It’s no secret that in order to get through the global pandemic—and the rest of 2020 for that matter—we’re going to need some innovative ideas. How to keep ourselves busy and entertained, yes, but also how to approach the adapting situations at hand.
The team at Building Momentum, an Alexandria-based technology consulting company, have been eager to approach COVID-19 and its related scenarios with the one thing they know best: technology and its many forms of equipment.
The company is recognized for its work with the Marine Corps, training through the weeklong “Innovation Boot Camp,” where active-duty soldiers are taught effective and problem-solving methods for working with new technology, ranging from 3D printing and laser-cutting, to solar power and GPS tracking.
But in the company’s co-working space known as The Garden, Building Momentum’s mission has started to transform in new ways, allowing makers to come together and create new technologies that could be used in the current COVID-19 era for a variety of things.
The space used to be rented nearly every weekend for large events, which have since been postponed, but is now being used for the creation of PPE and more, including a cleaning robot that uses UV-light that disinfects everything in sight (once humans have left the room, of course).
We caught up with the chief operating officer Allen Brooks to discuss how the company is continuing to utilize The Garden’s makerspace-feel, as well as what the company is looking forward to, and how you can get involved too. (Hint: there are family memberships for all of you cooped-up parents!) Highlights from our conversation are below.
How would you define Building Momentum from your perspective, and the work that you’ve been doing?
Here at Building Momentum, we are a team of problem-solvers who came together around the idea of helping people learn to get back to the root of solving their own problems for themselves by using technology they might be afraid of at first. We had been working for about five years now with clients as far-reaching as the U.S. Marine Corps and the Defense Department of the Navy, to seventh graders at a nearby middle school, as well as individuals, families and small businesses. At the end of the day, they all have the same issue, which is they want to solve their own problems, and so we work with them to learn how to use technology like 3D printers, laser cutters, welders, drones, robotics, electronics and all sorts of cool stuff. We show them that at the end of the day, they’re all just tools, and it’s up to the individual to solve those problems by using those tools and giving people the confidence to solve hard problems by themselves. Rarely do we ever work with somebody that says, “You know, I have this problem. Can you guys come in and fix it?” Usually our answer is no, but we’ll show you how to do it yourself. We’ve been doing that for a long time and when we got too big for our own workshop, we needed a new space to open to headquarter ourselves out of, a place to conduct our training and have offices. So, we came up with the idea of The Garden.
What is The Garden, and what should readers know about it?
When we came up with The Garden and decided to open it, there were a couple things happening at once. First, our impending growth. Our staff was growing too big for the 2,000 square feet we were in before. The second thing that happened was a makerspace in Crystal City called Tech Shop went out of business and super bankrupt. Their doors closed at noon one day and they couldn’t let anybody in. Plenty of the people there had tools that were locked up that they could no longer get to. We were able to work with JBG Smith, who is the property owner, to negotiate a purchase of all of the assets at Tech Shop, including a lot of people’s personal stuff (which we were able to get back to them afterward, and they were very happy about), and now offer a new space for people who want to build, make and grow.
That’s kind of where we came up with calling it The Garden, because it is such a technology-heavy space, but we wanted to evoke the idea of something organic, something happening because of the people that were there. The name of The Garden is meant to evoke a community garden, like a place where members of the community come around together and do their own thing on their own plot of land, but because one person is growing tomatoes and another is growing basil, you can put those crops together in the ground because the soil gets better, and so on and so forth, and it’s the same idea here. If you’re a small business that’s got this great idea for something, but you’re struggling with the technology or the small business across the hall from you can help you figure out that problem, you can keep growing.
The Garden isn’t just a makerspace anymore, it also hosts some large-scale events. How did that come about, and how has COVID-19 affected that?
The weirdest thing happened when we moved into The Garden and started to open up. We had a company come tour another suite on the property, and they came in to meet us as their potential new neighbors. We thought we were very nice and charming, but when they came into our main room, they saw the former furniture-showroom area (which was now our space) with walls that had this really beautiful reclaimed wood on them, and crummy lighting that we hadn’t had upgraded, and we didn’t even have all of the cool stuff yet, like the wet bar and arcade cabinets. But the company was like, “This is neat, can we have our holiday party here?” We almost immediately realized after that that we were getting into an untapped market in the DC region as a facility for big events. As soon as word got out, we basically had 60% of our weekends booked for 2019, and this year we were on track to book 80% to 90% of every weekend.
Prior to COVID-19, we had nine weddings booked for the year, and I was even officiating one of them. We have had to rearrange our schedules and work with our clients by moving everybody around as they needed to. Now, we have a lot of bookings for next year. But all of that was really leading us to this pathway where there were new (and are) new plans in the works, we’re just not there yet.
Now that COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future, how is the space being used otherwise to create new technologies and address the problems at hand?
The first thing we do in any situation is ask what the problem is, and so that’s what we did when we shut down for the coronavirus. We asked what the problem was and tried to figure out how we could help fix it. We worked with some of our partners and the city of Alexandria, and we were able to get very small grants to do some experiments on UV technology. We repurposed our autonomous robot kegerator, laughably called ‘keg’ and turned it into a UV room-cleaning robot. It’s a pretty cool machine, because it will roam the space when we tell it to (when there aren’t people in it, because UV can be very dangerous to people), and it’ll run the space and kill everything that’s in the air, everything that’s on surfaces that we touch. What’s really great about it is it really taught us a ton about UV-cleaning technology, and we started down the path of building UV technology to combat the coronavirus.
We have now built things like the personal unit, which is a disinfecting conveyor belt that is in the lobby at The Garden. When you walk in, anyone who comes in for an event or to use the space can just drop their phone and their keys on the conveyor belt when they’re checking in, and by the time they’re done checking in, they have a completely disinfected set of personal gear. We have sold versions of that now to the Navy and it’s using the technology for the sailors.
We have also built some prototype face masks that are not the typical fabric coverings, but they’re 80% to 90% compliant in terms of what they capture in the mask. We just signed our first licensing agreement for those. Now there’s a company in Canada that’s going to start manufacturing those masks for construction sites and things like that. Plus, we are working on a prototype for the UV-cleaning machine, but for bathrooms. It’s kind of like a reverse bathroom light, where if you’re not in the bathroom, it turns on rather than the light turning off, but in this case, the light will turn on and disinfect everything in about a minute, and will turn off the second somebody walks in, so it doesn’t expose the human body to UV light.
Basically, we’re trying a lot of technology solutions to keep people safe and healthy, and they’re being developed in this space.
If someone was interested in visiting The Garden or using the equipment to bring their ideas to life, how can they get involved?
I think it’s an exciting opportunity for local people to find a way to be a part of it, especially now where we’re doing a lot of family memberships—which we developed during the last month or two, since families have a lot more time on their hands this summer—and they can be really valuable. You can come in and build a thing, and usually a membership is less than the cost of one week of summer camp for a kid. If you come, we’ll teach you how to build, we’ll teach you how to use all of the tools and then you can build your own thing. We’ve got a family building a boat right now, and a young woman who is an aerial dance artist just signed on, and she’s going to be building her 11-foot metal rig so she can practice at home.
Are there any safety guidelines (both for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related) that readers should be aware of?
Well, let’s address safety concerns in two different buckets. For the coronavirus safety concerns, we’ve installed a bunch more hand-sanitizing stations all over, masks are required and social distancing is required. We wipe down all of the machines very frequently and high-touch areas are cleaned as well. We’ve upped our actual cleaning staff through this time as well. We also have a great outdoor seating area where people can have meetings in an extended office setting of sorts, and talk to people from 6 feet away if they would like.
As for safety of people in the space, we have taught 7-year-olds how to weld. The point being that we work with parents to whatever your comfort level you have around your kids using tools and technology, and everyone’s supervised when they’re underage in the space, especially for a family membership.
But tools are only as dangerous as the people using them, so we make sure that people understand how the tools work. Everyone is cleared on the machines by our incredible staff before they touch one and get to learn how the tools work. Parks are primarily engaged with the kids and have to be with them when they’re in the shop, so there’s no one running around poking their fingers into, you know, fan saws and things. We get the parents involved, we teach people how to build things, and we do it all safely.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Building Momentum or The Garden at this time?
I was recently watching an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda on Disney+ about Hamilton and why they decided to release it now, and he was saying that people need to gather, and how important it is to be in a space together with other human beings. And that’s really, really hard right now. I am very much looking forward to the point where we can gather again, and I really cannot wait for people to come back to The Garden in droves and be able to celebrate, cheer and not have to wear masks. But until that point, we are trying to give people a space where they can come together safely around their ideas, for however that might look for the next number of months until such time. It’s a wholly unique space and I just want more and more people to get the chance to experience it.
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