A garage is the great American innovation space. The world’s most successful tech firms Apple, Microsoft, Google, Hewlett Packard, Disney, and others started in a garage, so it seems reasonable to consider first, how and why a garage has been so central to innovation, and secondly how to optimize garages for innovation.
One of the fascinating things about 1970s Silicon Valley was how such a bucolic landscape became the site of the most important new innovations of the last two hundred years. Similar to the Brandywine Valley in Delaware in the last 1700s/early 1600s, Silicon Valley offered a few simple tools that allowed innovation to flourish. First Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Med Center, and many other local universities produced an endless stream of brainy people. Secondly, San Francisco, and old banking town, offered connections to bigger financial cities. Finally, and perhaps most elusively of all, there was lots of inexpensive work space, and undeveloped land available. The last tool is why the myth of the garage workshop sprang up – because it was true in a very strong way. Hewlett Packard could never have started in a location like Midtown Manhattan, or Beverly Hills. I recall no tech powerhouses that started in such tony environments. That fact is the key to the promise of the garage.
The main reason that the garage is so useful is simple, because it is there. Many people have a garage. It has all of the necessary infrastructure, enclosed heated space, electrical service, usually some minimal plumbing, and access to a bathroom, and kitchen. It is a site where a variety of work can take place at any time of day or night, for an unlimited time. Finally, it comes with the house, so there is no extra expense for the space.
One problem that may occur is that an existing garage may be filled with stored items, cars, or clutter, rendering it useless as an entrepreneurial space. The ideal solution is to create a new garage, if there is enough space on the lot. Building a new garage would be well worth the effort, if it meant creating a space where the next Microsoft would be born.
The nature of garage space ranges from a basic 24’ by 24’ two car garage to a coach house with a complete apartment above the parking area. A variation to the standard garage is the shop building, which is a larger, purpose built structure, often about 1000 to 1500 square feet. At the other extreme is the one car garage, which is very limited in space, although I once designed a one car garage with an apartment above. It was unique because most coach houses are built above at least a two car garage.
There are many improvements that can enhance the garage infrastructure significantly.
One important first step is to get adequate electrical power to the space
. This often means upgrading the electrical panel to easily use whatever equipment is desired. A hose bib is also a useful feature. Adding insulation and heating make the space much more habitable. Next are more advanced enhancements, such as, adding a half bathroom, a utility sink, and possibly a wood burning stove. There are also architectural enhancements such as installing a two story foundation, for a future second story, or a twelve foot plate height. Most garages, however, are adequate just as they are.
The types of activities that easily lend themselves to the garage environment range from musical groups to tech lab, architects/engineers office, art studio, bio engineering lab, etc… the options are literally limited only by the entrepreneur’s imagination. I even had one client who left the garage door in place, built a wall behind it, and used the space for her religious group of whirling dervishes, and her neighbours had no idea.
A client who owns a small lumber mill said the most frequent request he gets is for a 25’ by 40’ post and beam building with ten foot high walls, and a steeply pitched roof. They almost always plan to build in a second half floor within the building envelope. The shop like the one his clients describe is the ultimate entrepreneurial space. The 30’ by 50’ shop space that I designed for a Harley Davidson mechanic is a similar project, and the prototypical shop.
But for the mechanical entrepreneur, the 24’’ by 60’ garage that I designed for a client with a large lot is the perfect solution. A structure this size can easily house six cars, a wonderful way to avoid creating a truck garden.
In many ways the garage is related to another archetypical frontier space, the log cabin. Like a cabin the garage is a raw space, a blank canvas with flexibility of use. Like a cabin the garage is simple and inexpensive to build, and generally post design, and utilitarian.
Because it is the perfect entrepreneurial space America needs to build ten million new garages right now. Out of this creation of this space are sure to come at least two or three new Apples, Microsofts, or Harley Davidsons.
In this day of adult children returning to live with their parents, and extended families, a garage must be considered as the site for creating additional living space. A garage is also an ideal first project when building on raw land because it can serve as both a staging area for future construction, and a dwelling space. It can also be extended into a full house with careful planning.