People Profile – Richard Coles – Builder and Civil Engineer BSc

I was born in Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika) and lived in Africa up until the age of 4. My father was farming out there, unfortunately we moved back to the UK when I was very young so I never got to really appreciate the country or continent.

We moved back to the Mendips, in Somerset where my father continued to farm and earn a living. He was a working farmer, not a gentlemen farmer, so life was tough and the whole family was expected to muck in with milking, haymaking etc. Having said that I loved farm life especially in the summer and haymaking although hard, always seemed great fun.

I attended Secondary school in Wiltshire. I loved school and managed to come away with a clutch of decent ‘O’ levels. I played in the school football and rugby teams; however, the school didn’t push athletics which was a great shame. Then I went onto Brighton Polytechnic where I studied Building Technology and Management for three years and gained a 2-2 B.Sc. Hons. I later moved to Ockley from Brighton in 1988 then to Ewhurst in 2001 (living in Shere briefly for 6 months in between the 2 places) and I now reside in Cranleigh.

It was at Brighton that I developed a love for long-distance running which has always stayed with me. I have completed dozens of marathons, many of which have been overseas such as New York, Boston, Paris, Athens, Berlin, London (4 times) and ultimately the Marathon des Sables in 2001. As the years have ticked by, the old joints have started to grumble, I still run and really enjoy hiking and mountain biking.

When I was a boy, I had no interest in building or constructing things. It was purely by accident that my first ‘proper’ job was with Bovis Civil Engineering, and that’s how I got into construction. As a youngster I had paper and milk rounds which I loved, though I’m not sure why, probably because I enjoyed being outdoors.

I didn’t really have any ambitions or focus in my teen years, which may have had something to do with my peer group. I probably should have joined the Young Farmers rather than hung around with young hoodlums!

As regards influences on my career I love art, architecture and keeping fit. I do a lot of running, walking and mountain biking to relax and to get out in the fresh air.

One thing I can say is that I’m passionate about what I do and people describe me as driven and proud of the buildings I create. I recently received a wonderful comment from a friend, “Hi Richard! I walked past the house you built in Effingham today and just wanted to say how amazing it is. It’s beautiful and so stylish and great quality, you should be very proud. I would love to live in a house like that.” A lovely accolade which came completely out of the blue.

It’s support from family and friends and comments like that which keep me going. My daughter, Sahara, whom I adore and worship the ground she walks on, once said to me when she was in her early teens, “… I love the houses you build Dad and I’d like you to build me a house one day.” That meant more to me than if I’d received a knighthood.

A room that can draw you in and out of the building at the same

Working for yourself can be tough at times though also very rewarding when you keep your standards high. In our business we’ve done superb projects for some great clients. Anything from a water feature at Wimbledon All England Lawn Tennis Club, in collaboration with William Pye the internationally renowned water sculptor, to almost winning the RIBA Down Land Award. We were nominated for this award for a contemporary extension to a house originally designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles F Voysey. Then of course there are the comments such as the one on the house in Effingham, which is a large house, complete with equestrian facilities. On a personal level, one of my favourite tributes was when I heard my daughter’s A level results recently. She was awarded 2 A* and 1 A and is off to Edinburgh University in the autumn. I can’t wait because Edinburgh is very close to the Cairngorms where the two of us could enjoy hiking together, so I’ll be heading North whenever possible.

I like to think I am an inspiring person to work with, as someone who is passionate about his job. I remember being awarded a project nearly 20 years ago that I dearly wanted to attain. When the architect phoned to tell me he said, “Richard, it is partly due to your enthusiasm for the project but, more importantly your previous clients’ enthusiasm for you that has won you this project”. Comments like that create a sense of purpose and inspire me to try to achieve more. There are many architects who I admire and would very much like to work with, there is currently some great talent out there.

I am by no means a connoisseur of art or architecture but I have a keen interest and am always looking and observing.

Clean lines and an expansive view make this room a beautiful space

On some of my recent pilgrimages I have been to see;

  • Caravaggio, a phenomenal artist and my goodness what an individual.
  • Artemisia, again what an individual – Judith Slaying Holofernes – powerful stuff
  • Hockney – a joint exhibition in Amsterdam featuring his work along side that of Van Gogh. The following summer 2019 I visited Woldgate in Yorkshire and hunted down a lot of the scenes he painted (see photos). Note that he did not include the grit bin at the end of the layby! The white painted farmhouse is clearly visible in both photo and painting. It’s amazing what a beautiful piece this is, of a view many of us would not give a second thought to. Don’t know how I managed to find that!
  • Anthony Gormley – everyone will be familiar with the Angel of the North but he creates some amazing work and is hugely admired worldwide.
  • Ai Wei Wei – my daughter Sahara’s influence but I did subsequently start to admire his work following a visit to an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. He’s massive over there.
  • John Ruskin – The Storm Cloud Exhibition in York – such a poignant and powerful exhibition. He is an artist/critic/philosopher we should be reflecting back on. Ruskin was warning about the dangers of climate change and warming 150 yrs ago. He regularly visited the French Alps and was extremely concerned about the receding glaciers Chamonix the most notable.

The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club water feature, designed by William Pye

If I were to offer advice to someone on life or how to commence work in the building business, I would highlight that the building industry has evolved considerably in the last 40 years, long gone are the days of donkey jackets, wellies etc. Now it is a diverse and dynamic industry with so many opportunities. The future lies in quality and professionalism, qualities that are essential if we are to achieve the Net Zero Carbon emissions objective by 2050. This target is not advisory but enshrined in law. In order to achieve it the industry must recruit qualified and driven people to take us to the next level.

“Dozens of the world’s biggest economies have adopted targets for net zero emissions of green-house gases by 2050 and 1200 major corporations have now picked up the gauntlet and are committed to net zero.” according to Dr Mark Carney – Ex Governor of the Bank of England, COP 26 Finance Advisor to the government, United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance.

Researchers at BP estimate that by 2040 there will be another 2 billion people on the planet, equivalent to another USA or China. We will need to generate 30% more energy than we currently generate.

A property refurbished and extended (right hand wing) south of Godalming

I find this hugely challenging. It’s what drives me and keeps me going; the idea of building a really special ECO house, a house for the future, beautifully designed and built to Passivhaus standards similar to the Flint House, designed by Skene Catling de la Pena for Jacob Rothchild.

We are in a race against time if the planet is not “going to be toast” and we have all heard various pundits saying that we are already past the tipping point. Everyone needs to play their part and adopt new ways of looking at the way we live, the way we consume and how we recycle what is left over. A nine to five, 5/6 day a week approach will not work. Global warming doesn’t work like that, it is continuous and un-remitting.

We have a debt to future generations.

A timber framed house built for a client in Chawton

When we look at China, there is a dichotomy. While it’s the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and will be for some time, China is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2060, and in all probability, it will be.

The country is massively committed to renewable and sustainable technologies. Just about everything currently being built – housing, shops, offices etc, is constructed to Passivhaus standards and there’s huge investment in sustainable technologies. A survey of countries’ activities in clean energy found one that is racing far ahead of the rest, China. In three important areas, exportation, control of raw materials and gaining a cutting edge in technology, such as electric vehicle batteries with contracts. China has contracts to supply batteries to Daimler, BMW & Tesla.

As contractors we must raise our standards in order to build greener and close what is referred to as the ‘performance gap’, the difference between how a building is designed to perform and how it actually performs. Generally, this gap is an indication of how well a building is constructed i.e. the skill, standard of workmanship and attention to detail by the builder.

An extension to a house on Cranleigh Common

As a construction company Richard Coles Building is committed to building greener and in a more sustainable way. We are members of Passivhaus Trust and the Association of Environmentally Conscious Builders AECB and encourage clients, architects, engineers, building services consultants and all other construction professionals we meet to adopt more sustainable design. The costs are marginally higher but the long-term benefits are considerable, more thermally efficient buildings with a lower environmental impact, buildings that are less draughty and more comfortable to live in, much lower energy costs, cleaner and fresher air are just some of the advantages.

For more information contact Richard Coles:
Telephone – 01483 313123
Email –

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