Making the world a safer place: Hywel Davies retires from CIBSE

Hywel Davies HonFCIBSE may have retired from CIBSE, but Alex Smith discovers he is still at the forefront of building safety reform and will continue to cajole industry and government to strive for safer buildings

Hywel Davies joined CIBSE in 2007

Hywel Davies HonFCIBSE has had a long and illustrious career in the building services industry, spanning 40 years, but he’s not one to dwell on the past.

For this interview, which marks his retirement from CIBSE, Hywel was clear he wanted to focus on issues facing engineers in the months and years ahead.

The main concern for engineers, he says, must be with meeting the requirements of the Building Safety Act. He calls it the biggest upheaval facing the construction industry since World War II and has spent much of the past six months explaining to audiences the magnitude of the changes.

Anyone familiar with Hywel’s public speaking will know he is a great orator. He has a skill for communicating the most complex information in a clear and engaging manner, and does so with warmth and wit.   

Having spoken extensively, Hywel is concerned that the industry doesn’t understand the significance of the changes. ‘What worries me is that people think the Building Safety Act is a response to Grenfell and a fire in a block of flats. It isn’t – it’s a wholesale reform of the Building Regulation regime for all buildings, from a studio shed to The Shard,’ he says.

Some sectors are having to come to terms with the safety regime change sooner than others. Last month, the chief executive of Local Authority Building Control, Lorna Stimpson, wrote to the Building Safety Regulator warning that councils would stop providing services unless a deadline for building control officers to prove competence was extended. She said that ‘a significant number of building control professionals will not achieve successful certification and, therefore, registration before the 6 April deadline’. In response, the Health and Safety Executive extended the deadline for passing the assessment by 13 weeks, to 6 July. 

Hywel’s working life

Hywel completed his chemistry degree at Swansea University, where he stayed to do his PhD on amorphous silicon semiconductor material for photovoltaics. His first paid job at the height of the Cold War was using climate-based modelling to predict the spread of radiation from a nuclear attack.

He spent 10 years at the Building Research Establishment, testing construction materials. Tasks included working on hydrogen embrittlement in high-tensile steel and researching epoxy-coated reinforcement bars that ensured ‘millions wasn’t wasted putting a material that didn’t work into road infrastructure’. It was here that he first got involved in construction product standards committees.

In 2007, Hywel became CIBSE’s technical director. One of his proudest achievements was making CIBSE technical guidance available on the online Knowledge Portal, enabling members to access it easily. In May 2017, he joined the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. A month later, after the Grenfell Tower fire, he found himself at the heart of the regulatory response to the disaster. In January 2018, Hywel was asked to chair an Expert Group to review the use and format of Approved Documents.

Under his technical leadership, CIBSE published the Emerging from Lockdown series with the Royal Academy of Engineering during the Covid pandemic. Free to all, it offered guidance on ventilation, lift use, air cleaning, and recommissioning of buildings.

Hywel has sympathy with local authority building control, but feels they were forewarned. ‘I know the public sector is under pressure, but given all that’s happened over Grenfell, and the length of time the public sector has been on notice that things are going to change, I can’t avoid feeling frustrated it got to this point,’ he says.

Another area of irritation is the delay in government response to recommendations in the Independent Review of the Construction Product Testing Regime. However, Hywel says professionals can’t sit and wait for government to devise a new regime. ‘There’s a lot industry can do to take ownership’ he says. ‘Competent engineers shouldn’t be asking civil servants to tell them what to do. People have to demonstrate that they have exercised reasonable skill and care.’

One area of building safety in which there does appear to be engagement is the registering of higher-risk buildings (HRBs), which had to be done by 6 October. Almost 14,000 buildings have been registered – 2,000 more than expected.

Hywel says his Christianity guides his working life

‘It suggests that people out there managing these buildings are paying a bit more attention,’ Hywel says. ‘It’s better than saying “I’m not sure it’s an HRB. I’ll wing it until somebody turns up with a summons”.’

After registering, HRB owners have six months to compile a safety case report that identifies risks to their buildings. People have to look at their building and think ‘what could possibly go wrong’, says Hywel.

As chair of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, he helped set out the new safety regime, and will continue to be prominent as a member of the Building Advisory Committee, which is responsible for keeping the Building Safety Regulator abreast of emerging issues in the sector.

He was also recently part of the working group that created the guidance on damp and mould for rented housing providers, which followed the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak as a result of mould in his home.

There’s a lot industry can do to take ownership. People have to demonstrate they’ve exercised reasonable skill and care

In addition, Hywel is working for the Construction Industry Council, which brings together professional bodies to speak with one voice. He feels his consensual approach may be the reason his advice is sought. ‘I appear to have this quite unusual status,’ he says. ‘I’m widely respected, trusted for keeping my mouth firmly shut, and apparently have some ability to broker a degree of understanding and consensus between different parties.’

His retirement event was held at St Andrew Undershaft church in the City of London, where Hywel, who has a wife Jackie and three children, has worshipped for 20 years. His faith is an important influence on his attitude to work. ‘Whatever you do, do it with all your strength, as to the Lord. That’s all I try to do in my life,’ he says. ‘If I’ve made a difference, it’s not because I’ve set out to do that, it’s because I’ve tried to do things well.’

Championing Safe, Sustainable Buildings on a Global Stage

Three CIBSE fellows on Hywel Davies’ legacy at CIBSE:

CIBSE President Adrian Catchpole FCIBSE
Hywel’s legacy is one of a visionary leader in the field of building services engineering, whose passion for clear policy, world-class guidance and effective implementation has pushed boundaries within our industry.

Hywel’s accomplishments include overseeing the restructuring of CIBSE’s Knowledge Management and Generation functions, the fundamental changes to Part L of the Buildings Regulations in 2006, and successfully encouraging government to address overheating in buildings (Part O), which came into being in 2021.

For me, one of Hywel’s greatest achievements was to lead the strategic vision for CIBSE to make its publications freely available to members through the CIBSE Knowledge Portal. This action has revolutionised our sector, by making our guidance and codes more widely available to all construction professionals.

Tim Dwyer FCIBSE
Hywel’s career exemplifies a steadfast commitment to safe and sustainable building practices.

I had the privilege of collaborating with Hywel in reviving the CIBSE Technical Symposium – a critical platform for peer-reviewed research, technical advancements, and innovation.

Hywel’s influence transcends national borders. He actively participates in institutions including ASHRAE and Rehva, and his representation of CIBSE on numerous international and UK committees has demonstrably shaped the standards and guidelines that ensure safe and healthy built environments, while moving the industry towards net zero. His encyclopaedic knowledge of regulations positions him to continue his impactful work for years to come.

Vince Arnold FCIBSE, CIBSE Board member and trustee
Hywel has been a strong influence on the strategic direction of our Institution. He commands the respect of the Institution and its Members around the world. There have been many occasions when Hywel’s natural ability to hold an audience during his presentations delivers the message at all levels. I have seen first hand his natural ‘command’ of the room.

Hywel is the only engineer I know that has been named and quoted more than once in the House of Lords.

I wish Hywel all the best for the future and thank him for his personal support and the support he has given the Institution.