Cork’s heritage conservation specialists

12 Mar , 2020  

One of Ireland’s longest established specialist heritage companies, Southgate Associates, is an award-winning, multi-disciplinary practice which has more than 30 years of experience in its field. Building Ireland learned more about the business from its founder and Managing Director, Christopher Southgate, recently.

Business is brisk right now at Southgate Associates, and the plan for Chris Southgate and the team down in Midleton, Co. Cork is to keep things that way.

Next year will see the company marking an even three decades since its inception and since that time it has grown to become an award-winning firm, with experience in advising historic building owners, architects, engineers and developers on the conservation and adaptation of heritage buildings and landscapes to international best practice standards.

Chris Southgate founded the business back in 1990 and is proud to say that at the time it “was the first Irish engineering company to specialise in historic buildings”.

The Cambridge University graduate was good enough to take time from an increasingly hectic schedule to tell Building Ireland all about his company and what they’ve been up to lately down in the Rebel County.

“To be honest, when I first started this company a lot of colleagues thought I was nuts,” he stated candidly.  “But I had got experience and a vision for conserving built heritage. Being trained in England, I was used to historic buildings, but also repairing and conserving artefacts such as art works and antiques. I took the same philosophy to building work, where the most important aspect was to conserve the structure of the building in order to preserve the texture of the original fabric.

“With a lot of refurbishments, buildings lost character and I wanted to retain that character. You can tell a lot about the social history from a building, all the way down to its fixings.

“In response to improving awareness of the importance of historic structures, and increasing legislative controls we broadened the professional skills provided by our company, to include archaeological advice as well as conservation engineering services. That enabled us to provide a broader expertise to our clients.

“In 1996, I moved to Cork and took on a number of projects in Cork City. Many of the projects that I took on were dangerous structures. In one particular case, we cooperated with Cork Corporation to secure grants from the EU for a demonstration project at Fenn’s Quay, a-mid 18th century terrace in the medieval centre of Cork, to show developers and building owners best practice techniques in preserving and adapting a dangerous structure back into full commercial and residential use.

“I had taken the decision to leave Dublin for Cork, because there was a complete lack of advice available at the time to organisations such as Cork Corporation and to developers working within this new legislative atmosphere.”  

Previous work in the capital saw Chris gaining some vital experience along the way with the likes of Dublin Civic Trust, An Taisce, the Georgian Society and Temple Bar Properties and when he moved down south it was Cork Corporation that became the company’s principal client.

Details of regeneration work on Elizabeth Fort and The Cultural Quarter in Cork City’s old historic centre, known as the Cork Historic Centre Action Plan, can now be viewed on the company’s website (southgateassociates.ie) under the portfolio section, along with conservation work on Blarney Castle and development of Dublin Port Authority and Birr Castle.

Those high-profile projects have been carried out to international best practice standards and for Chris these large conservation projects are a far cry from the small conservation jobs with which he first started his career.

“Back in the early 90s, we were doing emergency works on roofs of buildings. Now we’ve moved on to something much more.”

Southgate Associates believe that development and conservation are not incompatible aspirations, but rather that heritage buildings evolve over time to meet the needs of their occupants. They help clients to design in ways which maintain the importance and atmosphere of the old, while introducing the new.

Chris and the team have always agreed with the best international thinking on urban and rural planning which view heritage resources as being of huge economic and social value to their communities.

For 30 years now, they’ve been helping state bodies, local authorities, private clients and voluntary organisations committed to the preservation of the country’s-built heritage, to implement heritage-led urban renewal programmes. It has seen them with a hands-on approach to conservation, delivering atmospherically conserved buildings, stabilised dangerous historic structures and preserved heritage streetscapes – all of which equips them to assist in the implementation of the historic rural and urban landscape agenda in Ireland, a commitment toward a more holistic approach to planning and heritage landscape management.

Chris credits his employees hugely when it comes to the success of Southgate Associates and says he’s been fortunate down through the years when piecing together his workforce.

“My staff has helped me immensely. We find people who are passionate about historic buildings, and I’ve been very lucky in that way,” said the Managing Director. “The trick is to be able to have a balanced skill set, and also to be able to stay small enough to expand by joining up with other partners on a project.”

He added: “Our management style here allows staff to lead projects and take responsibility for client liaison and project management, so I am fully available to advise where required.”

As for business itself, Chris says times are busy with an expansion on the cards staff-wise in the autumn.

“Business had been tough through the recession, but this year we’ve felt a renewed confidence,” he said.

With regards to projects, one of the new projects on the agenda for Southgate Associates is a large-scale restoration of Glengarriff Castle, which is a project which they will manage for the next 18 months.

“All of our work is heritage related of course, and we like to bring passion to the projects we undertake. The conservation works to Blarney Castle, for example, where the contractor RBR won the judges silver medal award at the 2019 Construction Excellence Awards, was a complicated project requiring specialist masonry skills, and one that we were immensely proud to be working on at the time,” notes Chris.

In conclusion, he notes that a crucial part of manifesting any of these projects are the skills of those contractors he has had the privilege to work with through the last 30 years in conserving Ireland’s built heritage.  

Southgate Associates
Farren House,
Cork Road,
Co Cork
P25 XY42

Tel: 021 457 0717
Email: [email protected]
Photos are courtesy of Dublin Civic Trust and Jack Coughlan Architects

Taken from Building Ireland Magazine, October, Vol 5 No 10