Building a new home for London’s makers

A co-founder of shared workspace provider Building Bloqs talks to James Cracknell about his vision for the future of manufacturing

Two of Bloqs' founders, Arnaud Nichols (left) and Al Parra (right)
Two of Bloqs’ founders, Arnaud Nichols (left) and Al Parra (right)

British manufacturing has been declining for decades, but one Enfield business is determined to preserve and develop some of the skills that once put us at the forefront of industrial innovation.

Building Bloqs sits at the heart of the Meridian Water development zone in Edmonton. The area was once a thriving hub for manufacturing firms but has steadily seen them dwindle and decline, replaced instead by storage units and large shops such as Tesco and Ikea.

Although it has been based here for the last decade, Building Bloqs recently expanded by moving to a new, modern facility beside the River Lea. The former heavy goods vehicle servicing depot is now a shared workspace used by hundreds of makers who run their own small businesses but lack the resources to invest in the machinery they need.

Bloqs – as it is now known since moving to its new home – is equipped with pretty much every manufacturing tool or machine you can think of, from laser cutters and saws to grinders, drills, lathes, 3D printers and the very latest computer-controlled milling machines. The people who use them include furniture makers, interior designers and metal fabricators.

Last month, an official opening was attended by deputy mayor of London Jules Pipe and council leader Nesil Caliskan – with the Greater London Authority and Enfield Council between them having invested £4million in the new facility.

Shortly afterwards I went down to meet one of Bloqs’ founders, Al Parra, as well as the makers who pay to use it. Al explained that it began life as a “community” of creative people who simply wanted to share resources and help each other. But when they were forced to relocate from their original workshop in Haringey, they faced a choice.

“We’d made a beautiful space for ourselves,” Al told me. “We had this concept and, although we were limited by resources, it was a community. One option was to leave London, one option was to leave ‘making’ and go into the service sector, or another option was to do something about the problem. We wanted to get as big a building as we could manage and fill it with as many different machines as we could, for as many different disciplines, and share it with different people.

“That idea has remained in tact ever since.”

The largest space they could afford turned out to be an old warehouse in Anthony Way. Bloqs’ five founders – Vinny, Arnaud, Alex, Julien and Al – started with so little money they were even forced to live inside the leaky structure. Al said: “We didn’t realise until we started, but we were addressing a systemic need. Because of that we were noticed by policy makers and we became part of a broader conversation about the dearth of affordable industrial land.

“It wasn’t possible to start a [manufacturing] business unless you had money. If you push all of the making businesses out, you end up with a bleached reef – it becomes astonishingly hard to rebuild it. So we stuck a flag in the ground to say that there was an intrinsic value to having this space.

“We [the UK] are churning out students from creative disciplines by the truck load, but there still isn’t the economy for them to engage with. So either they join the service sector, or they naff off abroad. Once upon a time we celebrated our manufacturing and we harvested it. Now if you are good with your hands, it’s no longer celebrated. There are people in this ward [Upper Edmonton] who aren’t supposed to be behind desks – they want to use their hands. What we’re building is a valuable and necessary part of a vibrant city.”

Al says that by having 350 businesses sharing the same space, Bloqs is helping to “intensify” land use at Meridian Water. At the same time, it removes a large element of risk for start-ups, as budding entrepreneurs can test their ideas before they scale up and invest. “You can reassess and realign if it doesn’t work, you can be extremely agile. So it makes sense economically for people, but also, it’s more fun. There is a camaraderie.”

In addition to its shared workshop space and machinery, Bloqs boasts a kitchen deli and bar run by Marianna Leivaditaki, a former head chef at the renowned Moro and Morito restaurants, which is open to the public. There’s also classrooms, offices and storage units for hire, plus an outdoor stage set to play host to music events and performances.

One of Bloqs’ members is Rob Gunton, a prototype fabricator with design company Make Work Space. He said: “Building Bloqs is a fantastic place. For a start-up business it is brilliant, because we can expand and contract our square footage as we need to and, for the workforce, we can find the people we need.”

Bloqs member Mariló Seco, who makes adventure playgrounds for her business Made From Scratch
Bloqs member Mariló Seco, who makes adventure playgrounds for her business Made From Scratch

Another Bloqs member is Mariló Seco, from adventure playground builders Made From Scratch. She said: “We make everything here at Bloqs. It means we spend less time on site because we can flat-pack everything – it makes it much easier. There is a cost to being here but if we had to set up our own workshop, the cost would be three times more.”

The other benefit to Bloqs is education. Schools and colleges can arrange visits, helping students learn new skills. An architecture school that forms part of University College London effectively uses Bloqs as a technical campus, while a local school for children with special needs, West Lea, makes regular visits.

With work on the first of Meridian Water’s 10,000 planned homes starting last year, Bloqs will eventually be surrounded by modern housing. But Al says Bloqs is here to stay, becoming an indispensable employment hub for a new residential community: “Our purpose is to give people the means by which they can earn a living.”

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