Studio or no studio?

The first in a series of conversations about the transiency of FoAM bxl. We asked ourselves what we like and dislike about the current situation and what if we kept the studio in uncertain economic conditions.

Times when we liked having the studio includes situations like aperos, smoke & vapour, splinterfields, froesjels, simply entering the space, admiring light and sound, doing small experiments, designing open sauces (publication), etc.

Times when having the studio is challenging includes managing and maintenance of facilities (including mysterious infrastructure), general entropy of a shared space; the heater saga; due to its openness it’s difficult to withdraw to be quiet and know who is in the space; the overhead is too high for a small organisation (especially when cash-flow is problematic); good things keep disappearing, broken things remain.

Making a decision about whether or not to keep the space has been haunting us since 2014. In 2016, the last year of our structural funding we will be conducting several experiments to help us make a more informed decision.

Atmosphere
  • it can be quiet, silent, with a sense of spaciousness
  • its light (alive, magical, highlighting different aspects of the studio as it changes)
  • it feels like home
  • it has beautiful acoustics
  • it works well when it’s buzzing with activity, as well as quiet and empty
  • there is space for nothingness
  • it’s mysterious
Open and flexible
  • it can accommodate different combinations of people
  • it invites fluid experiences, allowing freedom and focus
  • it is shapeshifting, it can transform to accommodate a range of activities, functions & 'flavours' (from venue, to living room, to workspace)
  • it invites flow experiences
  • it’s more than a sum of its parts
  • it allows an immersion in the work, a reflective and experimental creation (e.g. open sauces book)
FoAM = Home
  • it is nurturing; upon entering a feeling of being in a safe place
  • it’s relaxing, having a sense of being taken care of (there is always food on the table)
  • it’s a place to live and work (great to have accommodation in it)
  • facility management
  • infrastructure maintenance and a general battle with entropy
  • financial costs
  • synchronising different people’s rhythms and activities (quiet and noisy, production and research/reflection activities)
  • coordination - the convoluted politics and practice of a shared space
  • disappearance of goods, appearance of trash
  • pricing space rental

The feeling during and after the conversation was that we like having the space and it would be a pity to lose it, but that it is quite a heavy weight - in terms of maintenance and finances. Giving up the space would still require to rent storage, pay hotel rooms, rent kitchens and meeting rooms, have a co-working desk somewhere, which in the end might not turn out to be much cheaper. Without structural funding and a person responsible for facility management we would have to come up with different models of financing and using the space.

A few suggestions:

  • Facility Rental for events, meetings, workshops, and/or accommodation. If we do this we need to invest in the space to make it more robust (and less held up by gaffer tape and shoe strings). We also have to make a promotional/advertising effort. We can explore possibilities of long-term agreements with other organisations who have a recurring need for space - either for events or accommodation.
    • Renting the space for events seems more lucrative and manageable than renting accommodation. It brings more money and it’s usually concentrated on a few days. Accommodation on the other hand is cheaper per day, but still requires a lot of work and causes longer disturbance.
  • Shared FoAM members studio If we all keep using the space without structural funding, each of us could contribute to its costs (e.g. a percentage of project funding). In principle this is possible and of interest, but the continuity would be a problem.
  • Co-Working Space We could make the studio into a co-working space with other organisations. In order to do that some restructuring of the space would be needed, with a danger that the 'quietness' and privacy would be lost. However, if we would create some more enclosed spaces, the ability to withdraw might increase and solve the current challenge.

The question remains that if we begin making so many changes in the space, will it still be a studio we’d like to have? Furthermore, with all the attention and effort going into these changes, will we still be doing what we actually want to do, and what we wanted the studio for in the first place?

In 2016 we’re planning to test a few of the suggestions in practice, to answer the question: what if we would operate the studio without structural funding? To do that we’ll design three pre-enactments that we’ll run for several months:

  • Event rentals: can we cover our overhead costs solely from event rentals for a couple of months? What do we need to do to make this happen? What impact would it have on life and work in the studio?
  • Accommodation rentals: can we have long-term agreements with a few organisations, who can guarantee of a certain amount of money (per year)? what if we advertised the studio through Air BnB?
  • Co-Working space: can we try what it would be like to have the studio as a co-working space with other organisations (e.g. SPIN, EdgeRyders…)? how much extra co-ordination would that require? how much would the space have to change

The first decision made in January 2016 is that whatever happens with FoAM's plans in the future, FoAM vzw will keep the current contract (ends in 2020). If we can't pay for it ourselves from 2017, we will sublet the whole or a part of the space to one or more organisations. There has been sufficient interest in something like that in the past, so we're confident that we could find a sub-renter without too many problems. In order to give us enough time to find someone, mid October 2016 we will make a decision whether or not to keep the space (or part of it) as a FoAM studio. The decision depends on the finances, management of facilities and FoAM's foreseen activities post 2016. To inform this decision, from February 2016 we will be running (at least) three pre-enactments to find practice-based answers to the following questions:

  • Can we earn sufficient amount of money to be able to afford to keep the space and manage its facilities without structural funding?
  • How can we not only survive, but also thrive as individuals and as organisation in the changing conditions of the studio?
  • What is a good (or optimal) use of the space? (which includes the reverse question: is the space not abused?)

The experiments will have to prove whether through sharing and renting the space we can resolve our difficulties with covering the overhead costs (~40k per year + hosting fee), the weight of facility management of a shared space and the current under-use (and abuse) of the studio.

The three pre-enactments are:

  • Space for gatherings: renting (parts) of the space for events, workshops and meetings, if possible to people aligned with FoAM's philosophy (February - September)
  • Co-working space: sharing the space with several organisations and individuals on a daily basis (February - May)
  • FoAM studio: FoAM people fully inhabiting the space for work and life (June - September)

Hypothesis

Renting (parts of) the studio for events and meetings can bring sufficient funds for FoAM to be able to keep the space without structural funding.

Experiment

The experiment consists of attempting to rent the studio for events and meetings from an hour to several days for groups up to (max) 50 people, ideally not more than 30. In the first three months of the experiment the rentals take precedence over any other activities. In the second three months FoAM activities take precedence over rentals.

The duration of the experiment is ~8 months spread from February to September

Implementation

The experiment has different tasks:

  • Design of FoAM rental packages, including short description of available spaces and services, photos and floor-plans (online and as a .pdf that can be sent by email)
  • Creating an internal price list with ranges of discounts, to be negotiated with every renter
  • Designing a standard letter of agreement
  • Communication and promotion: creating an activity on the FoAM site, promotion through social networks and other appropriate channels (e.g. EC and other institutions)
  • Negotiation and contracting
  • Hosting (and possibly other services, such as catering or facilitation)
  • Follow-up
  • Keeping track of time spent on each contract, as well as their positive and negative aspects (to help evaluation)
  • Evaluation: based on at least three criteria (every 3 months and at the end of the experiment):
    • How much funds did the space rental bring? Is it sufficient to cover the overhead and co-ordination costs?
    • How much co-ordination was needed and is it sustainable in the long term?
    • Are the FoAM people/activities and the space able to 'thrive' during and in-between rentals?

To do in January:

  • Rasa: compare prices with other spaces for meetings and events (The Egg, De Markten, etc)
  • Rasa: Look through the history of FoAM's space rentals in 2014/2015, list prices, effort, positive and negative aspects…
  • Maja & Rasa: design rental offer document, put information online,
  • Rasa: find out how best to promote rentals (talk to members/board…)
  • Nik, all: check if we can use Loomio to make quick decisions about whether to rent the space, and whether to consider it a FoAM event

Expected results

  • Clarity about the cost/benefit ratio of space rentals
  • Decision whether space rental sufficiently contributes to the financial sustainability of FoAM, enough to justify keeping the studio
  • Decision whether Rasa is keen to continue as facility manager and gathering host and if so, whether she needs additional people to be involved.

Hypothesis

The studio can function as a flexible co-working space for up to 10-15 people at a time. It is possible to generate enough funds to cover the overhead and facility management costs. Sharing the space with other organisations and individuals will not only bring revenue, but it can beneficial for the work of FoAM. It could bring new exchanges, collaborative opportunities, new audiences and inspiration. We can find a way to share the space and the responsibilities so that facility management will become lighter for the core team (and for Rasa in particular).

Experiment

This experiment involves agreements with several likeminded organisations and individuals who are willing to share the studio with FoAM. The advantage is that the financial load on FoAM would diminish, we would be in contact with people from different networks on a daily bases, so exchange can happen informally, based on people doing interesting stuff in the same space. The emphasis has to be on trust and true sharing of the space, including both its strenghts and its weaknesses.

Sharing in this experiment means not just using the space, but also sharing the financial costs, management and maintenance of the facilities as well. All spaces and working places are time-shared. This implies a 'clean desks' policy: when you leave, you clean your working space so someone else can use it after you. It is possible to book a working space for longer than a few days, in which case it is possible to leave materials on the tables and on the walls for the duration of the reservation. 'Interesting walls' can stay around for longer.

In the first three months of the experiment all spaces (except the bedroom) would be shared, but the library and coaching room would be designated quiet spaces. It is possible that FoAM would eventually want to keep the mezzanine for ourselves, but this will be evaluated after the first period. We will still have to keep renting the studio for events, so we will have to find a way for these two experiments to co-exist.

We want to keep the co-ordination of FoAM's co-working space to a minimum (as none of us actually want to manage a 'real' co-working space with hundreds of members). We would need to setup simple online co-ordination tools (for things like booking spaces, payments, shopping lists, etc.) and have weekly joint lunches or aperos for face-to-face meetings with everyone (?) involved.

Finances: we will propose a daily rate per person for working in the space. Meeting rooms can be booked at a separate rate (same as in space rental). This rate, if we would have a full occupancy (5 days a week, 12 months) would cover costs for space rental, energy, heating, internet, cleaning, sanitary materials, tea and coffee, basic office materials (paper, pens), “reasonable use” of printers, etc, as well as a fee for a part-time facility manager. It does not include food or special materials.

A critical uncertainty for FoAM is whether we can still 'thrive' in the studio as a co-working space. We have intuitive criteria to test this, which each of us should keep track of:

  • Before going to the studio: do I want to go and work in the studio and why?
  • When in the space: check the use/abuse of the space (this can also be assessed on a weekly/monthly basis): is the space in a better/worse/the same condition as when I left it last time?
  • At the end of working in the studio: do I feel energised, drained or neutral and why?
  • After the experiment: has the co-working space had a positive impact on FoAM's work (new people, projects, lighter load on core team, etc.)
  • Check Slackbot as a possible lightweight assessment tool

Candidates for co-working (organisations): Hackistan, SPIN, Edgeriders

To do in January:

  • All: agree on prices and make an internal shared document
  • Rasa (& all to edit): User manual and Agreement/Licensing document
  • Nik: research possibility to use bitcoin for payments (each person/organisation would have their own address) and research systems that link a booking system/calendar with bitcoin payments
  • Nik: check Slackbot to keep track of the participants' 'thriveability' in the co-working space.
  • Nik: update IT policy and user manual

Expected results

  • Clarity about the cost/benefit ratio of co-working space
  • Decision whether co-working space sufficiently contributes to the financial sustainability of FoAM, enough to justify sharing the studio
  • Decision whether Rasa wants to manage FoAM's co-working space (the studio shared with a few organisations and individuals) and if so, whether she needs additional resources and people to be involved.

Hypothesis

If we fully inhabit the FoAM studio and use it to do things we care about, invite people we like working with, rather than primarily administer other people's work, we will use the space to its full potential, the space will look and feel much better than it does at the moment and we will find ways to raise funds to pay for it. In other words, both the people and the space will thrive.

Experiment

The core team (and possibly some FoAM members) will inhabit the space as a true creative studio for speculative culture. We will define this experiment closer to its staring date in June. The experiment will last from June until September.

Expected results

Clarity on whether or not we should need to keep the studio exclusively for FoAM, and how we could optimally use it without being drained by it. + Ideas and options to cover the costs without structural funding.