Experience: Timber Frame Self-Build, an empowering journey in sustainable building skills

Last year I spent six-months volunteering in the CAT media department. Volunteers are invited to take part in two courses of their choice free of charge. Determined to build my own house one day, and to learn the skills I need to renovate my existing home, I chose Timber Frame Self-Build.

Attending the course were people from all walks of life, including self-builders and design & technology teachers wanting to improve their practical skills to pass on to their students. There was a nice mix of men and women, both younger and older, and plenty of people who hadn’t used a saw or drill before as well as those who had.

We started by discussing why we were all on the course. The tutors also introduced themselves and outlined self-build projects they had been involved in. It was great to learn that Pat Borer had designed WISE, the building we had our seminars and bedrooms in, and more that it was timber framed and built using locally sourced timber – local being only 500m down the road – and skills similar to those we were about to learn.

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Book on either Timber Frame Self-Build or Eco Building from New during Green Building Week and enter the chance to win a £50 voucher or free day course.
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From then on in it got more intense as the practicals began, making for a fast but fun learning experience. Tutors Duncan Roberts, Pat Borer and Geoff Stowe were great at making sure each team worked together effectively and gave everyone a chance to ‘have a go’. The diverse range of skills in the group meant that there was a lot of peer teaching too, great for overall team spirit and getting things done.

I was totally amazed at the outcome of the course. We constructed two timber frame structures – one using a post and beam method and the other using stud walls. It was amazing how much we could achieve in just five days.

During the evening seminars we also looked at self-build design principles, taking in the work of architect Walter Segal by looking at examples of his designs on the CAT site.

The course was exactly what I was looking for. I was so keen and motivated after the course that the following weekend I built a new wood shed for my garden, putting into practice the skills I had learnt on the course. Both teams worked so well together we stayed in touch after the course – we’re waiting for the first of us to embark on their own self-build project so we can all go and lend a hand.

Course participants lifting timber frame

The lost apples of Powys and how you can rediscover them

The Apple is considered to be the oldest cultivated fruit, with records of Alexander the Great finding the first recorded dwarf apples in 328 BC. The first apples to appear in the UK were brought over by the Romans and since then apple varieties have been adapted
and improved to the climatic and landscape conditions.

There are over 1200 native apples for eating and cooking, as well as for cider making and crab apples for pickling. They have enchanting names: Acklam Russets, Barnack Beauty, Nutmeg Pippin, Knobby Russet…and many more.

Despite this over the last few decades the arrival of cheap imported supermarket fruits has led to a rapid decline of many traditional orchards, with the loss of many old apple varieties. Not only do traditional orchards supply food but also they are also important for bio-diversity as the habitat structure is complex and supports a range of invertebrates, mosses and lichens, birds and bats.

There are however many groups across the UK who are working to save the traditional orchard and apple varieties. Chloe Ward, a gardener at CAT and member of Dyfi Valley Seed Savers, recently published a new book entitled Growing Fruit in Powys. As part of the project she surveyed 240 apple trees, and of the 105 varieties has identified four apple varieties in Powys that are “Star performers,” and another 5 that are reliable.

In my local area it is striking that many fruit trees produce well but the fruit is not commercially valuable because of the way it looks. In this study I wanted to find varieties that would thrive in our damp air and look beautiful in the shop.

Apples that thrive in the Powys area include Discovery, Laxton’s Fortune, Sunset and Charles Ross varieties; others that do well are the Egremont Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, Blenheim Orange, Bramley’s seedling and Newton Wonder.

There is an aspiration for our Welsh landscape to blossom with fruit trees on sunny slopes, shops full of local fruits and pubs selling local cider – it’s an alluring idea.

Growing Fruit in Powys also explores sources of grants for fruits trees in Powys, training and information and other exciting projects in the local area such as the Apple Mach Cider project and the annual Apple Festival at CAT. It can be downloaded for free from
the Dyfi Valley Seed Savers website.

The Apple Mach cider project started when local lad Guy Shrubsole noticed that lots of fruit was not being picked from apple trees. With a penchant for cider he decided to approach the owners of the trees, collect the apples and turn it into cider. The result is the
Apple Mach project now in it’s second year and has around 20 people who participate in the group.

The Apple Festival at CAT is an annual event to celebrate that humble but wonderful fruit – the apple! Visitors can bring their own apples for identification and try their hand at pressing them, and there are kids’ activities, talks, music, locally made cider and a competition to see who can make “the longest apple peel”.


7 green building blogs you should be reading


Green Home Building and Sustainable Architecture
Lengthy, in depth, well written posts reviewing recent books and reports. Kelly Hart is also a consultant on various sustainable building projects and draws on his own experience on the blog. The blog is focused on US projects, books and reports.

Slick, colourful and constantly updated. This is a blog for keeping pace with new and innovative design projects, rather than a place to read about technical aspects of sustainable building.

Green Building Elements
Green Building Elements covers news from the world of green building, art and architecture. Very hi-tech, with a focus on how sustainable building relates to global issues such as peak oil and climate change.

Sustainable Construction Blog
Technical and construction focused. If you’re interested in sustainability (or lack thereof) in large scale construction this is an interesting place to start.

Sustainable Cities
Run by Danish Architecture Centre, the blog covers case studies and stories from all over the world. A good place to look if you want a global perspective on sustainable building. The case studies section is very good, covering projects in much more depth than many other blogs.

Architects’ Journal Footprint blog
The AJ’s contribution to green architecture blogging is impressive. Hattie Hartman writes a mixture of quick updates and well researched reviews. The blog obviously focuses on green architecture and design, but often ventures into wider global issues and broader commentary on construction and energy.

The Guardian: greenbuilding blog
This is where all the Guardian’s content on green building is drawn together. It’s a mix of articles and features written mainly by the Guardian’s environment team, but also including pieces by their science and society commentators. This is also a good place to keep up to speed with policy issues around planning.

WISE 5 Feb 2010

Reading round up: blog posts from across the web that caught our attention this week


Conservation Magazine reported that some old buildings are probably much more energy efficient than a lot of modern buildings.

Far from being outdated and inefficient, she says, many old buildings have features that help minimize energy use: transoms to distribute natural light into the interior, windows placed to allow for cross-breezes. In fact, according to U.S. Department of Energy data, Monadnock-era commercial buildings—those built before 1920—use less energy per square foot than those built at any other time until 2000.

World 2.0 described how some small island states at risk from sea level rise are seriously considering de-camping to floating islands.

“The last time I saw the models, I was like ‘wow it’s like science fiction, almost like something in space. So modern, I don’t know if our people could live on it. But what would you do for your grandchildren? If you’re faced with the option of being submerged, with your family, would you jump on an oil rig like that? And [I] think the answer is ‘yes’. We are running out of options, so we are considering all of them.”

The Ecologist reported on the worrying trade in food commodities that is driving up food prices in developing countries

The rapid rise in the price of key food commodities such as wheat and maize in the last six months of 2010 pushed 44 million people into extreme poverty, says the report, with the price of food now 55 per cent higher in less industrialised countries than it was 4 years ago. As well as forcing people to eat less nutritious and cheap foods, it also means poor families have less money to spend on healthcare and education for their children.

Yale Environment 360 investigated the strange life of air-dwelling microbes that travel the world affecting the climate.

Microbes, it turns out, are the hidden players in the atmosphere, making clouds, causing rain, spreading diseases between continents, and maybe even changing climates as well. Eos, published by the American Geophysical Union, last month reported that bio-aerosols are “leading the high life.” In the Eos article, David Smith of the University of Washington and colleagues argue that microbes are “the most successful types of life on Earth” and are the unacknowledged players in many planetary processes, particularly in the atmosphere. It’s time we caught up with them.

Blog round up: this week’s stories from the blog

Adventures in architecture
In preparation for Green Building Fortnight, Suzanne Burlton took a look at some of the architecture projects carried out by our Professional Diploma students, including the fantastic bird hide.

What is it like volunteering in the gardens at CAT?
Katie told us about her experience of being a long term volunteer in the gardens. She explained her project looking at the microscopic ecosystems using the digital microscope. Photos and videos from the digital microscope will be online soon. Watch this space…

Nature blog
Rennie shared a little bit too much information about some of his youthful experiences (and also introduced us to Britain’s smallest rodent).

New Students
The new intake of Graduate School students started this week. We caught up with them and found out why they’ve come to study at CAT.

Watch a Zero Carbon Britain presentation
Peter Harper presents Zero Carbon Britain. A full hour-long presentation of Zero Carbon Britain by CAT’s head of research.

Experience: meet some of the new students and find out why they’re here and what they’re hoping to do next

This week a new intake of students are starting on our MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies and our Professional Diploma in Architecture. We asked some of them why they’ve started the course, what they’re hoping to learn and what they hope to do with their new knowledge.

Here are a few of their answers:

I work for Southwark Council in central London, and also for a housing association. I’m hoping to learn practical skills. I’m hoping the projects I’m working on now will continue and I’ll be able to use the skills I learn on those projects. I’ve worked on things like green classrooms, community gardens and community bee keeping projects. Tracy

I’m hoping the course will open doors for me. I want to get into sustainable building. I’m very interested in strawbale building and timber frame building. Sam

I work for a firm of architects in Lancashire, I’ve been there for 7 years. They’re sponsoring me to do the course. I’m still working part time there. We’re hoping to focus the practice more on sustainability. We need to understand sustainable technologies and efficient building techniques. The building regulations are increasingly requiring that we improve efficiency and this course will mean we can keep pace with that. Alistair

My passion is housing and dwellings for people who don’t have them. In developed and developing countries lots of people live in poor quality housing. I’m interested in how sustainable building techniques can address that. I’m hoping to work on all kinds of projects. I’m hoping to work with developers who are interested in using more ethical and locally sourced products in their constructions. Andreas

Everyone needs buildings of some sort. There’s no getting away from that. It’s one of the more technical courses you can start if you don’t necessarily have an existing scientific background. I’d like to work in developing countries, perhaps with VSO. I’m hoping to gain specific skills that mean I could manage practical projects. Mona

Meeting our smallest rodent, the harvest mouse. And other experiences lying in the long grass

Morning Everyone. Before I tell you about the exciting discovery last Thursday allow me a brief digression, that is if it is possible to digress when I haven’t started yet because there is nothing to digress from so to speak, anyway I digress. Let’s start again. Many, many moons ago when I was but a callow youth, I was lying in the long grass of a hay meadow on a hot and sultry August day in the Somerset countryside, with a young lady who I had recently become friendly with. Things were beginning to get -er – interesting shall we say, when I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. To my delight there was a diminutive mouse climbing up one of the grass stalks just above my head using its prehensile tail as a sort of miniature grappling hook, and just above it was a neat little ball shaped nest made out of grass and straw which was supported by two grass stems. I was completely captivated but unfortunately my companion was less than enthusiastic and things went rapidly downhill – I seem to remember that the walk home was carried out in a rather sulky silence and the relationship rather abruptly ended. However I discovered that the mouse I had seen was a Harvest Mouse – our smallest rodent and now quite rare due mainly to lack of habitat.

The point of all this rambling discourse is that while I was looking through my Boys Own Bumper Book of Mice to identify it, I came across a picture of a Dormouse (not actually a true mouse) and was so taken by it that I was determined to find and observe one of these elusive little creatures. Believe it or not I have never seen one in the wild until last week when completely unexpectedly I came across a nest of young Dormice in the shed by the Cabins and for a few brief moments was inches away from one of the most iconic and lovely little creatures in this country.

They really are beautiful with golden brown fur, a bushy tail and incredibly bright and proportionally large glittering black-button eyes. Of course we have had to re-lock the shed and leave them completely undisturbed and our resident small mammal expert Grace tells me that they will shortly be looking for a hibernating spot for the winter. How wonderful that we should have them at CAT, it seems that the dense profusion of brambles and climbers surrounding the area is perfect habitat for them supplying them with plenty of food (blackberries, hazels etc) and allowing them to forage around without having to touch the ground as they are essentially aboreal animals. It made my day for me or to be more accurate it made my year for me

Experience: volunteering in the gardens at CAT

by Katie Hastings Gardening volunteer

Volunteering in the CAT gardens for the last six months has armed me with the skills I need to progress as an organic gardener and hopefully one day run my own market garden. No textbook on earth could have conveyed to me the complexities of a forest garden eco system or the delicate relationships of soil organisms as profoundly as actually experiencing these things first hand at CAT.

There are very few apprenticeships these days which provide the opportunity to work alongside experts full time. I felt extremely lucky to have the chance to benefit from the mentoring and vast plant knowledge of CAT’s gardening staff.

Learning to control pests with my own hands (hoeing) and working with nature (encouraging biodiversity) has been a welcome contradiction to the often taught solution of spraying chemicals.

Over the summer I developed a particular fascination with the world of bugs. Catching glimpses of the micro world going on in the gardens I was inspired to start filming the insects I was finding with CAT’s microscope camera. It was so amazing to watch ants farming aphids to a scale where you could actually see the hairs on their heads! I am now editing several short films which I hope will educate people about the role bugs play in the garden and inspire organic pest control.

Examining the microscopic world of the bugs that live on plants

Volunteering at CAT has also given me a huge boost in confidence. Having grown up in the middle of the city I was a little daunted by the idea of living in a slate cottage in the hills. I soon learnt the benefit of community living and proximity to nature on my mental wellbeing. Summer days spent working in the field and evening meals with other site residents will stay with me far beyond my placement here.