5 hi-tech eco projects you should know about (but won’t necessarily like)

(Next week – 5 low tech, down-to-earth eco buildings)

1. Masdar
Masdar is an eco city rather than just a building. In spite of its building work being cut short by the economic down turn, Masdar is still probably the largest hi-tech sustainable building project ever. When the project started, TreeHugger magazine put together a panel to discuss whether Masdar represented a genuine step towards sustainability or simply hi-tech greenwash.

The first phase of the project opened this year but some of the green features were scaled back after they proved too expensive.

2. Floating islands

For the optimists among us there is the hope that a legally binding climate deal keeps global warming to below 2 degrees above pre-industrialization levels. For the pessimists there are floating island cities. Some island states threatened by climate change are apparently considering moving to these futuristic alternatives to real land.

3. City Centre Las Vegas

This is everything you’d expect from a Las Vegas building project, except that this development claims to be greener than the rest. Apparently it is a…

…blueprint for the future combining a healthy quality of life with a global commitment to sustainable design.

Decide for yourself.

4. The Eco-Egg sky scraper.

If you like your badly-sited wind turbines encased in a glass tower then you’ll love this.

5. Stackable public transport

Where the urban crush means there is no space to park normal cars perhaps the answer is to make them stackable.

Jenga, anyone?

CEM121 – Module 1 – Introduction – Leanda Morrison

My journey, to CAT, really started after I picked up a fellow student from Bristol Temple Meads Station. En route we probably managed to discuss all the environmental issues known to man before arriving at CAT, a little before supper. I had looked into courses at CAT for about 5 years and I was finally here.

I checked into my room, in the superbly designed, RIBA winning WISE building before getting to grips with the first vegetarian meal which, I must admit, was really delicious. Maybe not eating meat for a week wouldn’t be quite so bad!

The first day saw us having numerous lectures, in the impressive Sheppard Lecture Theatre. We were given all the basic knowledge that we would require to access the University of East London (UEL) Library, for essay/ report writing, for giving presentations, referencing books and for hopefully never plagarising anything.

From dawn to dusk, we were either listening in fascination to lectures in Climate Change or trying to keep up with Arthur talking about in his data gathering, calculus driven, error calculating lecture. Surely if you’re extra careful, when setting up experiments, you just won’t need the calculus! I can live in hope BUT I have a Maths Phd student friend on standby, just in case.

We were honoured with a lecture from Sir John Houghton, of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who has rubbed shoulders with some of the most influential politicians in the world.

We also got a summary of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain 2030, which has saved me from 384 pages of bedtime reading although I have set myself a challenge to reference it into every coursework for every module I do in this next year.

Our class was made up of a variety of people; those that have just recently finished a degree, those who are already working in the renewable energy industry or those, like myself, that are changing careers. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, different knowledge/ ideas to bring to both the mealtime and also the evening bar discussions.

In particular the DC and AC Electrical Theory lectures were a little bit daunting for me, as I haven’t touched that subject since Physics at High School but I’ve come from the Construction Industry and have knowledge in other areas.

The opportunity to choose which practical subjects to attend really opened my eyes to the fact that I was in the driving seat of this course and that the journey was entirely down to my choices. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

All in all, I have thoroughly enjoyed the week up at CAT. The lecturers were all enthusiastic about their subject area and Rachael did a brilliant job of organising us all. My eyes have been fully opened to where I would like to go in my career. Maybe during the next module, I’ll also manage to produce a donation for the experimental poo compost toilet and keep those tiger worms happy!

Module one – Professional Diploma in Architecture (AEES) – Rebecca

The past week has been unlike any other, as the 22 Prof Dip freshers travelled to CAT from all over the country to meet for our first meal together on Monday night in the WISE building. The tutors didn’t waste any time and started us off that evening discussing the ‘sacred cows’ of sustainability with the MSc students to challenge our preconceptions and ideologies on sustainability from a wide variety of points-of-view through role-playing.

We were really looked after at CAT, with delicious food, 3 large meals a day, teas, coffees, juices and wine. This week we were sleeping in the WISE building itself, enhanced by our lecture about the building design by David Lea. We stayed 2 to a room in the wonderfully tranquil bedrooms, timber clad, with a floor to ceiling, square glazed screen that slid open directly onto the roof top terrace, looking down to the ‘drop-pool’ courtyard and out to the west Wales mountains.

The first module took us through some information-packed lectures, from Nick Baker: “…intercepting natural cycles of CO2 for human use…”, Peter Harper: “Physics trumps Politics…is true although our whole economic and societal systems are based on entirely the opposite…” To Ranyl Rhydwen, jumping up and down on stage, electrically retelling in quick rhythms the proofs of future doom caused by humanity, then following on in a subsequent lecture “human adaptation/transformation for climate change, opportunity and a change in fundamentals…” renewing students hope, energy and ideas for our learning to design future places. Evening lectures included history of CAT and a visiting lecturer: Roddy from Ted Cullinan architects.

Studio time this week initially made us take a look at our design approach and write a manifesto to be presented in one minute, then, we were taken through a drawing journey with Trevor Flynn of ‘Drawing at work’ who ran a drawing gymnasium. It began in the hills at CAT trying to measure and draw the 5th year’s Bird Hide. This twisting, free flowing form built from standard sized timber all felled within 500metres of the site, proved incredibly difficult to work out in the mind’s eye, due to the shapes and shadows of its morphic appearance. Despite this, with Trevor’s help, freehand oblique, section, isometric, one and two point perspectives appeared before us.

Saturday bought the roundup of the drawing session in the WISE building and a site visit for design project 100.1. This was followed by a traditional evening for the postgrad students: a social with a theme, everybody became their pirate alter ego, drinking rum and playing crew games, wearing elaborate costumes and props created from any material to hand in an old slate quarry. Not sure if anyone remembers which team won…but I do remember the fantastic atmosphere in the bar, the hot wood sauna in the hills and the cool fresh waters of the reservoir lake…

We finished with a Sunday morning of thought provoking lectures, Richard Hammerton: ‘Humans in context: Environmental change’ and Tanya Hawkes: ‘Policy responses to climate change’. The general consensus at the end of week 1 from the Prof Dip students is that there is nowhere quite like CAT to study and we are very glad we’re here. We are inspired, very tired, bonded as a group, filled with optimism and can’t wait to get started on the rural housing project based in Machynlleth, sketch books ready, roll on the next week at CAT…

Gardening blog: a plentiful harvest from the CAT gardens


Autumn is always a time of great satisfaction for the gardeners at CAT, after a summer of hard work comes to fruit. We have been happily harvesting a variety of annual vegetables, salads, perennial herbs, feasting on apples, and collecting up lots of leaves for leaf mold.

This week the time came for our eagerly anticipated grape harvest from our vines (Vitis vinifera “Black Hamburg”) in the polytunnel, which gave over 5kg of deep ruby red grapes ready for wine making. The blackbirds had sneakily gobbled up a lot of the grapes before us, so we have been experimenting with putting paper bags over the bunches of grapes to protect them. This worked successfully and even seemed to speed up the ripening of those bunches of grapes. 

A protein rich crop for Wales?

This year we grew our first trial crop of Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), a grain-like crop originally from South America. Quinoa is a very good source of nutrients, and contains essential amino acids, calcium, phosphorous and iron. So, the potential for Quinoa to provide a protein rich bulk crop in Wales is an enticing prospect, and we wanted to find out how well it would grow here. As quinoa was originally grown in high-altitude environments in South America, we were unsure how well it would fare in wet Wales.

Having received some quinoa seed from another local grower at a seed swap in Newton last Spring, we knew that it could be grown in Wales, but we were still unsure about the yield and quality. By harvesting time in September, we were surprised and satisfied with the crop, and harvested a good crop from just a1m2 bed in the Whole Home garden at CAT. Similar success stories have been found in trials run by Garden Organic. Next year we plan to grow a larger trial crop using our own seed, and hope to encourage other local growers to grow quinoa too.

Seed Saving

We have also been busy squirreling away our own seeds ready for next year. So far we have successfully dried, threshed and winnowed a good range of seeds including calendular, nasturtium, morning glory, feverfew, coriander, kale, and more. We’re also running a few seed saving experiments with tomatoes (varieties “Yellow Perfection”, “Yellow Pear” and “Gardener’s Delight”).

Tomato seeds need to be processed slightly differently as they are coated in a jelly which inhibits the germination process. You can get rid of this jelly by leaving the seeds in a jar of water for two or three days until a layer of mold has developed. Next, rinse the seeds in a sieve and leave to dry, then store the seeds somewhere cool and dark until next year.

Roger’s top tips for seed saving are: leave the seeds on the plant for as long as possible to get all the goodness from the plant, and make sure to store them out of reach from the mice! For more top tips and information on saving the seeds from different types of vegetables visit the Dyfi Valley Seed Savers.

Finally, now is the time to get your winter salads in for a splash of green in the dark winter months. Good hardy salads include Tatsoi, Mizuna, Mibuna, Mustard greens and Rucola.

Happy gardening!

Podcast: interview with This is Rubbish

Interview with Rachel Solnick and Kate Blair from This is Rubbish.

This is Rubbish were formed in 2009 to raise awareness about the amount of food wasted in the UK. Since their beginnings at Feeding the 5000, a mass food waste feast in London that fed 5000, they have organized various events. 2011 has seen them tour Wales with ‘Feast’, stopping in eight communities and setting up a pop up cafe, hosting workshops, games and creative events.

The finale of their tour will be Forum and Feast on November the 5th, held at the Centre for Alternative Technology.

Previous podcasts

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Why is the continued support of renewable wind energy important in the UK

Over the coming decade the world faces enormous challenges; a changing climate, dwindling fossil fuels reserves and rising energy demands are interconnected problems that demand a common solution. In the words of Bob Dylan, ‘the answer my friend are blowing in the wind’ and shining in the sun, flowing in the rivers and hitting the coast line of the UK 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the form of an infinite supply of renewabley generated energy.

The Centre for Alternative Technology has been working since 1973 to explore solutions to the environmental challenges we face. CAT supports wind power as a means of generating renewable electricity. Given the reality of diminishing fossil fuel resources and the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change, we believe that the UK should reduce and eventually stop the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible.

In our Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report (www.zcb2030.org) we have outlined how the whole of the UK can be powered using renewable sources. Wind power, both on- and offshore, is the biggest single potential source of renewable energy available in the UK in the short- or medium term. The UK enjoys an enormous wind resource that is proven, cost efficient and infinite.

The UK is the windiest country in Europe, so much so that we could power our country several times over using this free fuel. A modern 2.5MW turbine at a reasonable site will generate 6.5 million units of electricity each year, enough to meet the annual needs of over 1,400 households, make 230 million cups of tea or run a computer for 2,250 years.

Wind turbines do have an impact on the local environment where they are built, and for some people they “spoil the view”. But change is coming whether we like it or not- given that we will not simply stop consuming energy, we will need to accept some form of power generation technology. Compared to the devastating effects associated with the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power, renewable energy is the best option in the UK, wind power has an enormous role to play within that energy mix.

The UK has enormous potential to take a lead in renewable energy generation, bringing benefits to the economy and providing many needed jobs. Wind power could deliver more jobs and more income for local people than it currently does. This can be achieved through encouraging community ownership of wind turbines and a UK manufacturing industry. In this way, we can generate a sustainable source of income from the sale of electricity and well paid permanent qualified jobs.

Opposing this technology without suggesting alternative means of power generation that don’t just offload the negative impact on people in other countries (as with climate change) or future generations (as with nuclear) is irresponsible. We must take action now and avoid committing future generations to years of climate, energy and economic insecurity

CAT is pleased to be hosting The Future for Renewable Energy  in Wales conference on the 17th of October 2011 for further information on the conference please check out the  Renewable Wales Network website

This article is an edited version of one that appears in the Public Service Review

The Architect’s Journal are looking for a sustainability intern

The Architect’s Journal are looking for a sustainability intern. Last year’s intern was Laura Mark, a graduate from CAT’s Professional Diploma course. Here is what she said about her time at the AJ…

When I began at the AJ as a sustainability intern, I could never have imagined the amount of varied and interesting experiences that were to come; opportunities to attend talks on a wide range of topics related to sustainable design, visit buildings, attend openings and launches, and even visit factories manufacturing Passivhaus windows in Austria.
This behind the scenes access to the world of sustainable architecture and journalism developed my critical abilities; this is vital in sustainability because of the constant need to sift through greenwash and assess whether something really is as green as it claims. The experience also developed my understanding of the challenges facing sustainable building and how it relates to mainstream construction. This has added depth to my work in practice and helped clarify how I would like to develop my career.
The AJ’s friendly staff were supportive and encouraged me to push myself. The experience took me out of the comfort zone of the architectural office and challenged me to try something different. It was great to work with people so passionate about architecture and I learnt a lot from being surrounded by this enthusiasm. My time at the AJ was fantastic and I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to be a part of the team.

Eco Cabins visited by a group of young volunteers from Europe – here’s what they thought about the site!


Recently the eco cabins played host to a delegation of volunteers from youth organisations across Europe. Organised by IVOLO, the International Voluntary Organisation for Learning Opportunities, the group had gathered to meet volunteers from similar organisations and raise awareness of environmental issues, with a view to sharing this with others in their home countries.

Here’s what they said about staying at the cabins:

“Visiting the Centre for Alternative Technology is putting everything that we’ve been learning over the past few days into practice; actually experiencing sustainable living.”

Chris (United Kingdom) from IVOLO.

“I found out more about an ecological lifestyle… in Latvia it’s not that big. We’re not the worst consumers – so they think that we don’t need to do anything. I’ve learnt about those little things we can do in everyday life to consume less. The most important thing here at the Cabins is that you can see how much we spend, and how much we can spend. We’re saving nature – the surroundings here have inspired us to change, first our opinions, and then our family.”

Lauma (Latvia) from Tellus, a youth organisation providing informal learning opportunities including education about environmental issues.

“We can start with little things, like turning off lights, things we can do in our daily lives. That’s what I’m learning here. I like the idea that you can start with little things to change the world.”

Leevi (Finland) from a large youth organisation that runs youth clubs and works to celebrate multiculturalism.

“We’ve been trying to learn some basic methods of explaining these issues. The most important thing for us is to be able to adapt some of what we’ve learnt here to city life – for example, solar panels. We’ll try and make our local government get interested about it!”

Joanna (Poland)

“I’m studying to be an energy engineer, and it’s been great to see how renewable energy works. Normally we just hear about these things, we don’t see them practically. It’s great to spread these ideas, of sustainable economies, sustainable life, in general. When you see it, you have a stronger motivation to spread the idea of this kind of life.”

Gennaro (Italy), from an organisation that enables youth in Italy to travel around Europe through exchanges and training courses.

Five blogs about wind power you should be reading


Hugh Piggott’s Blog
Hugh PIggott teaches an extremely popular corse at CAT on building a wind turbine. His blog has interesting updates about wind power projects happening all over the world, including lots of great photos.

Winds of Change
Fascinating posts on the political side of wind power. By its own edict, the blog seeks to campaign for “truth in the battle for renewable energy” and has been archived by the British Library.

Yes 2 Wind
This organisation promoting wind power has various resources, including an interesting news page to keep you up to date on the latest developments.

Action for Renewables
Featuring a comprehensive wind farm locator for the UK which enables you to find wind farms in development if you’re interested in supporting a wind farm project.

I Love Windpower
Inspiring organisation that develops open-source wind power projects in developing countries. Their news page provides absorbing reading about their work.