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.

A taster of the upcoming Sustainable Science Symposium


On the 12th and 13th of November, CAT will host its sixth sustainable science symposium, showcasing the work of current students and alumni. CAT has been teaching skills in sustainability since 2001; since then the graduate school has become an important embodiment of CAT’s ethos, encouraging innovation in creating solutions to environmental challenges. Last year’s symposium was attended by over 100 people who enjoyed a range of speakers including Erik Lombaut from Belgium, and 2011 will see another interesting selection of papers presented. Though the programme has not yet been finalised, a taster of what to look forward to at this year’s event is below.

For more information on the event, please follow this link.

Spending time at an environmental education centre – an investigation into changes in pro-environmental behaviour by Sophia Perkins
Sophia Perkins’ research looks into the effect of environmental education. As individuals tend to learn best through ‘doing’, the interactivity of CAT’s visitor’s centre makes it an effective educational facility. Perkins examined her subjects’ environmental behaviour prior to and after their time at CAT, showing that their pro-environmental behaviour increased after their visit. Her analysis considered personality types and social dynamics in her conclusions.

Fuel poverty and the failure of policy making as a driver for change by R Honeysett
The Department of Energy and Climate Change defines a household in fuel poverty as one that has to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel to heat their home to a satisfactory standard. R Honeysett’s paper evaluates the strategy developed by he Labour government which aimed to eliminate the problem for ‘vulnerable’ households by 2010 and for all households by 2016. While the strategy had some success early on, the situation has again worsened, making it likely that the 2016 target will not be reached. Honeysett’s assessment of the policy seeks to understand its failure, considering whether the definition of fuel poverty that shaped the policy has had detrimental effects on it.

How could straw bale houses become mainstream? Insights from a straw bale housing project by R Folk
Considering the growing need for affordable, energy efficient housing in the UK, R Folk’s paper looks into the capacity of straw bale building to satisfy this demand. Taking as a case study a rural district council’s decision to build straw bale council houses, Folk evaluates whether straw bale building could become a mainstream building technique by interviewing mainstream building contractors and other project stakeholders and investigating potential barriers to its movement into the mainstream.

The Potential Sustainable Contribution of Vertical Borehole Ground Source Heating Systems to London’s Heating Needs by Cathryn Symons
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in densely populated areas is difficult. Cathryn Symons investigated the possibility of using Vertical Borehole Ground Source Heating Systems to heat part of London’s central city, concluding that the technology could provide up to 17% of the renewable heat for all London from within the central area alone.

Do-it-yourself sustainability: helping current occupants meet their own needs, whilst preparing the existing housing stock for future generations’ needs by D. Beal, S. Tucker and J. Littlewood
Improving the energy efficiency of existing houses needs to happen in a more imaginative and affordable manner than the current mainstream building industry permits. Beal, Tucker and Littlewood look to DIY enthusiasts as an untapped labour force who could be encouraged and collectively organised to address environmental issues in the home and garden. Looking to DIY training programmes and initiatives, the authors consider how to harness the potential workforce of collective environmental DIY.

Utilisation of Resources along Motorways to Produce Renewable Energy by R Ferrier
English motorways are flanked by 300,000,000m squared of government land, managed by the Highways Agency. R Ferrier’s paper looks at how that land could be harnessed to produce renewable energy by the installation of small wind turbines, projecting an ecological saving of 130,000,000kgs of carbon dioxide annually.

Module one – MSc Architecture (AEES) – Alex

Looking beyond CAT’s setting of incredible beauty and the fleeting moods of the Welsh sky it is clear that both theory and industry are at home here. Vernacular architecture, of slate, wood and mortar, sited in the old quarry that gives CAT its unusual topography, are fused with renewable technology and modern natural building materials. They sit so well with each other it’s seamless and so unnoticeable. After a few days one realizes that beyond the technological application of micro generating renewables, the superficial changes to our visual environment, due to the presence of panels and turbines, they are really no great hardship. I believe that, en masse, we will quickly grow accustomed to them. CAT is all laid out with a child’s sense of discovery and adventure yet everywhere are to be found structures that evidently provide seriously applicable solutions to the problems we face in creating sustainable human systems.

Starting in September meant my first module was ‘Environment and energy in a world context’. This included lectures on; anthropogenic climate change, adaptation strategies, an ecosystem services approach to master planning, policy at national and international level, sustainable architecture, social perspectives and much, much more. For all of this, I am immensely grateful to be participating in this Masters Programme. Often when considering the challenges that lay ahead, I have wished, as I am sure many people do, that I could be provided with pointers as to where to look for the most accurate data, reports or case studies, to be given a leg up to where I felt, knowledge wise, I needed to be with regards to climate change, sustainable design and the built environment. Even in just one module I felt that this was already happening. What facilitated this further was the learning atmosphere generated by my surroundings and the emphasis that we, as current or future design professionals, need to embody the change we want to see in the world by ‘walking the talk’. This is highlighted by learning about sustainable architecture from the very people who designed and
participated in the build of the exemplary WISE building, the very same building in which all the lectures were given. It is an immersive learning experience. What particularly made me smile to myself was that the terms, language and principles that were employed during lectures were so familiar, from my background in permaculture that it made me feel confident I was in the right place to learn what I need to know.

What really ‘made’ my first module and in fact my first ever visit to CAT was not only the quality and attitude of the course teaching and non teaching staff but the level of awareness and enthusiasm of my fellow students. I quickly felt a connection and communication with them that was uncommon in my experiences at undergraduate level.

Are floating homes the answer? CAT student proposes a solution for housing on floodplains. Includes drawing and sketches for floating homes.


Amy Hamilton, one of CAT’s architecture students, has recently had success in a prestigious design competition aimed at encouraging designers to prioritise nature in the built environment.

First run in 2009, the competition brings together interdisciplinary teams to demonstrate the importance of nurturing natural habitats in towns and cities. While ecology and biodiversity frequently aren’t prioritised in the design process, the IHDC contest encourages participants to consider how we can regenerate our living environments.

Amy Hamilton’s entry was for floating houses to be situated in a flood plain in the Dyfi Valley. “I envisage…new green spaces which will enhance biodiversity networks,” Amy says. “I hope the wetlands and floating homes to be an environment that brings wildlife to the people and the people to the wildlife.”

Moreover, as flooding on the site is set to worsen with predicted changes in the climate, Amy’s design looks toward the future. Adaptable to the floods, the homes will “provide a continuous reminder of the effects of the erratic weather patterns on the river.”

Amy’s design was among eleven entries chosen by the IHDC judges, along with fellow Part II Architecture student Oliver Goddard. Oliver’s project was a proposal for a permaculture garden in Milton, Glasgow. While not selected as finalists, their work will likely go on display at the Museum of London.

Podcast: People, buildings, energy and sustainability. Nick Baker, Martin Centre, University of Cambridge

You can stream this podcast here or

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This lecture is part on the MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course.

Nick Baker from The Martin Centre in Cambridge has spent most of his professional life working in building physics as a teacher, researcher, and consultant. He is also co-author of ‘Daylight Design of Buildings: A handbook for Architects and Engineers’

More podcasts

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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

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.

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]


Related videos


Solar powered irrigation for developing country growers. Testing and development taking place at CAT.

by Nick Jefferies

In poor rural communities around the world, one of the only ways of earning extra income is by growing vegetables and fruits to sell at the local market. The key to growing these crops is irrigation. Most current irrigation methods use either labour intensive manual pumps or expensive, carbon-emitting diesel engines. While undertaking my Masters at CAT in Renewable Energy, I came across a small-scale solar thermal technology being developed that offers an alternative method for irrigation pumping.

The system uses a parabolic dish to focus the sun’s heat onto a boiler to produce steam power that drives a simple type of reciprocating engine pump. Having contacted the inventor, I travelled to Holland to see the pump in operation and determine whether I could contribute to further development. This led me to travel to Ethiopia last September where I spent two months monitoring the engineering performance and socioeconomic issues related to pumps installed on ten farms around the town of Ziway.

Data indicated that the system could produce 2,500-5,000 litres/day from a depth of 5-13m, allowing for a cultivated area of 500-800 sq m. If good growing practices are followed, this means the cost of the pump could be paid back in less than one year. Monitoring also showed that the equipment was simple enough to allow farmers to operate the system independently. One key finding was that the overall efficiency of the system, calculated by comparing incoming solar energy to hydraulic energy output, was about three times less than expected. The main reason for this under-performance was identified as an incorrect sizing of one of the steam engine components.

This issue will be addressed in the next development stage, leading to a large increase in daily pumped volume, and thus directly improving the income potential and marketability of the solar steam pump.

Summer school update – Construction of Shambala’s structure has started

Emma Donnelly’s blog.

It’s now half way through the summer school, and day one of building the two structures. Our team is building a festival structure for Shambala at the end of the month. We need to have this complete by Saturday, so it can be deconstructed on Sunday, loaded into the van on Monday and taken to the festival. There are about ten of us in the team, plus two tutors… but only two of us from this group are heading to the festival to re-erect it. Should be fun!

Day 1 has been great, the two teams naturally formed, the jig was set up, and the first ‘spine’ was complete. Essentially the structure is three timber frame petals of heights 3.5m, 4.2m and 5.5m. We started with the middle sized petal. And that was pretty big! I can’t wait to see the whole thing!


Ollie Goddard’s blog

After hitting many ‘snooze’ buttons, I managed to drag my body past the sand trails and smoke-filled cloths from last nights beach party into the high pressure, solar thermal showers for a morning wake up.  Then with steel top-caps on, I gathered some tools and trekked across the valley up into the woods; gathered some shavings and lit a fire for the first brew of the day.

After our team briefing, we set about measuring, sawing, screwing, chiseling and carrying our components; well on our way to erecting the first of three petals for our structure that will house CAT’s exhibition at the Shambala festival; we are now starting to see the rewards of the many hours spent detailing and engineering the structure.  Over the following few days I will be particularly interested in obtaining greater management and carpentry experience for next years APE Project where a few of us will be building a playground for a school in a remote area of Belize.


Prof dip go to Shambala