New buildings past and present, including “How NOT to build a science lab!”

By 7th July 2015Presidents Log

Getting the planning permission to put up our new building at the farm seems months ago now. That’s because it was, so why are we only now preparing to make a start? Well, building work just seems to be like that! Getting the permission is one thing, but then there are all sorts of other things to sort out. How do we comply with Building Regulations? What sort of foundations do we need if the building isn’t going to sink into the earth’s crust? Does the internal layout fully meet our needs? Are all those dreaded health, safety and fire regulations being properly complied with? Who are we going to get to actually build it? And so on…. Added to that, the hideously wet winter meant that we’d have been crazy to start then, even if we’d been ready to. Much better to wait until spring, but with summer sneaking up on us so quickly that we barely noticed, which brings us to what is now the end of June. But finally, with all these things pretty much sorted out, we chose our (un?)lucky builder a few days ago, and it looks like things will get seriously under way in just a few weeks, which will bring us nearly to the autumn but not quite. More importantly, we aim to get a fully enclosed structure by the end of the year, ready (we hope!) to withstand whatever the coming winter decides to throw at us.

From the relaxed way in which I’m writing about the time this all takes, you may well suspect that I’ve been here before, and indeed I have! Future blogs will no doubt record the progress of this particular project, but I thought this blog would be a good opportunity to relate some of my previous experiences concerning new buildings. Some of these have been pretty hilarious, although I have to say that they didn’t always strike me so at the time. You will see what I mean if you have a few minutes to waste by reading on!

 So where do I start? Well, this really begins with my experiences at a certain corporate research laboratory. Since we’re talking 1980s here, that was all some time ago now, so I think I can get away with telling things like they really were without upsetting too many people. I’m afraid my then employers aren’t going to come out of this very well, so I won’t mention them by name here (but definitely no prizes to anyone who works out who they were!) but in their mitigation I should point out that corporate R&D was being scaled back generally during that period, so what was going on there was part of a trend, albeit perhaps a relatively extreme example. In that respect, the rather thoughtful recent report by Richard Jones, “The UK’s Innovation Deficit and How to Repair it” is well worth a read, as it does put my own experiences in a rather broader context. I wasn’t just in the wrong place, but the wrong sort of place at the wrong time. In the end it was essential for my continued sanity (although some say it was already too late) that I should escape, which of course is how I came to set up Cairn. Future blogs may well relate more about that story (I’ve already hinted that it was an interesting one in a previous blog, but let’s just stick with buildings in this one.

 This first new building story came about in consequence of a REORGANISATION. The word has been capitalised because my then employers were really rather good at that, if only in the sense that they did it rather often, culminating in a final REORGANISATION (i.e. closure) a few years after my escape. The particular REORGANISATION in question was to amalgamate two previously separate research sections, as a result of which it was decided to construct a single new building in order to have everyone in the same place. That was fine in principle, but the time between REORGANISATIONS tended to be rather shorter than the time required to put up a new building, so by the time this one was finished, the reason for its existence had already gone. In fact, I learned a general lesson here. Most buildings tend to considerably outlast the purpose for which they were originally constructed (writes your blogger from a converted farm building), so in my opinion it’s a good idea not to make the building any more specialised than it needs to be for that purpose – keep it flexible if you can! Bear this in mind as you read on….

 The job that had tempted me into this particular organisation was to run an electrophysiology lab. We had everything we needed where we were, but as a result of that first REORGANISATION we were going to have some space in that nice new building instead. There was actually some reasonable effort at consultation, but these things can acquire a momentum of their own that turns out to be pretty much unstoppable.

 My conversation with the architects’ human representatives on earth went something like the following. In the interests of artistic licence, I have made them sound rather more like the traditional British workmen of that era than they actually were, and the details of the conversation have been somewhat embellished, but the basic misunderstandings are, unfortunately, spot on!


“Well mate, you’ve ‘ad a look at the plans, is that what you want?”

“Basically yes, but why have you put those drains in the middle of the floor?”

“They’re for your cages, mate. Gonna keep some of them Faradays in them, aren’t ya? Vicious little beasts, aren’t they, Fred?”

“Sure are, Joe!” My brother got attacked by one once. Needed seventeen stitches, he did. Or was it nineteen?”

“Yeah, so with them drains you won’t need to go inside for cleaning. You can just hose ’em down from the outside. Much safer! But Fred, I never knew your brother actually got bit by one.”

“He sure did! Definitely a Faraday, it was! Or maybe it was a Rottweiler, I forget now. Had to be put down anyway.”

“Wot, it or your, brother, haw haw!”

“Look, sorry guys, there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding here. A Faraday cage isn’t for some sort of animal. It’s actually for electrically screening some sensitive recording equipment, so we certainly don’t need those drains.”

“Ok mate, we can leave them out, but we’ve heard nuffink about electrical screening before now, have we Fred? Not too late though, we can do the whole room for ya, can’t we Fred?”

“Sure can Joe!” We can put metal mesh in all the walls and ceilings, and give you some nice metal doors too. No problem at all!”

“But the screening is to keep out interference from the power lines, so it just wouldn’t work once you’ve brought them inside!”

“Of course we can bring them inside! You’ll need power, won’t ya?

“Yes, but I’ve just said, if you….”

“Just don’t you worry mate, you leave it all to us. They said to give you all the best, so that’s what we’re gonna give ya, aren’t we Fred?”

“Sure are Joe! Glad I’m not payin’ for it all though, haw haw!”

 And so on. They really were quite insistent about that screening, in spite of my protestations, so in the end it was easier just to let it go ahead! However, the electrophysiology was being wound down by the time the building was finished, and ceased altogether soon afterwards, because of the succeeding (I use that word strictly in the sense of “following”) REORGANISATIONS, so all that screening would still have been a waste of money even if it had been of practical use. I wonder who is using that space now? They must wonder why their mobile phones don’t work in there, so let’s hope they all enjoy the greater peace and quiet!

 But it turned out that this new building had another problem, which in retrospect played a key role in the establishment of Cairn, although it didn’t quite feel that way at the time. Instead, it was just horribly embarrassing. Let me explain! The REORGANISATION that shortly followed our move to the new building was a particularly major one, and for a while it left me in a sort of limbo without very much to do, whereas I do actually like to do things. I therefore made the fateful decision to unofficially try out an idea I had, but it involved a bit of chemical synthesis. That should have been no problem, as the new building was quite well endowed with fume hoods, although we had all been warned of the high operating expenses of these facilities – apparently they had an effective power consumption of up to 11kW each. Therefore do think carefully before you embark on anything that may need you to use them, they advised. I think the issue here is the high rate of airflow (and hence potential heat loss) needed to stop any potentially nasty fumes leaking back into the lab, and these particular beasts were clearly state-of-the art. Much good it turned out to do them….

 Well, it turned out that the low-usage advice was being well taken, as I must have been the first person to use one for its intended purpose, so I walked straight into what followed! The chemical synthesis required me to use a rather smelly substance by the name of tosyl chloride, and the people who knew more about this sort of thing than I did advised me that I should run a purification step before using it in anger. “Very easy, but you’ll have to do it in a fume hood!”, they said. This I did, with the result that I stank out the whole building. With the recent closure of the electrophysiology, yours truly’s star was already on the wane, and now he’d demonstrated to all and sundry that he couldn’t even use a fume hood properly. What a twat! As to my reaction, I remember someone saying “Martin, you’ve gone white!” as I waited for the earth to swallow me up. I was convinced I’d been doing everything right, which made it all the worse as far as I was concerned. It was all so obviously my fault, so nobody (least of all me, I was just too embarrassed) thought to look for any alternative explanation.

 So that, of course, was the end of that particular project, and hence of that longsince-closed institution having any sort of future (dream on, Martin!!!), but if there was one key event that highlighted why I was never going to fit in at that place, this was it. People who tried to do things were just going to make themselves too unpopular, so I really needed to go and do something else with my life. However, I wanted to think and plan carefully first, so meanwhile I just decided to be a “good boy” from that point on, and to stick it out until I was properly ready to make my escape. Not easy, but in retrospect very worthwhile, as having a continuing “day job” allowed me to put Cairn on a secure financial footing from the start, which has preserved our independence ever since. Yet again there are stories here for another day, but for now let’s get back to that building!

 It was only after I’d left that particular establishment that I heard what the real problem was! Remember all that air that’s being sucked out of a fume hood at full boost? To stop the doors and windows imploding, clearly an equivalent amount of air has to come in from somewhere else, so the question arises as to where that “somewhere else” might be. Oh dear! Yes, apparently the air intake had been sited right next to the outlet! There are times when recycling just isn’t a good idea, as I had of course inadvertently demonstrated. There must have been quite a long further interval before anyone else tried using those facilities in anger though, as the problem was identified only some years later. Presumably this was when someone was doing something on a more official basis than I was, so that it had to continue in spite of the stinking building. I understand that when it eventually was, they had to install somethin akin to a ship’s ventilator arrangement, with the inlet and outlet firmly facing in opposite directions. All too late for me, but in retrospect I’m really rather grateful for the extra incentive it gave me to get out, so there are no hard feelings now (well, not many, anyway!). And in retrospect it is quite a good story to be able to put into a blog like this. I wonder what happened to the architects though? They probably went on to design even bigger monstrosities, as life does tend to be like that. Let’s just hope it didn’t include any containment facilities!!!!

Although I’ve not been able to put this particular lesson to good use in Cairn’s building projects (even though a fume hood facility would be widely appreciated when my dogs are flatulating at their full boost), there was another one which turned out to be quite handy. The lab space was quite nicely fitted out, even without the drains for those Faraday cages, but after a few months the doors below the lab benches started sagging on their hinges, and then one or two began to fall off. They looked like nice solid doors on nice brass hinges, but once these two components began to go their separate ways, one could see that the doors were made of – chipboard! Now chipboard is a truly wondrous substance, which has only two major shortcomings. One is its near-total lack of structural strength, and the other is what happens to it when it gets wet. Our local firemen friends refer to it as “Weetabix” for that reason, although the usual legal reasons make it inadvisable to comment on the relative taste and nutritional value of these two products of course. As an aside, it has always been a mystery to your blogger as to why such an inappropriate substance should find its way into so many kitchens – and very expensive ones at that! Yours truly is not alone in having a houseful of it, but he has at least managed to keep it out of his kitchen, thanks to discovering this handy interweb link a couple of years ago.  although his chipboard bookshelves are still sagging badly in spite of various attempts at their reinforcement.

The lesson learned for the future was twofold. First, if you’re going to use it anywhere, make sure that the fittings take into account its dubious structural strength, and that means using those “funny” hinges used in the commercial kitchen units rather than plush brass ones, as amongst other things they feature oversize fixing screws and a general “load-spreading” design, as well as lots of adjustments to keep the doors more or less level as the side panels sag under their weight. Second, chipboard is chipboard is chipboard, however expensive it might be, so just go and buy the cheapest you can find. Some years later I did that with a vengeance!

That brings us into the early 1990s, by which time Cairn was fully up and running, and we’d just managed to buy a nice little industrial unit that needed to be fitted out. We were on a budget, so it had to be cheap, but cheap chipboard was probably going to be ok. Here I can be a bit more specific about names and places, as the oufit I went to has been out of business for a while, and from time to time I wonder if this particular purchase was what may have begun a chain reaction that eventually brought the whole enterprise down – who knows?

In your blogger’s occasionally humble opinion, the selling of kitchens tends to be at least doubly dishonest. First, the peddling of worktops and cabinets that turn into breakfast cereal at the slightest hint of moisture is perhaps not one of Western civilisation’s proudest achievements, although it may well yet save us in times of future famine. Second, the pricing structure is often just a touch on the deceptive side. Not only is there usually a “sale” that is about to end at any moment (leaving barely enough time for the next one to start), but the price differences between the various units clearly bear no relation to their relative costs. There is usually a “double base unit” at a very attractive “come-on” price, but this rapidly goes up if you add drawers, and as for those units that fit into corners, or go around cookers, or conceal fridges, then suddenly you’re having your wallet seriously felt.

Clearly they bank on you needing some of each of these things for the average kitchen, but all I needed were some nice long runs of cabinets against the walls, plus a fair number more arranged back-to-back to form “island” work areas, and all finished off with the cheapest possible worktops, so those loss-leading base units would fit the bill all by themselves. I duly took myself off to the Canterbury MFI showroom with this requirement, and I still recall the overheard horrified exchange between a couple of the sales staff as I left. “That guy has just ordered twenty-one base units!” It must have really hurt their profit figures for that month, and most likely the staff’s commissions too. If this was indeed the event that started them off into that long downward spiral into receivership, I’m actually rather sorry about it, since as chipboard goes, their units really weren’t too bad.

That little industrial unit served us very well for a decade, and we even made a small profit when we sold it once the farm came along. It was just a standard “starter” unit in the old shipyard in Faversham, and it was just about high enough to fit an entire internal floor, which doubled the useable space at little extra expense. We then stuck some patio doors immediately behind the roller shutter one at the front, and added some windows upstairs to give a very nice view looking down Faversham Creek, so this all made for a light and airy feel generally. Unfortunately the access road into the shipyard, as indeed were some of the other industrial units, was a bit of a mess, so we used to joke that we needed to blindfold visitors on the final stage of their journey to us, although that part of the journey would have remained suspiciously bumpy. One of the bumps claimed the bottom half of James our (now) Marketing Director’s car engine, I seem to remember. Towards the end, that unit was very overcrowded, as it took a while to find our next place – which turned out to be the farm of course – because two previous possibilities had fallen through, so in that sense we were pleased to move on. However, we were able to sell it to the neighbours, Sturts who are fabric and upholstery specialists, and whose skills include making the conductive fabric that forms an essential part of our Faraday cages. They’ve been looking after it very well, and whenever I’m having my car seen to at a nearby garage, I’m not afraid to knock on their door for a cup of tea and to wallow in a good old-fashioned bit of nostalgia.

Once we’d found the farm in 2001, we had a massive new project ahead of us, so it was summer 2003 before we finally moved in. Actually the farm buildings saga – also a story in itself – was in some ways a bit of a personal disappointment, as I was really dreaming of designing a new building from scratch, rather than having to convert old ones, but the farm as whole was far too good an opportunity to pass up (slight understatement there), so we just got on with what needed to be done.

However, some new-build work did creep in, not to mention a lot more kitchen units, although we did spread the load between several different suppliers this time. My request to build a substantial further structure that would also serve to join two existing buildings together did not go down well with the planners, who were prepared to allow only a more modest “linking corridor” between them. But when I explained that we were really looking for rather more space than those two buildings could provide by themselves, they gave us pemission to convert a third building as well, which in practice made a great deal of sense, as the “linking corridor” could be extended to join up with that one too. The only problem was that this third building was a rather unattractive barn, consisting of asbestos cladding around a concrete frame, and I really wasn’t sure how we could make anything half-decent out of it, as the planners wanted us to retain its original form.

But fate came to the rescue! The renovation work required us to put in a proper concrete floor, and we needed to put in some windows too. All this required some of the asbestos cladding to be disturbed or temporarily removed. Although that type of asbestos isn’t the very nastiest sort, it turned out that the Building Regulations stated that once it was removed or disturbed, it couldn’t be put back! So here we were, with the planners saying the asbestos had to stay, and the Building Regulations people saying it had to go. The solution was obvious of course, which was just to stand well back and let them sort it out between themselves, with the result that the asbestos went! We were therefore able to put a new shell around that concrete frame, to end up with a really quite nice-looking “new” building – see below. So what with that “linking corridor” as well, which you can also see in the photos ,there was a reasonable amount of new construction after all.

But now, finally, we are getting to put up a genuinely new building! The planners have been very supportive, but of course their largesse hasn’t been entirely without limits, so there have inevitably been negotiations (albeit amicable ones) about this building’s size and appearance. As noted in a previous planning blog, we let the planners call all the shots on the appearance, and instead concentrated on the size aspects. Our main goal here was that the new building has quite a large loft space on account of the pitched roof, and we wanted to make sure it was useable somehow. As part of those negotiations though, we agreed to a lower roof pitch than we had originally wanted, but the space up there was still going to be plenty big enough – or so we thought!

Here yours truly put into practice his experiences with previous domestic building projects, which basically mean not to take “no” for an answer. For example, the farmhouse on site (where I live) had a large new double garage added to it a few years ago, with a very nice room above – which also doubles as a very useful bolthole for quietly getting on with things when the Cairn environment gets just a touch too frenetic. However, the structural engineers I’d hired for the project seemed determined to plonk a support stanchion right in the middle of the garage floor in order to help support this room. Apparently it was essential to avoid the need for a truly massive support beam, and for a fair while I just couldn’t budge them from this view. Eventually I told them that there just wasn’t going to be a stanchion, so they had better put that massive support beam instead. It turned out be quite moderate in practice – just a 203x203mm “I” beam for those of you with any interest in such things – and I simply arranged for the floor-to-ceiling height to be correspondingly greater in order to allow for it. So, never be afraid to argue!

It turns out that some of the delay in starting the new building was also down to a structural engineering issue, but the remedy was the same. The lowered roof pitch made it quite difficult to arrange proper stair access to that space, as clearances were going to be tight even if some of the proposed structural steelwork wasn’t going to be in the way. A similar type of discussion followed, in which the engineers would explain why that steelwork couldn’t be moved, and we would explain why it had to be. It culminated in my doing a rough sketch and saying “Why can’t it be something like this?”, which seemed to stimulate them into coming to an even better solution, so we did get there eventually.

So now, at last, we’re ready to start! Many thanks to Simon the architect for sticking with us through all this. It’s been a long hard road, requiring multiple meetings in local hostelries, in order to get this far, but it should all be well worth it. Further blogs will no doubt follow!