Andrew is challenging the conventional role of the architect

Andrew Lees studied MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at CAT (this course has now been replaced with MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment). He graduated in November 2015, and I took the opportunity to catch up with him and speak about his experience on the course.

Andrew receiving his graduation scroll

Kit Jones: What was your background before this course, and why did you decide to study at CAT?

Andrew Lees: I’m an architect, and I signed up to the course wanting to do more green architecture. I was surprised by the diversity of other people on the course when I first started – people form all different walks of life and not just Architecture, even though there is a lot about buildings in the course. It has led to some good conversations because people have very different experience to bring.

I suppose I felt I wasn’t living up to my own expectations about what I wanted to be doing, as an Architect. I wanted to be able to diversify the work I could do.

KJ: Have you been able to do that? Have you been able to use what you have learned?

AL: I’m still in the same job, but it has definitely made a difference. I feel I have more in depth knowledge and I am more able to talk to clients, contractors and other consultants about sustainable options for buildings.

In a broader sense, I have also been able to flesh out my concept of what an architect is – or should be. It would be useful if everyone else had the same view! People have a very boxed in view of what an architect should be. As buildings get more complex architects have become coordinators rather than thinkers; we have deferred to engineers on how the building functions. This course makes you more of a thinker. So now I want to be able to lead that more. I’m about to apply for a job in a higher position, which I think would give me more freedom to do that. Part of my intention is to strike out on my own one day.

KJ: What was the experience of studying at CAT like?

AL: It has a totally unique atmosphere – that was the draw in the first place. I have definitely been challenged by it. I’m not a natural scientist; I got by, but I found scientific essays challenging. In conventional architecture education the emphasis is not on scientific writing. So I had to get my head around things like rigorous citation and brevity. I would say I enjoyed being a scientist though – I’ve discovered the joy and creativity of scientific discovery!

KJ: What did you do for your thesis?

AL: I used computer simulation to look at insulation in solid wall, terraced housing. I was coming at the issue from two angles – bringing together the technical issue of building fabric improvement and the human one of thermal comfort standards, questioning the usual standards. I explored the energy and carbon savings of varying the thickness of insulation at different internal temperature set points, and forecasting how likely it was that occupants would be comfortable at these temperatures.

Rammed Earth Vault – a world first?

I have spent time over the last couple of months building a vault out of un-stabilised in-situ rammed earth.  Without known precedent, it is believed to be a world first.  Although there is a pre-cast example built in Austria by students under the supervision of Martin Rauch, there are significant challenges relating to the in-situ construction process that I was testing.  The vault is a 1:5 mock-up of part of my Final Major Project proposal for sustainable Greenbelt Development outside Edinburgh.


The full size vault would be 11 metres wide and 9.5 metres tall at its highest point and extends 20 metres to form an open air hall aimed to encourage a respect for the earth that we rely on to grow food and that can also provide another of our basic needs: shelter.  It would also be occasionally used for events relating to the small scale, sustainable farm work that takes place on the rest of the site.

The principle behind the rammed earth vault lies in the structural properties of rammed earth, which has significant compressive strength but cannot withstand tensile stress.  When flipped to form an arch, a catenary curve – following the path of a chain as it hangs in tension from two fixed points – creates a structure that is entirely in compression.  Whilst the structural principle is ancient and simple, the construction implications of angled ramming and formwork design were unable to be proven possible until the removal of the formwork. The revealing of the finished vault on the 16th of December was witnessed by CAT students from across the REBE, SA and Prof Dip courses.

I would like to put out a huge thank you to the staff and long list of students who helped me and to Rowland Keable, whose advice on the removal of formwork (which can be a risky procedure) was invaluable.

Here is a video showing the formwork being removed:


This blog is by Tasha Aitken, a final year student on the Professional Diploma in Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course; the Part II Architecture course at CAT.


Richard is using his new knowledge to campaign for practical solutions

Richard Dyer studied part time on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT, whilst also working at Friends of the Earth. He graduated in November 2015, so I took the opportunity to speak to him about the course and his plans for the future.

Richard Dyer
Richard Dyer honding his degree certificate

Why did you decide to study at CAT?

I had been interested in green stuff for years – decades in fact! I currently work as an environmental campaigner, I work for a fantastic organisation but I did the course because I want to do something more practical. The course was recommended to me by someone in the industry – an environmental consultant.

How did you find the course?

Fantastic, really inspirational! It was a real personal journey. I love the place, the location and this building, but there was also something about the fact that you come away here for five nights at a time that means you completely live it. It is very intense: no TV and not much phone signal; you rarely leave site. Every conversation you have is connected to what we are studying. I went for a walk or a run in the hills around the site every morning before breakfast.

I am currently a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, which is what I was doing when I started the course too. I found I spent a lot of time talking about the problems but I wanted to make it much more about creating solutions. I took the course to give me the practical knowledge to be able to do that. My  science was a little rusty so I found some of that challenging – the electronics, statistics and computing. Overall it was very positive though, with great teaching and good camaraderie between the students which got me thorough those more challenging bits.

During one of the modules, The Reunion (BBC Radio 4 programme) about CAT was on the radio. Our lecturer Rob set up a radio so we could listen to the first half hour of it before our lecture started. Something that came up in that programme which I love about CAT is that it has never been afraid to try things that may not work, and to be honest about it. In a world where there is a triumph of PR and style over substance this is very refreshing.

I went home after the first week of the course totally knocked out by this place – energised by the possibilities. It has undoubtedly changed my outlook.

What do you feel your biggest achievement was on the course?

Finishing the MSc and doing well. I got my best mark ever in the dissertation; I’ve only just got the result a few weeks ago so I’m very pleased about it. I took on an ambitious, almost foolhardy!, subject for the dissertation looking at the viability of ground source heat pumps in dense terraced streets, and whether combining it with solar thermal makes it more viable. I’m looking at the possibility of publishing the results in a peer reviewed journal.

The class of 2015

What are your plans for the future?

I don’t work in the energy side of Friends of the Earth at the moment, but I would like to move into that area. I’m looking at getting involved in a community land trust which might be interested in testing the ideas in my dissertation in real life, so that is very exciting. I’m also looking at career opportunities abroad, particularly in developing countries. My skills could also be useful for a large company looking to improve the sustainability of its building stock. The course has given me a good general skill base in renewable energy where I have the knowledge to be able to assess the viability of various schemes, and have some knowledge of all the issues. I want to find a way to put these new skills to use.

CAT celebrates the next generation of graduates ‘making it happen’

Graduates from the Centre for Alternative Technology celebrate their academic successes at ceremony.

CAT Graduation
CAT’s CEO Adrian Ramsay addresses Graduates and their families in the rammed earth lecture theatre

Over 40 students from the Graduate School of the Environment at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth celebrated the successful completion of their studies with an award ceremony on Saturday 14th November.

The evening also included a buffet dinner, a welcome from CAT’s chief executive Adrian Ramsay and a keynote speech by Professor Herbert Girardet, leading environmental commentator and author of several books including the seminal “Blueprint for a Green Planet” (1987) and “Creating Regenerative Cities” (2014).

class of 2015
The class of 2015 – CAT Graduation

The event saw students graduate from all of CAT’s postgraduate programmes: MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment, Professional Diploma in Architecture, MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies and MSc Sustainability and Adaptation.

Adrian Ramsay, CEO of CAT, said they were the people who would be ‘making it happen’ in the transition to a zero carbon future:

“The world faces many challenges in the transition to a zero carbon future. The knowledge and skills that our graduates learn by studying at the Graduate School for the Environment equip them well to be the people making it happen. We are very proud of this year’s CAT graduates and look forward to hearing about their successes as they take the knowledge gained from their time at CAT into their careers, communities and home lives.”

Five students received particular awards for excellence in their dissertations. Helen Nicholls received an award for her dissertation comparing the impact of different waste water treatment systems on climate change. Lee Eyre received an award for his research into the role of metaphor in the world views of environmentalists. Elgan Roberts’ award-winning study looked at the greenhouse gas emissions from small scale hydroelectric schemes in Wales. Anne-Clare Landolt received an award for her dissertation on storing heat to improve greenhouse growing conditions. Lucy Jones also received an award for her technical report on a more sustainable alternative to supermarkets.

graduation buffet
CAT congratulates the class of 2015 with a buffet dinner

This year’s graduates join over one thousand people who have graduated from CAT’s postgraduate courses and are working for sustainability in their work and communities across the UK and around the world. CAT graduates have taken their skills to many professions which need expertise in sustainability and many companies have been set up by CAT graduates, bringing innovative solutions to environmental problems.

Photographs by Eveleigh Photography

graduation bar
Celebrating in the bar after the ceremony

Italian teenagers explore zero carbon future

CAT Education Officer, Ann MacGarry, reflects on her recent experience of teaching a group of 17 year olds from Italy. 

I recently had a very satisfying week teaching a lovely group of 15 seventeen year olds from Italy who came as part of a European project. They were both easy going and really interested in the activities.

I’d done a bit of research into energy potential in Italy and renewable energy use across Europe so they had some appropriate data to use, particularly when it came to doing the Zero Carbon Futures session. I’d got hold of a map of Italy and they populated it with skilful modelling with plasticine and intelligent use of the models I have collected over the years. There was a tidal stream device between Sicily and the mainland, geothermal by Mount Vesuvius, solar systems in various places and wind farms in the appropriate windy areas. There were also more trees and the only vehicles were a bike, bus, train, tractors and emergency vehicles. They also had local foods in the appropriate places. This was really interesting as I’m sure that if you asked a group of seventeen year olds from Britain to locate local foods on a map of Britain, they’d be scratching their heads.

map activity
The group with Zero Carbon Italy


This reflects both what has happened to traditional foods in Britain and also our knowledge of it.

footprint activity
Understanding the origin and production of different products

They also explored the impact of the stuff we buy through using our Where’s the Impact? cards, used the new version of Energy Trumps to learn all about energy sources, did our Water footprint activity, collaborated to see how to reduce carbon footprints with The Green House and put huge enthusiasm into designing and building wind turbine models. We also managed to fit in a walk up the hill to the reservoir, quarry and wind turbines and they were the only group I have ever seen do our Hooded Adventure with no-one cheating by peeping.

outdoor activity
The Hooded Adventurer – no peeping!

Interview: Jake’s making renewable energy work for housing associations

Jake Lock Profile

Jake Lock started studying MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment in 2012. He has now completed studying all the taught modules on the course and is about to embark on his dissertation. We caught up with him about how studying the course has been useful for him and the housing association he works for.

Jake is studying renewable energy
Jake Lock – Renewable Energy Student

How has studying the course been useful for your career?

I work in a housing association development team. I have been working there since before I started the course. A big part of the motivation for studying Renewable Energy and the Built Environment was that we were starting a lot of projects involving solar thermal, heat pumps, combined heat and power and biomass. Neither our team nor the contractors we were using really understood it. We were installing systems for people in fuel poverty but they didn’t understand the system and neither did we.

I’m still working in the same company now, and I have become the ‘green guru’ within the team. I feel a lot more knowledgeable, so it has been very useful.

What made you choose this course?

I liked this course because it is so hands on. There is a good bit of theory too but you also get to play with the stuff. I did an engineering foundation course prior to starting the MSc because I wanted to make sure I would be able to keep up with the engineering parts of the course.

How was the experience of the course for you?

I have really enjoyed the course. It is very hard work working full time alongside studying, but I love coming here and spending time with like minded people from a real wide variety of different backgrounds. It feels like a hideaway where we can all come and geek it up for a week.

Interview: Petra’s employed in solar and researching renewable energy for conservation

Petra is studying on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT. After taking a break between finishing here taught modules and starting her dissertation she has been up at CAT today speaking to her tutor about a dissertation idea. It was a great opportunity for us to catch up with her about her experience of the course so far and what she has been able to do with it.

Profile petra varga
Petra Varga – Renewable Energy Student

What is the dissertation about?

I’m looking a coral reef restoration project. For restoring coral they use submerged metal cages with an electrical current going through them at a low voltage. Over time these cages grow limestone on them, which helps establish the coral. At the moment this electric current is usually powered by diesel generators. I am looking at the potential of using marine current generators instead.

How did you get into studying renewable energy at CAT?

I trained as an Electrical Engineer in Hungary, and then worked as an automation specialist for eight years. I worked particularly on software testing in automated warehouses.

I guess I was looking for something that felt more important. I find that just working for money isn’t very motivating.

So I found the course at CAT and decided to come over and study here.

How has studying at CAT impacted on your career?

Initially I continued working in automation alongside studying, but I was looking for a new job. I used to find it was whenever I was meant to be writing an essay I would get distracted with looking for jobs instead! I wanted to find something in the renewable energy sector.

In January 2014, whilst still studying at CAT, I got a contract with a PV installation company as a project engineer. I had tried looking for a renewable energy job before starting the course and nobody was interested, so I certainly think being on the course made a difference. In the interview we had to complete some calculations, which seemed very simple after studying on the course. I didn’t find it to difficult to get into the work once I had started either.

How was your experience of studying at CAT?

I really enjoyed it. When I was doing my undergraduate degree I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I was much more motivated with my MSc because I had a sense of purpose.

I met lots of people on the course, which was fun. I like the whole setup at CAT. When I first came for an open day it took hours to get here and I thought ‘is the drive going to be worth it?’ It definitely was. The setting here is so beautiful it is almost like being on a holiday. I always enjoy coming away here.

Interview: Colin’s taken his skills into research and development

Colin Jones studied on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment programme at CAT from 2010 to 2014. This week he has been back helping to run a practical with current students on PV flash testing. We took the opportunity to catch up with him about his experience of the course and what he has gone on to do since graduation.

Colin Jones, Ex-Student

What first convinced you to study the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course?

I first came to CAT is 2007 when I did a Solar Photovoltaic (PV) installers course. I met Stuart (the programme leader) who told me about this new course they were launching. I joined the following year.

I didn’t have a degree previously, but they accepted me onto the course on the basis of my previous experience. I had my own electrical engineering company and we had been working on a lot of residential solar installations since the feed in tariff was introduced.

I was particularly attracted to the practical bias of the course at CAT. I also liked the idea of the modular structure, where each module included intensive residential weeks.

How has doing the course impacted on your career?

Half way through the course I got a job with Carillion Energy working as a project manager on commercial, medium scale, PV projects. These were larger and more complex projects than I had previously been working on, and it gave me a chance to put into practice all I had learned on the PV module of the course. I’m sure I was offered the job because of being on the Renewable Energy course. I also still had my own company, so that was doing the residential installations whilst I was working on the commercial projects with Carillion Energy.

12 months ago, after completing the course, I got a new job working for Tharsus. Tharsus is an engineering company that is researching and developing new technology. My job is not just to do with renewable energy now; I look at automation and processes more generally. Having said that, we do have some work to do with renewable energy products, particularly in energy storage.

Although I am not always working directly on renewable energy systems now, the skills I learned from the MSc course are definitely still useful. In particular, the skills around data collection and processing that I learned on the course. I use these skills all the time.

Find out more about studying MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment

Interview: Elgan’s developing new renewable energy projects across the UK

profile Elgan Roberts

Elgan Roberts has been studying on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course part time since 2012. He is half way through writing his thesis, which seems like a good time to look back on the course and the impact it is having on his career.

profile Elgan Roberts
Elgan Roberts – Renewable Energy Student

What impact has studying MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment had on your career?

My background was in mechanical engineering. I graduated in 2002 and then worked in the agricultural industry for seven years until 2009. At that point I wanted to move back to Wales, where I am from, and I was also interested in getting into renewable energy.

I managed to get a job with a small wind installation company in Bangor doing feasibility studies and project management. I decided to do an MSc alongside working to allow me to advance in my career.

About six months after starting the course I got a new job with a bigger national company called Carter Jonas. In this company I was able to work on larger scale projects, and more of a range of projects involving hydro, solar, wind and biomass. I wouldn’t have got this job without being on the course. Working in a bigger company has allowed me to expand my career. I’m directly using the skills I gained on the course in my work

Why did you decide to do the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT?

I looked at it originally because it was at a convenient location near to Bangor. What I particularly liked about it was the good mix of face to face and distance learning. Studying through 5-night blocks meant I could do the course without missing much work, and it didn’t really impact on my employers. I came to an open day and I was really impressed with the teachers and facilities.

How was the experience of the course for you?

One of the things I have most appreciated whilst being on the course is that the small numbers of students means you get plenty of time with the lecturers to look at things in detail

I have definitely enjoyed the course, although it is hard work if you are studying alongside working full time. There are a good bunch of people on the course, and you spend all your time with them during the on site attendances. A week at a time is a good amount of time to spend with people. I’ve made some great friends who I will certainly stay in touch with.

MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment – More Information