North Carolina Hackerspace Destroyed By Fire, Members Vow To Rebuild

There’s something about old industrial buildings that just seems to attract hackerspaces. It could be the open floor plans typical in buildings that used to house big manufacturing operations, or it could be a desire to reinvigorate places where machines once hummed and skilled hands plied their trades. Whatever the attraction, the relationship is not without risk; old buildings with wood floors and frames can be tinderboxes, and tragedy can strike at any moment.

Such a fate befell The Foothills Community Workshop in Granite Falls, North Carolina, this past Friday. Details are still sketchy as the remnants of the 75,000-square foot former Shuford Mills textile factory are still smoldering, and the Fire Marshal’s investigation is not yet complete. Thankfully, no lives were lost, and injuries were limited to heat exhaustion of several of the firefighters from 16 counties who battled the blaze in the hot and humid North Carolina Piedmont.

The building was a complete loss, and almost everything within it is gone. Along with FCW’s 3500 5000-square foot hackerspace were several businesses, a storage unit concern, and some residential apartments. We profiled FCW during their grand opening celebration back in 2012, and from the look of their website they’ve grown by leaps and bounds since then. A large machine shop, nicely equipped wood shop, a ham shack, library, electronics shop, fab lab, a wet lab space with autoclave and fume hood, a huge HO-scale model railroad, and even an area for large-scale art and stagecraft were all added, and are now all ashes. The only thing remaining is a single antenna from the radio shack.

FCW vows to rebuild, of course, and members are now officially in “scrounge mode” for anything and everything needed to rebuild their community. With a week to get over the initial shock, the members have put together a solid list of priorities for which equipment to replace first, and are even still planning to carry through with their regularly scheduled classes and outreach events. They’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign to pass the virtual hat and would no doubt welcome equipment donations, in case you’re able to pitch in and help out some fellow hackers.

Sadly, there aren’t many lessons to be learned from this except that life is fantastically random, and that everyone can do everything right and still end up losing. The fire seems to have started in a completely separate area of the building from the hackerspace, so it seems like nothing FCW did wrong. The Fire Marshal reports that an inspection two days prior to the blaze revealed a problem with the sprinkler system, which the owner appears to have hopped on immediately. Parts were ordered, 24-hour guards were posted, and yet the building burned anyway. It looks like a case of horrible luck.

The only thing that helps with bad luck is a good insurance policy, but you also want to make sure that your hackerspace doesn’t start the fire. To that end, it pays to review the basics of shop fire safety and perhaps how you are storing your flammables. And for those of you with hackerspaces in old factories, and especially when you share the space with other tenants, perhaps a regular walk-through with fire officials is a good idea. If it can happen to Foothills Community Workshop, it can happen to you.

Image credits: Hickory Record

66 thoughts on “North Carolina Hackerspace Destroyed By Fire, Members Vow To Rebuild

  1. Sad…
    As the facility failed the Fire Department’s inspection of the sprinkler system 2 days before, it does make me wonder if
    someone (not pointing fingers) saw it as an “opportunity”, especially if they knew it would soon be remedied.

    1. Doubtful, but the building owner is screwed, apartments just add to the severity. Their insurance is probably gonna leverage that to not pay out and I’m sure the tenants insurance will try to get the owners to pay out.

      1. Insurance isn’t exactly a new and untested idea. Assuming the owner bought the proper insurance policies for the kinds of uses the building was being used for it should be already spelled out in the contract(s) who pays for what.

        OTOH if he didn’t buy the correct insurance he could be in all sorts of trouble but I see nothing in this article to indicate that!

        1. If the sprinkler system had been in working order, sure, but it wasn’t. The insurance is going to cite his lack of prior proper maintenance as a breach of contract. Whether or not it actually is is a question for the lawyers.

  2. “There’s something about old industrial buildings that just seems to attract hackerspaces. It could be the open floor plans typical in buildings that used to house big manufacturing operations, or it could be a desire to reinvigorate places where machines once hummed and skilled hands plied their trades. ”

    Rents being reasonable. But I’m glad no one was injured. Seems to have been quite a fair sized complex, and it looks like there was more than one building.

    1. Yup. Decent prices is the big one. There are a lot of buildings like this in my city, unoccupied as manufacturing leaves cities. The owners need to sell that space. The big rooms, concrete capable of holding anything, powerful electric, etc are all just bonuses. Most of the tenants don’t need anything but cheap office space.

  3. Wow, this was a very large hackerspace AND it had apartments. Minus the fire one of those apartments would have been a wonderfully convenient place to live! That and a work from home job… I might only go out for groceries!

      1. A small place that you are born into, expected to remain, live and eventually die in?

        It sounds great if the people of your village are into the same things you are. Otherwise it’s a close match to what I would consider to be my own personal brand of hell.

        I grew up in a small town (a village by definition). Maybe it isn’t whatever you are picturing but I think the result is the same. Small groups of people tend to have small minds. Either you fit in or you don’t, there is very little understanding for someone with different interests from the group.

        Larger groups offer a greater diversity of opportunity. You can be who you want to be. People may be a little less connected with their neighbors but that is because they recognize that they are surrounded by all kinds of people. They don’t want to bring unnecessary conflict into their lives by interfering much unlike the bored busy bodies of a village.

      2. Smaller the village the fewer opportunities one has to do what they want. Unless your directly related to the ones who control the village. Or your the red headed step child that everyone loves. Otherwise you better be ready to actually fight for what you want, and it really only works out for those in the movies.

  4. One local model railroad club had a building owned by the actual railroad. I think they got good deal on the rent. But some years back, the railroad needed the space, so the club had to find a new location. I don’t think we heard details after that.

    But, much of the layout had to be scrapped, because either they couldn’t get it through the door, or the material was too fragile. So they spent years building it up, and then had to start again.


  5. I don’t know if it would have helped here, but you can get recharged and re-certified ABC fire extinguishers for really cheap on ebay. Get a few for your home shop or whatever.

        1. I think that’s more expensive than my new one (around €40 some years ago). But the ABC powder is quite nasty during (fogging sight) and after the fire (corrosive salt like stuff, difficult to clean) So water, foam and carbon dioxide should be considered.

          1. The powder often ends up being as damaging as the fire that it prevented. If you can avoid using powder extuinguishers, do so. It is better than also losing the building or even life, but compared to other types of extuinguishers, you really want to avoid using them.

      1. I have bought parachutes on auction sites for great savings. Since you need to re-certify them at a FAA licensed rigger, and you trust your rigger, it is pass/fail. And most often even a fail can be repaired at the rigger’s shop. Now skydiving parachutes might be different, I think only the reserve is rigger/FAA certified, you self pack your main, but mine are for aerobatic flying so it is a FAA required one canopy continually recertified pilot’s rig.

    1. Not really, fire extinguishers do nothing if the fire starts in an unattended area. Who knows where this one started, it may have not even been in the hackerspace’s part of the building.

      1. The video shows the flames bursting from the roof in the diagonally opposite corner from FCW. In fact the FCW space was the last to burn. We watched for hours hoping that they would put it out before it reached the space… but such was not to be.

        1. I would have been so tempted to get whatever I could get out of there before the fire reached the space, I’d imagine that the fire department would have at the very least frowned upon doing that.

          1. I think “frowned upon” is putting it rather mildly.

            The fire brigade here in the UK wouldn’t let you within half a mile of a fire like that. I can’t imagine a US style fire department being any more ‘lenient’.

          2. No offense [D00med], but when people run back in to save their shit all they do is endanger the lives of rescue personal whose duty is to save lives.
            There is almost never a good reason to run back in, unless I suppose you can see someone collapsed at the doorframe. Even then, you may not make it back out alive.

          3. I’m pretty sure that you would spend the night in lockup. If it’s a first offense they would probably let you out after that but it would be many many years before you finished paying off the fine they would slap you with.

    2. Get the new Water Mist class extinguishers – they use demineralised water, so are safe for use on all fires including electric. The misting suffocates, so they can be used on oil fires too. And as a bonus, they create less mess than the other varieties. No more or less expensive than traditional types.

  6. The Dallas Makerspace might be able to help. The possibility of donating our Lasersaur to another makerspace in need has been discussed before. Please let us know if you’d be interested and if it would be helpful and we can talk details. It’s the same machine that was featured here previously (but some upgrades have been done since).

    Everyone at the Dallas Makerspace wishes y’all the best and we hope you’re able to get back on your feet again soon!

  7. Update: FCW has some good leads on both a temporary and possible permanent locations. The local community, maker/hacker community, and ham radio community have been extremely supportive and are helping us get started on the rebuild process. It will take a while, but we did it once, we can do it again.

  8. Ouch!
    Even after the owner tried everything to watch out in case of fire.

    One of the renting businesses would be the ones I’d suspect… or:
    old failing power distribution cables, which is unlikely as long as the power cabling was inspected and up to standard.

    As for the business, A cheap laptop PSU as we all know is dangerously constructed anyway… a smoldering cigarette… A faulty lithium-ion powered device, That is all it takes.

    Lessons and advice:

    Keep work areas tidy, regularly dust, clean, etc.

    Switch everything off indiscriminately at the mains,

    Modern PCs usually can handle such things with a mere data-loss of 1 in >1000 abrupt power-loss per PC, always keep backup copies of everything critical.

    Don’t leave battery devices unattended… or place them in a thick metal container, i.e. a safe, where the purpose of the safe in this case is to keep the outside safe from the inside.

    Critical infrastructure, i.e. servers… Inspect for flammability, i.e. dust buildup, install heat sensor power breakers and sprinkler systems built into the servers’ racking and ensure it spills away from data storage (also keep a backup in case the HDDs are water damaged), The servers’ UPS should be kept in a separate room with a longer metal holding box so the innards can self extinguish long before they can burn their surroundings(average quality water supply and uninterruptible mains == disaster).

    UPS: Don’t go for those APC-BackUPS or equivalent, One of the old contracts at work serviced UPSes(Ok, only swapped batteries and scrapped any other problems), most of the BackUPS units had a burn mark next to the casing with the occasional blobby remains of a complete meltdown with a report of caught fire (Like we could fix that, lol).

  9. From what I’m told about the location by a local someone would have to be extremely bored to even be bothered to go to the city.. It’s basically one of those water-tower towns full of “church going hill folk”..

    My guess is some textile stuff was left in and someone got careless with a heat source or chemical..

    1. Change your name to xorJERK. No; wait: simply punk is much more descriptive; more apropo; easier for you to manage.
      The entire hacker community can’t wait for your next compassion-filled, room-temperature-IQ comment.

      1. How dare I not be politically-correct like you..

        “hacker community”.. oh you mean some guy sitting at a Starbucks wearing non-prescription thick-framed glasses might disapprove of me? If you think I’m not politically-correct you should of been in this “community” in the nineties..

        By the way I’m not the one claiming conspiracy because some old factory in a rural town with known code violations burned down.. Who is trying to stop the billionth Arduino LED circuit or 3D printer being made? The FSB? Get real..

        1. Three things…

          “The entire hacker community world can’t wait for your next compassion-filled, room-temperature-IQ comment…”
          Except for the tremendous entertainment value in giving you the opportunity to continue to show your ass, the world would be the better for waiting…indefinitely.

          I don’t totally agree with Mr Rooney, but I am absolutely certain that interaction with people of your persuasion is what led him to make his famous comment and observation–
          “I’m always on the lookout for something good about people. Often months go by.” ― Andy Rooney

          “jerk” works just fine.

  10. There’s a message here for all of us no matter where we live. Eastern North Carolina has a lot of old, and large, textile- and tobacco-industry properties which are ripe for “re-purposing”. This is a devastating event; in the short-term we need to help where we can, and remember how and why this happened, in the long-term.

  11. First of all we aren’t a “water tower town full of church going hill folk”. We came together as a community that night and helped. Helped the firemen, their families who were there praying, and all of us who watched the possessions we had go up in smoke. The owner had no insurance and a small apartment he stayed in while traveling from his house in South Carolina. He didn’t lose everything like some are saying. He also had issues with the sprinklers in 2015 and extinguishers in 2013 according to the Fire Marshall reports that we now get to see. I would not wish this on anyone. My two children have none of their baby “1st” that I was keeping for them. I no longer have the one tote of belongings left of my daddy that passed away. Yes there are lots of unanswered questions but please don’t assume we are some little red neck town that isn’t worth the time of day.

    1. To much of the world it might seem rather odd to have the families of firefighters attending the fire, especially to engage in religious rituals.

      It may be that a better point would be that red neck towns are also worth the time of day, rather than to deny being a redneck town. ;)

    1. My local makerspace refused even to appoint a volunteer “Safety Coordinator,” and there is also no facility manager or any other executive position that would be empowered to consider safety.

      To there credit, they did eventually at least vote the idea down after a year of cajoling and getting no answer.

    1. Rebuilding this will not even be possible. I have never been on this site until I saw a link talking about the fire. I wish I wouldn’t have found it after reading the post I did about our town. Stupid people like that infuriate me. It wasn’t from you. Thanks for the concern but the building is a total loss. We are all just wanting to see where our things used to be to get some type of closure.

      1. I think he meant the hackerspace can rebuild in a different location. The group is stronger now than when it started – there are more folks and the group has experience built up since the small group that started it in the first place.

        Some will be discouraged and leave. Some new folks will join. As long as the resulting group has a positive attitude, they can regroup and re-create the space. The people are the critical thing. The things can be replaced over time.

      2. Please stick around this site though.
        There are trolls on every site, so please don’t be bothered too much by the ones(one) that insulted your town.
        Most of us ignored his post anyway.

        I wish for the best, there will be stumbling blocks in everyones’ life.

  12. Hey Granite Falls folks — I live in Siler City, about two hours from you… while I can’t drive (no car and no license — because I never learned, not because I did something stupid) and I have neither spare money nor really any donatable equipment — if there’s some sort of a way for me to help out, let me know…

    laser hawk sixty four at gmail

    Change the written-out numbers to numerals, remove spaces, yatta yatta.

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