Black Country Make: Building a digital factory on a 1960s estate
Black Country Make are a group of young adults living on the Heath Town estate in Wolverhampton. With the help of local architect Jeremy Monk-Hawksworth, they are turning the estate into a digital factory, making everything from films to houses. Operating out of disused shops, a closed-down youth club and former underground car park, they are transforming the heritage of the past using the tools of the future.
Here they explain the project in their own words:
The Heath Field Park area has 8,862 residents, with 3,600 living on the Heath Town estate. Over the past two years a masterplan has been developed by the council to deliver housing renewal. Its emphasis is to remove the central precinct and low rise blocks to accommodate a private developer-led approach to housing.
The masterplan declares its intentions clearly but we think that there is still capacity for it to be more inclusive.
We have experienced long-term unemployment, poor access to skills development, homelessness and the care system, living without food and fuel and poor health, the closure of all youth and community services. The schools, pubs, sports halls and park have closed, shops and businesses have gone and areas ‘condemned’ and closed to access. Decades of neglect and recent cuts have contributed to our isolation and the impact on generations is evident but to be served seems to be our only option….or is it?
‘We are the young people of Heath Town who don’t “engage”,
are hard to reach and have no community pride – so “they” say.’
We’re not here to revolt but we’re wrong in assuming the masterplan will deliver all our wishes. It’s our intention to simply provide more choice and add diversity to what’s on offer, building resilience in communities so that they are fit to make their own life chances for generations to come.
The opportunity we recognise is all around us, but it’s not in buildings but in ‘us’ being part of the solution, to have the capacity to fulfil our potential, and with the right tools, knowledge and help. Maybe aim not to just widen the goals but to make them completely open.
We are the young people of Heath Town who don’t ‘engage’, are hard to reach and have no community pride – so ‘they’ say. We all have ideas that are as rich and diverse as the 36 nationalities represented on the estate, so this document is not only ‘us’ declaring a bit of what we do but more about who we are and a plan for… delivering on our own promises.
Our vision: Listen, develop, make
Our vision for action is to create a place to listen to, develop and realise our ideas and make our own life chances. A place that’s made in our own image, a place where we can practice, learn and evolve, a place where we can invest what we have most of… passion and vision with ambition.
We thought we would still need a place to meet after the closure of our youth and community services, so with a couple of second-hand computers and no money we did the best thing that we recommend to everyone – don’t wait, make a start!
Opening the shutters on Chervil Rise, Heath Town on Valentines Day 2014, after they had been closed for business for over six years, changed the face of our precinct instantly.
Our approach to change is three-fold: YamYam to listen to ideas, The Foundry to develop ideas and The Digitool Shed to create the tools we need to realise them.
Working together to tackle the issues facing our community, and provide local open access to ‘tools’ and ‘knowledge’, we develop and invest in creating ‘live’ projects that deliver long term, sustainable solutions that are of high value and cost effective.
Building on our industrial heritage to make things mixed with technology to facilitate and innovate, we can ‘employ’ ourselves to the task of delivering growth and prosperity in our community, breaking the cycle of being dependent on others for the solution that has failed so often in the past.
On the next two pages are some of our plans:
A Community Civic Enterprise Zone: Phase 1
We’ve already made an early start by adapting the empty shops in the precinct on the estate to accommodate YamYam, The Foundry and eventually the Digitool Shed! Wolverhampton Council let us use it for £12 per year rent and £550 per month running costs. That’s value for money.
The Co-op Factory: Tackling the housing problem by building our own!
We can access the disused under-croft car park from the basement of our shops on the precinct and it’s our intention to use this as a safe secure dry place to accommodate our Digi-tool Shed and to prototype our work. We want to tackle homelessness and young people at risk.
Due to how housing, benefits and paths to work fail us, and the fact that many of us can’t live at home, we are left with the choice of hostels or friends sofas to sleep on, leaving us vulnerable to seek money from alternative ‘street’ operators so we can afford to exist.
‘We have an award-winning 1960s estate now
condemned as a socially engineered concept gone wrong’
We want to convert disused buildings and spaces into accommodation to live and work, providing a safe haven for young people while providing skills for work, directly bringing support to where it’s needed most. Learning the design and build skills needed to fit out these under-used spaces on the estate brings a much needed foundation for young people to change their life chances. The cost of each unit is £9,500 and takes three people one week to fabricate the components and 10 days to convert the frame into a living space and workshop for training.
The Community Civic Enterprise Zone: Phase 2
It’s our intention to develop a community-owned enterprise zone that has the capacity to provide a facility for members of Black Country Make to set up social enterprises in the high end tech industries. We will be using the seven railway arches, located on the edge of the estate, to accommodate the new Community ‘Digi-Lab’. The viaduct walk is part of our ‘Citadel and Portals’ plan to link into the city centre which is nine minutes walk away on the disused rail track above.
We have an award-winning 1960s estate now condemned as a socially engineered concept gone wrong, a viaduct as testament to the brilliance of Victorian engineering that’s now seen as a blight to the estate and our public swimming baths made redundant by the private bobbing water worlds.
This is our heritage but we seem to forget they are icons to innovation and vision. Our plan is to adapt our heritage to accommodate our innovation and vision, but this time there won’t be the serviced social engineering bit. Instead we’ll manage our future for ourselves.
‘They’d have you believe it’s a place for drugs, prostitution and accommodation for the homeless. To us, these are places to hold our vision for the future..’
Neiko Hall-Brown – 22 years old – BCMake Member. August 2014