One man's dream: A $5 M. eco-hacker colony, with farms, stores and 'sleeping pods,' in a busy Brooklyn district
11:25 am Oct. 17, 20122
The idea of building a six-story community workspace out of recycled shipping containers in the middle of one of Brooklyn's fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods may seem a bit far-fetched.
Add to it a hydroponic farm, a convertible lecture hall, retail stores, sleeping “pods,” private offices, and a 38-foot silo for the testing of “flying machines”—all of which will reside on a 5,000-square-foot lot near the Graham Avenue L train stop in Williamsburg—and you’ve got the makings of a pretty unrealistic-looking project. Now imagine this building existing completely off the city's power grid.
That a group of hackers is trying to raise $1.5 million to fund the construction of the building, known as Hackert0wn, has led some online skeptics to label it a scam.
But Sean Auriti, the co-founder of the Brooklyn hackerspace Alpha One Labs and the head of the Hackert0wn campaign, is undeterred, despite having raised only $3,000 so far. The project’s pitch, posted on the crowdfunding site IndieGogo, is written in the present tense, as if the building already exists.
“It’s going to happen,” Auriti, a friendly, bearish guy in his mid 30s (pictured below right), said while drinking a root beer at a bar in Williamsburg on Monday night. “At least that’s how we’re looking at it. If you read patents, they describe the invention as what it is, not what it will be.”
What Auriti envisions is not a bunker of malevolent computer hackers breaching the walls of government databases. He sees Hackert0wn primarily as an educational facility for sustainability projects—a co-working space where eco-minded hobbyists can experiment with everything from solar panels to robotic farming.
The term hacker has evolved since its first mainstream portrayal, in the 1995 film Hackers, starring Angelina Jolie, which depicted a group of teenage tech savants writing viruses to bring down a corporate extortion plot. (Not that that movie was particularly true-to-life, even for its time.)
Today, people of a certain set are likely to call themselves hackers if they don't so much work with code and cryptography as tinker with existing manufactured objects to see how they work, reassembling them in different ways to serve different purposes.
The likeminded among these tinkerers have founded communities elsewhere, and their event and lecture circuits—like the biennial HOPE conference, short for "Hackers on Planet Earth"—are a home base for Auriti and his ilk. From that perspective, it's almost hard to imagine why it took so long for someone to propose a project like this in Williamsburg.
The project is a series of hacks from top to bottom, most of which are already well established. Platoon Kunsthalle, for example, an art center and exhibit hall in Seoul, Korea, is built from dozens of refurbished shipping containers. What seems unprecedented is the notion of putting all these hacks together in one place.
WORD OF HACKERT0WN HAS BEEN CIRCULATING ON HACKER-related sites like Hacker News and Make magazine’s blog since the campaign was posted on IndieGogo in September. Not all the responses have been positive.
“This joke doesn’t belong on the Make blog,” one commenter wrote. “The mere fact that it is less than 1% funded thus far should have tipped you off.”
Auriti is sanguine about the fact that all 12 comments on the Hacker News post snarkily ridicule the project as unfeasible. One of them cited a grammatical error in the pitch’s first sentence as a sign that the project is doomed.
But Hackert0wn is getting support from some prominent members of the hacker community.
“Maybe it’ll succeed, maybe it won’t,” said Mitch Altman, a co-founder of the established San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge. “But if anyone can make it happen it’d be Sean and the guys at Alpha One.”
“We’re hackers,” he added. “We take what exists and deal with it. That’s part of the magic.”
Since the campaign launched last month, a number of architecture firms and green contractors, including Meridian Designs and Eco Brooklyn, have taken an interest in the project. Auriti is also encouraged by the success of recent fundraising coups on IndieGogo, like the similarly far-fetched effort to build a museum dedicated to the inventor Nikola Tesla in Long Island. That campaign raised $1.4 million on October 5.
Auriti’s confidence in the ultimate reality of the project—whether it happens next year or ten years from now—stems from his experience in the hackersphere. Auriti, who by day works as a C.T.O. and lead developer for Trusted Insight, a social network for institutional investors, regularly travels the country to lecture on hackerspaces—the garage-like clubhouses where tinkerers and DIY hobbyists come together to make things.
Earlier this month, he was featured in a front-page article in The New York Times about grants that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, is giving to hacker spaces. SpaceGambit, a hacker-space consortium Auriti belongs to, recently received a $500,000 Darpa grant, which members will use for as-yet-unspecified research into "interstellar technologies and other space-related projects," Auriti said.
Alpha One Labs, his current, basement-sized space on Norman Avenue in Greenpoint, is a nine-minute walk from the closest subway station. Half a dozen of its 45 members recently canceled their memberships because the commute was too much effort, Auriti said.
For years, he'd been eyeing triangular fenced-in lot around the corner from the Graham Avenue L stop. This summer, he began sending emails to friends on hackerspace email lists announcing his intent to buy the lot and construct a fully operational hacker ecosystem.
He tracked down the owner of the lot, a retired construction worker named Nick Rotunno, and made him an offer of $850,000. At the time, Rotunno was not looking to sell, and Auriti hadn’t raised a dime.
“The property is worth over $1 million, but not in these times,” Rotunno said in a phone interview, adding that he rents parking spaces in the lot to residents from the neighborhood. “I told Sean, ‘If you come up with $950,000, I’ll sell you the lot.’ And Sean said okay."
Did he know exactly what Auriti had planned for the space?
“You know, I don’t really remember,” Rotunno said, laughing. “It sounded like something that would be good for the community though. I liked that.”
What Auriti has planned is, as he describes it in the pitch, “the world’s first marketplace for hackers.” Among the proposed facilities is a series of retail shops selling hacker supplies (circuit boards, hardware, fasteners, etc); a gym full of stationary bikes and treadmills that feed energy into a centrally located fuel cell; and a fabrication lab stocked with things like 3D printers, table plasma-cutters, and numerous hand and power tools.
Auriti is quick to note out that everything in the proposal already exists. The general concept was partly inspired by TechShop, a growing chain of DIY workshops that function on a membership model.
According to the business plan, half of the space’s income will be generated by the sale of produce and fish from the aquaponics system. The other half will come from retail space rentals and membership fees, which Auriti says will run to around $40 per month, the same cost as Alpha One Labs.
The budget and timeline for Hackert0wn is meticulously laid out on the IndieGogo page, partly to convince potential donor that it is not a complete fantasy.
“I don’t know how to make it any more serious,” Auriti said.
Ultimately, according to an estimate from the project’s general contractor and architect Gennaro Brooks-Church, $5 million will be required to fully realize the third and final phase of the project. The $1.5 million is needed to get Hackert0wn off the ground.
Auriti admitted that the largest crowdsourcing campaign he’s come across asked for $500,000. But he added optimistically that Pebbles, a customizable watch brand, raised over $10 million after requesting just $100,000 on Kickstarter.
Auriti had planned to use Kickstarter, too, but they rejected his proposal.
“They tend to want projects that are already under way,” he said. “They wanted me to be standing outside a shipping container on-site, saying, ‘Let’s make this bigger.’”
But Auriti’s intentions for Hackert0wn were out before the fundraising campaign began. Jethro Rebollar, an associate designer at Meridian Designs, said he first heard about the building during a lecture Auriti delivered at the Design for Manufacturing Summit in September.
“Sean went into his grand vision for Hackert0wn, and we were getting drool all over our shoes,” he said. “What he’s envisioning is a way of turning all these disparate practices into a single canvas.”
Rebollar said that he found Auriti’s description of the project a tad “dreamy.” (“That’s the euphemism I’d use.”) He compared it to the idealistic renderings of buildings posted at construction sites. And he turns skeptical at Auriti’s conviction that Hackert0wn could function off the grid.
“You need a lot of electricity to run something like this,” he said. “That’s where things get a little hairy.”
Nevertheless, Ebollar applauds Auriti’s ability to see the forest through the trees. “This is a project that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, really,” Ebollar said. He added that he and the vice president of Meridian are scheduled to meet with Auriti on Wednesday to “hash out” some ideas over drinks.
With just twelve days left to raise around $1,497,000, Auriti is busy promoting the campaign on Twitter, Facebook and the international hackerspace email list while also holding down his full-time job. In the increasingly likely event that he does not raise the necessary funds by midnight on October 25, he is considering re-launching the campaign on IndieGogo under the flex funding model, in which campaigns are allowed to keep the money they raise.
He also has a Plan B.
“We can always start with two containers and four retail outlets,” he said. “That way we can slowly raise awareness of our bigger plans.”
He paused for a moment before adding: “But wouldn’t it be great it if just happened?”
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