Future disruption in the concrete industry, sustainability and the power of female mentorship
“There is going to be a major shift in how we build our buildings and infrastructure over the next decade,” says Susan McGarry, Ecocem Ireland’s Managing Director. And as one of the country’s leading industry influencers, she is an expert voice on sustainable matters.
McGarry is Engineers Ireland’s representative on the sustainability pillar of the Construction Sector Group within the Department of Expenditure and has recently been appointed to the Steering Committee of Construct Innovate, Ireland’s first dedicated research centre for the construction industry.
“This new research centre will help facilitate research and development in materials, process and technology with a special emphasis on accelerating housing delivery,” she says.
“The legal drivers are already here – the National Climate Action Plan 2023 has mandated that building materials reduce their embodied carbon by 30 per cent.
That level of decarbonisation requires a real acceleration of innovation both in how we extract and produce our raw materials and the type of materials we are using.”
Adopting new methods and materials as the industry decarbonises over the next decade is going to be a major challenge. “Change is difficult in any industry but when you are designing for a 120-year design life you need to be sure of every constituent and process,” McGarry says.
“Change has been slow in the Irish construction industry, and we are very conservative when it comes to new developments.”
This, she adds, has meant Ireland is slightly behind the rest of Europe – something the 2020 KPMG report on Productivity in the Construction Sector demonstrated across a number of different pillars.
“In the wake of that report, we now have the Construction Sector Group in the Department of Expenditure and underneath that the Innovation, Sustainability and Digital adaption sub group led by PJ Rudden, which has a number of working groups with industry experts to progress work in each of the pillars.
“Finally there’s the National Climate Action plan, which I believe will accelerate our progress to zero emissions and drive the innovation which we will need to deliver it.”
Disruption is coming.
“I think the biggest level of disruption is going to be in how we produce cement, which is currently responsible for over seven per cent of all global emissions – more than aviation, shipping and haulage combined,” McGarry says.
“We need to move away from traditional high clinker, high carbon cements and into more efficient, low carbon binders to catch up with the rest of Europe. Standards are going to have to change to support innovation and allow for new and novel materials.”
Technology and ambition are a happy marriage at Ecocem. “We have ambitious sustainability goals for the market and to date our current low carbon cement range has prevented 16 million tonne of CO2 from being released in to the atmosphere.
“With our new technology we believe we can accelerate decarbonisation of one of the hardest to abate sectors there is. “We have a dedicated sustainability Manager for the group, Chisom Ekomaru and we are developing an attainable, transparent plan to decarbonise without a heavy reliance on offsets.
“Our carbon footprint per tonne of cement is already extremely low at approximately 32kg CO2 per tonne but removing that last part is the most difficult.”
McGarry graduated in civil engineering from TU Dublin (Bolton Street as it was then) in 2011. While many of her peers emigrated she took a job as an intern at Ecocem, who’s head office and plants are based in Dublin.
A Master’s degree in engineering management from UCD in 2018 followed – an educational path that helped her pivot from a technical engineer role into a more business focused one.
“I was always interested in the sustainability aspects of construction. I took on every and any project that came my way,” she says of her internship. “It added to my knowledge and expertise by doing smaller courses on concrete technology and environmental management.”
Five years ago she became European Sustainability Manager for Ecocem Group, implementing ISO standards across all its production facilities.
“I also developed Ecocem’s sustainability strategy,” she says. “In 2020, I became Managing Director of the Irish business, one month before Covid hit. Since then, we have grown the Irish business through exports and innovation domestically.”
McGarry’s experience of the industry has been predominantly positive throughout her career.
“While I have experienced and witnessed bias, including sexist comments, this has been limited,” she says. “My colleagues in Ecocem have always supported me and created an environment where diversity and inclusion are celebrated. I genuinely think the industry
is changing and the old school mentality is not tolerated as much anymore.
“We have a serious skills shortage now and in the end, it is about talent. If we fail to attract talent and build a pipeline of workers that will be the next generation of senior managers our industry will suffer.
“One key area of attracting women to the industry that the Women in Engineering Group is focusing on is women returning to work.
“The industry needs to put an emphasis on women returning to work after having children and businesses supporting their needs during this time.
“It needs to be an attractive place to work for everyone not just one half of the population.”
McGarry believes there are a number of ways to entice more women into the industry. “Construction careers need to be shown and demonstrated to younger girls from primary school age into second level,” she says.
“I do a lot of talks in schools. I am involved in the Women in Engineering group in Engineers Ireland and volunteer at the Engineers stand at BT Young Scientist every year. The constant feedback I get is that these careers are just not on the radar of younger girls.
“The stereotypical image of a man in a hard hat standing on site prevails. The construction and engineering industries offer some of the most varied and engaging work there is, however we are not currently engaging the next generation of construction professionals effectively.”
McGarry believes in the power of mentoring. “Sometimes having someone to bounce an idea off without judgement or bias is all a person needs to keep them interested and engaged in their work,” she says.
“As I took on more and more senior roles there were fewer and fewer female colleagues. While this is not unusual for the
industry, it can be quite isolating.
“Having another woman who can relate to how you think and how you see things can be valuable. The Women in Engineering Group in Engineers Ireland is a great chance to meet other women working in the industry and there have been specific mentoring sessions set up through the group.
“Mentorship is key to keeping talent in the industry,” she adds. “Mentoring is a great way of retaining young entrants to the field and graduates interested in the industry.
“There can be quite a steep drop off between graduating from construction related courses and entering the field.
“It’s important that both women and men already established in their careers commit to connecting with the next generation to ensure they have a positive experience to begin with.”
Take five… with Ecocem’s Susan McGarry
What innovations are you most excited about?
I need to declare my bias up front! At Ecocem we have pioneered ACT, a technology that significantly reduces CO2 emissions from the traditional cement manufacturing process by 50 per cent, by 2030.
It is the culmination of a decade of innovation in the scaling of sustainable, low carbon, competitive cement technologies. It is cost effective, energy efficient and very easily scalable and can be in the market by 2026.
No other technology available or in development can deliver this level of reduction in this time frame. The industry is currently struggling to achieve even short-term targets and long term plans are heavily reliant on CCUS (Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage) which will not be available in many meaningful way until at least 2035.
Pivoting to lower clinker, lower carbon binders can be done now using existing infrastructure. We are currently looking for partners to scale the technology in Europe and have recently begun testing in Ireland with a aim of having it certified and ready for market in 2025.
Who inspires you?
I get inspired by new people all the time, often they are other peers in the industry that I meet through committees or networking events. There are many more women driving the Irish construction industry forward at the moment and while they may not be celebrities or well-known names, they are fundamentally changing an industry often without recognition.
More broadly, I would say Jacinda Ardern, who recently stepped down as Prime Minister of New Zealand. She led with empathy, which I think is less often seen on the global stage – particularly in politics.
I try to emulate this in my day-to-day management. You can be a strong and decisive leader, and still nurture and empathise with the people you lead.
What is your approach to health and safety?
Safety is the first item on the agenda of any of our management or production meetings. I implemented OHSAS 18001 in Ecocem across all our plants six years ago, so I understand how to build safety into processes while still getting the work done effectively.
My approach to safety is that it should be the first consideration before carrying out any work within our plants or before we let outside parties come in and start work on our site.
It’s a logical first step for me that can actually improve the efficiency of the work by thinking through each step in advance. Safety has become more holistic to me now in that we need to support people’s mental health just as much as their physical health on site.
Stress and burnout can affect anyone and its important that companies and managers create an environment that’s both safe and enjoyable to work in, with open communication for when problems so arise.
Proudest moment to date?
The inclusion of a low carbon cement mandate for all public works in the national Climate Action Plan 2023.
I have been campaigning, educating, and influencing for years to create a legal driver for the use of lower carbon cement alternatives and to see it written in black and white when the NCAP was launched, at the end of last year was amazing.
It puts the Irish construction industry on a par with our more sustainable neighbours in the EU.
Book or podcast recommendations?
There are several good podcasts coming out of the Irish construction industry that I listen to regularly to keep up-to-date such as Property Matters with Carol Talon, which does a great round up as well as Passive House, Zero Ambitions and That Business Show with Conall O Móráin. For climate change read Bill Gates’ book How to avoid a climate disaster.