CAT architecture students suggest ways to put sustainability at the heart of Birmingham


Students from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Graduate School of the Environment last week revealed their designs for the proposed regeneration of a site near Birmingham’s Custard Factory. Developer Lucan Gray chose to use CAT students to help put sustainability at the heart of his proposals.

The corner site in Digbeth may eventually be developed into a dynamic entrance to Birmingham’s creative quarter. The Custard Factory, which today houses boutiques, artists’ studios and other small and medium sized businesses has been gradually redeveloped in recent years, transforming what was once the home of Bird’s custard-making operation into a creative hub.

Built by Sir Alfred Frederick Bird, son of the inventor of egg-free custard, the site lay empty after the custard production moved to Banbury in 1964. The redevelopment of the site by Benny Gray and son Lucan has sought to re-invigorate the area, aiming to create around a thousand jobs by the project’s completion.

Central to the operation has been re-casting the industrial legacy of the area ­ what was once a loading bay is now a lake at the heart of the complex. The site, with its stunning historic buildings, provides exciting opportunities for renovation and conversion, a core concern for the students, whose studies are focused on sustainable architectural practice. Utilising the existing buildings in creative ways, the students proposed ideas for developing the area in an integrated, cohesive manner.

Situated as it is a mere ten minutes away from the Bullring, Birmingham’s premier shopping destination, the proposals will also explore ways that the site can be used to engender an economic alternative to out-of-control consumerism.

The students visited the site in February 2012 and carried out a survey, returning on the 14th of May to exhibit their project designs at the Lake Gallery in the Custard Factory. The event was attended by prominent architect Glenn Howells, his staff, local architects and Custard factory tenants.

The semi live project gives the students an opportunity to become familiar with the concerns of the developer, the local community and wider considerations based in reality. This is vital, as building designers/clients often misinterpret local needs and these are usually fairly mixed with some conflicting ambitions, and are set against a backdrop of global concerns, so it’s a very useful way for the students to start to pick their way through local politics, funding issues, local and regional concerns.

Lucan Gray said that he was extremely impressed by the designs and was astounded at the breadth and difference in the students design approach. He was very happy to see a sustainability approach in design. The students thoroughly enjoyed presenting their work especially having a real live project and client involved the design project.

CAT hope to continue to collaborate with the Custard Factory as a view to integrating art and media as vehicles of education to encourage people to live more sustainable lifestyles.

Where’s the impact of a home-baked cake?


In this series, we’ve been investigating the environmental and social impacts of various consumer products. Inspired by CAT Education resource Where’s the Impact? we’ve been attempting to unpick the tangled web of relations responsible for what buy.

We’ve so far investigated an Easter egg, a book, and a cotton t-shirt. Last week we looked at pads and tampons and were surprised to discover that we discard 200,000 tonnes waste from menstrual products every year in the UK alone.

In this post, we’ll have a look at the impact of a home-baked cake. We’ll focus on a few elements in particular, namely the eggs, flour, and sugar. As ever, we welcome your comments so help us tell the story by posting below, or make suggestions as to what we could cover in the future.


Now, not all cakes need include eggs. In fact, a favourite recipe of mine does without them and still produces a highly tasty result.

If we do include eggs, we increase the carbon footprint of our cake by a fair bit, considering that one box of eggs is equivalent to around 1.8kg of C02 (according to How Bad are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee).

Berners-Lee states that eggs are “less carbon intensive than some animal products but more so than most vegetable-based foods.” As chickens aren’t ruminants, like cows, they don’t produce a large amount of methane, meaning that they have a significantly lower impact.

As with any food product, there’s the transport and packaging to consider as well. In the case of eggs, the transport generally isn’t too considerable and the packaging can easily be recycled, either with your council or more ingeniously as trays for sowing seeds, which can be planted out directly when ready.

As we mentioned in our investigation into Easter eggs, farming intensively generally results in lower emissions. However, as organisations like PETA have made clear, intensive farming is highly unethical; Mike Berners-Lee makes the sage suggestion of buying fewer eggs but ensuring that they’re organic and free range.

I’ve long had a slightly bizarre interest in one day baking a loaf of bread from grain I grew, harvested and milled myself. However, I haven’t got anywhere near that goal.

It takes 350 ears of wheat to produce one 800g loaf of bread, so we need a fair bit of the stuff. In the UK, our flour consumption is about 74kg per capita. It’s bizarre to think that I probably eat my weight in bread every year.

The largest impact from flour production is in growing the wheat. While milling flour generally uses electricity – some super-ethical brands available mill their flour using water and wind, old-school style – it is by and large an efficient process with only a small amount of waste produced. Mills are also often situated near farms, reducing the amount of transport necessary.

Wheat has a large water footprint; a study from the University of Twente found that global wheat production requires around 1088 billion cubic metres of water every year; the average ton of wheat crop requires 1830 cubic metres of water. Freshwater, as they note, is a renewable yet finite resource.

Thoroughly necessary for any cake – unless you’re making a fruit cake sweetened by the might of fruit alone. Sugar has a fairly dodgy history; Ethical Consumer claim that “sugar is arguably the most intensely political commodity of all time.”

Earlier this year, the Fairtrade Foundation released “Fairtrade Sugar: Starting a Sweet Revolution,” a report which includes the encouraging fact that 42% of the retail market for sugar is now Fairtrade. However, poverty is still a massive problem for producers in developing countries. As they write, “the trade in, and production of, sugar has a long and sometimes dark history and today sugar plays a key role in the livelihoods of millions of people and the economies of many countries.”

And, as it’s grown as a continuous mono-culture, producing sugar involves a constant battle to maintain soil fertility. Other associated problems include the salinisation of soils due to over-irrigation, and acidification due to fertiliser usage. Sugar also has a considerable water footprint, requiring 1200mm of rainfall to produce a good yield.

Is it better to buy a cake, or make your own? Well, one thing’s for certain – in making your own, at least you’re sure about what’s gone in. A cake commercially made is likely to include non-free range eggs, non-organic flour, and non-Fairtrade sugar. For example, while there’s been some success in switching the retail sugar market to Fairtrade, the industrial market is making the change at a much slower pace.

As for energy use, it’s possible that buying a cake made commercially is more energy efficient – but that’s discounting the energy involved in packaging and distribution. Furthermore, you can be savvy with that energy: bake a cake in winter and warm your home a bit in the process; turn the oven off in the last five minutes and leave the cake to cook in the residual heat; pour the mixture into muffin tins instead for a much quicker baking time.

What are the impacts of the things we buy? Where is the energy used? What are the impacts on other people and the environment?

Where’s the Impact? is an innovative teaching resource exploring the ecological footprint of products. There are literally thousands of processes involved in the production of any given product – to raise awareness about the impacts of production, pupils use a set of cards to tell the story of a product from beginning to end.

Buy Where’s the Impact from the CAT Eco Store 01654 705 959 or email

Nature Blog: what to look out for this summer


I was inordinately pleased to be greeted by the sight of a pair of Grey Wagtails as I drove into CAT this morning, down by Bottom station. People have kept telling me they are always to be seen there, but it’s the first time I’ve spotted them here – it is particularly pleasing because although they are reasonably widespread in Wales, numbers countrywide have dropped in recent years and they are now on the Amber list of endangered birds. You can always tell a Grey Wagtail by its bright yellow and grey plumage – not to be confused of course with the Yellow Wagtail with its bright yellow and grey plumage.

I’ve never got round to making a list of all the species of birds that have been seen in and around CAT but it must be pretty lengthy by now. Something else to look out for over the next month is the annual appearance of the spectacularly clumsy Cockchafer (or Maybug as it is also called) – you know those weird and wonderful looking flying beetles with mini TV aerials on their heads which spend most of their time crashing headfirst into windows and walls, ending up lying upside down on the ground, before groggily righting themselves, shaking their heads and setting off again only to repeat the whole process. And of course the swallows are back from their holidays in Africa – the swifts will be here soon – so much to look out for over the summer. Enjoy it all while you can – winter comes round fast enough!

Where’s the impact of pads and tampons?


In this series, we’ve been investigating the impacts of various different consumer products, attempting to untangle the complicated webs of production, manufacture and resource use. We’ve told the story of a chocolate Easter egg, a cotton t-shirt, and a paperback book, discovering along the way some fascinating facts about how these products affect our increasingly fragile planet.

This week, we’re going to investigate menstrual products. Unfortunately, however you term them – sanitary products, menstrual products, whatever – it sounds euphemistic; there’s still a culture of shame surrounding the whole experience of menstruation. Leaving aside the awkwardness, however, and the nomenclature, our use – and disposal – of tampons and pads has a considerable effect on the environment. Every year, we discard an average of 200,000 tonnes of waste from menstrual products, a large proportion of which is destined for landfill or the ocean.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at what tampons and pads are made of, and consider some alternatives. Help us tell the story by leaving comments below!

First off, let’s have a look at tampons. It’s estimated that one woman will use 11,000 tampons in her lifetime, or 22 items for each period. Each tampon is also estimated to take an average six months to break down, so it’s hardly a surprise that a 2010 survey found that for every kilometre of coastline, there were 8.9 tampon applicators (as well as 22.5 pads, liners and backing strips).

The tampon was first developed in the 20s and 30s, around the same time as the re-usable menstrual cup. However, a business model predicated on disposability was much more attractive, and tampons were marketed aggressively, fixating on their supposed hygiene and convenience. However, they’ve long been linked to health problems, most notably Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Made of cotton or a blend of cotton and rayon, a synthetic product made from wood pulp, there are also concerns that tampons could contain dioxins from the bleaching process and pesticides from the cultivation of the cotton. As we discovered in our post about the impact of a cotton t-shirt, cotton production makes heavy use of incredibly dangerous pesticides.

Tampons aren’t classed as medical products, and as such, don’t have to provide detailed product information. The Women’s Environment Network, in their informative report Seeing Red: Sanitary Protection and the Environment explain that tampon manufacture is self-policed by an industry-led body, which doesn’t even require that tampons be sterile.

This lack of information is especially concerning for fragrance-laced tampons, a concept which seems singularly bizarre. As the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes, “because the formulas are considered trade secrets, companies don’t have to disclose what’s in fragrance. We know from product-testing that fragrance may contain allergens, sensitizers, phthalates (a class of chemicals that has been linked to hormone disruption, which can affect development and fertility), neurotoxins and synthetic musks (which can also disrupt hormones).”

Disposable pads are a less modern invention than tampons, with the first versions hitting the market in the late 19th Century. Since then, they’ve evolved into something more user-friendly – as examples in the Museum of Menstruation show, earlier iterations required women to wear a belt to hold the pad in place.

However, the modern materials affording such convenience derive from the petroleum industry – therefore, their manufacture takes a dangerous toll on the environment. Pads also take a very long time to break down, leaving a long-term environmental legacy.

Every year, WEN report, the disposables industry spends a whopping £14 million advertising these products to us. The message – that, as WEN put it, “women are somehow dirty and in need of special cleansing products” – reaches 18.6 million women. So it’s hardly a surprise that disposable menstrual products seem necessary, even unavoidable.

However, there are other options. If you’re the crafting type, you can easily find patterns to make your own re-usable pads online. If not, re-usable pads are available to buy online, as well as re-usable menstrual cups.

What are the impacts of the things we buy? Where is the energy used? What are the impacts on other people and the environment?

Where’s the Impact? is an innovative teaching resource exploring the ecological footprint of products. There are literally thousands of processes involved in the production of any given product – to raise awareness about the impacts of production, pupils use a set of cards to tell the story of a product from beginning to end.

Buy Where’s the Impact from the CAT Eco Store 01654 705 959 or email

Nature Blog: Yellowhammer onomatopoeia

Rennie, CAT’s resident naturalist, enjoys the abundance of birdsong at CAT.

Well, this is the last Monday morning that I’ll be trudging up the garden steps, mentally preparing myself for another day at the coal face and it’s a lovely bright sunny day – for the moment at least. Yet again I am struck by the proliferation of bird life we have here – especially noticeable at this time of year when the dawn chorus is in full swing. In just the short walk from the Cabins to the staff lunch room I saw two Dunnocks engaging in a little bit of intimate courting, a pair of smartly plumaged male Chaffinches squabbling for the attentions of a singularly bored looking female, a beautifully orange billed Blackbird singing his heart out from the branches of a tree and the flash of white as a Treecreeper flew off from one of the trees by the lake.

...not a yellowhammer, but rather a nuthatch.

Over the last few weeks, the Eco Cabin’s feeders have been visited by Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Nuthatches, Green finches, Siskins, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Robins, Grey Squirrels and a mangy looking ginger cat. And then of course up by the smallholding as Grace, CAT’s woodland and natural resources co-ordinator, pointed out, Yellowhammers have been regular visitors. Incidentally don’t believe the bird books which tell you that the Yellowhammer’s song sounds like ‘ a-lttle-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’ – whoever came up with that originally must have been under the influence! Admittedly, it has a long drawn out note at the end but it might just as well be described as like ‘ I’m-itching-like mad- and-got- fleeeeas’ or any other such phrase. In fact, post your suggestions for an onomatopoeic phrase which best fits the Yellowhammer’s song below.

Student story: Becca on climate adaption and mitigation


Former CAT MSc student and engineering volunteer Becca Warren writes about public speaking, building a shed on the roof of Manchester University, and working as a low carbon generation consultant.

This year I’ll be presenting at Greenbuild on ‘Climate Adaptation and Mitigation.’ Greenbuild is Manchester’s answer to Ecobuild – less celebrities, so no Kevin McCloud or Brian Cox, and a smaller exhibition but a great line up of presentations and workshops and a great event to present at. I did half an hour on the subject ‘What Will a Low Carbon Manchester Look Like?’ last year and had people standing three deep at the back by the time I had finished and so feel under pressure to do at least as good a job this year.

Given my public speaking abilities when I started an MSc at CAT in 2007 it’s remarkable that I’m not only able to do this but actually looking forward to it. My first presentation on the course – a short ten minutes on my first assignment about the use of natural ventilation in large buildings was an unmitigated disaster – I put too much information in, in a storyline which didn’t follow itself, didn’t practise it enough and stumbled and stuttered my way through what felt more like ten hours. Rob, our course leader, looked at me sympathetically on the way out and said “It’s not easy is it?”

My brain woke me up two days later, at two in the morning with a brilliant presentation on the same subject, delivered in a dynamic, Johnny Ball in ‘Think-of-a-number’ style, which would have involved sawing a cardboard box in half, remote control cars and audience participation. It received standing ovations in my imagination and gave me insomnia for three nights. I still think it would be great but have never got the opportunity to deliver it. I have, however, presented on a number of topics to a lot of different audiences – general renewables to festival go-ers at the Big Green Gathering, wind power to school children, BREEAM to landscape architects, district energy to university students and district heating to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (they were a tough crowd).

I went into building services with a small engineering consultancy just after starting the course. We merged a year later with a much bigger company which has given me some great opportunities, not least by providing funding for my thesis experiment which involved building a shed on the roof of Manchester University and giving me a month off when I won a travel bursary in 2010 to go cycling round Northern Europe looking at community energy. Having spent the summer of 2007 volunteering at CAT with the engineering department and done a bit of building services early in my career (I’m talking a couple of summer jobs nearly twenty years ago) I had a blagger’s guide to the subject but no more. It’s been a steep learning curve, alongside the learning curve of the course after a nearly two decades out of academia but I’ve been lucky to have a great support network of my colleagues, course tutors and fellow students and the wider CAT network. It constantly delights me how many people have studied there or visited and what an inspiration it has been to so many people. It has certainly served me well so far – if I had chosen to do the course out of purely selfish reasons of job security and financial gain I couldn’t have picked much better. My actual desires to do something worthwhile, to work with good people and to have adventures have also been satisfied.

But anyway, back to Climate Adaptation and Mitigation. It’s a massive subject and has a number of different angles. I’ve been interested in it since reading ‘Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet’ (London: Fourth Estate, 2007) – Mark Lynas’s terrifying analysis of what each of the potential rises of global temperature might look like. Basically after three degrees feedback mechanisms make the remaining increases pretty damn likely – ending up with six degrees and a fire-storm ravaged planet on which only the hardiest of bacteria can survive. Grim stuff and hardly likely to inspire anyone to be a bit more energy efficient, holiday closer to home and build resilient communities – more likely to make people want to get drunk and party before we run out of time! (although I guess if they did it on home brew, with the lights off that would be a result of sorts). So whilst I will touch on this I’m going to focus on the (still entirely achievable) rise of 2 degrees and what that might look like.

There’s still some scary stuff like the water shortages throughout the Mediterranean which will surely see increases in population further north as people migrate to more hospitable climates and all the attendant challenges that can bring, and increased extreme weather events with hotter drier summers and more frequent floods in winter. But there are reasons for optimism too. Many of the adaptation measures will also enhance our quality of life. Greener public realms and green roof projects to provide shade and reduce heat islanding can improve biodiversity and create wildlife corridors through our urban areas. A focus on more localised and increasingly organic food production for food security and to reduce costs and emissions from transport and fertilisers will give us a seasonal diet once again and open the way for community based agriculture projects. We will need to address energy and waste on a local scale and whilst this is a huge challenge there are plenty of living projects, both here in the UK and further afield, from which we can learn. This is the story I want to tell. So – having procrastinated by writing this, instead of the presentation for long enough I’m ready to start on the real thing.
Becca Warren started the MSc in Renewable Energy in the Built Environment at CAT in Sept 2007 and graduated in 2011. She works for Sinclair Knight Merz in Manchester as a low carbon generation consultant and is prepared to do public speaking in return for free biscuits. In 2010 she blogged about her travels in Northern Europe at

Exciting job opportunities at CAT


Are you interested in joining the CAT team? We’ve got some exciting vacancies available here at the moment.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of CAT’s work, as the next stage of research for Zero Carbon Britain is about to get underway. For this research, we’re recruiting people to fill three posts.

Overseeing the ZCB project’s research objectives will be the Zero Carbon Britain Research Co-Ordinator. Assisting the Research Co-Ordinator will be the Energy Systems Researcher, responsible for co-ordinating and undertaking research for the project, while a similar post (with details still to be confirmed) will expand on the previous report’s investigations into land use.

We’re also recruiting for a Woodland and Natural Resources Assistant to assist with management of our natural resources – including demonstrations of sustainable living on our visitor’s circuit, woodland around the site, and Coed Gwern, CAT’s 15-acre woodland nearby.

For more information about our current vacancies, have a look here. For more information about working at CAT, have a look here.

Nature Blog: duck attack!


Sometimes I think we tend to underestimate the intelligence or acumen of some of the other creatures that share our planet with us; often they can do something that is difficult to explain away as instinctive or unreasoning. Take this little example for instance: on my way home each day, I usually stop off in a little car park at Penmaenpool for a few minutes to see what’s going on around the area. It commands a spectacular view across the estuary to the hills in the distance and the often flooded fields and mud flats near the lovely old wooden toll bridge are a haven for all sorts of bird life – Red-breasted Mergansers, Herons, Canada Geese, Mute Swans, Rooks and of course always the ubiquitous Mallards.

A couple of days ago I had pulled in there, and a dapper looking male Mallard accompanied by his more soberly attired female were waddling around the car park picking over any scraps which had been left behind by the untidy visitors. I had some of my sandwiches left over, so I wound down the window, broke off some bits and threw them out, much to the delight of the two ducks, who rushed over in that comical gait that they have and got stuck into them.

The following day, I drove into the carpark at about the same time and parked up in roughly the same place – now there were several other cars there, some of them with people in them, but the two Mallards were sitting quietly on the grass ignoring them. But as soon as I stopped they jumped up and came waddling over to the car as if they recognised me – again I wound down the window and was starting to rummage in my bag for something to give them, when the female decided I was being much too slow and took a flying leap up onto the window ledge of the car, perching precariously there for a couple of seconds, flapping wildly, before over balancing and tipping forward into my lap. The next few moments were a bit frenetic to say the least as she flapped around furiously and started pecking at the bag on my lap, mainly missing the bag and making quite painful contact with a rather delicate part of my anatomy. Eventually I managed to open the door and get her outside with her husband but she seemed completely fearless and I had to restrain her from getting back in to the car. She wasn’t content until I’d tipped some food onto the ground for her. These weren’t domesticated birds mind you, they were properly free and wild – in the case of the female exceptionally wild!

Zerocarbonbritain2030 blog: Money for Wave & Tidal Energy

In these financially constrained times it is encouraging to see that governments south and north of the border are willing to continue to scrape together money to support marine renewables. It is also gratifying to see that Westminster and Holyrood are playing together on this strategically important area, the harvesting of energy from our tides and waves, by synchronising the funding that is being made available.

In the last few weeks there have been three funds announced.

1. DECC have announced the £20M ‘Marine Energy Array Deployment’ fund (MEAD ). This is being administered by the Carbon Trust and is intended to provide essential funding to help get the leading wave and tidal energy developers plans progressed to the point where they are able to put in groups of machines or ‘arrays’.

2. The Scottish Government has announced two funds. The first ‘Marine Renewables Commercialisation Fund’ (MRCF ) will be £18M and the detail is still being worked on, but is likely to follow similar lines as MEAD.

3. The other Scottish fund is the ‘Renewables Renewable Energy Investment Fund’ (REIF ) is a remarkable £103M. This is half of the money that Treasury eventually returned to Scotland (it having been paid by Scottish electricity consumers in previous years and held by OFGEM). This fund is to be more of an investment vehicle that is planned to work in parallel with the Green Investment Bank.

The intention is that it will invest in RE projects in order to get others to join the party, but in due course will expect to get its money back to re-invest in other schemes in later years. This is therefore the ‘patient money’ the industry has been calling for, i.e. less impatient to get a return than venture capital, but still not just a grant.

There are of course a whole raft of rules about how big the projects need to be and when they have to be operating by, but these are very useful sign of the Governments’ continuing commitment to bring this industry into being. Naturally there are concerns that they are just a drop in the ocean compared to the sort of money that this will take to make this work properly, but for the moment it will help developers prove that the prototypes can indeed be rolled out at scale.

To date the developers reckon they have attracted between 4 to 6 times the amount of public money put in from private investors and they plan to continue to bring it in to make this industry a reality.

So we seem to have some more of the key building blocks in place to build the technology to treat our carbon addiction. All we have to do now is to make the most of them.

Neil Kermode