Communities of Makers

DIY technology community, or “makers,” demonstrate projects that connect the world around them.

As someone who has been adjacent to the plumbing industry my entire life, when I hear non-plumbers say things like, “I’m just going to do the plumbing in my house myself,”  I instinctively cringe. At a minimum, that person will probably learn the hard way what value a reputable plumber brings to the table. Homemade, half-baked plumbing contraptions can be a fast road to serious, long-term leak and mold issues. 

However, if channeled in the right direction, the do-it-yourself crowd can solve problems on their own. While a YouTube tradesperson may lack the career experience to flawlessly execute a bathroom remodel, they may bring something else to the table that is lacking in some of the trades: internet creativity. 

The term “tinkerer” has been an almost negative term for people working quietly on their own shop projects. However, if you take a tinkerer, add a dash of technology and social media, you have something new and different. Many individual tinkerers have turned into communities of makers.

Adweek defines the concept: “The maker movement, as we know, is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in–China merchandise.” says the maker concept began in 2005, when their founder coined the term. Since then, the popularity has boomed for Make Magazine and the trade shows they hold. In San Francisco, more than 100,000 people attended their Maker Faire in 2014.  

In the connected world, it is easier for makers to find each other, organize groups and share ideas. Part of the maker movement is firmly tied to the ability to socialize and collaborate on the Web. In the best maker communities, members spend as much time helping others solve problems as they do working on their own, instead of existing on parallel tracks. It becomes easier to work effectively if someone else in the community has already run into the same roadblock you have. Some of the maker communities are housed in physical buildings where people gather.  

I recently went to a maker space called FirstBuild in Louisville, Kentucky. It is probably where makers die and go to heaven. The 33,000-square foot space includes laser cutters, 3D printers, an industrial water jet, a CNC mill and even bean bags for brainstorming. FirstBuild is backed by General Electric, and it is open to the general maker public.

I attended a competition for makers revolving around the world of cooking. They called it the “Future of Cooking Hackathon.” (Hack is a positive term for improving an existing invention in this context; unlike the negative connotation of having your computer hacked.) At this particular hackathon, there were over $10,000 of cash prizes on the line for kitchen inventions. Sponsors had different award criteria for their prize money. Overall, the judges were looking for innovative design, viability and functionality.   

As you checked in for the day you were given a name badge with space to label yourself a maker, engineer, designer, programmer, techie and/or foodie. After the opening presentation, the attendees headed to the back of the room to pick or pitch their ideas for the weekend competition. One of my favorite parts of this event was the group formation process. Some people came pre-assembled with a team and idea. Most looked for inspiration on a literal clothesline of ideas, or created their own and walked around looking for complementary skill sets. This event was the antithesis of the stereotype of tinkering in a dark basement. Well-rounded teams had the best shot of making a cool invention.  

I was blown away with the projects teams put together over the course of the weekend. There was unfiltered creativity all around. A big part of the maker movement is the high-creativity, low-pressure environment. The FirstBuild staff was excellent at supporting the maker process by offering help or pointing out resources that may be useful.  

Another important piece of the maker movement is the reduced barrier to entry. If you had an idea ten years ago and wanted to build it out of plastic, you probably would need to buy a commercial grade machine, pay a lot of money, or order 1,000 copies of something to get the unit price down. Now you can buy an inexpensive 3D printer and get started in a few hours.   

Inspired by the FirstBuild event, I went on a spending spree. By spending spree, I mean I spent $180 on Wi-Fi gadgets. The price of these devices have plummeted in the last ten years, and the automation programming is easier than ever. With the help of, I can make all sorts of cool things happen.  

For example, if I add a vacation to my computer calendar, the gadgets can have that pushed out to my thermostat, and it will change that set point. If I leave my house, the lamp on my desk will automatically turn off.  I can get a text message when the international space station is above me. I can have the fight song for the University of Utah start playing when the football team kicks off (Go Utes!). One could even have a WeMo coffee maker start brewing when their Fitbit notes that they just woke up, if you have those two things.
The best part of my hacking venture is that I’m not a computer programmer or a millionaire. The world of readily available, connected devices is expanding around us, and creativity is our only limit.  

The plumbing and heating market historically hasn’t moved as fast as the electronics industry. Is that because we have already figured everything out, and incremental changes are all we should expect? Is it because we are more afraid of failure? 

The technology backbones of the U.S. economy were born in garages. The garage gave us Apple, Google, Amazon and countless others. If you are reading this article, you are qualified to join the maker movement in whatever capacity you choose. Maybe you can figure out a revolutionary way to interact with a plumbing or heating system. At a minimum, you may be able to explain to another maker how to keep from making a mess with their bathroom remodel.  

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Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee Chairman. He can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @maxjrohr.

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