'The building is our client' says CABE Building Engineer of the Year David Humphreys

Group Director for Architectural Conservation Professionals (ACP) and CABE Fellow David Humphreys has worked in the global built environment sector for more than 30 years. CABE’s judges commended him for working tirelessly to promote best conservation practice and raising standards in his native Ireland and also internationally.

Based in the Republic of Ireland, David Humphreys has invested nearly 25 years of his life in the promotion of best construction methods in historical structures while at the same time supporting traditional building techniques. 

David says he set up his consultancy with the specific aim of creating a multi-disciplinary team that could meet the growing demand for architectural heritage and building conservation advice across Ireland. 

Since its inception in 2000 ACP has expanded its operations both domestically and internationally. As well as its Irish HQ, the consultancy operates in Newfoundland, Canada and Singapore and has also undertaken projects in Hong Kong, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Sydney, Australia. 

"We have just hit over 1,000 historic projects and have the full spread of expertise between in-house experts and associates," he says. 

Personal journey

It’s been a long road to get here, but David has excelled along the way. His first serious brush with historic landscape and buildings came in 1977 when he began studying landscape architecture at University College Dublin, gaining a first class honours degree five years later. 

On reflection, however, David admits that he never saw this architectural strand as a lifelong pursuit because he couldn’t get passionate about it. 

With a deep recession biting at home, he jumped at the opportunity to take up an academic post at the University of Queensland in Australia in 1985. Then, on his return to Ireland via England three years later, English Heritage offered him a role in the landscape department in London, which he took. 

"After about a year, I began to make soundings that although I enjoyed the landscape work, I had seen such a cross section of historic buildings and sites like Hadrian’s Wall, Stonehenge, Kenilworth Castle and Osborne House, and I just found I really loved being around historic buildings," he says.

David started to make some enquiries within English Heritage and in 1993 he started a three-year postgraduate diploma in project management at Henley Business School. This opened another door so he could undertake historic building projects at the charity.

Finally returning home to Ireland in 1998, David found there was absolutely no conservation work available. To pay the bills, he turned to consultancy work as a project manager focusing on modern buildings. 

Just over a year later, an engineer that David was working with assigned him as the lead building engineer on a historic building project and his passion for the subject was reignited.  

Giving buildings a voice

When David set up his consultancy in January 2000, he explains that, from day one, his philosophy has been to treat the historic building as the client. 

"The thing that really stood out for me was that anyone who worked at English Heritage or anywhere else was always focused on the building," he explains.

"We carry that culture through to today where we always say to a new client, 'Look, you are paying the bill, but the building is our client. We need to speak for it and make sure it’s got a voice because it will be here long after we’ve both gone'."

David has often found that private clients, who are only really interested in the prestige of owning a historic house, have found this approach difficult to understand at first. However, once he’s explained the philosophy to them, generally they have been won round. 

‘They end up, by the time we’ve finished with the building, absolutely loving the place because it’s infectious,’ he says.

He remembers one client that had bought an historic house, but then ran into problems with the planning authority. David’s consultancy stepped in to help and as they were refurbishing the property, discovered the client’s sitting room contained a wall that was a filled-in stone gate archway. On closer inspection, this was part of the defensive curtain wall leading to a tower house located in the grounds of the property.  

"The remains of the tower house were there, but when you were sitting down chatting in the sitting room, you were sitting where the horses and carriages went in and they didn’t know that," he says. 

"Suddenly, the owner started to get really interested in the project. She went to a guest dinner one night at the local university, sat next to a history professor and they got chatting. It turns out he knew all about the owner of the house in the 1800s and he was an expert physicist or something like that. She commissioned a bust of the guy and she put it on the little alcove going up the stairs."

David says this is an example of a historic house where owners went from not really caring to absolutely loving the restored property. 

"That stands out as a project for me and I know that that house is safe for another couple of generations because that will be passed on to their children and so on," he says.

Multi-award-winning project

David also cites another project at Quay Street in Galway that first won Engineers Ireland Excellence – Heritage and Conservation Award in 2018 before attaining Highly Commended in CABE’s Historic Preservation International Award the following year. 

"The important thing about that building was that it was abandoned and it was a medieval ruin at the end of a shopping street for maybe 20 years,’ he explains.

"It was all held together by a steel frame that prevented it from falling down into the street."

David remembers that it was a particularly challenging refurbishment project, not least because of its derelict condition and the fact that it was a Protected Structure (Listed Building) and a Recorded Monument. 

However, his team were able to design a commercial outlet in the building – a shop selling Aran Sweaters – obtain planning permission and successfully procure the works. In July 2018, the Aran Sweater Market opened for business in the refurbished building. 

Two years after setting ACP up, David had self-funded a two-year RICS postgraduate diploma in Building Conservation at the College of Estate Management, part of Reading University, which allowed him to be a chartered building surveyor, leading to becoming a Building Conservation Accredited Surveyor.

He has also honed his own skills, such as training under a master blacksmith for 10 years so that he could fully understand ironwork and its repair. 

Through the course of his research, David discovered that Ireland’s graveyards were full of 19th century ironworks such as in railings, on graves, on name plaques and on crypt doors and gates.

"We now provide an historic iron/metals consultancy service,’ he says. ‘We don’t do the blacksmith side, but we do the consultancy."

David’s CABE award recognises this attention to traditional crafts as well as his ongoing commitment to CPD.

Upskilling the future workforce

It also recognises his positive approach to developing his colleagues’ skills so they can achieve superlative work in the built environment. 

"When a new person comes in here, we’d work on the basis that they are going to spend time onsite shadowing one of our engineers and one of our architects or surveyors,’ he says.

ACP has set aside a budget specifically for training and a percentage of the consultancy’s turnover is allocated to a fund, so management can cover the cost of delivering practical CPD for staff. 

"We are all generalists in a way, but because of the breadth of the projects, everybody needs to know a bit about everything," he says. 

"I am always encouraging everyone to find an area they can be so passionate about so they can become an expert in it."

As part of his industry upskilling work, David sits on a number of conservation committees to raise standards, provide CPD to members and meet with government representatives to influence new guidance. 

"I have seen an industry here in Ireland go from very little knowledge and very few contractors and consultants to a point where there are a lot of very good ones out there," he says. "Whether these are engineers, building surveyors or architects."

One of the more recent trends he’s noticed is the move to improve energy efficiency in traditional buildings in Ireland. 

"Traditional buildings are built differently and made of different materials. If you start using the standard modern energy efficiency technique or material, you will cause problems for the traditional building," he explains. 

"It’s about understanding that and one of our challenges is to get that through to the professionals, the builders and the homeowners. You need to approach a traditional building differently, whether it is protected (Listed) or not it makes no difference. It’s down to what it is made of and how it was made. That is one of the bigger challenges we have over the next five years. I would see that as my focus to promote best practice."

The CABE Built Environment Awards 2025 will be open for applications in July. Keep an eye on https://builtenvironmentseries.com/awards/ for updates.

Read next: CABE’s Apprentice of the Year described as ‘astonishing’ by judges



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