BUILD: Building a greener future
“I asked myself, did I want to carry on being part of the problem, or did I want to become part of the solution?”
Interview: Sue Wilcock / Anna-Maria Casas Pictures: Warren Page
Saul Humphrey talks to Norfolk Director
As the focus on environmental sustainability becomes ever sharper, one construction business leader is making it his mission to build greener and better.
Professor Saul Humphrey, who has spent more than three decades in an industry that globally contributes almost 40 per cent of carbon emissions, is pushing for a day when sustainable buildings are the norm rather than the exception to the rule.
After senior roles with leading construction companies, Saul now runs his own consultancy specialising in sustainable development, with offices in Toft Monks near Beccles in Suffolk and Norwich, Norfolk.
His credentials are impressive, to say the least…
Professor of Sustainable Construction at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, he is also Chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD) Norfolk branch, Non-Executive Director of Equinox (Great Yarmouth Borough Council’s home building company), and Chair of Building Growth, New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). He holds various ambassador, trustee and advisor posts, all of which are voluntary, and in his role as a Governor of East Coast College, he chairs curriculum development harnessing his expertise to inspire future generations.
He is also a Fellow or Chartered Member of just about everything…. yet at heart he is a commercially astute businessman, a recognised expert in construction, but one who also has authentic sustainable credentials.
“I am all too aware of the challenges faced by an industry where costs and uncertainty are high but profit margins are low, risks are enormous, skilled labour is in short supply, and where environmental impact is usually outweighed by the bottom line” he observes.
“Many contractors aspire to achieve a three per cent profit margin, which, as an aspirational target, isn’t brilliant. You wouldn’t expect to start a business in almost any other sector and hope to make that little return. There’s a lot of competition and the financial rewards are low, so it’s not for the faint-hearted.”
However, in spite of the many challenges, it is time for the industry to get on board with the need to build more sustainably, according to Saul.
“I could have sat back and said I’ve built £2bn worth of buildings, aren’t I great, but that was never true. I was just lucky enough to be surrounded by talented teams that trusted me. Where I find myself now is my chance to shift the paradigm, recognising that the carbon footprint in constructing these buildings was pretty awful, and that there was a chance to build in a more sustainable way. I asked myself, did I want to continue being part of the problem, or did I want to become part of the solution?”
Saul harboured ambitions to make an impact from an early age. Born in 1967 in Gorleston, Norfolk, he remembers his parents, Brian and Ann Humphrey, who sometimes struggled to make ends meet.
“It wasn’t a prosperous upbringing, but it was a great one. My dad had been an orphan and was a factory worker at Birds Eye. He played football professionally but broke his leg after one game with Chelsea and that was the end of that career. My mum ran our home as a guesthouse, and my younger brother, Adam, who was a more gifted sportsman, became a PE teacher.
“I went to Cliff Park Infant and Junior School and then Gorleston Grammar School. When I was 16, I decided I wanted to become a surveyor, after discovering there was an entry route that bypassed traditional A Levels.
“I probably should have achieved much more than I did at school, but I was easily distracted. When the careers officer suggested becoming a surveyor, I thought that was a good idea, as my neighbour was one of those (he was actually an estate agent), and he was just a bit older than me, and he had a really nice car!”
Saul signed up to a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) and completed an introductory course at City College, Norwich, before starting work with construction company RG Carter in Great Yarmouth.
“I turned up ‘suited and booted’, ready to work in the office and begin my career as a surveyor,” he recalls. “But the yard manager asked me why I was dressed so smartly and chucked me the keys to a forklift to try out.”
“For the first few weeks, I worked alongside joiners, mechanics, bricklayers, lorry drivers and plant engineers, on-site doing practical stuff, before they realised there had been a mix-up, and I should have in fact been in the office.”
“In hindsight, that miscommunication was one of the best things that could have happened. I got to see a part of the industry that I might have missed completely. I might never have had the chance to work alongside the people that make the difference – those making the buildings.”
In the early years, Saul shadowed various staff including an estimator, site agent, buyer, surveyor and contracts manager. He attended college once a week, studying towards an Ordinary National Certificate (ONC) and then a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in the built environment.
“I loved the camaraderie at Carter’s and the team ethos. I was the youngest person when I joined, and I was learning a lot on-site. I thought if I did well at college, I would also demonstrate that I was competent.”
Another 16-year-old was working for the company at the time, a girl called Helen who would go on years later to become Saul’s wife, and mother to their two daughters, Isabel and Emily.
After a couple of years with RG Carter, Saul started to doubt he was in the right job and decided to act on a separate dream he had of joining the army. He enlisted at Sandhurst to train as an officer cadet, but quickly realised he had made a mistake.
“We were told to do an assault course and I came in first place. The Sergeant Major told me I’d missed an obstacle (I hadn’t), and I’d have to start again. I argued back and was forced to do it again, coming last. I decided I hated the army and being told what to do.”
“I simply wasn’t ready or mature enough. I didn’t understand that being able to take instruction was really important. I sheepishly went back to RG Carter and asked if I could have my old job back, and fortunately they said yes.”
The desire to progress
Back in his comfort zone, Saul wanted to progress: “I looked up to my boss. He had a really smart car; his own office, he seemed to know everything, and people respected him; I simply wanted to be more like him.”
It wasn’t long before he got that chance, as, in a twist of fate, Saul’s manager became ill, and at the age of 20, he was asked to take over as Acting General Manager.
“I’d seen all the departments, I was running the bigger jobs by then, I knew all the people, and I was ambitious. I understood the numbers and making money – probably the most important aspect of running any business. In truth, I was simply in the right place at the right time.”
Saul aspired to step up another level with the lure of ‘an even better car’, in his eyes a visible symbol of success.
Tenures at the company’s offices in Harleston and Drayton in Norfolk beckoned, followed by a role as a Senior Surveyor and then Project Manager working on major projects. “These projects were very big – singularly worth much more than the business I had been running in an entire year – so it felt like a step up.”
After a few more years running larger projects, Saul then accepted the position of General Manager for John Youngs.
“John Youngs was a subsidiary owned by RG Carter, which typically worked on residential housing developments and heritage building projects around Norfolk. After diversifying and securing a contract with Norwich Union to deliver all its insurance repairs, I was promoted to Director; the youngest ever to achieve that position in the Group.”
With success came further promotion, and Saul was asked by his boss to head up RG Carter’s Cambridge office. He bought a second home nearby – the first of several property purchases to facilitate working commitments – while his wife and children remained in the family home at Somerleyton, Suffolk.
Confident that academic progression was another vital key to stepping further up the ladder, Saul began a master’s degree in construction management. Sponsored by RG Carter, he achieved a distinction. This was then followed by a PhD in Construction Procurement, again with the support of his company.
“I realised a MSc wasn’t enough. Working in Cambridge, I was surrounded by academic scholars, bursars, deans and professors, and I felt a PhD was a natural next step.”
“I juggled research-based study with my new role in Cambridge. Then after just a year, I was promoted to lead the Essex and London offices. Five years later, I also took on responsibility for the Ipswich office as Regional Director, ostensibly leading what became known as the R G Carter Southern region.
“It was really tough, fitting in the PhD at Loughborough University with all my work commitments. The Doctorate should have taken five to seven years, but it took me nine years and I had to put a lot of effort in to get it finished, but I got there in the end.”
Enjoying his role at the Colchester office, Saul felt a pang of déjà vu when in 2006, his boss asked him to move again, this time to head up the company’s head office based at Drayton, Norfolk.
“Whenever Tom Atkins came into my office, it was usually to say he wanted me to do more, or to move. I respected him enormously, but he was a tough boss,” he reflects. “Drayton was where RG Carter was founded and so I had to accept.”
Despite now being perhaps the only Doctor of Construction leading a construction business, Saul did not realise quite how quickly the global economy was hurtling towards the economic crash of 2008, and that massive challenges were on the horizon.
“One major private client was definitely going bust. 200 of our employees were working on three jobs for them and there would literally be no work on the Monday,” he remembers. “There was no hope of us getting paid and you’re suddenly facing the fact of having to make huge redundancies. It was necessary to mitigate catastrophic losses – you just have to do what is necessary in a manner that’s fair, authentic and credible.”
From private to PLC
Saul’s role later widened to Regional Director for the East of England, but he harboured a greater ambition – to become CEO.
“The opportunity came in 2016, but I was terribly disappointment when an external applicant was preferred for the job. It was then that I realised that the chance to achieve my ambition at RG Carter had gone; to progress further in my career, I would have to leave.
“Coming just at the right time, the CEO of Morgan Sindall got in touch, and I was offered the role of MD for the Eastern region.”
Saul found working for a public limited company quite different to his experience of a private company. “In a PLC, I expected stricter processes, tighter systems and greater bureaucracy, but equally I also found stronger communication and deeper corporate values in terms of the way the brand is presented. You’re very aware that shareholders and the market must know first about any material changes, or big actions you are taking.”
After two years, and a significant amount of travelling, Saul felt it was the right time to step away from the demands of leading a big corporate. He left on good terms and bought a Norwich home by the River. He also invested in a dream 17th-century moated hall in Toft Monks, with the intention of spending more time with family, and the desire to run a business his way.
“I’d really enjoyed leading and motivating teams and being a collaborative leader. I enjoyed working with people, most of whom were far more talented than me. The obvious thing for me to do would have been to go to another big contractor, but I wasn’t sure I wanted more bureaucracy and more travelling – and I didn’t really like being told what to do. Being totally in charge suited my personality better, so I took the opportunity to trade independently as Saul D Humphrey LLP.”
Going it alone
“Setting up my business in 2018, I was soon approached by Norfolk County Council to lead a consultancy project. I was also asked to project manage a hotel scheme for a client who I had got to know whilst at Morgan Sindall. I suppose I quickly became a bit of a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’.”
This quickly led to project management and consultancy work with other clients – including a recognised leader in the field of eco-friendly building, Jonathan Smales.
“Jonathan was formerly MD of the environmental campaign group, Greenpeace, and was now founder and CEO of the sustainable development company, Human Nature, which was committed to building places – not just buildings – in a better, more responsible way,” says Saul.
With Jonathan, Saul is now supporting the development of an ultra-sustainable mixed-use project at Lewes, and he is promoting what aspires to be Europe’s greenest new settlement at Hethel in Wymondham.
“I think, subliminally, this all started to influence me; I was becoming very cognisant of climate change and the built environment’s negative impact on the environment. I was asking myself, what was my deeper purpose – was my goal in life just to make money for a private company or a PLC while leaving a very dirty footprint of cement, concrete, steel, glass and aluminium?”
“I decided I needed to align my offer with an authentic purpose. I wanted to try to help people deliver their projects in the most sustainable way possible. Still achieving a viable return, but to build to more genuine values – the ‘Mark Carney’ definition of values based on solidarity, fairness, responsibility, resilience, sustainability, dynamism, humility and compassion.”
His new direction was also influenced by time spent with Dr Andy Wood OBE DL and High Sheriff of Suffolk, Mark Pendlington DL. Andy was CEO of brewer and distiller, Adnams, which had taken great strides to build a business more sustainably. Mark was Chair of Green Economy Pathfinder Group and Group Director of Anglian Water. Like Andy, they had both chaired New Anglia LEP.
Saul was asked to chair ‘Building Growth’ a group to lead the region’s construction and development sector as part of New Anglia LEP – an initiative Andy initiated alongside his successor, Mark Pendlington DL.
Another person of inspiration to Saul is King Charles III and the work he has done in shining a light on sustainability – they met on three occasions during his time at RG Carter.
Wanting to make a difference
“These experiences broadened my whole outlook to thinking about every aspect, every impact we make; the sector, the economy and business, and the sustainability credentials associated with that.
“Responsible businesses in the city want BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ / Net Zero Carbon offices. The stock that’s been built to old standards; poorly insulated and powered by gas heating systems, will soon be stranded assets and will need to be retrofitted completely to bring them up to modern standards.
“New buildings – if they are required at all – need to be built in the most sustainable way possible, recognising the operational and embodied carbon impact. I genuinely believe that building to the highest of green standards will achieve the highest values. It might cost a little more, but it will be worth a lot more when it’s finished.”
Whilst at R G Carter, Saul had already led teams that had delivered numerous BREEAM projects, as well as The Carrowbreck Meadow development in Norwich, one of the first Passivhaus certified residential projects in the area. He had also led the R G Carter team that delivered the Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street, and at Morgan Sindall, he inherited the University of East Anglia’s multiple award-winning Passivhaus and BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ Enterprise Centre.
“I’ve been involved with delivering buildings that have those green credentials, but they are still rare, and they really need to become the norm,” he observes.
“If anyone now were to ask me to build houses with a gas boiler, I’d just decline. It’s the wrong thing to do for the client, it’s definitely the wrong thing to do for me, and it’s the wrong thing to do for the planet. For me, it’s a really easy position to take.”
Saul is now involved with plans for a BREEAM Outstanding office building at a renewable energy business park earmarked for Wymondham, Norfolk. There could also be 6,000 homes built on an adjacent site forming part of the most sustainable new settlement in Europe. Clients also include Castlemeadow Care, who he is helping to develop three sustainably focused complexes in Norfolk and Suffolk, all with BREEAM “Outstanding” credentials.
Saul’s most recent accolades include the Construction Excellence Award for Outstanding Achievement and the Award for Excellence in Sustainability earlier this year.
“However, I am very proud that my practice was certified as a B Corp in 2023, one of around 1,300 UK companies demonstrating the highest standards in environmental and social performance,” Saul adds.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Saul was asked to become the Professor of Sustainable Construction at Anglia Ruskin University. If there were not many Construction Doctors in the industry, there are even fewer Professors.
Today, Saul’s reason for doing what he does is about delivering a triple bottom line: balancing people, profit and place. He aligns every project to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but he knows even this is not enough.
“While it’s pretty well impossible to build something that is truly, genuinely sustainable, we can get close. I’ve discovered my purpose is in building more sustainably and creating buildings that are potentially going to last hundreds of years. That said, the most sustainable building is the one that has already been built. Retrofitting our existing stock will soon become the priority. I want to help and encourage others to do the right thing, because our planet and future generations depend on it.”