David McHugh
David McHugh, President, ACEI.
David McHugh, President, ACEI, speaks with Robbie Cousins about consulting engineers achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 and why the government needs to cap consultants’ liability before PII issues force practices out of business.

The current president of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland (ACEI), David McHugh, would appear ideally qualified and experienced for the role he has taken up, considering the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the coming year and beyond for the association. The senior director responsible for renewable energy and business development at RPS in Ireland also has eight years of experience in global roles as a corporate executive and management consultant specialising in sustainability.

With its recently published ACEI Sustainability Vision, the association is setting out an ambitious programme for its members to become advocates for climate action and sustainable change in Irish construction and lead by example by becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

McHugh completed a degree in civil and environmental engineering at University College Cork in the mid-90s. He later completed a Masters in Business Administration at the Smurfit Business School in University College Dublin. He started his career as an engineer in Zimbabwe, returning to Ireland in 1999 to take up engineering roles in several leading practices. In 2009, when Irish construction was on its knees, he made a successful move into global management consultancy, where he led teams on strategy, operations and sustainability projects globally.

In 2016, he became a board member of the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management in the UK, and, in 2019, he took up his current role with RPS.

David McHugh hit the ground running as president of the ACEI. A key goal for his presidency will be furthering the work done to date by the ACEI in engaging with key stakeholders from the government and the built environment sector. The two immediate ACEI past presidents, Conor McCarthy and Gerry Carty, had championed this issue as a priority for the industry. Professional indemnity insurance

While there are several essential agenda items to be addressed, of immediate concern to David McHugh is reaching a solution on the provision of affordable professional indemnity insurance (PII) for ACEI members.

The challenge of sourcing PII can, for the most part, be put down to demand and supply. At this time, there is not enough capacity within the PII market to deal with the volume or scale of demand, whether it is the number of firms seeking insurance or the amount of cover they need to hold. In addition, the few remaining insurers in the market are also subject to increased internal scrutiny. This, in turn, is affecting the number and percentage of risks PII providers can underwrite, the limits of indemnity they can support, the premium they are required to charge, and the amount of risk they require policyholders to retain.

He says that consulting engineers are caught between a rock and a hard place regarding the level of risk they are exposed to and the unreasonable contractual obligations being imposed. His concern is that unless this is addressed, the viability of some engineering consultancies is at risk, and if they end up closing down because of PII issues, then the delivery of major projects, including public works, are also at risk.

“Government departments and agencies have a huge role to play in addressing this issue. A considerable amount of the work consulting engineers take on is awarded by government bodies or contractors operating on government contracts. In these cases, it is the government bodies that have set out the contractual framework that governs the construction sector. The ACEI has been engaging with all the relevant bodies on this subject. We have outlined the problems and the specific actions they need to take to relieve the pressure on our members. These solutions include straightforward measures such as a cap on consultants’ liability.

“The public works contract being used by state bodies at the moment, in essence, have unlimited liability for consultants. However, the PII providers will only insure to a certain amount. Hence a cap is required on consultants’ liability, which should be proportionate to the level of services being provided and should not exceed the level of PII required for a project. Without the cap, there is a risk of putting consultants out of business.

“Specifically, we are also looking for a net contribution clause. This avoids unfair transfer of liabilities where contractors or other consultants are unable to meet their liabilities. With a net contribution clause, consultants would be liable only for elements relating to their contribution to a contract. But at the moment, they could be liable for all elements of the contract if they were to be the ‘last man standing’. “These are all quite reasonable suggestions to fix the problem, and we have been having conversations with government bodies, including the Office of Government Procurement, and we will continue to push this dialogue on behalf of member firms.”


David McHugh played a key role in setting up the ACEI’s Sustainability Committee. He says the recent publication of the ACEI’s Sustainability Vision, which includes an ambitious climate action commitment, is the culmination of a lot of work by the committee, and it sets a high bar for members to target. But it also means ACEI member firms aim to be leaders and advocates for sustainable changes in Irish construction.

The ACEI Sustainability Vision sets out the case for a future shaped by socially and environmentally responsible design, where actual long-term costs and benefits are considered across entire project lifecycles. The vision states that ‘the ACEI will continue to help shape policy and to influence consulting engineering firms and their clients to pursue well-conceived projects for the benefit of communities and the environment. Such projects will be planned and designed to go beyond the traditional focus on function, cost minimisation and programme, also to address resilience, long-term sustainability, and societal impacts’.

David McHugh explains that what excites him about the vision is that it calls on ACEI members to be advocates for change and take the lead in all that they undertake and in all their work practices, from the operation of their business and offices to how they address their project work.

“Sustainability is a core part of what the ACEI and its members do. We are heartened by how our members have this bold vision that will challenge them and will have a substantial impact across the built environment sector.

“I am delighted that the ACEI Sustainability Vision has been published. It is ambitious and sets out a role for the ACEI and its members to address the challenge of the climate crisis, and through it, the association makes clear commitments to climate action. The four commitments set out in the vision are” ‘Advocating’, ‘Innovating’, ‘Implementing’ and ‘Leading.’

“The advocating commitment signals a shift that we as an organisation are making to move from being technocratic to engaging with the public and policymakers to make change happen.

“Innovating calls on engineers to invest in knowledge around climate change, as new approaches will be required. “Implementing calls on us to talk with clients so they will embody climate change ambition into their projects.

“The fourth commitment – leading – has many long-term impacts for association members, as it is calling on them to lead the way with sustainable solutions to how they carry out their work. We need to look at our own organisations and make sure we are sustainable in all that we do.”

Carbon neutrality by 2030

“One of the key parts of our ‘leading’ is that the ACEI as an association will achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. We are aiming for member firms to also achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. While the national goal is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, we believe that as a sector, we should lead by example and that we can achieve this by 2030.”

National Development Plan

ACEI made a submission on the Review to Renew National Development Plan (NDP) consultation process.

“Our Review to Renew submission welcomed the Budget 2021 provision of €10bn for capital expenditure and the government commitment to capital investment to stimulate economic recovery. We called for the NDP spending envelope to be increased from €116bn to €141bn over the lifetime of the plan, as significant investment is still required in housing; healthcare; education; transport; utilities, including water and wastewater; in renewable energy; and infrastructure. We also had a specific submission on climate action covering the retrofitting of buildings and infrastructure investment focussed on renewables.”


None of the initiatives mentioned above will be sustainable if the sector cannot attract and hold on to its people.

“Like many other sectors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), we are battling to attract and hold on to talented people.

“ACEI member firms throughout Ireland are struggling to get the people they need. This is also at a time when we need to be ramping up operations. But our members are struggling to recruit the engineers, technicians, scientists and planners required. This is a real threat to project delivery, and it must be addressed as a matter of absolute urgency. But we know we are not alone in this.

“We are, however, one sector where there has been improvement in terms of gender balance, particularly in environmental sciences, but we still need to attract more women into our industry. I intend to engage with industry stakeholders and educational bodies to get the message across that engineering is an exciting and rewarding career for young people to pursue.”

Looking to the future

David McHugh is optimistic about the future of the sector.

“Consultants create value,” he says. “Consultants create value for clients by taking into account the needs and constraints of a wide range of stakeholders and project challenges. Consulting engineers must have early involvement in projects to minimise life cycle costs and environmental impact through good design. We need to make sure it remains an attractive and rewarding career route for students and graduates to follow, so we can continue to attract the best people into our sector.”

As stated at the beginning of this article, David McHugh will need to draw on his combined experience as a consulting engineer and business consultant during his presidency of the ACEI. But he closes by saying that the ACEI is a resilient organisation with a strong and engaged member base.

“I look forward to working with the ACEI secretary general Sarah Ingle, the ACEI executive and committees, and ACEI members to tackle the challenges and take the opportunities that lie ahead,” David McHugh concludes.

Engineering News, Interviews, Sustainability