Some people believe the future of America depends on how well we exercise our imaginations to solve challenges. If that’s true, Matt Westervelt is our personal trainer and supplier of medicine balls.
“Access to tools is a big deal,” says Westervelt, owner of Metrix Create:Space, a subterranean clubhouse on Capitol Hill where people gather to make things—from high-tech craft items to robots. “How many people want to buy their own laser cutter or heat gun, especially if it’s just for one project?” Besides, it’s more fun to create with other like-minded souls around. “I started this place so people wouldn’t get kicked out by their housemates for having projects all over the kitchen table,” he says.
A glance around the workshop tells you you’re on fertile creative ground. Tools, books on making stuff, and cool, shop-made gizmos abound. Among the M&Ms and MREs in the vending machine are electrical components and packets of ShapeLock plastic globules that can be heated and shaped like clay. Westervelt is all over the place, answering questions, troubleshooting, and shooting the breeze.
“Matt has the wonder and the bravery to try just about any task,” says Mark Ganter, a Metrix regular and engineering/digital arts professor at the UW.
Metrix grew out of Westervelt’s attempt in 2000 to build, along with some hacker friends, a “mesh network” that would provide users a high-speed Internet connection without going through big players like Comcast. (“Anarchist criminal parasite” were the words BusinessWeek used to describe people involved in such efforts; to this day Westervelt wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase.) Though the venture folded in 2008, the partners, all of whom enjoyed making stuff, continued to hang out together for the camaraderie, noticing that they seemed to accomplish more in a social environment. Maker collectives already existed, Westervelt says, but “for the most part they’re by invitation only, not welcoming to outsiders. I wanted to make a place where everyone could go and feel comfortable.”
So Westervelt rented a space on Broadway underneath the DeLuxe, stocked it with big-ticket items that independent artists/inventors/techies can’t typically afford on their own (3-D printers, a soldering room, a huge poster printer like they have at Kinko’s, etc.), and opened for business in October 2009. Living nearby with his wife and two kids, he’s there a lot (Metrix is open noon to midnight daily). Anyone can drop in, do their own thing, and, upon signing a contract (“Hot Things Are Hot. Sharp Things Are Sharp. I Am Not a Dumbass”), rent the “bottomless toolbox” of standard tools (including some pretty cool ones like oscilloscopes and multimeters) by the hour. Various levels of monthly memberships include access to the bigger equipment.
“We have people who use it like a gym, for a creative workout,” he says, “which made me think companies would do well to sign up their employees [as they would at a gym].” Westervelt now offers corporate HR discounts—pretty “big-tent” thinking for an indie-spirited guy who goes to hacker conferences.