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.

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

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.


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

[portfolio type=”two-col” excerpt_length=”0″ per_page=”2″ cats=”217″ shadow=”shadow-s” reflection=”reflection-s”]

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.