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Neil May 1962-2018

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Neil May

"Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then we can build" (Heidegger)

Neil May was a charismatic leader of our industry, a powerhouse of ideas who challenged and inspired everyone he worked with.  The theme of his work was better buildings – not just better functionally or architecturally but also socially, culturally, ecologically and philosophically.  He taught us to think about what buildings are for, what their place is in our heritage and society, the role they should fulfil in our future, and how they should perform.

In his own words:
"What are buildings for?  And that leads to the question: what are human beings for?  What is our purpose?  We need to think deeply about that if we are to create a future that is sustainable as well as meaningful.  Buildings are manifestations of the values of our society and if we want to have more beautiful, sustainable and creative buildings then we have to address our core values first."

Neil studied for his first degree in Modern History at Oxford and went on to take an MPhil in Sociology at Delhi University, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar and specialised in cultural anthropology.  He conducted extensive field work in and around Delhi and made a documentary film in Bihar.  Neil remained in contact with leading anthropologists and social thinkers in Delhi, where his work is still respected.  In 1988, having returned to the UK, he became a building labourer for four years before setting up his own award-winning ecological and conservation building company, Neil May Builders, which he sold in 2004.

At heart, Neil was always a builder – he knew how to put buildings together, and his straightforward, practical manner often somehow conveyed the impression that he had just been building a wall or installing some plumbing.  Yet he was equally comfortable with professionals, academics and civil servants.  Working with academics, he encouraged them to focus on making their work useful; but with professionals he insisted on systematic research and evidence-based conclusions.

Neil founded Natural Building Technologies in 1999, and pioneered the supply of high-performance sustainable, vapour permeable insulation and envelope systems for buildings.  While Managing Director of NBT he set up the Better Buildings Group, including many leading energy and sustainability consultants who held meetings and seminars in NBT’s chilly warehouse near Aylesbury. Neil inspired the Group’s work promoting sustainable new-buildings and sustainable retrofit. One member of the group recalls “his passion for buildings, people and nature, (always those three things inextricably linked together) and his slightly bemused irritation that the construction industry and so much of society just didn’t ‘get it’, particularly when the evidence was clear for us to see.”  Neil also contributed sustainability workshops to the senior management development programme of a leading building company, where he is reported to have astonished the delegates with his insight into the many and various unintended consequences of poor design.

In 2005, Neil brought together a group of natural building developers to campaign against the poor standard of performance of new homes in the UK. This was the start of a long collaboration with the Sustainable Development Foundation, which resulted in the creation of the Good Homes Alliance, the Passivhaus Trust, the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products and the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance, each of which campaigned to change practice relating to performance problems that Neil had identified. Neil was instrumental in establishing and nurturing all these organisations, before moving on to sort out the next problem on his list!  As a colleague remarked “Neil had the wonderful gift of bringing people together into communities of interest, creating what at first seemed to be niche groups but ended up becoming hugely influential for change at a national level.”

When the UK Government conceived the Green Deal, Neil was appalled by the potential for damage to our homes and architectural heritage from large-scale retrofit using inappropriate materials and techniques, a cause he took up with the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).  One civil servant at DECC recalls him as “A passionate lobbyist for doing the right thing, who did it in the nicest possible way.  You had your arm twisted without realising it.”  For the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance, Neil secured DECC funding for research that led to the influential report Responsible Retrofit of Traditional Buildings and the development of the well-known Guidance Wheel.

Neil also contributed to the Each Home Counts review, and joined the BSI Retrofit Standards Task Group, where he was influential in establishing a holistic vision for the retrofit standards framework called for by the review.  This in turn influenced the scope of BSI’s forthcoming domestic retrofit standard PAS 2035 Retrofitting Dwellings for Improved Energy Efficiency, for which Neil served as a member of the industry Steering Group.

Neil’s work on responsible retrofit led to an opportunity to join the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London (UCL) as a Principal Research Associate.  He had an immediate impact: as one colleague put it: “I am one of many with whom Neil collided and bounced off, sending us in new directions.  He changed the way I think about housing.  The intellectual challenges he posed were matched by personal warmth which made engaging with his ideas much more than just another collaboration.”

Neil was also influential in establishing a ‘systems thinking’ approach within the Institute – he guided the development of the ground-breaking Housing, Energy and Wellbeing project.  Colleagues in UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning report that his enthusiasm for thinking differently about the housing crisis was infectious.  “We quickly understood that his knowledge and interests were almost boundless.  UCL’s ‘Rethinking Housing’ initiative followed, bringing together researchers from UCL and beyond, and a new urgency in our housing work – driven by Neil.”

The work on responsible retrofit also led Neil to BSI, where he collaborated on a White Paper on Moisture in Buildings, which advocates a new principles-based approach for moisture risk assessment that is being incorporated in a new edition of BS 5250 Code of practice for the control of condensation in buildings.  His collaborator writes “Meeting Neil was a shock to the system, he had so much enthusiasm, so many interests, so many new perspectives on well-trodden ground and so much warmth and friendship.  The White Paper stands as a tribute to him.”

In parallel with the BSI work, the most recent of Neil’s projects was the establishment in 2016 of the UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings, at UCL.  The Centre brings together partners from UCL, BRE, Heriot Watt University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  Already UKCMB has over twenty projects completed or in progress, funded by Government, a research council, charitable trusts, industry bodies and commercial clients and sponsors, all driven by Neil’s enthusiasm.  He led major projects for BEIS, Bristol City Council, Historic England and the National Trust.  The UKCMB has also launched a training programme that promotes the principles of moisture risk management that Neil identified for the BSI White Paper and BS 5250.

A UKCMB academic at UCL writes “I feel honoured and privileged to have worked with Neil and been a part of UKCMB, the last of his countless brainchildren.  We worked, conversed, argued and laughed - he never ceased to surprise with the depth and richness of his intellect and experience”.  Another member of UKCMB remarks “Neil was interested in people as much as what they had to contribute, and it wasn’t long before we became friends as well as colleagues.  I was impressed that, no matter how complex or mountainous a task, he was never fazed.  His knowledge and intellect allowed him to join up the dots.  Much good has stemmed from that, and it will continue to be his legacy.”

An industry colleague remarks “Neil knew what sustainability meant for buildings and crucially for people - the two were inseparable and had to be in harmony.  This understanding elevated his work beyond a technical level and made him effective in communicating his vision to others.”  

Neil was an adviser on environmental and building matters to the Benedictine Community at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, and he took a group of UCL colleagues there to experience the life of the monks and help them understand Neil's own life and research philosophy.  Of his work for the Community, Neil wrote: "Part of its mission is to present an alternative and challenging vision of what it means to be fully human, and that is why I am involved."

In 2017 Neil was awarded an MBE ‘for services to sustainability and energy efficiency in buildings and communities’.  In 2018, faced with an inevitably fatal condition and having survived one operation, Neil bravely chose to put his affairs in order, hand-over his work to colleagues and submit to a second, very risky surgical procedure.  The outcome was this tragic loss, which for so many of us is painful and personal, but he has left us an immense and inspiring legacy of ideas and challenges.

This obituary has been compiled from material contributed by some of Neil’s many friends and colleagues, including academics at UCL, members of the organisations he helped to found and run, and individuals who worked with him.

An update from our TWG's

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Technical Working Group 1: Monitoring and Modelling

Chairs: Tom Cox, Caroline Rye and Valentina Marincioni

Problems resulting from absent insulation

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UKCMB member, Tony Cowling publishes feature artcile in Greener Building magazine.

The detail of the study shows how dependent moisture safety is on good quality construction and the coherence of the insulating envelope. We welcome write-ups of members’ work on moisture and buildings and hope to provide a place where contractors and consultants can show case their work as well as bringing new insights into this subject area. Academic research can also feature of course, but it is of a different type and is usually more formal. All of this will eventually be brought into a library of resources freely available to members. We will also attempt to provide some control of quality and general comments on the pieces, particularly those that are more controversial. We have made a start on a major literature review of relevant articles and papers, but require more resources to complete this work. If anyone or organisation is able to help with this project, please do get in touch with UKCMB management.

International interest in moisture in buildings

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International interest in moisture in buildings seems to be increasing. In many cases the level of concern seems to be higher and more developed than in the UK.

Information on BS5250: Moisture in Buildings

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This standard will be much more comprehensive than the previous standard which was concerned primarily with condensation in buildings. The new standard will to some extent follow the BSI White Paper on Moisture in Buildings and deal not only with surface and interstitial condensation but also with other moisture mechanisms, in particular rain penetration and ground water issues. It will also cover the connective and systemic effects (i.e. junctions, interfaces and whole building effects) of moisture and the As Built, In Service (ABIS) conditions of buildings, since most moisture risk occurs at junctions and from building errors and degradation in real world situations. All this will be considered with regard to both fabric moisture and atmospheric moisture, which respectively affect the durability of the physical building and the health of building occupants.

Report on CPD pilot training session

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Although only short notice was given, 14 UKCMB members signed up and attended the two day pilot training session for our first CPD course entitled 'Understanding and Managing Moisture Risk in Buildings'.

New UKCMB management team members

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We are pleased to announce that we have expanded the UKCMB Management team to take forward the many streams of work at UKCMB.

An update on our training programme

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UKCMB were fortunate to receive £10k of funding from Life Learning at UCL to support the development of the first two day CPD training in 'Understanding and Managing Moisture Risk in Buildings'.

UKCMB launches a public report on mould testing and benchmarking

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UKCMB are pleased to report the conclusions to its extensive research into mould testing methods and possible benchmarking for mould levels in rooms.

An update on standards and policy work

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The current work on Standards and Policy includes the revision to PAS2030 2018 which will look to remove certain areas of responsibility that do not sit well in the standard including surveying, design and ventilation.

Feedback from the UKCMB re-launch conference (October 20th 2017)

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UKCMB re-launch event 2017

This conference was held at UCL and was attended by more than 110 people. Feedback (from more than 70 people) indicated that it was a great success and generated considerable interest and enthusiasm.

Vacancy: Research Associate - Hygrothermal Modeller at Loughborough University

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Loughborough University is currently seeking a Hygrothermal Modeller Research Associate to join the country's premier building energy modelling and measurement group.

UKCMB launches a new video on moisture guidance for existing homeowners

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The video aims to provide guidance to homeowners on how to avoid moisture problems in existing homes. It provides an introduction to moisture in buildings, explaining in simple terms and images what damp means, where moisture in buildings comes from, as well as, introduce the notion of balance and how this can be achieved.

UKCMB launches a report on the health impact of buildings which are too dry or too damp

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Health and Moisture in Buildings

Buildings which are too damp or too dry can be bad for occupants’ health. This fact has been well established by many reports including those of the World Health Organisation and the Institute of Medicine.

Outputs from the UKCMB re-launch event

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UKCMB re-launch event 2017

On 20 October, the UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings (UKCMB) hosted a successful re-launch event. Over a hundred experts joined us at the conference to hear about the UKCMB’s latest research outputs, videos and tools. We also discussed plans for the new training programme and other upcoming activities. It was a highly informative and engaging event, with some valuable input and feedback from the audience.

Avoidance and diagnosis of problems associated with internal wall insulation

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Internally insulating solid masonry walls can have a hugely positive impact on comfort, but doing so without regard for this relationship can lead to undesirable consequences, including trapped moisture and mould growth. A well-designed specification informed by a good understanding of the building and its context will preclude any unintended consequences.

Hygrothermal Risk Evaluation for the Retrofit of a Typical Solid-walled Dwelling

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brick wall

A new study by Benat Arregi and Joseph Little finds increasing evidence that current mainstream guidance for assessing moisture risk of insulation retrofits in Ireland and the UK is unsuitable for traditional solidwalled buildings.This guidance is still based on simplified hygrothermal risk assessment methods, despite the availability of more advanced numerical software for two decades and a relevant standard in place since 2007, EN 15026.

UKCMB re-launch event

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Join us on Friday 20 October for the re-launch of the UKCMB for a highly informative and engaging event on our latest research outputs, videos, tools and more.

UKCMB Director Neil May awarded MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List

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neil may

We are delighted to announce that Neil May, Director of the UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings and Senior Research Fellow at UCL, has been awarded an MBE in the 2017 Birthday Honours List for services to sustainability & energy efficiency in buildings and communities.

Dr Marcella Ucci presents UKCMB findings at the Bartlett Research Exchange

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The Bartlett Research Exchange is a fast-paced event where key research themes are explained from diverse disciplinary perspectives. This term's event, on health, wellbeing and the built environment, involves speakers from across the Bartlett’s schools, with expertise in architectural design, social and spatial networks, architecture and building engineering, and urban computation and visualisation.

Neil May's White Paper on moisture mentioned in the long-awaited Bonfield Review

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moisture in homes

The Government’s long-awaited review into energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in homes (Bonefield review) makes reference to  Neil  May’s (Managing Director of UKCMB) White Paper on ‘Moisture in Buildings: an integrated approach to risk assessment and guidance’.

UKCMB's Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) to investigate dampness in buildings

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The Property Care Association (PCA) and UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering (UCL IEDE) have formed a two-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) to carry out a comprehensive study into the problem of excess moisture in the built environment.

UKCMB launches blog with first post: 'Mould: is it really an unbeatable monster?' by Yasemin Aktas

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window condensation

UKCMB have recently launched a new blog which will feature contributions from experts sharing informative and insightful commentary on a range of issues relating to developing a moisture-safe built environment in the UK.

Welcome to the UKCMB

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The UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings has been set up in response to the substantial building problems (including health of occupants and the building fabric) caused by excessive or insufficient moisture.

Two new projects within the UKCMB

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We are glad to announce that two UKCMB projects have started, both of which will be presented at the upcoming conference.

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