A Rock is Not Simply a Rock: Q&A with Jim Mann, Principal

Jim Mann, Founder, Stone Initiatives.

For Jim Mann, testing is about more than just numbers, and a rock is not simply a rock. The principal of Stone Initiatives says that every piece of natural stone is as unique an individual as a person is; we just have to be willing to read them.

With an extensive background in earth sciences and experience across a wide range of projects in Australia and abroad, Jim is known as the go-to person for issues related to building stone.

Where does your interest in stone come from?
My first memory of stone is of being fascinated by the breakwater boulders at the beach. I remember looking at them and being intrigued by the variety and massive forms they created. I think that’s where it started. It’s really the history of rocks that fascinates me. Every rock tells a story, especially when you know what you are looking at. You can tell how a rock was formed, how old it is, where it comes from. Especially sedimentary rocks; they even tell you things about the climate.

After studying geology at a tertiary level, what was your first job relating to stone?
I worked for BHP Exploration as part of a team looking for diamonds and base metals. We worked throughout the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia. We would fly around in helicopters doing geophysical and geochemical surveys on anomalies. Diamonds were the big ‘thing’ then, because it wasn’t long after the find in the Kimberley Ranges.

Jim Mann, founder and chief consultant at Stone Initiatives.

How did this influence your career path?
It was a very exciting job in lots of ways. You’d get home one afternoon from a job, just unpack and then you’d be off again the next day to Darwin, for example. It wasn’t really a good job for settling down, but it definitely broadened my horizons and expanded my interest in geology.

You also worked for Amdel Ltd as a Materials Testing Specialist. What did this involve?
My time at Amdel exposed me to a variety of work and a great range of challenges. I worked with stone, metal and plastic; I did testing on everything from baby’s dummies to submarine parts. I took some time off from Amdel to teach at a tech college in Samoa, which I found a challenging and rewarding experience. When I returned to Australia I continued working for Amdel, and soon became dedicated to stone again.

“… The industry wants more than just test results or a number. Clients want to know what the results mean, to get value for money in testing.”

You founded Stone Initiatives in 2003. What inspired you to start your own business?
I could see a need to broaden the services for my clients, but this was difficult to do in the structure I had imposed on me. I was aware the industry wants more than just test results or a number. Clients want to know what the results mean, to get value for money in testing. My aim was to build a one-stop shop for people involved with stone, all the way from the quarry to commercial and heritage projects. The best way to service my clients was to set up Stone Initiatives, using my skills as well as those of other specialists in the field.

Is there a favourite project you’ve worked on, that’s got you really excited?
There have been two jobs that I’ve really enjoyed. The first was working on St Michael’s Church in Melbourne. I was assisting the architects in preparing a conservation plan, which involved cleaning trials and matching of the original stone and mortars. I particularly enjoy heritage projects because of the history and story behind the stone. Another project I really enjoyed, and one that was quite different, was working as the stone consultant on a project in China, where limestone was used as a curtain wall façade. We carried out tests for a determination of basic physical properties, to validate engineering calculations, and for the selection of a suitable sealer for maintenance.

Jim speaking at the Global Stone Technology Forum in Jaipur, India, 2009.

You’ve been involved in a range of jobs around the world. What is it like working on such a variety of projects?
Sometimes it’s a challenge and can be daunting; but once you get ‘acclimatised’ to the project, most skills from past experiences are transferable. I often find a similar passion for stone; it’s great meeting people who share this passion.

“Whenever I visit Melbourne I love to sit in the plaza, surrounded by the broad expanse of colourful stone.”

What’s the best use of dimension stone you’ve seen?
My favourite use is the stone in Federation Square in Melbourne. I have a personal attachment to it, having been involved in the testing and evaluation of it from an early stage. Whenever I visit Melbourne I love to sit in the plaza, surrounded by the broad expanse of colourful stone. It’s like an oasis in the hustle and bustle of the city.

What makes dimension stone different from other building materials?
Every piece is unique. Again it comes back to every piece of stone telling a story. Every piece is as unique an individual as a person is; people just have to be willing to read them.

“I have a personal attachment to Wallaroo Harlequin. The colours are amazing, just like a Ken Done print.”

What is your favourite stone and why?
I have a personal attachment to Wallaroo Harlequin. The colours are amazing, just like a Ken Done print. My involvement with the stone came early in its use when the original quarry owner came to me with a piece, wanting to know what to do with it. After evaluation of it, we found it was a unique stone with high strength and low water absorption – great properties. I can remember standing at the back of Ric Hill’s ute with him as we tried to come up with a good marketing name. I think the name of Harlequin, that we came up with, suits the stone perfectly.

Wallaroo Harlequin, which Jim likens to the colours of a Ken Done print.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced while working with stone?
Again this takes me back to the Federation Square project. It involved the use of two different stones with very limited previous use. The late Doctor Alan Spry and I were given the task of creating a workable quality control procedure that would supply stone that was ‘fit for purpose.’ The paving in particular produced a great challenge because of the different colours of the stones, and their range of properties.

How did you overcome the challenges?
The two most important properties for this project were water absorption and abrasion resistance. It was important to develop a way that they could be measured during the production run. The aim was to develop a field test that would closely relate to water absorption and abrasion resistance. After a comprehensive range of field and lab tests we found that scratch resistance to a particular steel tool gave us a clear pass/fail result, which was also simple for the processors to use. It worked well because it didn’t interrupt production and made it simple to reject the stone that didn’t meet the standard.

When you go on a family outing, you’re known for taking a sample bag and filling your pockets with interesting rocks you pick up along the way. What does your family think about your obsession with stone?
(Laughs). I think they’d be disappointed if I didn’t come home with a trunk full of rocks now! They accept me as a man with rocks in his head.

See Jim’s full biography here.
Meet more of the team here.

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