Inside New Lab: How the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Innovation Hub Is Shaping the Future
By Carey Dunne
From 1801 to 1966, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was a hub for shipbuilding; now, it’s a hub for robot-building, 3D-printer-building, floating furniture-building, and the type of high-tech pursuits of which 19th century shipbuilders could never have dreamed. The nexus of cutting-edge innovation in the Navy Yard is New Lab, a warehouse-turned-design and prototyping center that’s home to some of the borough’s most original companies. It includes a design firm making watches out of cow cells, an architecture studio growing buildings out of mushrooms, and NASA’s favorite robot engineers.
Since opening its beta space in 2013, New Lab has helped create a community of what co-founders Scott Cohen and David Belt call “teal-collar manufacturers.” This means, Belt explains, “Entry level jobs in between blue- and white-collar, with more sophisticated manufacturing, in areas like 3D-printing.” The space provides tenants with state-of-the-art equipment needed for such jobs. “Our goal is to be a professional version of a makers’ space, for people who want to grow companies—people who, say, come out of MIT and are used to having 3D-printers, but can’t afford that kind of equipment. It’s a community of like-minded people—people who wanted to raise money without getting ripped off by venture capitalists, get their products to market, and earn from crowdfunding campaigns.”
The communal space is part of a larger citywide effort to lift the local manufacturing economy out of a long slump (from 2000 to 2010, Brooklyn lost nearly 24,000 jobs in manufacturing).
New Lab’s beta space overlooks the construction site of its final 84,000-square-foot headquarters, scheduled to open in May 2016. When complete, it will include event and gallery spaces, dedicated studio spaces, coworking facilities, and a 24/7 service bureau with a wood shop, machine shop, and digital fabrication center.
We talked to some New Lab tenants about their futuristic Navy Yard workspaces, their coolest projects to date, and what to expect from them in the years to come.
Who they are and what they do: Founded in 1983, Honeybee designs and manufactures robotic devices for NASA, as well as aerospace, defense, medical, infrastructure, and energy sectors.
Perks of working at New Lab: “The opportunity to work on meaningful, challenging projects draws engineers to Honeybee,” engineer Josh Abrashkin says, and working in a communal space with like-minded designers increases that meaning. “It’s not often that engineers get to work on space exploration technology, or medical robots for minimally invasive surgery, which have a real impact on human knowledge and quality of life.”
What’s coming next: “We’re actively working on technologies for Mars2020 and other future planetary missions.”
Coolest project to date: “We’re best known for contributing to four of NASA’s Mars landers,” Abrashkin says. “We designed and built the Rock Abrasion Tools on the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity (the first tools to access the insides of rocks on Mars); the Phoenix scoop for the Phoenix Mars Lander (the first tool to sample water on Mars); and the Sample Manipulation System for the Mars Science Laboratory, a sort of robotic lab assistant that moves samples to the rover.”
Who they are and what they do: Headed by Nina Edwards Anker, NEA designs furniture, products, landscapes, and exhibitions, with a focus on experimenting with sustainable materials. Think solar lamps that have been 3D-printed or molded out of algae.
What’s coming next: “NEA Studio is about to break ground with a LEED certified house in Long Island, which has a form driven by local site conditions, and incorporates PV skylights as part of the design concept,” Anker says. The studio is also developing solar lights for mass production.
Coolest projects to date: The undulating, sculptural Landscape Sofa; Latitude Lamp, a transformable solar lamp made from interlocking cubes.
Who they are and what they do: Cofounded by Mitchell Joachim and Maria Aiolova, Terreform ONE [Open Network Ecology] is a non-profit experimental green design laboratory creating concepts to advance cities across architecture, industrial design, and landscape ecology. Think buildings made of living trees, houses made of meat, and chairs grown from mycelium.
The perks of working at New Lab: “There is no office space like this. We’re in the center of a high-tech elf workshop. We’re a combination of a coworking space and a maker community, and we get to collaborate with people in other companies with vastly different backgrounds and skill sets.”
What’s coming next: “For years, we’ve been working on the ‘Post Carbon City State,’ a speculative model for a future Manhattan with zero carbon footprint, made entirely of green stuff: a light rail instead of cars, buildings with sides covered in plants for better air quality, etc.,” Joachim says.
Coolest recent projects: “The Plug-In Ecology Urban Farm Pod, a giant sphere in which you can grow food in urban areas (in apartments, on balconies or rooftops),” Terreform ONE cofounder Mitchell Joachim says. “With arduino controllers connected to an app, you can check up on how your kale is ready to eat or tomatoes aren’t yet ripe.”
Who they are and what they do: Founded by former aspiring astronaut Jessica Banks, engineering and design firm RockPaperRobot specializes in kinetic furniture and lighting fixtures—basically, they give robotic powers to usually bland and motionless household objects.
The perks of working at New Lab: “New Lab’s collective model fosters a great community. And we get to work with our hands–it’s not just typing, it’s building all the time, which is very healthy for the brain,” Banks says.
What’s coming next: “The 50 different designs we’re working on include robotic chandeliers and connected, reactive sleep and work environments–imagine if your chair and desk could respond to your self-quantifying data in real time and prevent you from having back pain.”
Coolest projects to date: The Float Collection, a series of tables that appear to defy gravity. They’re made of magnetized cubes “floating” with space in between, connected only by tensile steel cables. “Float encompasses who we are as a company–it combines design and physics into a functional art object,” Banks says.