For John Smyth the journey to becoming an engineer began not with a step but with a STEPS primary school visit where he was shown how to build a wind turbine out of K’nex. Now he has returned the favour and advises entrants to the profession to get involved – 'the best thing I ever did was join the Engineers Ireland Young Engineers Society'.

Smyth is a mechanical project engineer with Arup. He graduated with a first-class honours master of science in sustainable energy engineering from WIT, and is also the recipient of a first-class honours degree in energy engineering from UCC.

He works in Arup’s Cork office as part of the mechanical and energy engineering teams. Before joining Arup, Smyth worked as an energy engineer with 3CEA, a regional energy agency, providing energy management services, energy auditing and energy efficient design consultation to public bodies and communities. His interests include sustainable building design, focusing on building performance analysis.

John Smyth

1) When did you first become interested in engineering?  

I would like to think I always had an interest in engineering and how things work but, actually, a primary school visit from STEPS engineers to build a wind turbine out of K’nex which really pulled my interest. Then as a teenager, seeing a towering wind turbine up close on the way to a match in north Tipp, I knew I wanted to work with them some day. 

2) Who were the mentors who helped you on your way? 

Where to start, I only am where I am today thanks to the help of so many people but, from the start, my father always encouraged me to explore engineering and how things work around me.

I believe my first engineering mentor was my internship boss Michael Gubbins, who was one of the smartest and most hard-working of engineers that I have met, and he set the aspirational bar as an engineer for me to this day.

Then my college lecturer, Dr Dominic O Sullivan, who supervised my final year project and is part the reason I work in building performance today.

My first real job and experience as an engineer came with 3 Counties Energy Agency (3CEA) and it was with the help of Paddy Phelan and the whole team there that I first got going on my real engineering journey.

Finally, I would not be the engineer I am today if it was not for my current mentor and Arup colleague John Burgess who still, on a daily basis, helps me to become a better engineer. That is just to mention some of the people who have helped me long the way – so, as you can see, I have been pretty lucky!

3) Who is your engineer hero?   

Thomas Midgley Jr

Maybe not a typical hero story here but I am a big fan of Thomas Midgley Jr – played a fundamental role in adding lead to petrol to improve efficiency and prevent knocking, an elegant solution at the time but as we discovered later (largely thanks to Clar Patterson – a close second for my engineering hero, although technically a geologist) an environmental disaster.

Later to part-compensate for this environmental damage, Midgley helped develop the first chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were hailed as inert, non-toxic refrigerants to replace their explosive and toxic counterparts. Again (but much later) we learnt that CFCs play a major cause in ozone depletion and global warming.

Midgley is a hero to me because of his ingenuity and determination to right past wrongs, but also as a life lesson – the solution to one problem may cause another, so big picture thinking, even if it's not in your scope, is always required for an engineer.

4) What are your favourite engineering feats? 

‘The House’ – a passive house residential tower at Cornell Tech in New York

Oh a tough question, that could be anything from the tallest buildings to the tiny medical devices that save lives every day, but for me personally no engineering feat is more impressive than a well-designed, sustainable building. A great example of this is ‘The House’ – a passive house residential tower at Cornell Tech in New York.

Closer to home, the Crystal building in London has some really cool sustainable gadgets, making it one of the smartest sustainable buildings in the UK.

5) What is/are the most important trend/s in engineering right now? 

I think it is all about sustainability and ‘going digital’ right now. Sustainability has always been high priority in my work and it's good to see it getting wider attention.

Digitalisation is the next big thing in engineering and I, for one, am excited to see what it brings, from process automation, building information modelling (BIM) and smart buildings to name a few of the big buzz words.

6) In terms of a current issue – let’s call it the ‘data centre conundrum’ – how do we continue to attract inward investment in this area while ‘avoiding blackouts or using up too much electricity’?  

Wow, I was not expecting such a technical question and there are many smarter engineers out there better placed than me to answer this but, from my perspective, flexibility is key, the world needs data centres and building them in Ireland is a great opportunity for waste heat utilisation and renewable energy generation (power purchase agreements to build a wind farm nearby, for example) but we need grid flexibility to help keep the lights on at key times.

7) What are your favourite book/s? And what are you currently reading?    

I am a bit of a Greek myth fan, so I am currently reading Stephen Frys’ Mythos. Also, I love to read the Engineers Journal from Engineers Ireland whenever I get the chance!

8) What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?   

Get involved! The best thing I ever did was join the Engineers Ireland Young Engineers Society, and I also attended Arup social events. The CPD events are great to get some expert knowledge but you would be surprised what you learn, or who you talk to, at social events which can help you out in a pinch at a later stage.

9) Are there any other measures that we need to take in order to help improve the gender balance within the profession, and indeed to attract more of a balance in the pursuit of STEM subjects/careers?   

I think great people are already doing great thinks to promote women in STEM and engineering, such as the IWish event held annually and the countless WiSTEM societies across Ireland. It would be great to see maybe some women in engineering or STEM cartoons targeted more at very younger ages to provide early role models for the next generation of engineers.

10) Looking back over your career, is there any project, or particular time in your life, that stands out?   

I do not have to look back too far to find challenging times, with Covid-19 still a hot topic. Some of the work I was involved in to help hospitals deal with the pandemic was challenging and fulfilling at the same time.

Also, I was fortunate to win the CIBSE Ken Dale award to support some research into Covid and the effect on HVAC systems. In saying that, I am looking forward to not working on Covid-19 related projects in the future!

11) Is there any engineer you wish was better known?  

I know the city and council engineers do some great work for their localities which goes mostly unheard; I would like to see a society where our council engineers were better known!

12) What is a typical day for you?   

Well, these days working from home is typical! I still try to keep a routine, so I walk my dog Sully every morning (we go again at lunch and then again in the evening, so he keeps me active) before logging on at about 9am no matter where my office is.

Work projects change monthly but they usually involve some site work in normal times, but a lot of report writing, meetings and Excel analysis or energy modelling when I am online. Evenings are usually spent playing with Sully and cooking dinner but if I can fit in a game of five-a-side football or a board game with friends I am all for it.

13) What are your favourite films/TV dramas?   

I am a Disney/animation lover and cannot beat the original films like Lion King and Mulan, but I am generally open to watching anything! As for television, can anybody really look past Friends?

14) What is the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?   

‘There’s a skill in everything’ – is something my father has always told me (often when I was complaining or completing a trivial task poorly) but he was completely right! No matter what task you are putting your mind to, do it wholly and with the skill and conviction that it deserves.

15) What do you do to relax? 

I can't look past a walk with the dog to clear the mind and help relax after a long day!