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

Architecture students’ blogs on the summer school at CAT

Lisa Karkut.

Today, sadly, is our last day in the studio. Frances Bradshaw and Junko Suetake of Anne Thorne Architects joined our group so it’s been a buzzing hive of design. It’s at a time like this that I know I’ve made the right decision to come back to architecture. It’s been four years since I graduated from the Architectural Science program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

I am really inspired by the environment and the various tutorials I’ve had throughout the past five days. I’m also really excited about my project, which is a Recycling Innovation centre for Dublin. Tomorrow we head out into the woods where my group will begin construction of the base for the bird hide. I hope the rain lets up by then!

Catherine Watton

This is my first ever blog entry, right, here goes…! During the afternoon we worked on a Participatory Design Workshop with Fran and Junko from Anne Thorpe Architects. The short session looked at a project including the site, a brief and range of clients. Fran and Junko took their roles as architects and we each embodied an individual who would be affected by the design such as management, employees and visitors. We discussed our personal perspectives and priorities, which lead to diagramming the programme from our different viewpoints. What did I take from it?…..that listening is such a vital skill within a design process to ensure that you are absorbing the clients viewpoints to inform the design. How often this is done successfully is something to question!

Our evening unfolded with a delicious dinner out in the courtyard, timber building presentations, bat watching and blog writing. All this in the setting of a peaceful red sky over the surrounding mountains. Oh yes, I ought to add I’m Catherine and this is a fantastic place to study!

Summer school at CAT – blogs by architecture students

Hello again,

The summer school is well on it’s way now and the students are soon ready to start their practical sessions.  But first, a few more of their blogs.

Sophia’s blog.

I am coming every month from London to attend the course. CAT has been an exceptional place to deepen my understanding of what I call “the production of architecture” and develop my own ability to produce design ideas with a pertinent focus on sustainability. Sometimes, like this month, I drag along my model on the bus, tube, train and taxi, to illustrate my ideas. I am using my site model to develop a concept on a mixed-use development. It’s great to have these few days to focus and progress on our design work without interruption (bar the table tennis competition!). I wish every month was like summer school.

Adam Harris’ blog.

As an attempt to provide a snapshot of what its like to be an architecture student at CAT, below is a narrative of what’s going on in the studio at this week’s summer school. A room with a view. A window looking into a peaceful and sensual courtyard with still water, reflecting light into the rooms which surround it. A studio with pools of natural light and areas of drama and contrast that accentuate the beauty of this precious light. A studio filled with desks, desks filled with the apparatuses that allow architecture to be enjoyed; pencils, markers of red and green, rolls of tracing paper and model making materials scattered all around. Chairs of which house the courses’ best kept secret; warm-hearted students. These people have become the making of our studies. These people are made of the stuff which will hopefully make friends for life. Friends who provide laughter, care and affection, help and support. Creativity thrives on these essential ingredients.

Trevor Jones’ blog.

I joined CAT as a mature student to finally fulfill my ambition to become an architect. Nine months on; I’m now designing a Wellness Centre on Hilbre Island off the Wirral Coastline. The initial source of inspiration was from the book “Liquid Assets” and the revival of Lidos. As an avid reader of Psychologies, I also discovered the 1960’s Esalen institute in the Big Sur California, where the therapeutic and exotic spa and massage culture came about. The challenge is to make the project self sufficient and sustainable with use of wind, wave and solar energy, but the idea is beginning to evolve typically in the Esalen mentality of self awareness by also creating a facility for naturists. Feedback from naturists or visitor of Esalen please or anything about the best spa experiences are gratefully received.


Summer school at CAT for the architecture Professional Diploma students

The summer school for the architecture Professional Diploma students has started this week at CAT. We will follow them and their impressions throughout the week.


Sean’s blog.

Hello, my name is Sean. I am currently one of the architecture Professional Diploma students here at CAT. I started the course last September and I am taking part in the August summer school. This particular module includes an extended period of major project design development, coupled with a timber construction practical. Today was the third consecutive studio day, which for myself, meant a tutorial in the morning, followed by the continued, evolution of my major thesis design project. This project represents the culmination of 5 years of architectural education and I have chosen to design a mixed use, sustainable development in the heart of Mexico city. Therefore, through confronting and dissecting the cultural, geographical and environmental uniqueness of such a site, I hope to use these studio days to implement an architecturally rich intervention.


Rebecca’s blog.

Hi, my name is Rebecca. The summer school at CAT is a brilliant opportunity to engage with visiting architects and professionals. Been able to sit in the WISE building at CAT for one whole week in certainly inspiring. My scheme “The Learning Society”, a project proposal based in Falmouth, is advocating an alternative approach to student accomodation, i.e. living and working with communities, encouraging a sense of responsibility (in all respects), and creating spaces that spark creativity. Sitting at my desk in the WISE building, I look across a beautifully proportioned internal courtyard, and I cannot help but get the dimensions using my tape measure. This will definitely feature in my scheme! The rain has been steadily pouring for the previous two days, and the timber gutters in the courtyard trickle a steady stream of water into recessed square ponds in the courtyards. Walking under the covered walkway to and from the rammed earth lecture theatre and restaurant, I am once again inspired by the range of sensuous experiences. In simplicity there is creativity. It seems I have all the inspiration I need for my project right here!

Architecture Summer School starts at CAT

From the 11th – 21st August the students studying for CAT’s Professional Diploma in Architecture will attend a Summer School to mark the end of the first 12 months of their 18 month long course. These students, who have all undertaken a Part I first degree in architecture elsewhere, will be examined for a Part II qualification in January 2012. Previous students of the Prof Dip course at CAT have since moved on to undertake Part III qualifications, which will allow them to register as Architects in the UK.

Watch a short video about last year’s Professional Diploma in Architecture Summer School here

The first five days of the Summer School will be spent in the WISE building where three rooms have been allocated as studio space. The students will be working on their Final Projects & will be producing drawings & models to discuss with a range of visiting tutors.

For the second five days the Summer School will move over to the other side of the Dyfi Valley, to CAT’s Coed Gwern woodland. Here the students will work on two live projects to be built from timber supplied by the local Esgair sawmill 500 m from the site. The two projects are to build a Hide for bird watching to be located in the woodland & a  temporary structure to be taken to the Shambala Festival at the end of August.

The Hide is to be substantial structure with a curved profile built up out of timber slats. The Shambala pavilion is a fabric-covered lightweight frame that will be dismantled to allow transportation to the Festival & then quickly re-erected by a team from CAT, including two of the Prof Dip


Both designs were produced during a one-day sketch design session in June & have been worked up over the last two months to allow materials to be ordered & preparations made.

You can follow the progress of the Summer School, including the construction of the two structures on this blog over the next 10 days.