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Revisiting Middlesbrough’s Community in a Cube

In 2012, I wandered around the Community in a Cube (CIAC) in Middlesbrough after I had a meeting nearby. This visually striking, sustainable, RIBA award shortlisted block of 82 flats in the redeveloping Middlehaven area of the town was of particular interest as it seemed to have become flavour of the month among architects.

Fast-forward to 2019 and the development has been back in the news for rather less welcome reasons. According to local and national press reports, inspections of the building in the wake of the Grenfell disaster have revealed that the building—and, in particular, the distinctive timber claddingare not compliant with fire regulations. ‘Not compliant’ to the extent that a 24/7 ‘waking watch’ patrol has been implemented at a huge cost.

So, when fate brought me to a nearby meeting again today, I thought I’d use the lunch break for another quick wander to see how the development had aged.


Over the last seven years, CIAC has become a local landmark. Its visibility from the A66 and the nearby railway line, combined with the eye-catching “sky homes” perched on top of it, have made the building a familiar and commonly mentioned icon of Middlesbrough.

That said, the intended ‘riverside vision’ has never quite emerged, with CIAC remaining the sole residential development in the area. It seems somewhat isolated as a result. The current plan is for a £30m snow centre to be build nearby.

The surrounding ‘naked streets’, which I found “disconcerting” on my first visit, are now much more traditionally clothed, with separation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. There’s also no shortage of weeds on display, which actually somewhat pleasingly soften the visual impact.

Close up, the building looks minimally weathered. The distinctive black stripes on the cladding have mostly worn away on the front of the building, but less so on the less exposed elevations.

The gigantic zebra crossing like paving remains in place at the rear. The geometrically patterned inset wall looks as sharp and fresh as ever. From this angle, I think I’d be hard-pressed to identify photographs taken today from those taken when the building was first completed.

And while seven years ago I said this building “isn’t quite to my taste”, gazing at it across the water of Middlehaven Dock today, I could almost change my mind. Perhaps it’s partly familiarity, but it feels less ‘alien spaceship’ than it did when it was first completed.

All things considered, it has aged pretty well. I’ve no idea how well it has done from a sales perspective: I hear tell from local colleagues that some of the flats are now let to students of the nearby Middlesbrough College, but there are certainly a fair few owner occupiers.


Of course, though, as successful as the visual impact has been, I wouldn’t have dreamed that such a modern building would now be deemed a major fire risk in need of hundreds of thousands of pounds of remedial work. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for the owners and residents of the flats to be living somewhere where they don’t feel as safe as they once did, let alone the financial consequences.

While I understand from the media coverage that it was compliant with regulations when built, this experience must surely raise questions about when the right things are really prioritised when landmark architectural developments are being designed.

This 2,477th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, , , .

30 things I learned in November 2019

1: It feels great, if a little anticlimactic, to finally be able to delete “Locum” from my email signature.


2: The North Shields Fish Quay has really smartened up since Wendy and I last visited. It would be nice to live somewhere with a river view, if only it didn’t have to be near a river.


3: Going to Ikea for the 10.30 Sunday browsing opening time isn’t a successful crowd avoidance strategy.


4: Barriers between healthcare organisations can make simple things—like arranging urgent vaccinations—more difficult than they ought to be. Perhaps someone should invent some sort of national health service which provides care based on need rather than budgets, contract provisions and organisational mission statements.


5: Telling patients that they look far too young to have donated blood 61 times makes them want to go back and donate again as soon as possible to receive more flattery.


6: Sometimes, people who use irritating business chatter do actually understand what they’re on about.


7: Business planning isn’t my bag.


8: Th Guardian Daily app doesn’t work properly on Kindle tablets.


9: Loud Christmas music in coffee shops makes settling down with a coffee and a good book difficult. Headphones and white noise on Spotify are an imperfect and antisocial solution.


10: It’s not easy being green: should I buy second-hand books and support the planet or new books and support the author?


11: Durham County Council has meeting rooms with quite spectacular coastal views in Seaham:

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12: Dementia friendly parking spaces are now a thing… at least in Hemlington:

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13: “At this time of year, it is not uncommon for viruses including influenza and norovirus to circulate in schools. The risk of infection can be reduced by practising good hand hygiene, particularly after using the toilet, after using a tissue to catch a cough or a sneeze, and before eating.”


14: Our TV needs re-tuning. Broadcasts are moving away from the 700MHz band of frequencies to free up spectrum for mobile data instead. Given the profitability of mobile data services and the proliferation of home broadband (especially in the context of PSTN switch-off), I wonder how long over-the-air television broadcast have left?


15: Arguments opposing the Public Libraries Act 1850 included a Conservative view that people “have too much knowledge already” and that “the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.” In fairness, I suppose people now carry the sum of human knowledge in their pockets and do have a tendency to be rebel against authoritarian control, so perhaps he had a point.


16: The TLS has relaunched with a rather stylish new look. Dr Brian Klass’s comparison of politics in Trump’s America and that in Brexit Britain through the medium of cheese was a particular highlight of this issue for me.


17: Coffee shop Christmas music irritates Wendy even more than me. It’s depressing, or so I’m told.


18: A replacement wing mirror for a 2009 Aygo costs less than £50. I was expecting a much bigger bill after someone completely snapped mine off (and didn’t leave a note!)


19: The brand new Sunderland medical school has some impressive facilities.


20: Colleagues at Middlesbrough Council taught me that routine air quality monitoring still uses diffusion tubes fixed to lampposts; people have to go up in cherry pickers to change the tubes every month.


21: Research into treatments for interstitial lung disease includes a lot of discussion about disease taxonomy and the problem of lumping and splitting: considering diagnoses with the same underlying pathology together (lumping) or as distinct entities (splitting).


22: Cleveland Fire Brigade taught me about their Stay Safe and Warm free one-hour response service for boiler breakdowns where they lend people emergency electric heaters.


23: A wet and dreary Saturday can be a good prompt to light the fire and relax at home.


24: I didn’t know that Sheffield had a hybrid tram-train system until I read this Wired article.


25: Purdah rules can be really annoying sometimes, especially when I’ve done a lot of work to prepare for a meeting I’m no longer able to attend.


26: I thought I learned the etymology of the word “syndrome” after it was featured in a lecture. Yet after thinking about it for a while, the suggestion that it was derived from words for “before” and “diagnosis” didn’t ring true, so I looked it up in the OED online. The lecture version was thus proven to be completely wrong, so I suppose I learned not to take the content of lectures on trust.


27: Only a decade late to the party, I learned that Ecosia—the search engine that plants trees—is a thing.


28: People really don’t know what I do all day. This month, in my health protection role, a meeting of vascular surgeons has invited me to talk about knife crime, a univeristy course has asked me to teach about rural medicine, and a meeting of intensivists has invited me to present on recreational drug toxicology. They may be disappointed at me turning down their kind invitations, but they’d be far more disappointed if I accepted given that I know naff all about any of those topics.


29: Via Lana Greene’s column in 1843, I leaned of the German word “Multioptionsgesellschaft”. It was apparently coined by Peter Gross, a Swiss sociologist, in the early 1990s. It refers to a world swamped by choice, which feels very current: I frequently open Netflix for something to watch and close it a few minutes later with the resignation of not being able to decide.


30: I heard a snippet of a radio programme in which an older person was being interviewed and the subject of loneliness among the elderly came up. The interviewee suggested that while lots of attention has been paid to loneliness recently, too little has been paid to the loss of solitude for many other older people, such as those in care homes. I’d never heard that point made before, and I suspect it will stick with me: solitude is something very important to me.

This 2,476th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Things I've learned, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

A €38m lesson with my latte

Yesterday, I stopped for a coffee in the lobby of one of Amsterdam’s more upmarket hotels. I settled into a stylish yet surprisingly comfortable armchair next to a wrought iron room divider, and cracked open Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil. Before I knew it, though, I had stopped reading, and instead tuned in to the intriguing conversation on the other side of the divider.

At a coffee table was a man with a shaved head, who looked of a similar age to me, wearing a white shirt, and a somewhat over-tight unfastened blue suit jacket, pale blue denim jeans, and black suede shoes. Opposite him, with their backs to me, were a man and a woman, each in smartly conservative suits, with leather folios of notes and papers before them. All three were served cappuccinos.

My ears pricked up when the conversation revealed that the man in jeans was confirming and signing the paperwork for a €38m personal loan: that’s not a conversation one hears every day, and not one that I would have expected to hear in such a public place. It turned out that the loan was to fund the purchase of a luxury boat from the man’s father, at below market value as it was partly being offered as a gift. The man intended to use the boat for general recreation, but also had designs on renting it out commercially for cruises, as acquaintances with similar boats were reputedly wont to do.

I know very little about luxury boats. I’ve seen articles in newspapers and magazines about million-pound super-yachts, but I can’t even conceive of what sort of vessel €38m buys you – let alone the full amount including the ‘gift’. I’d believe you if you told me this was a conversation about a four-bedroom yacht that one might sail into a small harbour, and I’d also believe you if you told me this was a conversation about a mini cruise ship with tens of rooms that would require dedicated port facilities. I’ve really no idea. And I’ve also no idea on what sort of terms a €38m personal loan would typically be offered: it’s never a conversation that’s crossed my mind, let alone one that I’m ever likely to take part in (especially if I spend all my money on expensive coffees in posh hotels). And so I was intrigued. Fay Weldon was not going to receive much attention as I sipped this particular latte.

As the conversation progressed, the man in jeans explained that he was confident in the arrangement because he was near certain that his pay cheques would cover the loan repayments whether or not he got round to renting the boat out (goodness only knows what his job was), and if he should fall on hard times, he could sell the boat and easily pay off the loan given that it was for less than the market value. So to this nosey parker, listening through the divider, the deal seemed as sensible as a loan to spend €38m on a boat ever could.

Yet just as he was on the verge of signing the paperwork, the man asked a question which confounded me: “Given that there are no arrangement fees, why are you charging me such as low interest rate?”

The man went onto explain that he was concerned that he had misread the wisdom of the deal. The loan provider had sent two members of staff to meet him in Amsterdam from their offices elsewhere in Europe, at presumably high cost to their firm. The amount of money being borrowed was substantial. The low interest rate meant that the profit they would make on the deal would be small in comparison with the outlay. Why, the man wanted to know, weren’t they pushing for more? Were they expecting that he would default on the loan, and that they would recoup a greater financial prize from the fallout? Were his assumptions about the safety of the deal wrong? What did they know that he didn’t?

This question confounded me because it’s not common to hear someone clarify the reasons for suspected undercharging. I’m not sure I would have done so—not that I’m ever likely to borrow €38m—because I think I would have been concerned that the lenders would raise their price to meet my expectations.

Yet on my way to Amsterdam, I’d just finished reading Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. This book makes the case that receiving feedback is an interactive process, and we should always seek to understand the point of view of the person giving the feedback. The interest rate on this loan is clearly a type of feedback from the lender.

By discussing the rate with the lenders, the man in jeans could either avoid a huge and costly financial miscalculation on his part, or could set his mind at rest. If the lenders had jacked up the rate in response to his question, he could always have taken his business elsewhere—and, of course, the lenders were unlikely to do so for exactly that reason.

The decision by the man in jeans to have this conversation could have only positive effects: and yet, it is a conversation that I would naturally have shied away from. I suppose, given that he was taking out a €38m loan, the man was probably more used to large scale financial transactions than me. It wouldn’t be an absurd supposition that his day job may be in the financial sector. Perhaps that is why he had he confidence that I would have lacked to initiate this conversation.

But that’s a very easy get-out for myself. What other conversations do I shy away from for illegitimate reasons? Do I avoid asking things that could help prevent me from making unwise decisions because I lack the confidence to ask them? There’s some food for thought and reflection.

And the answer to the man’s question? Simple, really, according to the lenders. Pricing for loans is risk-based. The loan is secured on the boat which is worth more than the total value of the loan regardless. The terms of the loan state that appropriate insurance must be in place. Even if the man fails to make his repayments, the risk of the lenders not receiving their capital back is very low: such low risk investments for such large amount of money are rare. And besides, even at a low interest rate, the lenders stand to make hundreds of thousands of Euros in pure profit, because a small percentage of a very big number is still a big number.

Before long, the paperwork was duly signed and all three were on their way. The meeting lasted twenty, maybe thirty minutes. If I were one of the lenders, travelling internationally for such a short meting would feel like a waste of time, even though I’d just brought in a huge amount of profit for my firm. But as someone travelling solely for pleasure, I think this was possibly one of the most thought-provoking and educational coffees I’ve sipped in a very long time.


Most of the pictures in this post are not my own, though I did post a nice picture I took at the Rijksmuseum in ‘real time’. In this post, the first picture (Amsterdam) is by Boudewijn “Bo” Boer; the second (a ship’s wheel) is by Maximilian Weisbecker; the third (Amsterdam again) is by Javier M; and the fourth is my own picture of a boat’s wake, co-incidentally taken from the back of the DFDS ferry to Amsterdam (though not on this trip). All are used with grateful thanks, and under the terms of their Creative Commons licences.

This 2,467th post was filed under: Miscellaneous, Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , .




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