The City’s First Makerspace
There is a feeling in the air at Vector Space, though not definable at first. Stepping into its recently leased home at 402 Fifth Street in downtown Lynchburg, the sensation hovers silent, a background tingle, as one takes in the atmosphere—the smell of sawdust lingering in the air and the hum of old computers given new life complementing the aged, industrial aesthetic: open ceilings crawling with pipes and ductwork, whitewashed brick walls and concrete floors bathed in white fluorescent rays.
Across the approximately 6,000-square-foot workspace, shelves are lined with wood, metal and electronic contraptions in various stages of completion, just beyond workbenches and pegboards carrying an abundance tools. Whiteboards display scribblings over erased scribblings: notes, equations and 3D drawings. A lounge features a collection of old couches and books. In the corner, a homemade, retro-style arcade emulates a nostalgia dressed in frayed denim and highlighter-colored accessories.
While a lethargic spirit might dismiss the whole scene as a grungy junkyard garage, one might just as easily see a limitless playground.
From the back, where metalworking equipment fills the space off a loading zone, complete with a large bay door, Adam Spontarelli, Vector Space co-founder and director of education, emerges, wiping his previously occupied hands before extending one for a warm greeting. His wife, Elise Spontarelli, the space’s executive director and co-founder, soon joins him in sitting amongst desks littered with fat monitors, rectangular PCs, resistors, LEDs and circuit boards.
As the two begin sharing the story of how the nonprofit got started—occasionally finishing one another’s sentences—that lingering feeling surfaces, from time to time, flashing in their eyes.
Vector Space started rather simply—Adam, an engineer, wanted a makerspace in Lynchburg, and, since it didn’t have one, he and his wife decided to create one. The concept of a makerspace—or a hackerspace or hacklab—is relatively new, about a decade old, and is essentially a workspace for the community to come in to collaborate and socialize around common interests like computers, woodworking, art and more.
“(Vector Space) helps to bring together like-minded, hands-on people,” said Board Member Peter Sheldon, Department of Physics chair and Center for Student Research director at Randolph College. “It is a space for the technical and creative to come together and create and share with the community. Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) and outreach is my specialty, and Vector Space really helps to promote both of these really well.”
In its conception, “It was just a place that (Adam) wanted to hang out, and it didn’t exist,” Elise said. “When we started talking about it it, the things that he was not sure about were the things that I have experience with.”
Elise owns her own web design company and works with a number of nonprofits (through her business and as a volunteer).
The idea was further validated as it was brought forth.
“We just started meeting with people in the community to see if this was necessary, if Lynchburg wanted this,” Elise said. “We got a lot of yeses—‘Our people need this.’”
From there they assembled a seven-member board of directors (including the Spontarellis) and began fundraising (Areva has been a major supporter).
The first official test run was a class held in a basement classroom at the Academy Center of the Arts. It involved building a quadcopter drone from scratch.
Among the students was Nathan Marraccini, a rising junior at E.C. Glass High School.
“It has been a wonderful experience where I have gained mass amounts of knowledge,” Marraccini said of his involvement at Vector Space. “Throughout my time here I have learned how to solder, weld, program and much more.”
Most recently, Marraccini was a part of one of two Vector Space teams that took on the annual Global Space Balloon Challenge. Teams from all over the world build their own capsules and send them into space via a weather balloon. Teams then track their capsule and find where it landed.
After launching on May 29, Marraccini’s team, called “No Strings Attached,” retrieved their capsule—an R2-D2 bot with a sign for a potential discoverer reading “NOT AN ALIEN” followed by contact information—from Lexington.
“I was super psyched about this project because my dream is to one day go to space,” he said.
Vector Space occupied the Fifth Street property—a former auto parts manufacturing warehouse—in February and has since commenced establishing itself in the community.
There are two primary functions of the space. The first is membership; like a gym, members can pay a monthly fee for 24/7 access to the space. (Training is required before being allowed to use certain equipment.)
“Initially,” recounts Jordan Goulder, “I wanted to become a member so that I would have a space and equipment to explore my own projects and hobbies.
“I have found that and much more.”
He said the space not only has a plethora of tools and resources for diverse projects, but he has also been able to meet “great people” and collaborate with them on fun projects.
Members are free to come and go as they please, working on their personal projects or, as is oft encouraged, collaborating in groups.
All of the basic supplies and components, such as scrap wood, screws, nails, circuit boards, LEDs, etc., are on-hand. There are currently about 25 members.
The other aspect is classes, which are either skills-based, like computer programming, screen printing or photography, or project-based, like the quadcopter and space balloon.
Anyone with a passion and knowledge can pitch a class. The instructor develops their own budget and curriculum. Half the profit goes to the instructor while the rest is invested back into the space. Classes span from four to eight weeks and typically meet two times per week for two to three hours at a time.
Most classes offer a scholarship slot, just as some generous individuals choose to sponsor a membership, helping everyone, regardless of their resources, to benefit from the space.
Students have been the largest demographic in classes, though most are open to anyone 12 and up, with a hope to see more adults getting involved.
“Everyone knows their kids need to be learning,” Elise said. “(But) it has been hard to get people in the community to understand the value in improving themselves.
“(Adam and I) are both advocates of lifelong learning. We are self-taught in a lot of fields, and it is just something that we believe enriches lives.”
The couple has built a number of items over the years, like toys for their two kids, appliances and even the arcade in the lounge. (The video game doesn’t work currently, they explain, though they are sure that it is an easy fix, something jarred loose when moving in.)
They realize that everyone is not going to build their own computer. But the Spontarellis know that the more people are willing to engage their minds, to learn a new skill or tackle a new project, the more vital they and, in turn, society will be.
“If you are going to make anything new you have to understand how it works,” Adam said. “Maybe it never improves the economy, but I do think that it will bring joy to the person. There is empowerment when you can do something yourself, when you can fix your own car. And in the end there is still tangible value for that person. If you can fix your computer rather than throwing it in the trash can and buying a new one…” “… it saves you money, it saves the environment,” Elise added. Many, when faced with a problem, may just turn around.
A makerspace helps reinforce the mindset that you can be a part of the solution, even if it is just identifying the problem and then working with others to solve it.
“This is a place to come and play,” Elise said. “And to be useful, too. There is a lot of value when you can come in here and create something.”
“It is an outlet for creativity,” Adam added, pointing out the added benefit of community.
People can tinker at home. But, “Learning from each other, pushing each other forward,” he said, “you can get so much more done together than you could alone.”
Vector Space is not an inventors club—it is designed for anyone to come and flex their creativity in a number of areas. A closet space is being converted into a darkroom. There’s a 3D printer as well as a textiles area. Elise has led a screen-printing class (showcased in June during Innovation Week).
“Everyone can be creative and learn something new,” Adam said.
“You don’t have to be artistic, you don’t have to be an engineer,” Elise added.
Adam continued that some may feel intimidated, that they don’t know much—or anything—about electronics, soldering, woodwork, etc., and fear they won’t fit in.
“We make a concerted effort to encourage learning and to emphasize that you are not expected to know everything,” he said. “No one knows everything so you are not going to be ridiculed for not knowing something.”
“If you are interested,” Elise said, intentionally punctuating the thought there, “then this is a place for you.”
Stepping out of Vector Space, back into Lynchburg’s modest cityscape, that aforementioned feeling rushes back in force, like the open Central Virginia air.
It feels like inspiration.
Learn more at Vector-Space.org.