot in the way of tech,” says Nicholas Rake, 33, an information technology freelancer from Marietta, Ohio. “Most of us are either into electronics or computers or mechanical engineering, things like that, but we don’t want that to be limiting at all.”

Rake says he has been an Asheville Maker for at least a year, though the group has been around for three.

The volunteer remodeling crew is all male, as are most of the active members. Women have been known to appear at meetings, some with toddlers in tow. Avi Silverman, an electrical engineer from Tampa, Florida, says he sometimes brings his own toddler along.

Silverman, 32, says he helped start other Makerspaces, as they are known, in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Tampa, before getting involved with the Asheville Makers two years ago.

“It’s very different,” Silverman says. “It started off with just a bunch of people who would go around and tour different tech companies. Around the time I got involved, we started doing regular meet-ups to try and generate interest, and also to provide a social outlet for our community of people.”

That community now boasts 552 members in its Facebook group, with between five and 10 dedicated souls showing up for weekly meetings and working to renovate their new headquarters.

Concluding a weekly planning meeting down the street at Standard Pizza in West Asheville, members of the Asheville Makers group proclaim, “Let’s go to Space!”

They don’t mean outer space, though they do design and launch their own rockets and hovercraft.

They mean 285 Haywood Road, formerly recognized by its fence, which was shaped and painted like crayons, when it still stood. The group is renovating the 6,000 square foot building to house their projects and other groups as part of Open Space AVL. Open Space AVL is a cooperative spearheaded by Steve Cooperman, an alternative educator originally from Hanover, New Hampshire.

“The space determines the use,” Cooperman says. “We waited for the space to tell us what to do with it, and the people that show up. Even though they’re connected, co-working and co-learning, there’s people at different stages of their learning journey, with different ideas of what they wanted to work on.”
Open Space AVL is designed to serve as an “umbrella” collaborative for working, learning and meeting. In keeping with the DIY movement of the ’70s, all of Open Space AVL’s inhabitants promote some form of self-sufficiency or another, while coexisting in a cooperative environment, Cooperman says.

Open Space AVL and Asheville Makers have worked closely with one another in creating a home for their endeavors, so much so that it takes some effort to discern where one group ends and the other begins.

Co-learning comes into play with the Endor Initiative also cohabiting the building, with opportunities arising for Makers to serve as teachers. Endor’s founders describe their group on their website as a collective educational setting for, in their words, “homeschoolers, unschoolers, and nonschoolers,” between ages 14 and 20, pursuing “self-directed education.”

Part of that experiential education will come from helping Open Space AVL’s garden team make nutritious use of the former daycare’s raised garden beds. Though totaling 2,000 square feet, they currently house only a couple of lonely ornamental trees. At a recent Sunday meeting, garden-team organizers said they were planning tree removal and had started tomato and pepper seeds in time for spring.

Rake and Silverman say they have each taught Endor classes, in technology and electronics, respectively.

The garden project could benefit from Makers’ collaborations in hydroponic and automatic-sensor watering systems, Rake says, with building and operating lessons for Endor students.

Makers also run a free-range egg exchange within the group, sourced from one of the members’ chickens.

“Up to this point, a lot of things would be centered towards STEM. STEM is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I don’t think it should necessarily have to be,” Rake says. “I’m very, very directly trying to invite those into knitting, sewing, things like that, to join in. Cooking could even be somewhat related to that.”

Last Saturday, Asheville Makers staged rocket and hovercraft demonstrations at the Mountain Science Expo at the North Carolina Arboretum. Throughout the day, they made eight total presentations, four for each project. Expo observers were encouraged to make and launch their own paper rockets and test-fly the hovercraft, which Asheville Maker Carol Blake, who photographed the event, says drew the largest crowds of the day.

“This, I later realized, was the best opportunity to tell people all about Asheville Makers. We averaged 50 people at each demo and only four or five knew about the Maker Movement. This was gold,” says Asheville Maker Tom Heck, who with his children, engineered the hovercraft  from a lawn chair and a leaf blower.

But their ideas don’t always work the first time around. At a recent science expo in Atlanta, Rake says, the partially-completed Segway they brought caught fire within the first three to four minutes of their demonstration. Silverman ordered new circuit boards, and is in the process of rebuilding it from the ground up.

In addition to topics as broad as space travel, they also consider practical humanitarian ideas, like motion-sensor-embedded clothing to help with navigation for the blind. No idea is too big or too small.

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