Inspiring new video about the CAT Graduate School for the Environment

A short film directed and edited by Dylan Byrne exploring the MSc in Renewable Energy and Built Environment at the Centre for Alternative Technology. With interviews from students and tutors including Hugh Piggot, guest lecturer and  wind energy specialist. Dylan Byrne is a student at CAT Graduate School for the Environment and a film maker. Further information about his work can be found here.

Music for the film has been provided with thanks, from Ember

 

 

 

Why Sustainable Architecture is the Future

Sustainable architecture holds the key to an environmentally positive future. Only by living more economically with our resources can we hope to protect our environment and climate. So what better way to live more sustainably than by making sure the very structure of our built environment is greener?

The philosophy behind sustainable architecture is all about reducing waste. This not only means physical waste but minimising energy loss as well. By keeping the energy we consume within our buildings for as long as possible, we need less supply in the first place. Using less energy to keep us comfortable means that we can become environmentally responsible and more resource efficient, which are both vital to reducing the effects of climate change.

Governments around the globe are looking at initiatives to make new builds and retrofits more sustainable. The Green Deal was launched in the UK on the 28th of January. This policy is a government initiative designed to persuade businesses and homes to retro-fit green technologies in their buildings. There are also initiatives such as the Passivhaus standard, which sets clear requirements for certificated buildings. As the name suggests, this approach to low energy housing originated in Germany during the early nineties. To meet the standard, a ‘Passivhaus’ must meet an energy demand target. A number of these sustainable assessment methods for architecture exist including BREEAM and LEED.

But while a building might be incredibly energy efficient, the structure’s building materials could still have a huge impact on the climate.

In his book, How Bad are Bananas, Mike Berners-Lee calculates that building a new two bed cottage produces the equivalent of 80 tonnes of carbon equivalent emissions. The majority of this impact is in the walls and the materials used. Much of these emissions can be recouped by using energy efficiency methods while the house is occupied. Yet, if sustainable building practices can reduce the impact of the construction in the first place then this is preferable if we are to become more environmentally conscious.

Construction materials such as rammed earth and building techniques like turf roofs are proven to have less impact whilst holding their own when compared to established but unsustainable methods.

So there are three overriding concerns when designing buildings with better considerations towards ecological impact. The first is the materials used for construction. The second concern is the energy efficiency of the building and the last factor to consider is the location of the building itself. The building might be energy efficient and use low impact construction technologies but this would not mean anything if the ecosystem suffers as a result of the building.

A greater holistic approach to all of these design factors is becoming more prevalent in mainstream architecture.

By looking at what builders have done in the past, forgotten construction techniques that might not be as redundant as previous generations thought, as well as cutting-edge technologies we can inform a brighter future. Our built environments will have less impact on the natural surroundings. This truly is a growing industry and the future of architecture.

Lewin on the biomass module

This month was the start of our first double practical module. There were two modules running in parallel this month, biomass heating and wind farms. I’d chosen biomass as it’s something I’d never studied before, and doesn’t require spending as much time on wet Welsh hilltops. (Although the worst of the snow seemed to have passed CAT by, torrential rain caused some fairly serious flooding towards the end of the week and kept us on our toes).

The week kicked off on Wednesday morning with a day learning about the various types of biomass heating system from Duncan Kerridge from Dulas engineering. On Thursday, primed with fresh knowledge, we were taken on a whistle-stop tour of some local biomass facilities. Seeing these systems in the flesh and talking to the people who use them gave us a great insight into the practicalities (and impracticalities) of wood as a heat source. The logistics of getting wood from a forest to a boiler without it getting damp, eaten by bacteria, burnt too soon, burnt too late or jammed in fragile bits of machinery are quite daunting! We also got to have a look at IBERS , Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Science where a lot of research is being done on biofuels. This includes chemical analysis of different plants, and selective breeding of species to increase the fuel yields. It’s exciting stuff, and we get to poke around some interesting machinery. We collected fuel samples for analysis and returned to CAT for dinner and table tennis.

On Friday, whilst the wind farm group were struggling up hills in the driving rain to erect a met mast, we pottered around in CAT’s cosy teaching workshops testing wood samples. Water in the fuel means lower combustion efficiency and more pollution, which means that the wood’s moisture content is key to the performance of a biomass system. By testing the wood’s moisture content and then measuring the performance of the heating system we can work out its efficiency.

In our evening seminar we discussed some of the wider issues around biomass heating. Is burning trees really a sustainable energy source? Would we be better off using the wood for building where the carbon is locked away? Lively debates ensued!

Saturday evening arrived, and after a fairly heavy week we were all ready for some R&R. This month’s social outing was a celebration of the 205th anniversary of Australia’s possibly famous Rum Rebellion, which has special significance to our group because A: it involves lots of rum and B: it happens to be on our only free evening this week. A rule of ‘no shop talk’ is strictly agreed on and instantly ignored, and there’s rum aplenty. I’m sure we solved the world’s energy problems several times that night, but come the morning no-one seemed to remember what the answer was. Back to the drawing board, I suppose…

How can we overcome political and environmental barriers for change?

 

The Centre for Alternative Technology hosted it’s first environmental question time earlier this month. The subject for discussion was politics. A whole host of questions were put forward by CAT’s postgraduate students and also by the general public online via twitter.

The event was part of the politics module for the MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course and gave postgraduate students the opportunity to discuss the subjects they have been studying. On the panel were Paul Allen, project co-ordinator for Zero Carbon Britain; Kim Bryan, CAT’s media officer and a freelance writer on environmental issues; and Andrew Cooper who is chair of the association for green councilors and energy spokesperson for the green party in England and Wales.

The debate was chaired by Adrian Ramsay, former Deputy Leader of the Green Party and visiting lecturer for CAT. Here is just a taste of the impassioned debate that ensued:

Adrian Ramsay: The Green Deal is considered underwhelming and unlikely to achieve the required level of carbon reductions. What would the panel recommend as a viable alternative national scheme?

Paul Allen: I’d recommend the Green New Deal. The economic stimulus would be beneficial. Fuel prices are coming, the days of cheap abundant oil are long gone. An economic stimulus could create a huge amount of jobs and get people back to work… help get the economy back on track. So have a look, not at the Green Deal but the Green New Deal.

Kim Bryan: It’s better than nothing. At least we are trying to encourage change and… make houses more energy efficient. It is a step in the right direction.

AC: It’s not a step forward, it’s a step backwards. Now we have a policy which is going to produce less jobs and less work. Ultimately we need a compelling offer. That’s not going to happen with the Green Deal.

AC: I do wonder in reality if these things are the other way round; green politics disappear from the agenda during elections. It seems like the government has a bit of a one trick pony regarding economic stimulus. The Green New Deal is a way to move it on. Passivehaus retro-fit is what is required but there’s not enough of that work going on.

AR (putting forward a question that was asked via twitter): Could renationalising the utilities help decarbonise the energy supply?

KB: I certainly think privatising the energy supply has not done us any favours. But we need to be promoting community energy schemes, people taking more control of their energy and their usage. Behaviour change and education is a huge part of any retrofit that we do because if we don’t do that then it doesn’t lead to carbon emission reduction.

AR (via twitter): Many green topics only enter politics as election issues. How can we get politicians to commit to environment in the long-term?

PA: Well, that’s the million, million dollar question isn’t it? The experience we’ve had with the creation of the Zero Carbon Britain energy scenario… we got to launch it at the all party parliamentary climate change group. But if we want the the minister to act on it there has to be a shift in public attitude.

AC: I think green issues and green politics are mainstream at the moment but it has to got to be framed in economic terms… to be seen as a solution for getting us out of the situation that we are in. The green politics are going to get us out of the problem.

AR: What do you think has been the [green] movement’s main achievement… and where will it be in another forty years?

PA: We’ve created a whole new vocabulary. There was no such thing as renewable energy [forty years ago]. It’s moved into the mainstream.

AC: This is mainstream technology, this is the way people are going to have to live in the future; future technology. This is now technology!

The event was a great success and the hope is that future debates can expand to include other topics for discussion.

The entire debate will soon become available as a podcast on the blog.

 

 

 

AEES student Howard Miller on the recent politics module

Part of the Msc in Architecture, Advanced Environmental and Energy studies at CAT is the politics module. It is a week crammed full of lectures, debates and workshops designed to give a broad perspective of ‘environmentalism’ and enable students to delve a little deeper into the politics. In this blog post Howard Miller, a student who took part in the module reflects on his learning experience.

As a long time subscriber to ‘The Economist’, the module awakened me to my ‘Green Capitalist’ theoretical standpoint. This is the idea that free market capitalism can be tweaked by adding green ‘compensatory’ measures such as carbon trading or offsetting via tree planting.

However, the book ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ by Tim Jackson was compelling. This challenges that GDP growth has ceased to be relevant to society in developed countries as once a certain level of wealth is achieved, it delivers diminishing returns of wellbeing. In fact, the continued fixation on growth (such as attempts to restore the status quo that existed before the 2008 financial crash) are counter-productive in that they fail to address problems we face such as caring for a large elderly population, providing affordable housing, or dealing with climate change. In pursuit of GDP, payment for care-homes, cleaning up pollution and rising house prices are positive as they add to the balance sheet, while caring for a relative in your own home or avoiding car use are negative.

In contrast, focusing on wellbeing as a policy aim would address these problems. For example financial support for carers looking after relatives could allow under-used housing to be made available while simultaneously reducing isolation amongst the elderly and sharing of the cost of heating.

‘Common Cause’ presented research during the module into how ‘Values’ motivate us to act in certain ways. They aimed to interrogate how marketing by environmental groups could be made more effective. For example, promoting insulation improvements by appealing to one’s values of ‘Wealth’, (e.g. by highlighting financial benefits) raises the stock of associated values such as achievement and authority at the expense of values more normally associated with environmental causes, such as benevolence and equality. The implication being that the short-term gain of campaigns could be at the expense of the wider cause.

To shift focus from valuing GDP to valuing wellbeing, a move away from values that promote self-enhancement towards values that surround societal benefit such as community, inclusivity, and responsibility are needed.

This realisation confronted how I thought about my work as an Architect. Looking through this lense, everything, especially buildings, could be considered an ‘advert’, asserting their values on society.

So-called ‘Green Architecture’ generally falls into one of two stylistic camps; ‘Hi-Tech’, which focuses on technology to reduce the environmental impact of a building, and ‘Hobbit-house’, which attempts to be low impact by embracing creativity and individualism. Neither of these styles reinforces values that underpin environmentalism. Hi-Tech is more closely associated with intelligence and power, while the hobbit-house look is associated with self-direction.

I left the module resolving to re-align my architectural design work to promote universal values such as broadmindedness, harmony with the natural environment, beauty, equality and social justice. Lets see what happens.

 

Podcast: where is society going?

In this talk to students on our MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course, External Relations Officer and Zero Carbon Britain 2030 Director Paul Allen puts our current environmental challenges into an historical context. Paul tells the story of human beings and energy – beginning with the sun, and tracing our industrial history through the discovery of coal, to our learned dependence on oil, and ultimately, to where we are today.

You can stream the podcast here, or

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Previous podcasts

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Join us online tonight for our first ‘tweeted’ Environmental Question Time

Join the debtate on twitter #enviroquestiontime
It is the politics module of our Msc in Advanced Architecture and Environmental Studies. Always interesting, often
controversial and most definitely thought provoking the module brings together some of the leading thinkers in their field for a week of rousing debates, lectures and workshops. We will be featuring more about the module in the coming week, with blogs, podcasts, videos and interviews with some of the lecturers.As part of the module CAT will be running it’s first ever ‘tweeted’ environmental question time. Featuring Paul Allen, CAT external relations director, Andrew Cooper, Green councillor and Kim Bryan, Media officer at CAT. Throughout the question time that will take place on Thursday 17th of January at 7pm we will be tweeting from the auditorium.From the international politics of climate change, behaviour change, green economies and environmental histories we would like to hear what you have to say. Follow the debate on twitter, #enviroquestiontime  its not to early to start sending questions in and get the debate going.

Moderating

Adrian Ramsay is a lecturer in Environment, Politics and Economics at CAT?s Graduate School of the Environment . Adrian also has substantial experience of campaigning for sustainability through the political system and working with communities to achieve change at a local level. He was a Green Party Councillor in Norwich for eight years and from 2008 to 2012 was Deputy Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

Panel

Paul Allen joined CAT in 1988 and responsible for design, development of a renewable energy systems. In 1995 Paul took up the newly created position as CAT?s Media and Communications Officer. Paul is currently CAT’s External Relations Officer, since 2006 he has led the ground-breaking Zero Carbon Britain research programme.

Andrew Cooper is a Green Party Councillor and has been and has worked in the housing and energy sector since 1993 when he became Kirklees Council?s first Energy Efficiency Co-ordinator. He introduced the UK?s first universally free insulation for pensioners, worked on Regional Energy Policy and much more. In 2009 he was recognised in the Independent on Sunday list of 100 environmentalists ( number 59) and was the only councillor in the list.

Kim Bryan is an environmental and social change activist with a focus on areas of communication and education. She is currently working as CAT’s  Media and communcations officer and as a freelance writer on environmental and social justice issues. She also works with the TRAPESE popular education collective who deliver workshops and trainings to other adult educators on a range of issues. She also runs facilitation and consensus training for groups and organisations.

Congratulations to Britain’s leading women in sustainable architecture

Trish Andrews HRH Prince Charles to some of CAT's student modern architecture

We are delighted to see that Blanche Cameron from RESET development and  former tutor at CAT, Trish Andrews tutor on the professional diploma course, Fran Bradshaw a visiting tutor, Anna Surgenor graduate of CAT’s Msc Advanced Environmental and Energy studies , Sue Roaf and Sarah Wigglesworth, course participant in straw bale building have been listed in the Architects  Journal, Women in Sustainable Architecture article.

The list recognises some of the UK’s leading women architects who are working to make sustainability an integral part of building design.  Fran Bradshaw, said: ‘We like people – that’s why and how we design. Together we can make buildings which are both a pleasure and practical to live in, and which use the earth’s resources carefully and imaginatively.’

With many of these women also teaching at universities and influencing our future architects, we could see a lot more good work to come.

Trish Andrews HRH Prince Charles to some of CAT's student modern architecture

ZCBlog: Artist in residence

Hello! My name is Joanna Wright and I’m the artist in residence with Zero Carbon Britain for the next year.

I’ve been inspired by CAT since my first visit, over 10 years ago, and I’d firstly like to say thanks to CAT and the ZCB team for having me, to the Arts Council of Wales, who have made this residency possible and to Oriel Davies in Newtown, for their support.

We accept the way we live today as normal, but how did we get here, and where are we going?

The team at ZCB are an amazing and dedicated group. They are in the process of building a picture of what a future Britain can look like. How we’ll live, where our power will come from, what we’ll eat, how we’ll travel, and what we can do as society to affect positive change.

Research coordinator Alice has drawn it out in this diagram, it looks easy doesn’t it?

I hope that, in a small way, the work I do during the residency can make the work of the Zero Carbon Britain team more visible to a wider audience.

As an artist and documentary filmmaker much of my recent work uses existing archive material and oral history recordings. For part of my research for this residency I have started to look at how people in the past imagined the future

Through archive we have an opportunity to gain insight and reflection into where we stand in relation to the time that the original material was produced, and perhaps, where we might go from here.

You can see some postcards by artists from 19th century France imagining what the year 2000 would look like here. There’s an early forerunner of Skype in one of the pictures.

And there’s a link here to a film clip about petroleum products from the 1950’s here. (Warning, contains slight nudity!)

If you are coming to CAT then please feel free to come and visit me, I’d love to talk to you. Work in progress and research during the residency will be updated online at the Zero Carbon Archive.

You can contact me via email at joanna.wright@cat.org.uk , or follow on twitter @joanna_martine

Student blogger Lewin on wind power and winter

 

Bitter winter temperatures really put CAT’s well-insulated buildings to the test this week, a situation which wasn’t helped by me losing my hat, gloves and scarf on the train from Bristol! Fortunately I survived the week with all my extremities intact and un-frostbitten, and as a bonus the landscape around CAT is absolutely stunning in winter. It’s certainly a far cry from any other university I’ve seen!