Adventurous Dawson reaching new heights

Dawson Stelfox, MBE, Hon DSc, Hon DUniv, BSc Arch, Dip Arch, RIBA, FRIAI is the only man in Northern Ireland with an extendable business card.

Still, at least the next time he climbs a mountain, all he has to do is stick one end in the snow and step off the other end onto the peak.

Dawson is one of those chaps you come across in Alistair Maclean novels: you know, the one who looks like a quiet librarian, but who is actually a black belt in origami who can abseil down the north face of the Eiger then kill you with a carefully folded sheet of A4 paper at 40 paces.

It is, as my granny always said, the quiet ones you have to watch.

Born in Belfast in 1958, he was educated at Rosetta Primary School and RBAI, then went to Queen's in 1976 and emerged six years later with a BSc and Diploma in Architecture.

He worked as an architect with the Consarc Design Group from 1983 to 1989, when he left to work as a self-employed architect and mountain guide.

In 1995 he rejoined Consarc to concentrate on the restoration of historic buildings. He became chairman in 2002, overseeing the company's restoration of and move into the historic Gasworks building on the Ormeau Road in Belfast

Now one of Ireland's largest architectural practices, the group is well known for both conservation and new buildings, including the Odyssey Complex, Lisburn Civic Centre, the Merchant Hotel in Belfast and Ballymena Museum and Arts Complex.

Dawson has worked on some of the most important historic buildings in and around Belfast, including Parliament Buildings, St George's Markets, McHugh's Bar, St Patrick's Schools in Donegall Street and St Matthew's Church.

Recent projects include the restoration of the Albert Clock, the Great Hall at Queen's University, which won an RIBA Award, Christ Church in College Square North and the ongoing restoration of Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan.

His work on the restoration of Hanna's Close, an ancient clachan in the Mournes, won RIBA and Civic Trust awards and led to him presenting the BBC TV programme Saving the Heartland, which explored the future of the traditional buildings of the countryside in Northern Ireland and a led to a book with Richard Oram on the restoration and re-use of vernacular buildings.

At the minute, he's working on the redevelopment of the Hilden Mills complex.

Now, 50, he's been mountaineering since he was 14, with dozens of trips to the Alps and great ranges of the world.

In 1993, after years of planning, he and Frank Nugent the First Irish Everest Expedition, and on May 27 that year, he became the first person from Ireland to climb Everest and the first from Britain or Ireland to climb the North ridge, scene of Mallory and Irvine's disappearance in 1924.

He's been chairman of the Mountaineering Council of Ireland, the UK Mountain Training Board and the RSUA Conservation Committee, and is currently chairman of the Countryside Access and Activities Network and Chair of the RSUA Conservation Committee. He was elected as President of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects in May 2008.

He and his wife Margaret Magennis have two boys, Rowan, 14, and Aaron, 12.

What's your earliest memory of childhood, and what sort of childhood did you have?

My mother's parents had a farm in the foothills of the Mournes, and we'd go there in the summer holidays. My dad's parents lived in Newcastle, and my grandfather, a very keen botanist, would take me on walks in the mountains, so from an early age, I associated the mountains with escape from the city.

Dad was a civil engineer, and was in the RAF in the war building airfields in France behind the D-Day advance. He kept a fascinating diary of it, which was actually against the rules in case you were captured, which I only discovered two years ago, and which has been published since. After the war he came back and worked for the Housing Trust, laying out estates like Belvoir in Belfast.

Mum was a civil servant until they married, when you had to leave in those days.

What are your best and worst memories of childhood?

I loved primary school, but Inst was very daunting for a shy 11-year-old who didn't know anyone. That changed when I took up mountaineering when I was about 14, and a lot of my good associations come from trips to the Lake District, Scotland and the Pyrenees. I climbed Ben Nevis with my dad when I was 14, which is a lovely memory.

Only bad ones are my sister Dora chopping off the top of my finger in a car door, then pushing me down the steps and splitting my head open. She's a doctor now, funny enough.

Which school subjects were you top and bottom of the class in ?

I was fairly average, to be honest. I really started to enjoy it in fifth and sixth form, partly because of mountaineering and partly because I was a school librarian, which meant you didn't have to go to assembly every morning.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Hadn't a clue. When I was about to leave school, I was offered a post as a trainee instructor at Tollymore Mountain Centre in the Mournes, but my parents said I had to get a proper job and keep mountaineering as a hobby.

They were probably right, because I did eventually qualify as a mountain guide, and it's very hard on the body, so having a profession to fall back on was a wise move.

However, I did go on a two-month expedition to Iran when I was 18, which was my first exposure to a really foreign country. It was the last years of the Shah, and very tense, but it was a fantastic experience, and really triggered my interest in big mountain experiences. It was a good combination of older experienced climbers and young ones, and in recent years I've reversed the tables by taking out teenage climbers for their first big expedition, which is very satisfying.

How was Queen's?

Great. This was the days when students got grants, and one of the reasons I picked architecture, which is a terrible thing to admit, was that it was a seven-year course, which meant lots of long summer holidays to go climbing in.

In the early years, it wasn't a very onerous course. You'd get a one-month project, and for you the first week you just thought about it, which you could obviously do up a mountain. Of course, that meant you were working around the clock on it for the last week.

I loved architecture, because its suits me being a jack of all trades and having to know something about everything, like structures, electrics, plumbing, interior design and so on.

It was great to get out on sites, even Shankill Leisure Centre, and see that drawings on a sheet actually turned into real buildings.

Do you prefer restoring old buildings to building new ones?

I enjoy both, but I get enormous satisfaction out of taking buildings which have been left abandoned and derelict and bringing them back to life.

As well as the big projects, we work with dozens of community groups who have no money, but have a building that they know should be saved, like Markethill Courthouse, the old schools in Gracehill and Holywood or Roe Valley Hospital.

Marcus Patton feels that Victorian buildings were built with style, grace, detail and humour as an advertisement for the owners, but that today too many buildings are created by shareholders or banks whose first thought is not how beautifully they can do it, but how cheaply. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

There's a bit of a legacy from the Troubles that any development is good development, which meant a lot of very functional buildings, and an ethos that function, cost and speed of construction are more important than good design.

The big challenge is for architects, planners and politicians to change that, and for society to want its buildings to be better. One way to do that is to bring back the competitions to design public buildings common in Victorian times, as has happened with the Giant's Causeway project, which attracted 300 international entries.

How important is our environment to our wellbeing?

Crucial. It may be unconscious, but it shapes our optimism, and you just have to go to cities like comparable northern industrial cities like Glasgow or Manchester to see how far behind we are in terms of quality of buildings, streetscape, environment and transport systems.

Do you think we could have done a better job of turning old industrial buildings into the sort of light, airy loft apartments found in other former industrial cities?

We've demolished most of ours, like in the Titanic Quarter, but there are many others crying out for restoration, like the Grade A-listed Riddell's Warehouse in Ann Street, which has a five-storey galleried interior. The police bought it 25 years ago to protect the police station next door from mortar attack, and it's been lying empty ever since.

The Ewart Building is another one, which has been closed since a car bomb 20 years ago, but we have a scheme in progress to turn that into a hotel.

The City Council has done some very good work within the limits of its power, like building the Waterfront and restoring St George's Market, the Albert Clock, the Ulster Hall and City Hall, but we badly need to appoint city or local authority architects who have a broad vision for how the environment of their area should be, and have overall control of that vision.

What do you think we need to do about planning legislation which allows developers to demolish listed buildings or leave them to decay and walk away with derisory fines? Would a policy of justifiable homicide be too strong?

A very strong example needs to be set, and the legislation is already there to tell developers to put back exactly what they've destroyed. A Dublin developer illegally demolished a protected 1920s petrol station called Archer's Garage, and was forced to rebuild it absolutely accurately, so not only did he not get to build the multi-storey project he'd planned, but he had to pay for rebuilding the garage. That sends a very strong message out that you won't profit from illegal demolition.

What's been your favourite restoration project?

Parliament Buildings after the fire, which was fantastic, because it's such an important building, and because we not only remodelled the chamber, but put in some new interiors like the Long Gallery. It cost 20 million, which people complained about, but when the Scottish Parliament cost 280 million, it seemed like a bargain.

The Albert Clock was another one, even if we didn't straighten it. It was such a contrast between how shabby it looked before and how well it looked after.

And Christ Church at Inst, which was a derelict, burnt-out shell and close to being demolished, and is now a fabulous school library and IT century. It's even better because it's part of my old school, and my two boys are there and using it.

The smaller projects are very satisfying as well, because they make such a difference to the community around them.

How's business, and when is the recession going to end?

The construction industry is in crisis, with multiple problems and a lot of uncertainty. Even simple things would help to kick-start it again, like grants for insulation or solar panels, which in the short term would provide work, and in the long term save money for householders.

Getting public projects underway quicker would also help.

In the private sector, people aren't sure if prices have hit rock bottom, although they must be pretty close to it, and there's the problem that people can't get loans without having a big deposit.

There's also a lot of nervousness about, with people unwilling to spend until they see what's happening.

The banks are a problem as well: developers get planning permission and good sites, but when they go to the banks for a loan, the answer is: "OK, but we want you to sell 50 per cent of the houses before you start building", which effectively means no. So there are lots of very good projects which are stuck.

But there are rays of hope: I was out at the Woodbrook scheme near Lisburn, where the houses are heated by a central boiler fuelled by willow chips from a local farmer, and are so efficiently insulated that they'll cost about half the amount of a conventional house to run, and they are selling. What must happen is that projects like that go from being the exception to the norm.

What got you interested in climbing?

A lot of it came from my grandfather, and after a couple of years at Inst, a few of us formed a mountaineering club, and then at Queen's during the Troubles, it was a real escape from the dreariness of the city into the wilds. The mountaineering community was a real antidote to sectarianism, because it was completely mixed, and we'd climb a lot down south, and have southern mountaineers up to the north.

What still gives you a buzz from it?

It's still about escape, and it's also about taking risks, which is an essential part of life. Not mindless ones, but calculated ones, where you deliberately go into a challenging environment and have to make decisions to get you through that environment, and the buzz comes from seeing how close to the limit you can get. As you get older, that limit comes down, but you still get a buzz from getting as close to it as possible.

There's also a satisfaction from going to new places. I climbed a dozen peaks in Greenland a few years ago that no one had climbed before, and that left a great sense of exploration.

I really enjoy introducing people to climbing as well, even if they used to be half my age and now they're a third and their parents are younger than me.

What have been the best and worst bits of your climbing career so far?

Everest has to be one, that trip to Greenland, and the Peuterey Integrale, one of the most challenging climbs in the Alps. I did it over two days with a guy from Dublin called Robbie Fenlon, who was on the Everest expedition, and we finished it on the top of Mont Blanc in an incredible thunderstorm, with our hair standing on end and lightning buzzing all around us.

At the time, that was a worst bit, but looking back, it was one of the best.

How did it feel to stand on top of Everest?

Exceptional, but the problem with high altitude is that your mind's away with the fairies and you're thinking very slowly, and it's only afterwards that you realise what you've done.

What are you going to do when your knees get knackered?

They already are, and my ankles are even worse. I still climb and ski a fair bit, so I'll just keep going until everything falls apart. After all, Chris Bonington's still going strong, and he's 74.

Favourite book?

I read a lot, and I'm on one of Barack Obama's at the moment, but one I really enjoyed recently was Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane, about the relationship between people, nature and mountains.

First record?

Probably the Chieftains or Planxty. There were some very good musicians in the mountaineering scene in the Seventies, since around an open fire in a hut with no electricity, you had to make your own entertainment.

Favourite country?

Ireland. We're spoilt here, and we don't appreciate it. Second choice would be New Zealand, where they have a great outdoors and really make use of it.

Do you take normal holidays?

We do, and the kids insist on a theme park at some stage, but there's always a mountain lurking in the background. My wife's a keen mountaineer, and one of our sons too.

How did you meet Margaret, and was it love at first sight?

Queen's Mountaineering Club, and no. We knew each other for a long time, and were away together a lot in large groups before we started going out.

Dream car? Is that what you drive?

I trundled around in an old Land Rover for years, and really regret selling it. I have an Audi estate these days, although if money was no object, I like the idea of an Aston Martin, because it combines tradition, heritage, great engineering and style, but I'd be too embarrassed to be seen driving around in it.

Vices and virtues?

I'm good at seeing the big picture, at bringing people together in teams and getting the best out of them, although to be honest, if you get a group of people together who are interested in something, it doesn't take much encouragement to get them to surpass their expectations, either in an office or up a mountain.

I'm bad at fine detail, but the answer to that is to hire people who are. I'm bad at saying no to things, so I take on too much.

Regrets: have you had a few?

No big ones, just turning back on mountains instead of going on. In 1984 I was in Nepal for three months to climb a 25,000ft mountain, and we turned back 1,000ft from the summit because we were knackered, the weather was closing in and there was an avalanche risk.

Who would play you in the film version of your life?

It would have to be Liam Neeson – a combination of Schindler's List and Star Wars.

When were you happiest?

When I was 18-20, when the world had no limits, and I had no money but all the time in the world.

And saddest?

In the early Eighties, when two very close friends died on mountains, one in the Alps and one on an expedition I was on in Nepal.

You suddenly realise you're not immortal, and I thought of giving up at that stage, and took two years off foreign trips.

Pet hates?

Bureaucratics, and jobsworths who create obstacles for no good reason and are so focussed on their little world and can't see the big picture. My attitude is decide if something is a good thing, then find the way to make that happen.

What would be your perfect life?

I've got 99 per cent of it, apart from the day to day bureaucracy. I'm thinking of semi-retiring within the next 10 years, and to be able to combine mountaineering and travel with restoring old buildings would be ideal.

If you had a time machine, what year would you go back or forward to?

I'd be a Victorian, because that was the golden era of Alpine mountaineering, involving a lot of Irish climbers and explorers. The sense of discovery at that time must have been phenomenal.

A rich Victorian, I should add, with enough means for independent travel. Being a poor one stuck in a linen mill wouldn't have been quite so much fun.

Sum up your lesson for life in a sentence.

Make room for adventure.