A TALE OF TWO BUILDINGS (or how the low prestige of ours has its compensations)

By 15th September 2014Presidents Log

A TALE OF TWO BUILDINGS (Or how the low prestige of ours has its compensations!)

It’s September 2015, which finds me teaching at the Cell Physiology Workshop in Plymouth once again. This is also the location from which I tend to write my blogs, and unfortunately this occasion is proving to be no exception! I’m pleased to report that Cairn remains in good shape, with lots of exciting things going on, but the main news for now is that our new building is now externally complete, yet we still somehow have enough money left over to fit it out and buy some nice toys for it. However, we are also having to cope with what has turned out to be a major disappointment for us on this front, the nature of which will become all-too-clear if you are rash enough to read on!

I’ve blogged before about some of my previous buildings experiences, so this time I’m going to take a rather different tack. Cairn is not the only organisation with a new building on its hands, so I couldn’t resist the temptation to compare ours with a certain other research building that is currently nearing completion in the heart of London. Hopefully your blogger isn’t suffering from too many delusions of grandeur by daring even to make such a comparison, as ours is a much smaller structure, situated in the far humbler surroundings of our small farm just outside Faversham in Kent, so cannot possibly be anywhere near as prestigious as that other one. In fact, the whole idea has rather backfired on us, since the result turned out to be even worse than we’d expected. However, in certain other respects we feel that we’ve done pretty well, but it is of course important that these comparisons should not be taken too seriously, otherwise we might get ourselves into rather serious trouble!

Universal prestige scale

What I’m going to try to do here is to create a universal scale for that all-too-important characteristic of any building, just referred to above, namely it’s prestige. In whatever way you attempt to define the term, the Crick is clearly a very prestigious building indeed, and my goal here is to quantify this in some way, so that other buildings such as ours can be ranked against it.

First of all, I should explain that the information given here about the Crick has been taken from the following published article

Its authors were very impressed with the scale of the building and of its infrastructure, with its “air ducts easily large enough to accommodate a double decker London bus” and its “1 metre thick diaphragm wall surrounding the basement”, as just two examples. Clearly, none of this sort of construction comes cheap, and they do also quote a figure for that. I don’t want to lower the tone of this blog by actually mentioning it here, and in any case the current generally accepted best estimates (which I shall be using in the following comparisons) are somewhat higher anyway, although not by that much in relative terms. But for such a prestigious building as the Crick, these things must just cost what they will!

I think that by definition, prestigious buildings are going to be expensive for their size, so the idea is to base the quantification of prestige on this sort of measure. To do that, we need to create some actual units. For cost, the unit we’ll be using is that of the Crick itself, but we’ll need another one for the size, in terms of the usable internal space. It is therefore logical to define that unit as the “Watson”, although my current best estimate of it on the basis of that article is nevertheless somewhat uncertain, so it may require some future revision, but let’s have a go anyway. That article gives the “internal space” of the building as 84,000 square metres, but of that some 34% is taken up by plant, which would leave about 56,000 square metres of potentially usable space (although not all of that may be actual laboratory or other experimental space – more information is needed here!). Nevertheless, it will do for a start, and if it turns out to be too high, then the building will be even more prestigious than we thought it was!

How to calculate the prestige of a building!

So the idea is that to calculate the prestige of a building, you simply divide its Crick by its Watson, and then compare the result with that for the Crick itself. To keep this in the form of a simple and easily-understood number, I’ve defined the prestige of the Crick as 100, so the extent to which any other building’s Crick:Watson ratio differs from that of the Crick defines its relative prestige as a simple percentage. This scale is rightly likely to place the Crick at the top, but rather like those footballers who can somehow give 110% when the occasion demands, it will nevertheless allow for even more prestigious buildings to be ranked on this scale in the future – we must always remain optimistic!

But for much real-world use, rather like the Farad as the unit of capacitance, both the Crick and the Watson may be inconveniently large units, so they can both benefit from being subdivided in an analogous way. That is certainly the case for our new building, as its cost has been only around 500 microCricks (even allowing for the champagne, and its usable space a mere 10 milliWatsons or so. It’s easy to lose track of things when comparing numbers on different scales like these though, so when we did the prestige calculation for our new building we got a nasty surprise – it turns out that our new building is only 5% as prestigious as the Crick! That’s just awful, so much of what follows is an analysis of what we did wrong and why.

Where to put it!?

Of course, the first decision for any new building is where to put it, and this has a major influence on its prestige. We agonised over this for a long time, but eventually we reluctantly concluded that prime locations like central London were just going to be too expensive for us. In any case, although our Faversham location has reasonable train connections – indeed, some of them go directly to within just yards of that other new building – most of our employees live locally, so it seemed much more sensible to keep everything here rather than shipping people back and forth there every day. We’d have had to pay them more money for a start! Our local authority (Swale Borough Council) has been very supportive of us here, so we were able to get permission to put our new building on the farm that we already own, meaning that the site cost was zero. Although very welcome in other ways of course, this non-expenditure did, however, significantly damage our new building’s prestige from the very start.

Another potential downside is that staying local tends to make for a happier, less stressed and less downtrodden workforce, but sometimes a few such compromises are inevitable! However, to be just slightly more serious for a moment, the fact that our people don’t have to spend hours travelling every day (can anyone afford to live in London nowadays?) makes them significantly more productive. They can – and many do – put in extra hours and still be home way before their London-commuting counterparts, and probably in rather better condition too! Perhaps that is why they seem so prepared to tolerate our lowly prestige….

As for the building itself, the Council’s permission was based on the requirement for the new building to have an “agricultural” type of appearance, so unfortunately that ruled out a lot of prestigious stuff. My thirty-foot statue (drinking beer, with full circulating water feature) was just one of many proposed embellishments that simply had to go, although I have to say that particular monument wasn’t my idea! Instead we have a (to me at least) rather bland-looking woodclad structure, but the free choice of constructional materials inside the cladding made it easier (and hence cheaper) to meet the increasingly stringent thermal requirements of the Building Regulations, so I certainly wasn’t going to complain on financial grounds, although that did mean the prestige took yet another nasty hit. But to be fair, it still doesn’t look that bad really! And like the Crick, it does also have a load of solar panels on the roof, so we do also score a few “eco” brownie points here.

Another important decision that forced the cost down was to keep the new building entirely above ground level. Digging holes is expensive, and hence correspondingly prestigious, but you do have to make sure that they don’t fill up with water before, during and after construction – the importance of that last one being easily overlooked!

Unwelcome neighbours?

However, prestige notwithstanding, the crazy economics of London property can actually make the construction of unfeasibly large basements financially worthwhile (at least in the sense that someone else will come along and pay even more than it cost you to do it), so what was once a three-bed semi may now have a swimming pool, gym, cinema and goodness knows what else excavated in multiple levels underneath it (but do they ever think of adding a half-decent dungeon, I wonder?). But just how far should you go with this approach? If “everyone” is doing it, then you might end up with some unwelcome neighbours down there, and unfortunately that type of situation looks like it could cause the Crick some future problems!

In summary, this whole basement thing strikes me as something that’s better avoided if you have a big enough site to start with. Luckily we did! However, this does mean that you can’t spend as much money per unit of usable space, which is why this decision turned out to be a rather important contribution to our prestige problem.


Next is the issue of the ATRIUM. I’ve capitalised that word because it seems to be an obligatory requirement for any new science building. This was a huge dilemma for us, but as you’ll see, we ended up solving the problem in an unusual but highly effective way, albeit with yet further prestige damage.

The issue here is that an atrium can take up space – a lot of space – and it’s not only the Crick that’s done very well on this score. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper, reporting the appointment of Sir Venki Ramakrishanan as President of the Royal Society noted, of his accommodation in the MRC Molecular Biology Laboratory in Cambridge, recorded that

“The gleaming new building is a vast, light-filled temple to science, but his room is so compact you could barely swing a genetically modified mouse”.

A massive atrium is clearly vital for increasing the prestige of the building, but it does sadly also have the potential effect of not leaving sufficient space for the worshippers. But clearly this a kind of modern-day arms race, in which one has no choice but to participate – if your atrium isn’t big enough, you’re just not going to cut it in today’s internationally competitive research environment!

So, like it or not, you’re likely to end up with a vast central space, with the functional bits looking inwards but occupying just a thin smear around the edges. I may be getting onto dangerous territory here, but since that arrangement means you may be in full view of your colleagues all day, and since scientists are not generally known for being especially pleasing to the eye, then to be separated from each other by a not inconsiderable distance may actually be quite a good idea. Given the prestige associated with the space itself (by virtue of the corresponding reduction in the building’s usable space), this is therefore potentially a nice win-win situation, which may at least partially make up for the fact that it may not leave anyone with enough laboratory space in which to do anything useful. But you just can’t have everything!

Good looking Cairn employees?

Of course, Cairn employees are all far better-looking than the average scientist, but it has nevertheless struck us that our people might enjoy looking at open countryside as well, so instead of that arrangement we have outward-facing windows from rooms that are accessed from a modest central stairwell, and even that has lots of light coming in from landings and from above. However, the fact that our new building therefore doesn’t have a big empty hole in the middle does play havoc with costs of the usable space, and hence with the building’s prestige as a whole, which our solution to the atrium “problem” has only partly addressed.

But for real prestige, the Crick is the place to be. Move over, MRC Cambridge building! In the words of that article, “At 130m long, 8m wide and stretching eight storeys high, the vast atrium has the scale and bearing of a medieval cathedral nave.” (This volume alone would require about ten of our new buildings to fill, so no way could we possibly compete here!) And just to rub salt into the wound, “A second smaller cross atrium spans the centre of the building giving it an overall cruciform plan”. Although that certainly ought to keep the odd deity happy, as well as adding yet further to the prestige, I’m not so sure what it will do for the people who will work there. In fact, I’m rather worried for them. For anyone whose research has been insufficiently productive for them to secure further funding (perhaps at least partly because of insufficient space in which to do it?), a quick launch from the upper storeys of the atrium may well beckon as the final solution to their pending unemployment.

However, that will create a problem of its own, in that awaiting them below is a “450-seat state-of-the-art auditorium”, so there will be a permanent risk of disruption to the presentations given there by people crashing in through the roof. It has to be said though, from your blogger’s personal experience from all-too-many academic presentations, that such interruptions may not always be entirely unwelcome. “So we applied the thapsigargin again, and this time we think there was a very slight….” CRUNCH!!!!! But be that as it may, a more humane possibility could be to make the auditorium roof into a giant “bouncy castle”, allowing those poor unlucky scientists to have another go on the rebound, so to speak. Alternatively, since that article notes the building’s fresh air intake “is the equivalent of emptying a 50m Olympic-sized swimming pool every 10 seconds”, then why not actually have a swimming pool down there, with diving boards for it from every storey above, so that people could progressively work their way up the building as their proficiency improved? Careful sealing of the pool would be required in order to keep the audiences dry though – this potential drawback already seems to have caused problems in real life.


But what to do about the complete lack of an atrium in our new building? Quite apart from the prestige issue, where we were already forced to admit failure, we had the future of our architect to consider! With no atrium anywhere in the design, his professional reputation would have been left in tatters, but thanks to James we came up with a novel and effective solution. Why not stick the atrium on another building? Our original conversion of the farm buildings had left us with an indented corner right by our main entrance, so we hit on the idea of filling that in with a kind of tower-like structure (to avoid complications of having to match up with differing existing rooflines) to form a new entrance, and with a nice skylight at the top. It only goes up one and a half storeys rather than eight, but it’s the principle that counts! Unfortunately, at just a few tens of microCricks, it was too cheap to be of much help on the prestige front, and the water feature we currently get coming in from the flat roof whenever it rains is a bit of a nuisance, but at least there are no basements to get filled up (as an aside, in the words of an old builder, only three things used to be sure in life, namely death, taxes, and flat roofs leak, but nowadays we seem to be down to only two).

Containment of hazardous organisms

What else did we get wrong? Going back again to “that article”, considerable emphasis was laid on the provision for comprehensive experimental facilities, especially those for working with potentially hazardous organisms. Actually at Cairn, we work with hazardous organisms all the time, but the dangers here are rather different. At places like the Crick, the potential risk is of such organisms escaping into the environment, so elaborate and expensive facilities must be provided to counter that. At Cairn though, the hazardous organisms in question have already escaped into the environment, which is indeed where we happened to find them, as they are of course our employees. We would like to think that, at least for our competitors, these are very dangerous lifeforms indeed, but to try to contain them in any way would play havoc with the local economy, where the sale of fermentation-based products in particular would plummet.
Unfortunately therefore, we could not justify the expense of containment facilities that we were never going to use. In any case, we don’t do any “wet” stuff at Cairn at all, so all the costs associated with that were unnecessary too. And as for all that high-speed airchange facility already mentioned for the Crick, well that might have been useful once, but my two dogs have been putting rather less demand on our airchange requirements following a change in their brand of food (it really did make a difference). In any case, if we want a bit more ventilation, we can just open our windows to let in some nice clean countryside air! The high insulation standards we’ve had to meet will also keep our winter heating costs down, and a standard domestic boiler and radiator arrangement is going to be more than adequate for that.

Another factor significantly adding to the Crick’s prestige has been the need for very effective vibration isolation for their microscopy and other sensitive equipment. Clearly this is an essential requirement in such a busy central London location, with its proximity to all those roads and railway lines in particular. Although some of our work does also need a nice stable base on which to do it, it’s probably fair to say that our requirements in this respect aren’t going to be quite so stringent. However, our nearest road and railway are both well over 100 metres away, so we didn’t need to do anything at all! To be fair though, we did perhaps spend just a little bit more money than we needed to here, to make sure that we had a nice solid ground floor for the machine tools that will go into our new mechanical workshop there. Apparently it’s up to “airport runway” standards, although we hope nobody tries to test that anytime soon.

And as for fitting out our space, I’ve already described our “trick” with the kitchen units and worktops, which works out to be ludicrously cheap compared with the “professional” alternatives, and is yet further helped (sorry, hindered from a prestige point of view) by us putting them in by ourselves. The DIY approach also applies to our phone, computer and power networks, which as for our existing buildings, all go into a common trunking around the walls.

That’s it, really! We have had to come to terms with the fact that from a prestige point of view, our new building has been a near-total failure. We can now better understand the reasons why, but we still can’t see how we could have done very much about it. Therefore, in order to make any sort of impact on the world, we are forced to continue our Plan B, which is to try to impress people with our products instead. Fortunately in that regard, the embarrassingly low prestige of our new building means that we both have relatively more financial resources left over to develop more of them, and relatively more space in which to do this, so we are hoping that our future will not be entirely bleak!


In a previous Plymouth MBA blog I mentioned the “squid film” that is shown on the Plymouth course every year, featuring some of our most famous scientists of the era working away here in those halcyon pre health-and-safety days of the 1960s and before. That gave me the idea that their enjoyment of the science might have left them with an utter disregard of such issues, so I wrote what I thought was a spoof of how they went about things, and which some people seemed to rather enjoy. However, the film quality was never very good, but this year we we were treated to a digitally remastered version. The picture quality was certainly better, but it also showed that the fuzziness of some of the laboratory experimental segments was actually because they were shot through a haze of tobacco smoke. I was much more right than I’d thought! Oh happy days….