Small is Beautiful Festival 2016

Small is Beautiful is the Festival that takes place at CAT. After a big event in 2015, we decided to make 2016 smaller and distilled into just one day.  It really was beautiful, and we left on Sunday feeling uplifted and full of energy for the next one (8-11th June 2017).

Our Schumacher Speakers this year were Natalie Bennett (Green Party) and Paul Smith-Lomas (Practical Action) – who both challenged and provoked the crowd. Andrew Simms chaired an interactive panel discussion which drew in Greta Leeb (Welsh Government), Helen Atkins (CAT/ZCB) and Shaun Chamberlin (author). On a gloriously sunny day the CAT site was at its finest: hands on workshops were scattered across the centre and covered ideas including aquaponics, thatching,  pee-powered toilets, tiny homes and resisting fracking.

Here is a collage of photos from the day:


The next Small Is Beautiful festival will be a full long weekend, on the 8-11th June 2017, on the theme of Housing Justice. Book your early bird tickets here.

Self-Build Architecture and the Housing Crisis at Glastonbury 2016

A team of CAT’s Part II architecture students and tutors are building part of a house to take to ‪‎Glastonbury‬ Festival this week; using it to look at practical solutions to the housing crisis. The project builds on work that CAT’s joint architecture programme leader Ed Green has been developing for more than five years, winning a series of national design competitions looking at construction systems for affordable housing.

glasto1 (3)

Ed Green said:

“We have developed a series of designs using shipping containers, structurally insulated panels, steel portal frames and straw bales. The slightly surprising and disappointing thing we have found is that all of those approaches generally result in building housing that costs about the same money as volume house builders – around 70,000-100,000 pounds per house… We have decided that the only way to make meaningful inroads into those costs is to look at genuinely self-buildable housing. So our latest designs look at stripping a house back to the absolute basics, building it all in timber, using skills people can learn very quickly and using materials they can get off the shelf.”

Construction is underway this week and will begin on site at Glastonbury on Monday. If you are at Glastonbury, come and find us in the Green Futures Field. Here is a video about the project:

The timber frame is now up and the team have moved on to constructing the floor and roof:


Emergency Buildings for Gaza and Nepal

Climate Change and Sustainability are very complex issues. The range of themes CAT students cover is incredibly varied – ranging from how to measure the heat loss from a building to heterodox economic theory. This week, humanitarian architecture takes centre stage. Students on the MSc in Sustainability and Adaptation (Built Environment/Planning) are joined by Jamie Richardson of Shelter and Construction to look at emergency buildings.

emergency shelter
UNHCR tarpaulin on emergency shelter

Learning about construction in these extreme environments is as connected to sustainability as everything else CAT does. The project is designed to give students the opportunity to engage with the task of building suitable shelters for refugees in times of conflict or disaster.

The module looks at the broad range of considerations needed for this kind of work: anthropology, logistics, materials, community consultation, the role of the NGO, thermal comfort and wellbeing, diplomacy and, of course, the sustainability of solutions among many other connected issues. It aims to equip students to be able to go into the field and make a difference to people’s lives. While the types of buildings that we might see on the news that are used to house refugees may seem like simple structures, the thought and logistical complexity that goes into their construction is considerable. There are three overarching considerations that shelters need to provide: durability, dignity and safety.

For the purpose of this module, students are given two contrasting scenarios in which they will be expected to engage with the theoretical and practical issues for each specific situation. The first situation the students faced was the aftermath of an earthquake in Nepal, with large numbers of people affected. This scenario was designed to demonstrate how a crisis might play out in a rural setting. Students looked at the location, available materials and logistics and then went out and built what they considered a viable shelter for people involved in the disaster. The second scenario, Gaza, offered students the opportunity to think theoretically and practically about shelter provision in a war affected, urban setting where practical considerations about the availability of materials, as well as safety, are paramount. The value of the module is that students not only get the theoretical background on emergency shelter provision, but then can put that theory into practice by actually constructing shelters and getting feedback on their efficacy.

bamboo earthquake shelter
A bamboo structre for use in Nepal

Over the next few days, students will be working on a practical research and development project for a modular, scalable design for a two story building that can be rapidly constructed using the small timbers available in Gaza. The basic design is already in use in Gaza. The designs make use of only 2” by 1” timbers and 1/2” inch plywood to construct various designs of I-beams suitable for floors, roofs and walls. The work student are carrying out this week will build on this existing design, testing new detailing in the construction of the floors and building some I-beams and other elements that will be load tested by Oxford Brookes University.

students emergency shelter
Constructing I-beams to test for use in two-story emergency buildings in Gasa

It is a compelling example of how the principles of sustainable architecture can be brought into this immediate and complex problem. Given that the world is seeing an unprecedented amount of forcibly displaced people globally, the skills taught on this module are able to positively contribute to a serious and growing problem.

More about the course

Building your own home? Come and see our free live demos and loads more self-build info at Build It Live Bicester

Find out all you need to know about building your dream home with a visit to Build It Live Bicester self-build show and see live demonstrations from CAT. 11-12th June.

The Centre for Alternative Technology, in association with Build It Live, are offering pairs of FREE tickets (worth £24) – just by following this link.

Build It Live self-build show will take place on 11 & 12 June in Bicester, on the borders of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. The latest addition to the Build It show calendar, Build It Live Bicester is brand new and is being run in association with Graven Hill – the UK’s first large-scale self-build project. Graven Hill has outline planning for 1,900 new homes, along with a primary school, local pub and shops and lies just 5 minutes’ drive from the exhibition.

watching a seminar
Main Stage at Build It Live

Many of us dream of creating our own little eco home, somewhere where we can live a greener life in a space that we’ve designed and built ourselves. But finding the perfect spot and gaining planning permission isn’t always easy. It’s with this in mind that the Graven Hill project has been developed in Bicester, Oxfordshire.

Spearheaded by Cherwell District Council, the project has outline planning permission for 1,900 new homes, and offers opportunities for a range of different sized projects, including detached, semi-detached and bungalow designs, using a mix of kit homes and self-build projects. There’s the potential for groups of people to work collaboratively, for example by creating a terrace of eco homes, and a primary school, local pub and shops are also planned.

All properties will be built to high environmental standards, complying with Passivhaus principals for energy efficiency, and there’s the flexibility for individual designs to incorporate higher environmental standards, so this could be a useful route in for anyone wanting to create an eco home of their own.

Join CAT at Build It Live

Whether you’re interested in a plot at Graven Hill, thinking of building a home elsewhere, or if you’d like to retrofit an existing property, come to Build It Live Bicester on 11 and 12 June to meet experts in a range of building materials and methods.

Taking place just a few miles away from the Graven Hill site, the show is an opportunity to discover thousands of cutting-edge and traditional products and meet over 150 of the UK’s most innovative suppliers. There are around 30 free seminars and workshops, developed to address specific problems and inspire confidence when taking on a building or renovation project.Here’s a flavour of what’s on offer:

At the Build It Manchester show earlier this year, CAT’s carpenter Carwyn Jones demonstrated eco-friendly building techniques and upcycling with pallets.

Eco friendly building techniques: Come along to see CAT doing talks and live demonstrations covering a range of topics including environmentally-friendly building techniques, renewable energy, eco-sanitation and woodland management. There will be a daily demo programme and experts on hand to answer your questions. Also see the free seminar on Building a Sustainable Home, at 3.30pm daily.
Graven Hill zone: Find out about opportunities to build your own home on Graven Hill and join the live Q&A to discover how to reserve a plot.  Speak to the Graven Hill team and listen to their keynote session in the main seminar theatre at 11.10am each day. See the various homes that can be built and learn about the Design Code.
The Naked House: See a section of a new build as it comes together – a fascinating insight into how things are installed, from underfloor heating to roof trusses and floor joists.
Find a builder: Talk to the Federation of Master Builders who can guide you through the process of finding the right contractor for your project. Access their database of trusted builders in your area.

Self builders’ stories live: Gain inspiration and confidence from people who have realised their self build dreams. Hear their stories in the live theatre, on the show floor.

Graven Hill

The brown-field site was previously used as an ordnance depot by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and acted as the main supply base for the British Army’s operations during the Second World War. Materials from the demolished MOD buildings will be recycled for use in the construction works.

The project team have worked with ecologists to ensure their plans protect and encourage biodiversity, and more than half the site will be set aside as community woodland and open space. Allotments, cycle paths and sports pitches are also planned.

Later this year sees construction of the first ten ‘pioneer’ homes, one of which has been designed by Ed Green, joint programme leader on CAT’s Professional Diploma in Architecture, who is keen to develop self-build designs that can be delivered at a lower cost than more mainstream building projects.

For more info on Graven Hill, see

FREE Tickets

To find out more about the show, and to book free tickets saving £24 simply follow this link.

Two Architecture Events at CAT 5th – 18th May

Two Architecture Events are taking place at CAT in May as part of the Wales Festival of Architecture. An exhibition will take place 5th – 18th May whilst Architect Ceri Davies will speak about her work on Tuesday 10th May.

The WISE building at CAT where the events will take place Photo: Tim Soar

Exhibition: Added Dimension

5th – 18th May | Visitor Centre open daily 10am – 5pm
WISE Foyer, Centre for Alternative Technology
Click for visitor centre prices and further information

Exhibition showing the work of local architects’ practices, highlighting the special contributions that Chartered Architects make to this community and to civic life.

Talk: Ceri Davies, AHMM Architects

Tuesday 10th May | 7pm
WISE Lecture Theatre, Centre for Alternative Technology
Includes an evening opportunity to view the Added Dimension exhibition

Ceri Davies Photo: AHMM

Holyhead-born Architect at Stirling Prize-winning firm AHMM Ceri Davies will discuss her work. Ceri’s wide-ranging project experience includes the successful competition bids for Walsall Bus Station, Kentish Town Health Centre, the refurbishment of Grade II listed Royal Court Theatre Liverpool and a mixed-use student accommodation scheme along Regent’s Canal in King’s Cross for Urbanest. Her strengths lie in formulating ideas grounded in place and purpose at concept stage and ensuring these are built upon during the life of a project. Recent and current projects include the White Collar Factory at Old St Yard and the fit-out proposals for Google HQ.

Student open space day tackles barriers to Zero Carbon Britain

Students from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s (CAT’s) Graduate School of the Environment held an interactive Open Space day to discuss barriers to bringing about a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. The outcomes of the day are being fed into the Zero Carbon Britain – Making it Happen research currently being undertaken by CAT.


The open space style of the event meant the day started with 40 people but no agenda. The participants came up with and held 16 smaller group discussions on a diverse range of topics during the day. This 2-minute film gives a flavour of the day.

The 16 discussions covered a broad range of topics, but the structure of the day allowed each session to be focused, and useful for developing the research. Topics covered included:

  • Reaching a wider audience, including reaching out within workplaces
  • Using the resources of new build property developers and retrofitting existing buildings
  • Community energy, and how you create strong community groups
  • Political action, both local and wider
  • Creating an inclusive movement, that is founded on equality and diversity
  • Looking at a more individual level, at setting personal goals, behaviour change, valuing resources and handling both ‘eco-guilt’ and bad news on climate change
  • Values and learning from nature
  • Having a hopeful vision that inspires us

If you are interested about finding out more about CAT’s next research project, you can read about Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen initial findings online, or come along to our short course on the 28-29th April, which is just before the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, meaning you can combine the two for a stimulating long weekend in Machynlleth.

Andrew is challenging the conventional role of the architect

Andrew Lees studied MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at CAT (this course has now been replaced with MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment). He graduated in November 2015, and I took the opportunity to catch up with him and speak about his experience on the course.

Andrew receiving his graduation scroll

Kit Jones: What was your background before this course, and why did you decide to study at CAT?

Andrew Lees: I’m an architect, and I signed up to the course wanting to do more green architecture. I was surprised by the diversity of other people on the course when I first started – people form all different walks of life and not just Architecture, even though there is a lot about buildings in the course. It has led to some good conversations because people have very different experience to bring.

I suppose I felt I wasn’t living up to my own expectations about what I wanted to be doing, as an Architect. I wanted to be able to diversify the work I could do.

KJ: Have you been able to do that? Have you been able to use what you have learned?

AL: I’m still in the same job, but it has definitely made a difference. I feel I have more in depth knowledge and I am more able to talk to clients, contractors and other consultants about sustainable options for buildings.

In a broader sense, I have also been able to flesh out my concept of what an architect is – or should be. It would be useful if everyone else had the same view! People have a very boxed in view of what an architect should be. As buildings get more complex architects have become coordinators rather than thinkers; we have deferred to engineers on how the building functions. This course makes you more of a thinker. So now I want to be able to lead that more. I’m about to apply for a job in a higher position, which I think would give me more freedom to do that. Part of my intention is to strike out on my own one day.

KJ: What was the experience of studying at CAT like?

AL: It has a totally unique atmosphere – that was the draw in the first place. I have definitely been challenged by it. I’m not a natural scientist; I got by, but I found scientific essays challenging. In conventional architecture education the emphasis is not on scientific writing. So I had to get my head around things like rigorous citation and brevity. I would say I enjoyed being a scientist though – I’ve discovered the joy and creativity of scientific discovery!

KJ: What did you do for your thesis?

AL: I used computer simulation to look at insulation in solid wall, terraced housing. I was coming at the issue from two angles – bringing together the technical issue of building fabric improvement and the human one of thermal comfort standards, questioning the usual standards. I explored the energy and carbon savings of varying the thickness of insulation at different internal temperature set points, and forecasting how likely it was that occupants would be comfortable at these temperatures.

Richard is using his new knowledge to campaign for practical solutions

Richard Dyer studied part time on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT, whilst also working at Friends of the Earth. He graduated in November 2015, so I took the opportunity to speak to him about the course and his plans for the future.

Richard Dyer
Richard Dyer honding his degree certificate

Why did you decide to study at CAT?

I had been interested in green stuff for years – decades in fact! I currently work as an environmental campaigner, I work for a fantastic organisation but I did the course because I want to do something more practical. The course was recommended to me by someone in the industry – an environmental consultant.

How did you find the course?

Fantastic, really inspirational! It was a real personal journey. I love the place, the location and this building, but there was also something about the fact that you come away here for five nights at a time that means you completely live it. It is very intense: no TV and not much phone signal; you rarely leave site. Every conversation you have is connected to what we are studying. I went for a walk or a run in the hills around the site every morning before breakfast.

I am currently a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, which is what I was doing when I started the course too. I found I spent a lot of time talking about the problems but I wanted to make it much more about creating solutions. I took the course to give me the practical knowledge to be able to do that. My  science was a little rusty so I found some of that challenging – the electronics, statistics and computing. Overall it was very positive though, with great teaching and good camaraderie between the students which got me thorough those more challenging bits.

During one of the modules, The Reunion (BBC Radio 4 programme) about CAT was on the radio. Our lecturer Rob set up a radio so we could listen to the first half hour of it before our lecture started. Something that came up in that programme which I love about CAT is that it has never been afraid to try things that may not work, and to be honest about it. In a world where there is a triumph of PR and style over substance this is very refreshing.

I went home after the first week of the course totally knocked out by this place – energised by the possibilities. It has undoubtedly changed my outlook.

What do you feel your biggest achievement was on the course?

Finishing the MSc and doing well. I got my best mark ever in the dissertation; I’ve only just got the result a few weeks ago so I’m very pleased about it. I took on an ambitious, almost foolhardy!, subject for the dissertation looking at the viability of ground source heat pumps in dense terraced streets, and whether combining it with solar thermal makes it more viable. I’m looking at the possibility of publishing the results in a peer reviewed journal.

The class of 2015

What are your plans for the future?

I don’t work in the energy side of Friends of the Earth at the moment, but I would like to move into that area. I’m looking at getting involved in a community land trust which might be interested in testing the ideas in my dissertation in real life, so that is very exciting. I’m also looking at career opportunities abroad, particularly in developing countries. My skills could also be useful for a large company looking to improve the sustainability of its building stock. The course has given me a good general skill base in renewable energy where I have the knowledge to be able to assess the viability of various schemes, and have some knowledge of all the issues. I want to find a way to put these new skills to use.