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.

Green Building week at CAT and our students’ adventurous architecture project in the woods

In preparation for Green Building week (19th- 23rd September) Suzanne Burlton reports on some of the splendid sustainable architecture built by our Graduate School students

The impact of buildings is proportionally very large, accounting for 30-40% of energy use and a third of CO2 emissions. Green Building Week promotes sustainable building techniques which will reduce our impact on nature while also aiming to create buildings which provide social benefits. This involves design, materials and construction techniques, and here at CAT we don’t think these can be developed in isolation.

The late, great Arthur Erickson said that “Architecture doesn’t come from theory. You don’t think your way through a building.” Therefore, while a week in the design studio forms an important part of CAT’s ProfDip Architecture Summer School, it is the week spent building in the woods which often most transforms the way the students view their role in the overall process of design and construction.

One group designed a birdhide to be installed in the Coed Gwern woodland on the other side of the Dyfi Valley. The group were inspired by the environment to design a curving timber structure made up of slats which allows maximum visibility of birds while at the same time echoing the surrounding woodland in its materials and organic shape.

The idea originated two months earlier during a design charrette, and out of the five designs which resulted from the intense period of work, the one by student Bryn Hallett was chosen. The materials were ordered and prepared in order for work to begin in late August.

In the words of one student, good design aims to confront and dissect “the cultural, geographical and environmental uniqueness” of the site to create an “architecturally rich” intervention. This project was radically local, in line with the aims of Green Building Week to use architecture to restore and promote communities. The trees were felled in the area of the actual building site and sawn to the required dimensions in the Esgair Timber Company sawmill about half a mile up the forest track. Wood is a renewable building material which locks in carbon during its growth cycle and naturally filters the air.

Out in the woods there is little opportunity to use power tools due to the unavailability of grid connections, so the students had to be innovative in their constructions techniques. This gave them a real appreciation of traditional building techniques and how much modern construction relies on increasingly scarce energy resources, encouraging them to develop new ways of putting together their structure.

CAT’s ProfDip Architecture is a Part II course designed for those who wish to take Part III elsewhere in order to eventually register as practicing architects. We aim to be a centre of exemplary practice, training those who will design the buildings of the future to enable them to incorporate sustainable methods and materials for the benefit of the local community and the wider environmental context.

We welcome the opportunity to take part in Green Building Week in order to promote our shared aims of transforming the architecture and construction industries into ones which incorporate sustainability issues into their work at a fundamental level.

CAT Conference 2011

Over 100 people took part in the first ever CAT members and alumni conference, held on 2nd to 4th September 2011. A fantastic weekend was had by all, with presentations from CAT staff, members and students on a wide variety of issues. The two-day event was crammed full of presentations, ideas and heated debate as people got to grips with some of the challenges we face in moving towards a zero carbon future.

Continue reading “CAT Conference 2011”

Our students have been experimenting with solar power: report from renewable energy Masters module in solar photovoltaics

Good news, bad news and controversy have forced the topic of solar photovoltaics (PV) into the headlines over the last couple of months. The good news is that the quarter between April and June saw the fastest ever growth in solar installation in the UK. 14,500 new systems were installed. This boom in solar installation, fuelled by the government’s Feed in Tariff, has created new jobs and connected 122 MW of new solar power to the grid.

[twothirds]The controversy revolves around this issue of the size of the new PV installations. Since August only installation under 50Kw have been eligable for the top rate of Feed in Tariff payments. (To give you a sense of what that means our biggest PV roof is 20Kw). The government’s intention was to stop large subsidy payments going to so called “solar farms”; solar installations that exist purely to sell green electricity to the grid. Before the cut in subsidy Caroline Lucas warned that it would hamper the development of Britain’s fledgling solar industry saying that it would be “bad news for jobs, bad news for the economy and bad news for the environment”. The change in policy dealt with the solar farm issue, but also dealt a blow to community scale solar developments and large solar installations planned for schools, hospitals and housing associations.

Regardless of the various political wrangles over subsidies and funding, PV is a vital part of the energy mix. It’s important that people understand how to install,  design and specify appropriate PV systems. Last week a group of students on our Renewable Energy and Built Environment master’s course spent a week getting to grips with the technology. This was actually a two week ‘double module’. As well as learning how to install and specify solar PV systems students also set up an experiment that runs for the month in between the two week long modules. This year the students compared the output of several systems they temporarily installed on the roof of the WISE building.

Student Richard Jackson explains: “We split into five groups. Each group had to design, and then build a different kind of PV installation. This obviously includes everything you’d need to do on a real commercial installation: positioning the system based on a computer analysis of shading and local weather patterns, physically building the structure for the systems and then doing the wiring”.

PV Roof

The student’s experiment was designed to compare the output of solar systems that track the sun. The solar installations most of us are familiar with are simply fixed, immovably to a roof. What the students wanted to find out is whether the output can be increased by making the solar panels move and track the sun across the sky. “We tested several commercially available systems that can move a solar panel so that it either follows the sun across the sky, or constantly moves searching out the lightest part of the sky even on cloudy days”.

Students are increasingly looking for places where they can learn about this technology in a practical way. Designing, installing and experimenting with solar systems is becoming an increasingly popular option amongst students on all of our master’s courses.

Regardless of the controversy around PV and the Feed in Tariff, PV is still a technology with the potential to create jobs and supply the grid with low carbon electricity. It’s vital that people get to grips how it works and continue to experiment with ways of improving it.[/twothirds]

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