David Hills tells Building about looking on the funny side, Palermo and his favourite pair of shades



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What has been your biggest career challenge?

In terms of size – undoubtedly Battersea Power Station. In terms of career path, it has been to find an area of the construction industry that really interests and excites me – I’ve tried a few different avenues – construction, “regular” architecture, urban design. I don’t think I’m quite finished yet.

If you could change one thing about the industry?

Short-sightedness about the potential for historic buildings and sites to represent an opportunity for development, not a constraint.

Why did you choose construction as a career?

It sort of chose me. Architecture came first which got me part of the way and then the heritage element squared the circle. I’d always been interested in art and design alongside a deep interest in history and culture – all the stars somehow aligned and conservation architecture was something I fell into. I’ve been very lucky.

What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?

We completed the first new gallery space to be added to the National Gallery for 25 years primarily to provide better access to galleries for educational purposes. The first day it opened I saw a group of schoolchildren enthralled by the curator telling the stories about the paintings – that was a proud moment for me.

Most helpful advice you were given?

My boss Marcus Adams at JTP encouraged me to do a postgraduate conservation course and the rest, as they say, is history – I ended up running it!

What’s your favourite building?

Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo is a 15th-century palazzo with 1950s interventions by Carlo Scarpa – the master. The truth is in the joint. For me that’s the narrative running through all of his work; the joint between the old and the new and even between new materials – nothing ever just butts together – the join is always expressed in some kind of way - shadow gap, extended armature, etc. Every time I go there which is every two years or so – I always notice something different.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your profession?

Work hard, keep an open mind and your options open. If you see an opportunity go for it; volunteer for things - you never know where it will take you.You make your own luck in this world.

Who do you most admire in the construction industry?

Anyone who sticks to their principles and takes an offbeat, alternative view on redevelopment and then sees this through with utter conviction. Martyn Evans at U+I is a friend and would certainly fit this description.

If you could change one thing about the UK construction industry, what would it be?

Waste – both in terms of materials and time and effort; the former is getting better but I’m not too sure about the others.

What famous building do you wish you’d worked on?

Battersea Power Station the first time round in the 1930s. I’d like to know how they achieved such a gargantuan task so quickly with what are by modern standards primitive technologies.

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What’s it like being you?

Exhausting but exhilarating. Due to the nature of work we do you never know what a building or site is going to throw at you, and you have to react quickly – and in client’s best interests.

What do you think your best quality is?

A keen sense of humour – I’m always looking for the funny side of a situation. Our time on this earth is too short not to enjoy it – you get the best results out of people if they’re having fun.

What do trait do you most dislike in yourself? And in other people?

Impatience and probably a bit of intolerance. In other people I can’t stand pedantry, which in my experience is usually based on a misplaced sense of self-importance.

Do you have a life philosophy?

We make our own luck in this world. Work hard and good things will happen…

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What’s your most prized possession?

I’ve a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers that I wear all the time .

Early bird or night owl?

Night owl – I heard somewhere that some people find the wee small hours a more creative time.

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What’s your favourite food?

Oysters and chablis – a friend and I decided to have a dozen oysters between us and a bottle of chablis. We staggered out some hours later having each consumed around 30 oysters, and I lost count of the amount of wine we drank.