Need a lathe or a laser cutter? Come to Bloqs – Britain’s biggest open-access factory

From guns and vacuum flasks to cookers and colour televisions, Enfield has long been a cradle of invention. Rifles, radios, motorbikes and dishwashers were all made in this fertile corner of north-east London’s Lea Valley, which also gave birth to the world’s first cash machine – now memorialised with a golden ATM on the high street.

There may be heritage plaques a-plenty, but the glory days of local industry are long gone. The sheds of production have been replaced by the big box stores of Ikea and Wickes, the stable careers in skilled manufacturing exchanged for zero-hours warehouse contracts, in what are now some of the most deprived wards in the country. A place that was once Britain’s equivalent to Silicon Valley has more recently been known as “Shanktown”, on the proposition that, because of its violent reputation, you would be more likely to get stabbed there than dream up the next world-changing invention.

But, lurking in among this ragged edgeland of retail depots, redundant gasworks and puffing waste incinerators, one shed offers a glimmer of hope – and a possible prototype for a new kind of productive local economy. Next to a cash and carry warehouse and a ready-mix concrete supplier stands Bloqs, a new £4m temple for London’s growing army of makers.

“This is not a place for spoon whittling,” says Al Parra, co-founder of the social enterprise. “We don’t look down on hobbyists and the world of ‘wellbeing making’, but this is people putting bacon on the table.”

Once billed as the country’s largest “makerspace”, the project has been rebranded in more grownup terms as the UK’s first “open-access factory”, complete with £1.3m worth of equipment – a smorgasbord of saws, lathes, sanders and sewing machines – along with laser cutters, 3D-printers and a massive five-axis milling machine. Take one look at the tools here and it quickly becomes clear that this is the final boss of makerspaces.

On a Tuesday morning in February, the place is humming with people making kitchen cabinets, staircase treads, public benches, playground equipment, industrial kitchens and upcycled fashion accessories. Walter and Rob of design startup Make Workspace are putting the finishing touches to their prototype work pod in one bay, while Lizzie, Marilo and Llew of social enterprise Made from Scratch wrestle with their latest treehouse design in another.

“To be honest,” says Lizzie, breaking off from sanding a wooden parakeet for their new adventure playground, “I thought it might have that intimidating vibe of going into a record shop, where everyone is a bit snooty. But it’s not like that. The best thing about being based here is the people – everyone is willing to share expertise and advice, and you can always borrow each other’s tools.” A small workspace begins at £36 a day, use of most machines included, with larger and longer-term lets available and no membership fee to join.

Michel, who runs a bespoke joinery business employing seven people, says he can take on much bigger projects since moving to Bloqs. “There are people with skills in metalwork, milling and a professional spray booth,” he says, “so it’s expanded what I can do in one place.” The social enterprise also has its own fabrication arm, Made at Bloqs, so it can take on jobs from local authorities and developers and subcontract work out to its members. “The opportunities here are amazing,” he adds, “and my head is clearer working in this big, light space.”

The former 1960s vehicle testing warehouse has been transformed by architects 5th Studio into a light-flooded factory floor. They have added a sleek new mono-pitched building next door, with eight-metre-high ceilings, providing a combined vast 32,000 square feet of space. Ordinary materials, such as corrugated aluminium and translucent polycarbonate, have been carefully deployed, with crisp detailing that elevates the complex above its neighbours. An agricultural polytunnel canopy covers a wood store, while clusters of shipping containers are being turned into individual studios, and leftover glued laminated timber panels have been used to build a materials shop. A big whirring vacuum sucks waste wood chippings into a shredder, where it is filtered and fed into a furnace to provide all the building’s heating and hot water needs. Another system channels rainwater from the roof into a series of reed beds, forming a sustainable drainage network to reduce surface water flooding.

“It’s like the Lea Valley in miniature,” says architect Tom Holbrook, who has worked on projects up and down the valley for years, and who began his career as an apprentice stage carpenter before studying architecture. “My first job was doing set builds in pig farms on the North Circular,” he adds, “so I know what a brutal existence it can be, working out of a van in freezing sheds.”

Such was the life of Parra and his co-founders when they first moved to a leaky building nearby in 2011. They had begun living and working together in a warehouse in Haringey, before rent rises pushed them to look further afield, landing on a battered building in Edmonton, just across from where their gleaming new premises now stands.

“It was rough as badger’s,” says Parra, “piled with trash and holes in the roof.” Two of them lived in makeshift pods, the other two in caravans. “But living and working there made us realise that we could do a lot more together than we could have done separately.” They started renting out their machines to friends when they weren’t using them, and opened a small cafe. Word spread, and soon they were joined by more people who had been priced out, losing their workspaces to the march of luxury loft conversions.

“We realised we were part of a systemic need for the city,” says Parra. “Everywhere we looked, live-work was being replaced by just live, as landlords realised they could make a lot more money by converting workspace into housing.” A recent report by an independent commission found that London has lost a quarter of its industrial floorspace over the past 20 years, leaving the capital with a chronic shortage of space for the services it needs to function. Bloqs is exactly the kind of solution needed, but at first it was impossible for the team to grow, or even repair their building.

“No one was willing to fund us because we’re so odd,” says Parra. “If you spoke to any money men, they’d say: ‘So, you’re proposing to give access to industrial machinery to members of the public? OK, we’ll call you.’”

Then, in 2015, the group caught wind of a new mayoral fund for affordable workspace, and convinced Enfield council to put in a joint bid, resulting in a grant of £1.3m, which was match-funded by the council. Enfield put in some extra money for the building, which it owns and rents to Bloqs on a 12-year lease.

“We’re classified as a ‘meanwhile use’,” Parra says. “But we’re going to put down tap roots.” The project has established partnerships with a couple of local colleges, and there are plans for an outreach programme aimed at helping refugees and former offenders back into work. “Our plan is to make ourselves completely invaluable,” he adds, “and so integrated into the economic and cultural life of the borough that we’re no longer regarded as temporary.”

It already feels like more than a shed of machines. The former office and reception area has been transformed into Bloqs Kitchen, a cafe and grocery run by Marianna Leivaditaki, head chef at the Hackney restaurant Morito, where beer taps have just arrived. A local wildlife photographer is busy hanging prints for an exhibition in the cafe, while posters advertise a forthcoming make-your-own pasta day. Surely this thriving hub can’t be a cynical “meanwhile” strategy, to create a buzz before being swept away?

The area might look like a postindustrial wasteland, but Bloqs sits in the middle of one of London’s most ambitious regeneration projects, the £6bn Meridian Water development. The 25-year plan, originally led by housebuilder Barratt, first proposed a bleak vision of perimeter apartment blocks stamped across the 85-hectare site, of a similarly blunt nature to the Olympic Village a little way down the valley. Barratt walked away in 2017, after disputes with Enfield over “unacceptable” proposed terms, so the council took the decision to take on the role of master developer.

“We didn’t want all this public land to be turned into flats for overseas investors,” says Nesil Caliskan, who was elected council leader in 2018. “The aspiration is still for 10,000 homes and 6,000 jobs, but we’re going to phase it, so we can adapt as and when we need to, and create a proper local economy alongside the housing.”

Pitched as “your place to make and create”, Meridian Water promises to include light industrial and creative space as well as offices, with the council planning to retain control of the ground and first-floor levels, so that the promised industrial units don’t all turn into coffee shops and yoga studios, as often happens in such schemes. In the council’s eyes, Bloqs plays a crucial role in creating future tenants for the district, spawning a new generation of businesses that will, hopefully, go on to occupy the planned workspace units. In a similar vein, a cluster of hangar-like film studios have been built nearby, in the hope of seeding a film production district – a plan that already seems to be bearing fruit, with the arrival of Netflix to the borough.

“We see ourselves as a garden bed,” says Parra, “a platform for innovation and invention to flourish. We’ve had a lot of businesses that have already grown and moved on. But we’re here to stay.”

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