Stories from the drawing board: Ironbark Sustainability

Ironbark Sustainability is an engineering-led consultancy that provides services primarily to the local government sector. It specialises in energy-efficiency programs including built assets and streetlighting upgrades, energy assessments, renewable energy and energy auditing.

Ironbark was an early signatory of Australian Engineers Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. We spoke with founder and Managing Director, Paul Brown, about the way climate action underpins the team’s work.

Written by Willow Aliento.  

“I have a lot of faith in engineers being able to deliver solutions generally,” Brown says. “If you direct them to the right question, they are a huge asset.”

Brown says Ironbark’s decision to sign the Declaration comes down to why he personally does the work he does. At age 21 he travelled overseas to explore some big questions including what he could do as a profession that would support a family, make him happy and make a difference in the world.

Leveraging his environmental engineering qualifications to found Ironbark was the answer.

His commitment to positive action also made it a “no brainer” to sign the Declaration.

“Part of our role as engineers is to solve problems – and this is the biggest problem around,” Brown says. “It’s exciting, there is heaps to do, and every single project we work on and everything we do is part of the solution.

“It’s not a big silver bullet. It is little, incremental and micro changes.”

The big value of small changes

Brown sees the market is shifting, despite uncertain leadership at a national level.

“The focus at project and corporate strategy level is clear, everyone is focussed on how we can transition to a net zero emission future and how can we make the next project better than the last.”

Electric vehicles, for example, will soon outcompete conventional combustion-engine vehicles for the same reasons that solar photovoltaics now outcompetes other forms of new energy generation.

He also notes that the people behind these kinds of positive initiatives are engineers. 

In practical terms, engineers can make a difference with the things they have power over – design solutions, innovations and product choices.

“There are two types of engineers, the type that are happy to roll out the same solutions year after year, and the kind that ask questions and are actively seeking out best practice,” Brown says.

They can also have influence within the collaboration that is required to deliver every project. The engineer can be the one asking, “what can I access in the way of recycled materials?” And, then give those answers to project managers and construction companies.

Managing Director, Paul Brown

There are choices engineers make around the types of materials used in projects that will release the same amount of emissions as 20 years ago or, choose equivalent products that have a direct, positive and large impact on reducing a projects atmospheric emissions.

Brown and the team at Ironbark recently undertook some analysis into concrete used for civil works.

“There is a vast amount of greenhouse gases released in building roads, in the concrete in footpaths and kerb and channel,” he explains.

‘The thickness of the footpath and the kerb and channel varies in different [local government areas]. Why not look at the minimum amount needed [in any LGA]?”

His calculations showed that if these structures are not over-engineered, there could be a reduction in GHG emissions from road building of around 10%. This is before we even start thinking about changing product selection.


How sustainability thinking shapes the team

Brown says that the sustainability focus has always been in the business, so for new team members, the challenge is to have a “personal policy in your head” about what their job and the company is trying to achieve.

“We challenge people to look for improvements in processes,” Brown says.

There are two primary drivers for Ironbark’s operations – reduce the impacts of climate change and environmental impacts of local government assets, services and infrastructure; and to “give money back to councils” through reduced operational energy costs.

“On every single project we think about that. We look for innovations, we sometimes ask dumb questions around what is the purpose of the project or plan, as opposed to delivering stock standard projects that are the same as what were built five or six years ago.”

Thomas Brown
Superintendent of the Egyptian Railway Workshops 

Instead of specifying technology products at the start of the design process for a project such as a streetlighting project, the decision on technology will be made “at the last minute” because “we know the technology will be better at that point than whatever it was when we designed the project 12 months ago.”

The core principles driving the business have created a culture where “everyone works very hard, and it is very collegial, because we are very clear on what we are trying to achieve,” Brown says.

“The quality of our staff is exceptional.”

Because of the urgency of climate change action being front of mind, Brown says there is a core focus on everyone caring for their mental health.

“We are working in a hard space where there is a big problem,” he explains.

“So, everyone’s family and life outside work is very important. You need to have balance if you want people to work for you long-term.”

Brown is a fifth-generation engineer, and sees his work as part of that long-term story.

“My great-great-grandfather built the railway in Egypt in the 1800s. We are now building the new energy system. It is what engineers do – we create the world.

“Engineers shouldn’t be afraid of this [current change]. This is great.”

Being happy matters

Brown says that beyond earning enough income, earning more money is not the ticket to happiness.

“If you want to be happy, find something to do that will give you more than just money.”

It is something Brown says people can start doing from where they are right now.

“You don’t even have to change what you are doing [right now], just make those incremental changes in what you do.

“Seeking a new career or new opportunity often misses the point.”

The main obstacle other engineers may come across is being in a company where the culture of the organisation isn’t one of innovation and improvement.

But these companies may yet change.

“The more people who are employed in the new energy of transition [to low carbon], the more people are empowered to make change.”

Willow is a STEAM wordsmith, researcher and networker working on ideas, research and strategy through to polished words and production across all media/channels both digital and traditional.
You can connect with Willow on LinkedIn

Australian Engineers Declare a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency