Dave Irvin: Mastering the Master Plan

January 29, 2008

Many Houstonians may never forget those days—June 5 to June 9, 2001 —when Tropical Storm Allison dumped 37 inches of rain across the metropolitan area, causing billions of dollars in
damages in Harris County.

At UH, more than 90 of 105 buildings were damaged. The man heading the university’s recovery efforts was Dave Irvin, who arrived in Houston three weeks earlier to serve as UH’s new associate vice president for plant operations. A lifelong Midwesterner, Irvin said that time was “trial by water,” but it also allowed him “to see the best of the university in the worst of times.”

Irvin has taken the lessons he learned from his “trial by water” and nearly 30 years of architecture experience in the private sector and academia to assist in implementing the campus master plan. The 20-year plan calls for increasing the square footage of campus buildings to 15 million from eight million and bolstering student housing from 12 percent to 25 percent,
among other initiatives.

In an interview with UH Today, Irvin discussed his career and tenure at the university.

Q Why did you decide to pursue a career in architecture?

A I started out interested in architecture when I was young. I was one of those kids who played with erector sets and building blocks and who liked making sand castles at the beach. I went to the University of Nebraska where I started as a music major. However, I quickly recognized that architecture was my true love. Then, I went to Oxford University, where I received a master’s in architecture.

I began my career in private practice as a design architect. I thought I wasn’t as good of an architect as I could be. I felt I needed to know more about how buildings work and how people use them. Often times as architects, we design the building and then we leave. We really don’t know if the buildings function well. So, I moved to Kansas and became an architect at Emporia State University. I expected that I would only work at a university for a couple of years, but I found I loved the campus environment. The work was much more rewarding than anything I could do in the private sector.

Q Why did you decide to join the University of Houston?

A The University of Houston was a great opportunity for several reasons. It was a chance to be a part of a larger university, in a very dynamic city. But, more importantly, I think UH is poised at a unique chapter in its development. As we move further into the 21st century, metropolitan cities like Houston are going to be at the epicenter of the nation. I believe the university is going to experience tremendous growth in students, teachers, faculty, research and facilities. It is not often you get to be a part of that type of growth. Additionally, when I interviewed, I found out about the terrific team in Plant Operations. That sealed the deal.

Q You arrived in Houston three weeks before Tropical Storm Allison hit the city, so
was managing the campus’ recovery trial by fire, so to speak?

A It was trial by water. Being from the Midwest, I was not accustomed to dealing
with tropical storms, but I was lucky because I have a great team here. In many ways, it was the university’s finest hour. Faculty, staff and alumni came together in a tremendous way. It really allowed me to see the best of the university in the worst of times. The recovery effort allowed us to make several changes to the campus. We spent $50 million on deferred maintenance, and we replaced large amounts of electric and mechanical infrastructure. The best example of the work we did after Allison is the University Center Satellite, which was old and had numerous fire code violations. We rebuilt the UC Satellite. Now, it is a wonderful state-of-the-art facility and is filled with students all the time.

Q What are some of the initiatives you and your team have implemented regarding the university master plan?

A First, we’ve improved the level of customer service to the campus. Second, we’ve greatly enhanced the campus environment. I challenge you to find another metropolitan university that has the gardens and the look to match UH. We want to challenge our students and inspire our
faculty, and the best buildings can do that. I’m happy some of our new buildings have
won major design awards.

Q Does Houston feel like home now?

A Absolutely. I’ve never had the opportunity to live in the South until my wife, Terrie, and I moved here. I knew very little about Houston. Like many people who move here, I had a misconception that Houston is like Dallas but with more oil. Houston is dramatically different from Dallas. Houston is a fabulous city. My wife is from New York City, and she says that Houston is the best of both worlds. It has the internationalism, the arts, the vibrancy and the economy of New York City, but Houston also has the grace, the slow
pace of life and the warmth of people that you find in the Midwest.