Ecosystems, sewage and the fun side of sustainable architecture

Architecture studentsTasha Aitken is studying for a Professional Diploma in Architecture at CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment. Here she reports of a module in which saw students getting knee deep in poo, learning about ecological sanitation (with less involved options for the those of a more delicate disposition!), ecosystem services, Gaia theory and water and waste management. The module was held jointly with students from the masters degree in sustainability and adaptation.


I think many of my fellow students would agree with me that returning to CAT for the November module, our third of 18 for the Professional Diploma course, was like returning home. Everyone dribbled in at various times throughout the evening and each time, everyone gathered round to greet the new arrivals.

I think many of my fellow students would also agree that the pace had really been cranked up as October turned to November. Ready to greet us on Monday and Tuesday mornings respectively were our first assessed presentation and submission deadlines for a 3,000 word essay and 1250 word practical. So, with the brief intermissions to welcome course-mates we hadn’t seen for weeks, most of us were beavering away at the finishing touches to our written work and starting (!) our presentations for the following morning.

The presentation topic was unspecified, but the length was strictly 10 minutes, really getting us to think about content, flow and conciseness of delivery. As a result, the day was a brief snapshot into the other three-quarters of each-others’ lives outside of CAT-week. Topics ranged from building out of found materials in an eco-village and involvement in community projects to the principles of teaching Forest School. Even those, including myself, who presented on an aspect of their Ceinws Sustainable Rural Affordable Housing Project were putting across a chosen interest personal to them. It was a brilliant enlightenment to the expanse of knowledge and experience we have as a collective.

After a day of presentations, Tuesday saw us revert back to a more normal schedule of lectures. This month’s module has been “Ecosystem Services, Land-Use and Water and Waste Management”: a mouthful to say and an even bigger plateful of really practical information taking us back to the basics of resource use. As ProfDips, we didn’t attend the entire lecture series but still managed to cover topics such as: Contaminated Land, Ecological Sanitation, Flooding and Urban Design, Food Security, Ecosystems Services, and Resource Management. To pick out a single issue to tell you about is tricky, but perhaps one most relevant to CAT philosophy is the idea of the Meta-Industrial Era. The Resource Management lecture by Peter Harper talked about the transitions made from Pre-Industrial to Early Industrial and to the Mature Industrial Era, our current position, increasingly abandoning low impact natural materials in favour of high performance, high impact technologies. Discussion related to the modern day relevance of natural pre-industrial materials, where it was suggested that the “Meta-Industrial Age” involves using low energy materials wherever possible, but adding ‘industrial vitamins’, such as internet, electricity and high-quality glazing, allowing expected standards of living to continue.

Meta-Industrial materials
Material Impacts in Successive Inudstrial Ages (Harper P. 2014 Resources and Resource Management; powerpoint presentation at CAT, 11.11.2014)


On Thursday, Brian Moss, the noted ecologist sandwiched dinner with two lectures, and whose stimulating content was centred around, firstly, the idea of natural selection and the debate between co-operative and selfish evolution: pack behaviour versus the protective female instinct. His point was that we are an invasive species and to overcome our selfish nature – self-promotion and self-indulgence – would be to allow the Earth to survive. The second part was really about what the human species’ place in the world is: Is our work to restore the planet unnatural? If we are part of nature, can anything we do be unnatural? And finally, explaining that “the spirit level” may be a Silver Bullet for the Earth. Moss pointed out that the feudal system gave few an enormous sphere of influence with potential to ruin the Earth , whilst the pre-feudal clans and tribes were unable to make such an impact and would take themselves out upon acting unsustainably, therefore removing the problem.

Possibly the most exciting part of the week for everyone was Practical Day, and the prospect of getting knee deep in poo during Louise’s sanitation option! However, you will have to ask someone else about that as I chose to walk around Machynlleth and observe existing and potential ecosystem services, in other words, the ways in which nature can provide for us, e.g. trees giving shade or plants as a food source.

Ecosystem services plants
Ecosystem services outside the coop (author’s photograph)

And on to the Friday night social, in the absence of Tim, Tom Barker took up the mantle and introduced the theme of Moodle, our online information service that had been causing a few hiccups recently. Poems with as many oodle-rhyming words as possible were read out in Irish accents and with guitar accompaniments and people stamped their user-numbers on their foreheads. Oh, and there was an entirely unrelated acro-yoga session, the pinnacle of which was our human pyramid!

Human Engineering (author’s photograph)

Come to our Professional Diploma in Architecture end of year exhibition on Friday 16th January