Rammed Earth Vault – a world first?

I have spent time over the last couple of months building a vault out of un-stabilised in-situ rammed earth.  Without known precedent, it is believed to be a world first.  Although there is a pre-cast example built in Austria by students under the supervision of Martin Rauch, there are significant challenges relating to the in-situ construction process that I was testing.  The vault is a 1:5 mock-up of part of my Final Major Project proposal for sustainable Greenbelt Development outside Edinburgh.


The full size vault would be 11 metres wide and 9.5 metres tall at its highest point and extends 20 metres to form an open air hall aimed to encourage a respect for the earth that we rely on to grow food and that can also provide another of our basic needs: shelter.  It would also be occasionally used for events relating to the small scale, sustainable farm work that takes place on the rest of the site.

The principle behind the rammed earth vault lies in the structural properties of rammed earth, which has significant compressive strength but cannot withstand tensile stress.  When flipped to form an arch, a catenary curve – following the path of a chain as it hangs in tension from two fixed points – creates a structure that is entirely in compression.  Whilst the structural principle is ancient and simple, the construction implications of angled ramming and formwork design were unable to be proven possible until the removal of the formwork. The revealing of the finished vault on the 16th of December was witnessed by CAT students from across the REBE, SA and Prof Dip courses.

I would like to put out a huge thank you to the staff and long list of students who helped me and to Rowland Keable, whose advice on the removal of formwork (which can be a risky procedure) was invaluable.

Here is a video showing the formwork being removed:


This blog is by Tasha Aitken, a final year student on the Professional Diploma in Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies course; the Part II Architecture course at CAT.


#SeeMeJoinMe Women in sustainable construction – a week with the Architecture Part II’s

Gemma Temlett is a student on the Professional Diploma in Architecture (Part II) programme at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). Here she reports on the March module, gives a flavour of why studying at CAT is so special. She also talks about what the group is doing to support the #SeeMeJoinMe campaign to promote gender equality in the construction industry. 

We started the March week a couple of days early with a trip to Wolves, the context of our current design project. The aim was to get to grips with the city and Claire our heroic driver was first up, put to the test of navigating off Wolverhampton’s formidable ring road on the way to our first stop, a local Passivhaus school by Architype. While we had various visits planned in and around the city, we booked out a national trust bunk house in the surrounding countryside and set to work making giant pizzas and working on our presentations to be made on Monday. We turned the bunk house into our studio, Andy working away on his 1:200 models and the rest of us working on our laptops, in an industrious buzz around the big dining table.

Architecture students spinning pizza
Mario and Luigi spinning the pizza bases at the bunkhouse

Over the weekend we explored the house at Whitewick Manor, a fully furnished example of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and inspected it’s Victorian heat recovering ventilation system while taking in the Pre-Raphaelite art collection. It was a soggy Sunday measuring up the amended site boundary and a chat with the client before we headed to CAT.

It being International Women’s Day, another task for our Sunday on site had been to take a picture representing Women in Construction. Fellow student Kirsty Cassels had raised earlier the RIBA campaign to drive out gender inequality in the industry #SeeMeJoinMe. Immediately keen to partake, with my recent memories of taking my CV into offices and choking on the aftershave, we planned to complete the task in the week. CAT actively encourages women to work in male dominated trades and buildings scattered around the site were built by Cindy Harris, CAT’s builder for 17 years.

Monday was a day split into two groups for catching up on our project progress and marked presentations to hone our communication skills. Many an exCAT student that has come to lecture has renewed our confidence in the grooming process. Our group was tutored for the day by course tutors Trish Andrews and Pat Borer.

Trish in her Part 1 in the late 1980s at Strathclyde University had her own inspiring female tutor, Krystyna Johnson. One of the founders of the Scottish Ecological Design Association, Krystyna Johnson had been involved in Glasgow in the tenement improvement program, public participation in the 70s and pioneering architectural services within a community based housing association in Glasgow. James Irvine’s post from the October week talks about community participation and Ceinws where Trish was instrumental in forming a Community Land Trust.

After the last presentation of the day was given we breathed a sigh of satisfaction mixed with relief and caught up with the Masters students in the bar.

Lectures kicked off on Tuesday with a brilliant start. Lucy Jones talking on energy flows and thermal mass, former director of Earth building UK with a wealth of practical knowledge.

Dr. Lucy Jones at CAT
Dr. Lucy Jones in the rammed earth lecture theatre (image: Paulo Santos)

The next day was an air-tightness and thermal imaging marathon with Diane Hubbard, a former CAT student. This was a hands on session, checking the WISE building for thermal bridges. We moved to the self build accommodation to de-pressurise the whole building and watched as the cold air poured in the leaks! Diane helped us make sense of small signs that could be misinterpreted.

Dianne Hubbard Thermal Image
Thermal image of Diane Hubbard, demonstrating the deceptive effect of a sheet of glass (image: James Nolan)

This week there were Masters students weaving in and out of our days doing thesis tutorials and presentations from past modules. A few of them courageously chose to do their presentations in the main lecture theatre and invited us along. This is the enjoyable flexibility that is CAT. Another MSC student and untapped source of PV expertise, Corneila Peike, shared with us a short talk on design opportunities with PVs, on her last module at CAT.

Duncan Clarke Explains Timber Frame Principles
Planning for Thursday in the courtyard (image: Andy Hales)

Thursday had arrived, finally! We started on our timber frame building that brought with it the satisfaction of learning by doing, getting grubby and the feeling of real hunger at the end of the day. Our team is working on the sandwich frame, using OSB sheathing to stiffen the two 95 x 50 timbers, creating a stronger box shaped beam. From the relative comfort of the Pole barn we watched the tenacious team building the Segal method frame in the rain. They quietly finished in a few hours and dispersed while others chiselled away into the night.

Timber Frame construction stop frame animation by James Irvine

Architecture part II timber frame
Flipping of the sandwich frame (image: Andy Hales)

The guest lecturer in the evening was Pippa Goldfinger from the Frome independent council, ifF. Pippa’s inspirational presentation was on the fun-loving council’s people-lead processes and achieving sustainable solutions for the town.

Pippa Goldfinger from ifF
Pippa Goldfinger from ifF at CAT (image: Paulo Santos)

CAT brings together amazing people, gathered round the dining tables or coffee in-between lectures. We get to pick their brains and the practical, experimental nature of the people involved creates such a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere for sharing.

Fellow student Catrin organised the Friday night. Traditional Welsh cuisine from our much loved kitchen, music and fun was thrown together in our own mini CAT Eistedfodd, a Welsh celebration of the arts.

At the end of the week I jumped at the chance to get to know North Wales a little more with some classmates, partners and friends. Our trip ended in Felin Uchaf, an educational centre for young people, community, natural heritage and more that had brought some of our classmates together to build, years before the course at CAT.

Fellow student Kirsty Cassels at Felin Uchaf, Llyn peninsula
Fellow student Kirsty Cassels to the right of the crown post at Felin Uchaf, Llyn peninsula (image: www.felinuchaf.org)

Spot the Women in Construction photos?

–> See more blogs from Part II Architecture students at CAT 

Getting to grips with thermal comfort

John Butler reports from the latest module of the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation courses at CAT. John is a student on the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment course. He normally blogs on his site http://thewoodlouse.blogspot.com/ and you can follow him on Twitter @the_woodlouse.

The March module of CATs Sustainability and Adaptation MSc was part B of Energy Flows in Buildings. Part A (in February) introduced us to ideas of thermal comfort and its relation to heat transfers from the human body to its surroundings. This was tied to the implications of maintaining that thermal comfort, and the impact on energy use. We learnt about calculating U-Values (used as a standard measure of the thermal efficiency of a building element), and daylighting: making best use of natural daylight in a building and calculating the resulting energy savings.

educational building
The view from a bedroom in the WISE building, home of the MSc and Part II Architecture students

Part B expanded on this getting into more detail about limiting the flows of energy through a building, whilst addressing issues around ventilation and movement of moisture. A sustainable building should maintain a comfortable environment – comfortably warm in winter, comfortably cool in summer, ideal humidity levels, good air quality – with minimal energy input, and without moisture ingress causing degradation of the building fabric. Throughout the week different elements of possible means to achieve this were discussed.

A recurring theme throughout the week was retrofit – upgrading the thermal efficiency of existing buildings to reduce their energy use and related CO2 emissions. The most commonly stated best-estimate is that around 80% of existing houses will still be in use by 2050; the potential contribution to reduced energy use and emissions from such a large number of buildings is huge, but presents a challenge. There are advantages and disadvantages to various approaches, from aesthetic considerations (eg: changing the appearance of a building when externally insulating it), to practical (eg: loss of space when internally insulating), to technical (eg: the risk of condensation forming at the meeting of new insulation and existing structure if it is not carefully considered). Planning and conservation concerns can also influence or restrict choices for retrofit.

viewing insulation retrofit
MSc students examine mockups of internal and external insulation, for solid-wall retrofit

There are also issues and trade-offs surrounding choice of insulation materials – the most highly efficient materials may have a greater overall environmental impact than some less efficient materials. Some are more breathable (open to passage of moisture vapour) than others, which can have both positive and negative implications, depending on application.

Another recurring theme was the need to account for future changes to our climate in both retrofit and new build. In particular, too much emphasis on designing to conserve heat could lead to overheating further down the line when atmospheric temperatures increase. Careful attention to placement of glazing and shading to control solar gain can help address this, allowing direct sunlight in to provide warmth in winter when the sun’s path is lower, and sheltering the building from the most intense direct sunlight in summer when the sun is higher.

The role of thermal mass in regulating internal temperatures was discussed in a number of lectures. Depending on climate and design, thermal mass may hang on to winter day-time heat, releasing it within the building through the night – or assist cooling by absorbing excess heat in summer, if combined with effective ventilation to purge that heat at night. Used inappropriately thermal mass may add to overheating, so its use must be considered carefully.

thermal image
Thermal imaging shows hot heating pipes (bright) and cold area where air is coming in around cables (dark areas)

A practical in the second half of the week provided a demonstration of heat loss through unplanned ventilation (ie: draughts). This was linked to the need to provide controlled ventilation (whether through opening windows or via mechanical ventilation), and highlighted the difficulties of achieving airtightness (eliminating draughts) in some existing buildings. The practical involved carrying out an air-pressure test to establish the air-permeability of the timber-framed selfbuild house on the CAT site (ie: how much air moved through the fabric of the building at a certain pressure). In groups we surveyed the building with thermal imaging cameras, before and during the test. The resulting images clearly showed how the cold incoming air cooled surrounding surfaces, demonstrating the impact of air infiltration on energy use. A scheme to retrofit the selfbuild house at CAT would have to include a means to reduce this.

air pressure test
The door-fan, used to de-pressurise a building to identify air-ingress

The end of the week saw us discussing Passivhaus and visiting the Hyddgen Passivhaus office/community building in Machynlleth, with the building’s designer John Williamson. Some myths about Passivhaus were busted (for instance: you can open windows), and the physics-based fabric-first approach was explained. The standard is based around high comfort levels combined with incredibly low energy input. While on site we investigated the MVHR unit (Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery), which removes stale air from the building, and uses it to heat fresh incoming air. These are a common feature of passivhaus, as they allow the removal of moist air and other airborne contaminants and it’s replacement with fresh air, whilst minimising heat loss. This system has been the subject of some heated debates with fellow students at CAT, due to questions about the amount of energy needed to run the system and how user-friendly it is or isn’t. We were shown that when installed correctly, the system recovers more energy than is needed to run it.

Hyddgen Passivhaus in Machynlleth

As ever, throughout this course connections were constantly drawn between all the different areas covered (the inescapable interconnectedness of all things!). Nothing stands in isolation; each decision in one area can have repercussions in another. The different elements of building physics and materials must be balanced with each other and with the effect of any action on the wider environment.

temperature recording
Measuring the air temperature in MVHR heating ducts at Hyddgen, prior to calculating the overall efficiency and heatloss/recovery of the the system

The immersive learning environment during module weeks at CAT is highly effective, and very intense. It’s a wonderfully stimulating and supportive place to be, but at the end of the week that intensity needs a release in order for us all to return to our normal lives without winding up our friends and family when we get there. That takes the form of the vitally essential Friday night social, which this month was themed around a Cyfarfod Bach, a laid back Welsh social. We had beautiful music and singing, comedy, artwork, silliness, a rousing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem (not too shabby, considering only a handful of people were Welsh speakers or had any idea how the tune went in advance) and finally a leg-shattering amount of dancing, ensuring we could all go home in physical pain but happily and calmly buzzing.

See more blogs about the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. 

Palletecture: From packing cases to lamella structures

Starting from experimental making with a limited range of materials, students learn to make building elements which fit loosely together to form buildings which sit appropriately within the slowly changing physical and institutional topography of the city.

Since 1985, over 100 week long courses have been run at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) by Professor Maurice Mitchell and colleagues from the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University. The A Way of Building short course aims to provide participants with the opportunity to design and make buildings using materials found on site or available locally. Skills are site based, focusing on those of mason (wet trades) and carpenter (dry trades). Building structures from locally sourced materials is the ultimate way to ensure that a structure is low impact and ecologically sound. This course explores ways to use earth, green timber, straw and stone amongst others to build beautiful, functional structures.

Students erecting a pallet roof
Making Laboratory, A Way of Building course at CAT (Image credit: Emma Curtin)

The site and course at CAT is our ongoing Making Laboratory. A hands-on construction project runs throughout the 5-day course. This involves all participants in a cyclic process of experimentation and focused group criticism followed by modifications to the original proposal. As the course progresses and the skills, ambitions and interactions of the participants become clear, a built form evolves which is quite unique. The final product, which is left standing as participants leave, is more a large-scale model than a finished building. Its form, never predictable at the start of the process is a way of learning about the process by which technology and human agency are transformed into a culture of making with a civic and ethical content.

The seeming triviality of the objects being made is banished within the group as the work proceeds by constant self-conscious communication and iterative endeavour. Meaning is attached to the building elements being made by clearly identifying prototypes and other precedents. This consolidates the learning process. The end of the course is marked with a review conducted by the participants in which lessons learned are made explicit.

The Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (ARCSR) at the Cass is an emergent research area within the teaching and practice of architecture, led by Professor Mitchell and Dr. Bo Tang. It examines and extends knowledge of the physical and cultural influences on the process of transforming the built environment. It focuses on situations where resources are scarce and where both culture and technology are in a state of rapid change, and explores the culture of making and the contribution this makes to effective change for transitional communities, particularly in informal urban settlements where new identities are forged in the process of remaking. Many of the research led live projects in the ARCSR area have extrapolated building elements and research methods which have emerged from this course.

One of these building elements is the barrel vaulted lamella structure made from reused wooden pallets, with the additional challenge of using no metal fixings. Students and participants have been experimenting on the annual week long course with pallet timber to make roof structures, flooring, panelling and staircases and ladders. ARCSR architecture studios undertake an annual field trip in which students engage proactively with a rapidly changing under resourced local situation devising imaginative responses to specific cultural and technical issues. In recent years, students have developed and refined the pallet lamella structure prototype, adapting it to varying contexts, including the Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, a housing estate in East London and an informal squatter settlement in India.

latice structure
Lamella structure at Jagdamba Camp, New Delhi, India
(Image credit: Angela Hopcraft)

Extending the experiment his year, students constructed three different lamella structures in the city of London: on a rooftop, churchyard and Sunday marketplace, engaging local residents and communities in dialogue about proposed masterplans, Crossrail and urban change in the area. Made from found timber pallets and borrowing ideas articulated by Joi Ito (Head of MIT Media Lab) in his recent TED talk: Want to innovate? Become a “now-ist”, students addressed the contingencies of city complexity and shortage of time, working by a process of resistance and accommodation to the contingencies of situation. This embraces the super present now-ism of new no cost permissionless intervention where innovation is pushed out to the edges: where the power of pull is greater than the burden of push.

structure at the Isle of dogs
Lamella roof structure and pallet stepladder, Isle of Dogs, London
(Image credit: Maurice Mitchell)

“The design and prefabricated construction of the lamella structures was conducted at the [Cass] workshops at Central House and Commercial Road, culminating in a kit of parts that was subsequently dismantled and packaged for transportation to site. The three structures were then erected over a matter of hours, being assembled as loose fit structures so that both the critical path of assembly and the contingencies of fit were reduced as much as possible. The lamellas were used as a point of interaction between students and the public, whilst also facilitating the capturing of ‘key-hole views’ from both inside and outside the structures. Each view captures a snapshot of a serendipitous moment framed by an opening, a door, window, crack or keyhole. The City’s Progress March slowed down for a while and dystopia became utopia for a fleeting moment: a moment to reflect and recalibrate.”

Chloe Anderson, student

Structure at aldgate
Lamella structure at St. Boltoph Without Aldgate Church, London (Image credit: Sogand Babol)

The A Way of Building course takes place at CAT from 6th-10th July 2015, and is aimed at anyone with an interest in sustainable building. It is particularly suited to architects and self-builders as it offers a hands-on experience of tools and materials. Participants will learn skills necessary in constructing structures out of a wide variety of materials. They will also learn how to apply this knowledge in a range of scenarios and for their own projects.

About the Author

Dr. Bo Tang teaches on the “A Way of Building” course at CAT and is a Lecturer at the Cass School of Architecture, London Metropolitan University, and Research Coordinator and Fellow for the Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources.

Interested in Sustainable Architecture?

Study on CAT’s Professional Diploma in Architecture Part II course, or join our MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment.

Cities, Snow and Celebration: The first Professional Diploma in Architecture module of 2015

Paolo Santos is a student on the Professional Diploma in Architecture course at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). Here he blogs on the first module of 2015, giving a flavour of what it is like to be a student on one of the postgraduate programmes at CAT.

Due to family commitments and last minute essay writing I couldn’t make it to CAT for the usual Sunday evening cwtch (Welsh for hugs) sessions, although thought it a nice surprise for fellow Professional Diploma in Architecture (ProfDips) if I turned up for breakfast instead.

January is going to be a challenge. The weather is now wintery and it was snowing over the Aberhosan pass from Llanidloes; a treacherous route through the winter months. Nevertheless, I make it to CAT in good time not to miss breakfast. The North drive has turned into a river. Note to self, ‘always wear they right gear’. The weather is always unpredictable in the Welsh Mountains. I got my feet wet walking up to the WISE building but received a warm welcome with lots of cwtches, which makes all the difference.

sustainable architecture
WISE student building in the snow

Sundays and Monday are always the day for us fourth year students. Hardly anyone from the other courses are around till Tuesday, which means more time for us all to get reacquainted and catch up. Monday we were introduced to a marathon seminar on Design Methodology by David Lea and Patrick Hannay, which delves into the process driven rational. We begin discussing architecture, I’m almost in heaven. The evening ends with the film ‘The Fountainhead’ 1949, based on the novel by Ayn Rand, about a young architect who chooses to struggle through individualism rather than compromise his vision of architecture and give in to the collectivists.

Tuesday brought snow, we start by handing in our essays and practical written pieces. For the first session of the day we join a MSc Lecture on Transformation by Elizabeth Shove. After coffee we hear from Peter Harper, one of the early pioneers of CAT, who coined term ‘alternative technology’. This guy is good! In this video he gives a great explanation of how it got set up. Lunch is my favourite, the Michael ‘burger’.

In the afternoon we have another Design Methodology sessions. This time we discuss the process of the Jewish Museum extension in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind at length. I suggest further reading of Between the Lines in Architecture in Transition, published by Prestel. Patrick Hannay ends the day with an architectural lecture delivered to all at CAT.

Wednesday, felt as if all was back to a normal schedule of shared lectures with the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. This month the module is all about cities and communities. The first lecture was from Mike Reardon, a guest lecturer who talked about Barriers to Change; Karen Potter, another guest lecturer, then followed with a lecture on local authority planning, talking about what needs to change and how. After lunch, Jane Fisher, who is a resident lecturer at CAT, ran sessions on open spaces in the city, green infrastructure & the Urban Heat Island. The day is topped by 2 lectures by Peter Harper. The first is on Decarbonisation: household to community. After tea Peter introduces us to an amusing informal talk on his gardening techniques.

In the meantime in the background, the 5th year architecture students have been pinning up their final year projects to be assessed by the external examiner today. Gulp! One year to go! Hope all goes well for them, sure it will, nice bunch.

Seminar style

On Thursday, we are joined by Dr Ian Taylor a guest lecturer at CAT and director of Transport for Quality of Life. He gives an interesting talk on Sustainable Transport. The second session is on Post Carbon Cities, with David Rudlin of Urbed. After lunch both Ian and David lead the practical on ‘Designing an integrated urban environment’. Models like Vauban in Freiburg in Germany are mention throughout the course of the module. Using the knowledge we learned earlier in the day, we split into groups to design a sustainable housing and transport infrastructure for Peterborough’s, I’m loving this week.

burns night


Friday, is another site visit for our next project in Wolverhampton. This is very much a real project, with real constraints and a real client whom essentially needs ideas in which to develop an existing organisation/building/site. Our client faces a common nationwide situation, in which the Local Authority has reduced its previous support and funding. So we need to put everything we have learned at CAT so far into this scheme. Today is also exhibition day for the 5th years, open to all. We arrive back at base in time for a special tea, as its January we are celebrating Burns Night early, light entertainment is provided by several of the students, with song and dance by John, Helen and Tasha followed by a recital of a Burns poem in German by Cornelia. This is sadly last supper at CAT for the 5th years, and the world is their oyster. Friday night social begins with the bar open and Pat Borer (co-architect of the WISE building) in The Street Band, who play the night away as we wave goodbye to the 5th years.

Saturday, is a sobering ninth and final lecture of the week with Jane Fisher on Urban Ecology. We have a final meet with Duncan, the course leader, on setting up a brief for the Wolverhampton project and then it is all over. A quick lunch and off we set across the white landscape home.

If there is a song that could describe how I felt at CAT this January week it will be Sia’s Elastic heart.

Pat Borer
The Street Band: Evening Entertainment

Ecosystems, sewage and the fun side of sustainable architecture

Architecture studentsTasha Aitken is studying for a Professional Diploma in Architecture at CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment. Here she reports of a module in which saw students getting knee deep in poo, learning about ecological sanitation (with less involved options for the those of a more delicate disposition!), ecosystem services, Gaia theory and water and waste management. The module was held jointly with students from the masters degree in sustainability and adaptation.


I think many of my fellow students would agree with me that returning to CAT for the November module, our third of 18 for the Professional Diploma course, was like returning home. Everyone dribbled in at various times throughout the evening and each time, everyone gathered round to greet the new arrivals.

I think many of my fellow students would also agree that the pace had really been cranked up as October turned to November. Ready to greet us on Monday and Tuesday mornings respectively were our first assessed presentation and submission deadlines for a 3,000 word essay and 1250 word practical. So, with the brief intermissions to welcome course-mates we hadn’t seen for weeks, most of us were beavering away at the finishing touches to our written work and starting (!) our presentations for the following morning.

The presentation topic was unspecified, but the length was strictly 10 minutes, really getting us to think about content, flow and conciseness of delivery. As a result, the day was a brief snapshot into the other three-quarters of each-others’ lives outside of CAT-week. Topics ranged from building out of found materials in an eco-village and involvement in community projects to the principles of teaching Forest School. Even those, including myself, who presented on an aspect of their Ceinws Sustainable Rural Affordable Housing Project were putting across a chosen interest personal to them. It was a brilliant enlightenment to the expanse of knowledge and experience we have as a collective.

After a day of presentations, Tuesday saw us revert back to a more normal schedule of lectures. This month’s module has been “Ecosystem Services, Land-Use and Water and Waste Management”: a mouthful to say and an even bigger plateful of really practical information taking us back to the basics of resource use. As ProfDips, we didn’t attend the entire lecture series but still managed to cover topics such as: Contaminated Land, Ecological Sanitation, Flooding and Urban Design, Food Security, Ecosystems Services, and Resource Management. To pick out a single issue to tell you about is tricky, but perhaps one most relevant to CAT philosophy is the idea of the Meta-Industrial Era. The Resource Management lecture by Peter Harper talked about the transitions made from Pre-Industrial to Early Industrial and to the Mature Industrial Era, our current position, increasingly abandoning low impact natural materials in favour of high performance, high impact technologies. Discussion related to the modern day relevance of natural pre-industrial materials, where it was suggested that the “Meta-Industrial Age” involves using low energy materials wherever possible, but adding ‘industrial vitamins’, such as internet, electricity and high-quality glazing, allowing expected standards of living to continue.

Meta-Industrial materials
Material Impacts in Successive Inudstrial Ages (Harper P. 2014 Resources and Resource Management; powerpoint presentation at CAT, 11.11.2014)


On Thursday, Brian Moss, the noted ecologist sandwiched dinner with two lectures, and whose stimulating content was centred around, firstly, the idea of natural selection and the debate between co-operative and selfish evolution: pack behaviour versus the protective female instinct. His point was that we are an invasive species and to overcome our selfish nature – self-promotion and self-indulgence – would be to allow the Earth to survive. The second part was really about what the human species’ place in the world is: Is our work to restore the planet unnatural? If we are part of nature, can anything we do be unnatural? And finally, explaining that “the spirit level” may be a Silver Bullet for the Earth. Moss pointed out that the feudal system gave few an enormous sphere of influence with potential to ruin the Earth , whilst the pre-feudal clans and tribes were unable to make such an impact and would take themselves out upon acting unsustainably, therefore removing the problem.

Possibly the most exciting part of the week for everyone was Practical Day, and the prospect of getting knee deep in poo during Louise’s sanitation option! However, you will have to ask someone else about that as I chose to walk around Machynlleth and observe existing and potential ecosystem services, in other words, the ways in which nature can provide for us, e.g. trees giving shade or plants as a food source.

Ecosystem services plants
Ecosystem services outside the coop (author’s photograph)

And on to the Friday night social, in the absence of Tim, Tom Barker took up the mantle and introduced the theme of Moodle, our online information service that had been causing a few hiccups recently. Poems with as many oodle-rhyming words as possible were read out in Irish accents and with guitar accompaniments and people stamped their user-numbers on their foreheads. Oh, and there was an entirely unrelated acro-yoga session, the pinnacle of which was our human pyramid!

Human Engineering (author’s photograph)

Come to our Professional Diploma in Architecture end of year exhibition on Friday 16th January

Chris Loyn wins prestigious architecture award

Chris Loyn is a guest lecturer on the Professional Diploma in Architecture course at the Centre for Alternative Technology. His designs for Stormy Castle have just won a Manser medal. Big congratulations to Chris and his practice.

Chris has run a drawing practical on CAT’s architecture part II course for several years. The purpose of the practical is to ‘re-value’ the act of drawing by hand as we feel “ design emerges through the graphic rumination of drawings…” so over a few days at the beginning of the course, we get the students to explore the space they are inhabiting. Most important of all through their time with us, we want to encourage a design process that explores analytically through drawing (and of course other mediums) a multitude of aspects of from which their design strategy and tactics emerge. This seeks to avoid a process where an imposed external form only driven by external context or a singular early concept, distorts the whole endeavour of holistic design.

‘Now, remember, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see.’    John Ruskin 1857


Sketch by Chris Loyn, who teaches architectural sketching at CAT
Sketch by Chris Loyn, who teaches architectural sketching at CAT

The 2014 RIBA Manser Medal winning house Designed by Architects Loyn & co, Stormy Castle is a contemporary private house in an area of outstanding natural beauty on a hillside on the Gower peninsula. The Building reflects the quality of the surroundings and, conversely, makes the most of the site in terms of views, landscape design and topography. The resulting design is a tour de force in terms of space, natural light, level changes and connection to the landscape. The palette of materials is kept to a minimum – polished concrete floors flowing throughout, shuttered concrete walls, crystalline white ceilings, full height glazing to maximise the views and Corten steel accents to external doors, cladding and the roof of the retained barn.


Here is a film made about the winning design:


Community led design as standard

James Irvine is a student on the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) Professional Diploma in Architecture (Part II) course. Here he reports on the second residential period at CAT, where students have been applying the principles of community engagement. 

I travelled through to CAT from Lincoln on Sunday to arrive late in Machynlleth. During the final leg of the journey I actually managed (after rectifying a brief lapse of concentration – or getting on a train to Sheffield instead of Birmingham) to tie together some of the presentation we were asked to prepare for Monday morning. The end of September’s Prof Dip week saw our group being split up and tasked with researching different elements of a site in Ceinws. The site is the focus of our first project: a decommissioned piece of Forestry Commission land (now Natural Resources Wales) which is being considered for social housing. Our group chose to research the subjects of land tenure, financial, legal and governance of the project which (maybe surprisingly) was the most popular choice. Other group’s elements of site research included: energy, environment, topography, historical, transportation, materiality and building typology / vernacular.

Architecture part II
The team: Professional Diploma in Architecture students 2014

So, upon arriving at CAT, I was greeted with some left-over supper and by my group: Tasha, Gemma and Paulo and we spent the rest of the evening catching up and putting the finishing touches to our Monday morning presentation before heading to bed. We were all really pleased to be back at CAT and surprisingly well prepared and informed of each other’s research directions, due to the pretty consistent flow of emails, messages and Skype chats between us since September’s module.

Monday morning and our presentation was well received. We spoke of Community Land Trusts, self builds, flexible models for growth and Section 106 agreements for affordable housing… though what is really worth mentioning is the amount of information that the group as a whole managed to gather about the site! Site analysis is a fundamental part of any architecture project and one of the first skills we are asked to develop as undergraduate students: observation, sketching, photography, research, sense of place, even conversations with the community in the local pub are valuable information gathering skills (or not so much…) and up until now I have relied upon my own skills, resources and analysis techniques to take me into a project. But with twenty people working on a project, and each with a different approach we managed to uncover a huge amount of information. There was an impressive level of presentation and we learnt loads from each other’s work – and what a rich resource to begin a project with! It was rare during my part one to work collaboratively, which felt un-natural to me – (surely architecture firms work collaboratively?) I got the feeling that the whole group had embraced this way of working and that the whole really was greater than the sum of it’s parts; all at the end being grateful for each others contributions.

It is worth mentioning that the Ceinws Affordable Rural Housing Project is a live project, being that the Ceinws community has recognised a need for more housing for a changing local population. The last ten years has seen a local community group and Community Land Trust being set up to protect the land with extensive consultations taking place. The proposals have drawn support and partnerships from local and national agencies and the work we will produce for the project will hopefully help inform, and draw further support for the housing project.

Infographic Ceinws
An infographic of the Ceinws community, by fellow student Kirsty Cassels

The rest of the week gave us plenty of time to re-visit the site and develop our designs. Ideas were shared and discussed within the group and there was ample time for feedback from our tutors. For this project we couldn’t ask for a better team of architects with the relevant experience to guide and support our group: Prof Dip’s course leaders Duncan Edwards and Trish Andrews. Duncan gave a lecture on the work he has done on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne: working with the local community to establish affordable social housing solutions in this delicate location. He spoke of the enabling and transformational aspects that good housing can give to a community and also the frustrations of negotiating a bureaucratic system. Trish has lived locally for a long time, has a wealth of local information and is a key member of the steering committee for the Ceinws Project. Pat Borer – who gave a short workshop on calculating U-values and who with David Lea designed the WISE Centre here at CAT which we work in every day, and which really is a beautiful space to be taught in and David Lea who has designed and been involved in several social housing projects throughout the 70’s and 80’s and gave a lecture about the efficiency of space and the importance of maintaining green spaces in cities and urban areas.

This issue really resonated with me as over the last couple of years I have been working alongside charities and community groups in my home town of Lincoln on placemaking and community gardening projects. This work has shown me the clear therapeutic benefits of gardening and what a positive difference green spaces and a connection with nature can give, which is not always easy in a city.

Some other great lectures this week included an introduction to the principles of Permaculture by Chris Dixon. I had no idea that permaculture was such a wide reaching discipline – it’s ethics embracing development on a personal, environmental and community level. There was an evening lecture from Sunand Prasad, ex president of the RIBA from Penoyre & Prasad Architects who won this year’s AJ100 Sustainable Practice of the Year.  Elena Blackmore gave a really inspiring lecture about Common Cause. Common Cause were set up to promote debate around the values and motivations which affect societal change. Or alternatively: to encourage change through fostering intrinsic values – such as self acceptance, concern for others and care for the natural world – and move away from negative power structures which foster fear and alienation. Anna from Adaptation Scotland gave a really inspiring lecture about the challenges of adaptation and mitigation to climate change from a national agency’s perspective. The key things that I took from this was that effective change is the most sustainable when it begins at community level.

There was definitely a thread running through the weeks lectures and workshops: responsible design, community development, collaboration, dialogue, reinforcement from research from classic and social sciences, the challenges of engagement beginning from a positive perspective and not through fear. These are the reasons I chose to come to CAT – where else could you go?

We also tidied the wood working barn, this time lapse shows what we achieved:

Find out more about CAT’s Professional Diploma in Architecture.

Scottish politics, drawing and dancing with the professional diploma students.

By Professional diploma student Kirsty Cassels.

After a false start to the Professional Diploma in Architecture course last year and therefore already knowing the tutors, some of the existing and new students and what the course consisted of, I was far less nervous than some of my peers might have been turning up to a new course to meet new people and start the next journey on our eventual path to fully qualified architect. Excitement eclipsed the long drive from South West Scotland and the thought of the excellent food for dinner awaiting us on arrival was enough to drive me there on time, picking up some strays on the way! Some of us had arranged lift shares before the course even began through the CAT admin team so I knew this year of people would be just up my street – although not literally. Coming from Scotland I thought I’d be one of the farthest from CAT, but a wide variety of students from all sorts of backgrounds and from all corners of the UK were in attendance. Some students even flying in every month from Germany and Portugal! The very fact that people are willing to travel so far every month to come to CAT is testament to its greatness.




It was a delight to have Chris Lloyn of Lloyn & Co Architects back again this year to host a two day drawing and sketching exercise within the CAT grounds, and we were gifted with lovely sunshine both days. Two days of drawing, painting and sketching in the gorgeous grounds of CAT, I think I can certainly speak on behalf of everyone when I tell you that that was definitely one of the best ways to start a course and get to know the site in more detail. The wealth of talent amongst us all was incredible, and we pinned up in the open area at the end of the week to share with the MSc students and CAT staff. Here is a link to the flickr site with the drawings on.

Some people hadn’t sat down and drawn in a long time and just to get back to that mindset was such an opportunity. Others, who more frequently exercise their creative talents on paper thrived and tried new tricks or refined their style and absolutely every single person’s sketches inspired everyone else.










The Prof Dip students attend most of the lectures that the MSc students were attending but in addition to these, 50% of our course also includes design work with three main projects split over the eighteen month course. The first project was introduced this week and it’s a project close to the hearts of CAT staff especially those living in the vicinity of the CAT site. We will be looking at the Ceinws Camp, which is an old Forestry Commission little village and community situated in Ceinws a small village a few miles from CAT. There is a huge need for affordable housing in such a small rural community and our project has to incorporate affordable rural housing and multi-use flexible community space for community activities, potential work spaces and studios and anything we feel during our research the village would benefit from. The camp is currently not in use bar one resident. It has been out of use for the Forestry Comission for many many years.

We set ourselves out in groups of three or four and split the tasks up so we would all have an area of investigation to go and get on with in our three weeks away from CAT and Ceinws. Topics include topology, history, energy, user requirements, legal issues and political issues surrounding the site. We will return in the October week with a wealth of information to share amongst ourselves that will set us up nicely to begin our design proposals and feasibility studies into the Camp Ceinws project. This project will tackle issues such as energy usage, affordable housing, material selection and resources, renewable and alternative services and community involvement. It’s a unique opportunity to tackle the issues surrounding a small rural village in Wales which no longer has any industry and where a large proportion of the houses are second homes to out of town homeowners. The project in Ceinws will represent many similar rural villages across Wales and the issues they face. We will be looking at how to solve these issues. It’s a great project to kick off our Diploma.

On the last night of each week the Professional Diploma students and the MSc students have a themed social event together giving the opportunity to reunite after a week of potentially separate activities. Following the referendum outcome in Scotland this week I suggested we had a ‘better together’ Scottish themed night incorporating a ceilidh and tug-o-war. It went down a treat and was a lovely way to celebrate the end of a great week, all together and ready to embrace the world with our united views and new found knowledge on how we can begin to build a better world…and their new found ceilidh dancing skills are something to behold too!


scottish flag








The week was emotionally overwhelming, in a good way of course; to be able to meet so many fantastic people, to learn such interesting information and to have constant discussion even in our free time that surrounded the issues we are all interested in collectively was so enthralling and uplifting. It was noted from more than a few students that they felt they’d found where they belong but by the end of the week, that we would be quite happy to return to ‘regular conversations’ about what’s on TV or the latest sport results – if at least for a few days while we absorb everything we’ve learnt! Then it’ll be back to CAT again before we know it, refreshed and ready for the next weeks instalment. Woohoo. Can’t bloody wait!

Bench we built during tea break out of oversized Jenga blocks – it held our weight!!


Matt and Hunter demonstrating the principles of a ‘cantilever’.