Student blog: Leanda on biomass wood heating


This module was the second part of double biomass. We had organised ourselves into groups, during the last module, and had work to do both individually and together towards the group presentation at the end of the week.

Part 1 was mainly about burning woody Biomass, to prepare us for the assessed work. This part was dedicated to the many other fuels that make biomass such an enormous and fascinating subject. There were a number of guest speakers who were incredibly knowledgeable about their respective fields.

Gordon Allison talked to us again, this time about liquid biofuels and the research that IBERS is doing into them. We meet him in his laboratory during the last module but this time he gave us a lecture.

Duncan Kerridge also talked to us again; this time about District Heating systems. District heating is more widely used in other countries, and has a valuable and growing role to play.

Cordner Peacocke, from CARE in Northern Ireland gave us two information packed lectures on Gasification (burning with oxygen) and Pyrolysis (burning without oxygen) with a number of real life projects that he had been involved with. This area is very much in its infancy but is very up and coming.

Judith Thornton, from the Welsh School of Architecture Cardiff, gave us a lecture on Anaerobic Digestion (AD). It was encouraging to hear that what we consider to be waste, is being used to provide energy.

Finally Andrew Boroughs from Organic Energy, gave us an inspiring lecture on Okofen pellet boilers. It was an honour to hear from someone who had very moralistic principals on how business/renewable energy should be conducted. The whole room was impressed and I know that someone enquired about possible work with his company afterwards.

It was actually quite nice to be doing a group presentation. I’m not great on presentations and it sort of took the pressure off a bit so that I could see that they aren’t as big a deal as I was making them out to be. We had to listen to all the Wind Power (the other module running in parallel) and Biomass presentations and I learnt a lot from doing that. I hope to build on this in the modules to come and reach my potential.

All week, I had been burning the midnight oil on the group presentation front. By Saturday night I made a break for freedom and spent some of the night in the local pub with fellow coursemates before returning to CAT to be confronted by party games that would make a Health & Safety Officer have a heart attack. Luckily no bones were broken and the only bruises were to egos.

One of my favourite things about this course is the people on it. You get to know them so much better than you would on a standard university course. The course is pretty intense; you spend a lot of time with each other. However, I’m lucky to be surrounded by such great people. No-one else at home would engage in conversations with me about the possibility of harnessing hamster power in a gigantic hamster wheel. Big ideas have to start somewhere!

New research by GSE staff and students suggests sustainable solutions for retrofitting


Staff and students at the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Graduate School for the Environment have received praise for new research evaluating the environmental impacts of mainstream methods of insulating solid wall homes, and investigating sustainable alternatives. Students Marion Wright, Naomi Miskin, Andrew Flower and staff Ranyl Rhydwen and Arthur Butler were awarded best paper at the prestigious Retrofit 2012 earlier this year.

“Improving the energy efficiency of Europe’s housing stock is crucial in view of climate change,” says lecturer Ranyl Rhydwen. “It is an urgent priority for the government and the building sector.” The international Retrofit conference, hosted in January by Salford University, was set in order to appraise recent research into this area.

30% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from the domestic sector – and with 56% of that coming from heating, improving the energy efficiency of our homes can go a long way toward reducing the impact we have on the environment. And while new legislation will see all new builds be ‘zero carbon’ by 2016, retrofitting existing housing stock remains a priority, as some calculations suggest that retrofitted homes can save up to 15 times as much CO2 as demolishing and rebuilding.

However, even if retrofitting is the greener option, the materials used to renovate buildings are frequently carbon intensive and environmentally detrimental. As the researchers say, “the manufacture of building materials tends to have a high energy input, involve toxic processes and create harmful waste.” Since the majority of the UK’s housing stock requires renovation to improve its thermal efficiency and moisture handling ability, investigations have been on-going at CAT to trial sustainable alternatives that could significantly decrease the carbon cost of a large-scale retrofitting project.

Hemp is considered to have particular potential for its ability to sequester large amounts of carbon, improve biodiversity, improve soil quality, grow well without fertilisers, herbicides, or pesticides, and its capacity to simply be composted at the end of its life.

The CAT team received praise for their work comparing two methods of insulating solid-wall homes – dry-lining, the more mainstream method, and using an insulating hemp render. Their research was the first study to directly compare these two methods in a real-world trial, carried out over 18 months in one of the old slate cottages that form part of CAT’s on-site community. Their research considered the performance and impacts of both techniques, as well as forecasting into the future with the use of a complex computer modelling procedure.

Concerns about the efficacy of dry-lining go beyond considerations of the environmentally un-sound materials it requires the use of – dry-lining has also been thought to increase internal condensation and moisture build-up between walls, leading to rot and frost damage. Finding a better method is especially relevant for the UK’s heritage buildings, many of which are have solid walls.

The study confirmed that dry-lining causes moisture build up in walls, as well as demonstrating that hemp renders are effective at insulating, as well as drying out the external wall and handling moisture well.

Hemp seems set to be recognised as an effective, low-carbon, sustainable solution for retrofitting homes. Research into the use of hemp continues at CAT, with staff and students investigating all its potential uses. Rather than using materials with a “long-term environmental legacy,” in Ranyl Rhydwen’s words, utilising materials like hemp which have the ability to sequester carbon may allow us to off-set emissions from other sectors, or from on-site renewables. Perhaps it’s time to consider a stage further than the ‘zero carbon’ home – the negative carbon home.

For more information about research into the use of hemp, visit the project’s website. Read the paper here.

Student Blog: Leanda on designing a biomass boiler system


After first attending a workshop about writing a researching a thesis (a good challenge!), the first part of the Biomass module began. Our group split into two groups, the others studying wind power, and we got straight to work learning about different types of fuel and all the regulations that influence a Biomass boiler design.

On our second day of the module, we went out on a day trip to visit a number of local companies with biomass boilers. First on the list was a local woodchip producer, Peter Bottoms. Next stop was Plas Crug in Aberystwyth, a biomass plant heating the new Welsh Assembly Government offices next door. Then onto the CRAFT building in Aberystwyth where the Biomass boiler has only just been fixed after a number of years of lying dormant. Finally, we stopped at IBERS, a research centre linked to the University of Aberystwyth, where we got to look inside a laboratory and learn about the research into other potential biomass fuels. We had the opportunity to ask questions and have a good look around each stop, so that we knew exactly what a biomass plant was all about.

I had never really seen a biomass boiler operational before and this day of site visits was a very valuable experience. We also got to have a closer look at the two Biomass boilers at CAT, with a number of data loggers recording their performance and efficiency. The tutors even trusted one of us to light one of them!

Our coursework, for this module, is to design a Biomass boiler for the Y Plas building, which we looked at during the Building Related Issues module 2. We’ve split ourselves into 3 different groups: sizing the boiler, finances, and fuel.

To celebrate the silly season, we enjoyed a great Christmas party organised by Rachael. There was a wonderful Christmas meal, served skillfully by our tutors. And though I was initially concerned about the gift I selected from the Secret Santa bag, it turned out to be an innocently large squash. The gifts were exceedingly creative, perhaps as you can’t get much for a pound these days. It was a fancy dress theme, and subsequently I spent the night anticipating the appearance of an Elvis. There is something extremely strange about being in one room with four Santas.


Student Blog: Alex on how we define sustainability


I am studying at CAT as a part time student. The rest of my time is taken up working full time as a Fundraiser for the RSPB and building my own social enterprise ‘Growing Awareness’. When I am fundraising, I regularly, hundreds of times a week, ask people a seemingly idiotic question – what do you think about wildlife? I ask this question for various reasons: because it is phrased oddly and makes the person I am speaking with double take and think; because it’s what I really want to know and because it’s really a trick question, aiming at finding out how the person in front of me engages with the world around them, beyond working and consuming. Inevitably, surprisingly and comfortingly, such conversations lead to a question about how we as humans are affecting the planet. My job here is not to labour over lurid descriptions of an albatross being maimed by longline fishing, but to elaborate the positive and proactive action, work and achievements that are happening every day. Not just a world that ‘could be’ but rather ‘is’, all the time. This is really, underneath it all, a way of outlining sustainable interactions with our natural environment, world, or whatever we might call it.

Two lectures inspired me to write about sustainability in my first essay for the Msc. The first was Gary Grant’s session on an ecosystem services approach to master planning. The second was Jason Hawkes’ lecture which asked us to consider; ‘What is sustainability?’. I originally concentrated on researching the various questions I had scribbled down during Gary Grants lecture, I had presumed that I was going to enjoy that lecture and gain a lot from it. I did but that is not the point. As I began using my old academic skills and Blanche’s recommendations for structuring essays and research methods, I found increasingly that rather than concentrate on an ecosystem service approach I was erring towards questioning why we take an ecosystems services approach at all. I realised that the essay question I was circling in on, while discrete, was too large a scope for the short essay format. I was originally thinking of discussing how an ecosystem services approach to planning and building human systems displayed a regenerative rather than sustainable design methodology. To explain why I thought this and to be able to back such an assertion up with source material seemed too huge and fundamental a task to be reduced to a single paragraph.

I am a big believer in stating the obvious. It is tempting in many movements including environmental circles to assume common sense and common knowledge. I see my first essay as the opportunity I needed to lay out some of the background context to the debate about what sustainability is. I learn as I go, I think the only ’stupid’ trait is to not ask questions, but sometimes in the need for brevity, to give space to someone else making a point, or during a lecture where so many questions occur I am sure everyone has at some time nodded passively at some reference, theory or term and filing it under ‘find out later’ missed a fragment of what constitutes a greener more viable world.

Accordingly I decided on a narrow focus in my essay. I wanted to look at the most commonly referenced and therefore influential definition of sustainability, which determined rightly or wrongly as being the ‘The Brundtland Report’. I argued that although the report’s assertions about the state of nature and humankinds’ relationship with it were timely and indicative, the report recognises the potential for the loss of the regenerative capacity of natural systems, however its definition of sustainability still hinged, in my lowly opinion, on that regenerative capacity. The report didn’t include proscriptive measures to address this, nor was that its remit; however I feel the criticism still stands that sustainable development as defined by the Brundtland report falls short of explicitly highlighting the necessity for regenerative development. I argued that the earth’s natural systems were in many places so denuded and in parts almost abiotic that they were unable to support normative sustainable development. This, I determined, would render any definition of sustainability, that didn’t explicitly denote the vital importance of regenerativity, as meaningless and inapplicable.

Professional Diploma end of year show


Students studying for their Professional Diploma at CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment recently had their end of year show for 2011. Students’ work was on display from the first year of the course, which offers a unique blend of design and academic study together with practical experience. To find out more about postgraduate study at CAT, have a look at our website.

CAT Short Courses Christmas Offer

Treat your loved ones to an inspirational Short Course this Christmas!

As well as fantastic discounts in our on-site shop, CAT is offering a 10% discount on all short courses booked between now and the 31st December at midnight. Courses at CAT cover a wide range of topics, from eco-building, ecology and sanitation to woodland and green craft courses- there is something for everybody and at all levels. Contacts us now to take advantage of this special offer 01654 704 952/

Building clay ovens

New day courses for 2012 include

–      Introduction to Compost Toilets

–      Rustic Chair Making

–      Forged Tool Making

–      Greenwood Crafts

–      Introduction to Organic Gardening

–      Introduction to Horse Logging

–      Hedgerow Herbalism


This offer applies to our longer courses too, please take a look at our course calendar online, or email us your address and we’ll send you a brochure. This offer is valid until midnight on the 31st December and can be redeemed on all courses in 2012. To book contact 01654 704 952/



Student Story: David on his first two months studying long-distance


Well, I did it, submitting my 1st assignment 3 days ahead of schedule. Bejeesus, it’s a miracle.

The last few months have seen heartache, passion, a neglected back garden rise up and demand my attention, a neglected partner subjected to monologues about pro-western bias in the composition of sustainability indicators, and a file full of terrifying articles from journals with names like Ecological Indicators, Environmental Economics, and (my particular favourite) Environmental Impact Assessment Review.
How did it come to this? I joined the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2003, at the ripe age of 32. “Once you’re here for five years, you’re unemployable anywhere else”, said one of my new colleagues. Eight years on I am doing my dream job (alas, temporary) in sustainability and climate change at DWP and hoping to prove them wrong, by distance learning with CAT.

What is studying at a distance like? Challenging. So I was prepared, my friend Christine gave me a copy of her handy little text Studying at a distance.

In mid September study material arrived from CAT. Get down to it, laddie. You need to make time, set reasonable objectives and seize those unexpected moments of free-time to study. But I made lots of false starts. Frequently I would start work early, plan to finish early and get stuck into studying, but instead get stuck at work and finish at the usual time, tired and fed up with staring at a computer screen.

I found myself putting aside big blocks of time at the weekend, allowing me to ease in gently and tackle that opening hour where you find yourself strenuously filing emails in an attempt to avoid studying. Hence the neglected garden.

Helpfully CAT provides online seminars, discussion groups, reading lists, and a very patient tutor Saskia, who reins in my highfalutin literary adventures. ‘Don’t essays have to use words like ‘fungible’ and ‘inchoate’, Saskia?’ Apparently not.

I expected fellow students to come from a range of places, but I never realised how international CAT’s reputation was! In my online seminars I found myself sitting with American volunteers in Uganda, Malaysians in Bhutan and furniture-makers in Australia. All typing our expectations of how climate change will affect buildings in our area. Hard to fit into an hour-and-a-half.

How can I describe the smell of the University of East London library? Well – I can’t, because I doubt that I will ever venture in there, but I lurrve their electronic journals. Roll out tired clichés about kids and candy stores, because each article about sustainability indicators tended to reference another 15 who in turn each referenced another 15. And they all seemed to be in Ecological Indicators. I took to thumbing, in a virtualised way, through all the copies, and after a while everything started to look relevant, interesting, or both. I sought help.

Surprisingly, we are normally encouraged to choose our own essay titles for each module. Happily for the opening module, we were given a range of possible essay titles to choose from. I went for a thorny question about measuring sustainability, because I had helped review Defra’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) new sustainability indicators, and had also developed tools for measuring the sustainability of DWP’s policies.

I’ve done many new and unexpected things in the past 2 months, but a particular highpoint was retreating to bed early with my netbook so I could listen to Nick Baker’s podcast, whilst my partner watched Downton Abbey downstairs. This is the good life! Ventilation and condensation beckon.

CAT students graduate

On Saturday 12th of November, 76 students at CAT celebrated their graduation with friends and family in the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education. The students graduated from two of CAT’s flagship masters courses: Advanced Architecture and Environmental Studies and Renewable Energy and the Built Environment. At the ceremony, CAT’s Head of Innovation Peter Harper paid tribute to Damien Randle who retired this year after having worked at CAT since 1982, during which time he was responsible for pioneering CAT’s educational work.

Ian Lemon, a representative of the University of East London where the courses are accredited congratulated CAT on its fantastic teaching facilities and outstanding academic records. Paul Allen, CAT’s director said “as Britain emerges from global financial crisis and we work to deliver sustainable economic growth, we also urgently need to decarbonise our economies and prevent damaging climate change. Britain needs to be ready to meet that challenge… most importantly, we need people with the right knowledge and skills to research, produce and use those technologies and solutions that can make Britain’s global low carbon ambitions a reality, our graduates make that sustainable future a possibility.”

Graduates of CAT courses now number in their thousands and can be found working in many different areas including architecture, construction, third sector, consultancy and engineering. CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment (GSE) offers a range of inspirational post-graduate programmes. Courses are directed by a unique combination of leading professionals, academics and authors. They are based in CAT’s stunning new eco-educational facility, the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education. With flexible learning programmes to suit all needs, and teaching that places sustainability at its core, CAT offers an unparalleled academic and practical learning experience.

Student story: Leanda on building related issues


Quite literally fresh from finishing my essay, with so many acronyms and online library passwords swarming around my head that I was having trouble remembering my own name, I arrived at CAT for Module 2 – Building Related Issues. Thankfully Rachael, the Student Support Officer, was there to greet me and she, somehow, manages to remember everyone’s name.

I have never had to write an essay like the Module 1 essay before. In fact it’s been over 13 years since I finished my degree dissertation. What I planned to write, and what I eventually ended up writing were two very different things. It sort of evolved as I got into the researching of it, before finally finding some sort of valid structure. It will be much easier to write them in the future.

I had decided to stay out of the bar, for this module, as it was time to get more serious but strangely the long lecture days and then doing ‘bits and pieces’ in the evening still managed to stretch to midnight easily. There were even stories, from others, of staying up into the wee small hours trying to finish their essays and get on top of their presentations.

Y Plas

Module 2 was packed with lectures about producing low energy usage buildings and also undertaking energy audits. We had a couple of lectures from visiting professionals; Ashley Bateson of Hoare Lea gave us a lecture on ‘Delivering Low-Carbon Buildings’ and John Williamson of JPW Construction gave us a lecture on ‘Passivhaus’. It’s fantastic to get a perspective on how ideas are applied in the real world and the advantages and disadvantages involved. In fact, all of the lecturers have their fingers in a number of pies and their practical knowledge is constantly brought into our lectures.

We left site during this module, for a number of practicals to visit a Passivhaus and to assess the energy use of Plas; a community use building in the centre of Machynlleth. It was great fun to use a real building as an example and we also learnt a lot. The best bit was getting to see the workings of the boiler room. Gosh how my life has changed, I never imagined I would be admitting to that!

I had to do my presentation, this module. I’m really not great about thinking on my feet but it’s something that I will persist with and, with practise, will get better at. It gives you an appreciation of how good the lecturers are at presenting, and also how amazing the students with English as a second language, are for doing them. Sometimes I really struggle to find the words in English.

The group really bonded on this module. I guess we all sort of knew what to expect this time and felt more relaxed because of that. I got a chance to chat to those that I hadn’t before and those new faces, on the second year of their part-time course, got welcomed into that group also. I would say that the majority of the people on the course have been in the workplace for some time and that experience of life is brought into any discussion.

We were willing on each other during our presentations. Questions asked, were mostly from those who knew the presenter much better, which helped them to relax and to bring out their best. After all, we’re all in the same boat – it was lovely to experience the consideration involved.

This visit, I finally managed to donate to the experiment of feeding the Tiger worms. The high fibre, vegetarian diet has such a detoxing effect on your digestive system that I decided to help out with CAT’s research.

All in all, I had a really good time. There is one area, however, that requires some work. Although Saturday is officially a ‘school night’, it does lend itself to being the night to go out and let your hair down a bit. When you are sitting in lectures the next morning, after barely 4 hours of sleep and with vodka still in your system, letting your hair down a bit doesn’t seem like such a wise idea. Much improvement required there I think!

Student Story: Laura Mark, architecture graduate


Laura Mark studied BA (hons) Architecture at the Leicester School of Architecture, De Montfort University, before completing the Professional Diploma in Architecture with Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at CAT. She is an architectural assistant at Pick Everard Architects in Leicester and sits on the council of the Leicestershire and Rutland Society of Architects. Below she writes about how studying for a diploma at CAT has opened doors, and helped her to believe in her own abilities.

When I enrolled on the professional diploma at CAT, I was looking for something different. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. Like many others on the course, I hadn’t had the best experience of architectural education in the past and I was hoping that CAT would be different. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.

From the start of the course our views on architecture were challenged. We often asked the question, ‘should we really be building at all?’ – not a question architects would generally ask. Through the lectures we gained an understanding of the theory and science which was then implemented in our designs.

My tutors recognized the potential in me, even though I struggled to see it. They encouraged me to explore my ideas and designs. They knew how to push me and how to get the most out of me. I am sure without the support they gave me I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Urban Food Belt, final diploma project

I finished the professional diploma in January. After such an intense period of working it was a relief to be finished but I also felt somewhat lost. I knew that was the end of my monthly trips to CAT. It was almost like I was going to have to survive on my own now and this in itself was a scary prospect.

In March I was offered a place as the sustainability intern at the Architects’ Journal. This was a position I never expected to get. It was probably a good thing that I didn’t start for another three months; it gave time for it to sink in.

Starting at the AJ in June, I didn’t really know what to expect; I’d been told I would be attending lots of events and meeting architects, but other than that I had no idea what it would involve. Maybe I was naive or maybe just slightly overwhelmed by the whole experience, but for some reason I hadn’t really thought about what I would have to do; I just knew it was an amazing opportunity and one to make the most of.

The Angel Building by AHMM or Disability Essex by Simmonds Mills Architects

Throughout my four months as the sustainability intern I attended various talks on topics relating to sustainable design and architecture, visited buildings including bere:architect’s Camden Passivhaus, Simmonds Mills Architect’s Disability Essex Centre, Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion, AHMM’s Stirling nominated Angel Building and many more. I attended exhibition openings, book launches and even a trip to Austria with Internorm, looking at the manufacture of their highly efficient timber and u-PVC windows. I wrote about all this on the AJ’s sustainability blog –, and even got the chance to write for the magazine. I threw myself in to what I was doing, and actively searched out projects that I wanted to see and be involved in. Working at the AJ made this a lot easier, it was like a VIP pass to the architectural world.

GOAL! By Koebberling and Kaltwasser

One of the highlights of my time at the AJ, was working with the previous winners of the AJ Small Projects Awards; Koebberling and Kaltwasser. It was a rather rainy day, and I had heard that they were to be building an installation on the Greenway, by the Olympic Park. I decided to go along and see if they needed help. The diploma at CAT gave us the chance to gain hands on experience with materials and construction, and since leaving I haven’t often had the opportunity, so I leapt at the chance to get a drill in my hands and start working. Read my article on this experience, here.

I also had the opportunity to join this year’s professional diploma students during their summer school in August. Joining them for the practical part of the summer school, whilst they were building a bird hide and a pavilion for Shambala Festival in the woods at Coed Gwern. It was great to see how the course was progressing, and indeed how its students had progressed. Last year my group created the frames for a classroom on the spot which the bird hide now inhabits, so it was particularly poignant that I would be returning as part of my role at the AJ. My article on the professional diploma student’s summer school can be read, here.

Through the internship I developed my ability to critically analyse architecture; a vital skill in the field of sustainability for sifting through the greenwash and looking at whether something really is as green as it claims. This ability to critically analyse the merits of sustainable architecture was deeply founded in the knowledge given to me by the initial lectures at CAT. They really helped to add a depth of understanding to the subjects I was required to write about. The experience at the AJ took what I had learnt at CAT and developed it in relation to mainstream architecture. I realised the challenges facing sustainable building in the construction industry and it helped to put into context what I had learnt. If you’d have asked me before I started at CAT whether I could imagine myself working at the AJ, I’d have thought you were joking, but through my experience on the diploma and the internship, I have learnt to believe in my own abilities. I realise what a privilege it was to have this experience and I am really grateful to have had the opportunity.