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.


Roundwood Timber Framing course at C.A.T. – guest blog from the team at Ty Pren

Roundwood-timber-framing-1Last year was full of firsts for us and a great coming together for all involved in the company. The first residential self-build frame for the county, the honing and strengthening of skills and relationships, and a great new website!

The movement towards low impact living is really gaining momentum with more and more people looking for alternatives to the mainstream. Questions about how we can live a more carbon neutral lifestyle are being asked, and there are so many people doing amazing things to answer them.

It always takes time for new ideas to filter through, and one of the aims of Ty Pren is to bridge the gap between self-builders and local councils. Roundwood timber framing provides a strong framework for affordable, low impact homes that are sustainable, beautiful and a big step in the right direction towards  a zero carbon Britain.


With this in mind Jamie and Ray will be teaching a five day roundwood timber framing course at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in May.


We’ll also be at a number of festivals over the summer doing workshops and talks, so keep an eye on our blog for more details.

Have a great 2016.

The Ty Pren team.

CAT celebrates award-winning architect Pat Borer’s MBE in this years New Year Honours list.

Staff at the Centre for Alternative Technology share in the news that the architect behind its award winning building, The Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) has been awarded an MBE in this year’s New Year Honours list.

Pat Borer has been closely involved with the Centre for Alternative Technology for almost all of its 42-year history, helping to create low energy, sustainable buildings.

Pat’s most notable achievement is his work on CAT’s award-winning building, WISE, which he designed with fellow architect David Lea and opened in 2010.

REBE Kettle Practical

Situated on CAT’s site in the foothills of Snowdonia, the building showcases a combination of environmentally conscious design and cutting-edge green building techniques. The venue is sensitively constructed out of low energy materials such as hemp and lime, rammed earth and locally sourced sustainable timber.

WISE is a multi-use building which hosts CAT students, short courses, school visits, weddings, external conferences and events. All WISE users enjoy the cutting-edge design and sustainability features that can be seen throughout the teaching/workshop rooms, theatre, leisure space and 24 bedrooms.

Pat continues to teach and inspire CAT graduate students at the award-winning centre he helped to create.

CEO of CAT, Adrian Ramsay said: “This honour is a fantastic acknowledgement of Pat’s achievements in sustainable, low energy architecture and design. All at CAT join in with our congratulations to Pat”

Post Paris – where next?

Paris no plan bIt’s a fraud really, a fake”. Veteran climate scientist James Hansen’s verdict on the Paris agreement. On one level, he is of course correct. The aspirational language on limiting warming to 1.5°C cannot make up for emission reduction pledges woefully short of what’s required, no legally binding framework of enforcement, and a long-term goal whose vagueness in definition and timing is such that it will do precious little to shape short-term action.

That said this is a messy and imperfect human process. There are numerous and powerful vested interests to be fought against. Getting so many nations to agree by consensus on anything is no mean feat. And a deal, however inadequate, is surely better than none. The question is, with so much more progress needed, where do we go from here?

A key goal now has to be popularising the vision of where we are headed. The 1.5°C goal is a stick of their making with which to beat governments and hold them to account. But we must ensure that “our vision” for limiting warming to 1.5°C – a rapid transition to a 100% clean energy system, a lower-carbon and more sustainable food system, and an increased protection and nurturing of natural ecosystems – gets into the popular consciousness as the direction of travel. We must emphasise the many co-benefits of this transition, from health, clean air, and better living environments, to good jobs, peace and security. And we must build broad coalitions working towards this shared vision.

Our vision must win out against an approach that will be pushed hard by mainstream forces and vested interests – one of political and economic business-as-usual and several more decades of substantial fossil fuel use. As the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson has powerfully highlighted (here & here), this insufficient response will be kept “compatible” with the 1.5°C goal by assuming the speculative future use of negative emissions technology – namely bioenergy with carbon capture and storage – on a colossal scale (think capturing and burying more than the world’s current total CO2 emissions from transport every year). This herculean task is to be dutifully carried out by the lucky inhabitants of Earth in the 21st century’s latter decades, as they also grapple with climate instability dwarfing that which we must deal with. This vision must be exposed as practically absurd, economically iniquitous, and morally bankrupt.

If we can genuinely popularise our vision – of a rapid transition beyond fossil fuels to a 100% clean energy future – as the direction of travel, it then becomes a matter of speed and urgency. The watchwords are creating momentum, overcoming inertia and triggering tipping-points as the system switches from one state to another. Each act, at every level, of detaching and divesting from the fossil-fuelled past and engaging with the zero carbon future, will have a role. As more and more people, communities, businesses, and even governments begin to shear away from the herd and head in a new direction this has the potential to create the dynamics in our human systems to deliver the rapid transition we need.

CAT’s latest research project, Making it Happen, explores the barriers to achieving a Zero Carbon future, at the rate required by the climate science. Join the Facebook page here.

Phil James, Zero Carbon Britain Researcher

Fracking and the Forest – guest blog by Owen Adams


Q. What does campaign group Frack Off Our Forest, and the latest Star Wars and Harry Potter films have in common?

A. They all feature heroes battling dark forces in a beautiful forest.


I inhabit, and cherish, the The Forest of Dean where these films were made. Ironically, in the same week the tourism industry sought to capitalise on the Forest of Dean’s starring role in Star Wars, the Government quietly announced it had granted licences to frack under this verdant paradise; leaving us locals to engage in fighting a truly dark force – the oil and gas industry.

This end-times industry has a stranglehold on the Government: for the past two years, the Government has packed its Treasury, Cabinet, environment and energy departments with ecocidal corporate insiders.

In the meantime, our elected illustrious leaders claim to be doing their bit by signing a deal to reduce global warming from the current disastrous trajectory of a 4% rise, to ‘well below’ 2% of pre-industrial levels.

CAT’s CEO, Adrian Ramsay, had this to say after the Paris talks:”To have a reasonable chance of meeting the [well below] 2°C goal, all investment in new fossil fuels must be halted now – both coal and fracking. Public funds spent subsidising fossil fuels should be redirected into renewable energy and used to support poorer majority world countries to build the clean energy infrastructure they need.”

The Government have cut spending on flood defences, slashed incentives for renewable energy projects and while wind turbines and solar panels can be prevented from taking root in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it’s now legally acceptable to frack underneath them.

It is hard to engage people in battling this imminent threat. In 2014, I and a concerted group of activists were opposing the Infrastructure Bill (now an Act, a law) which makes it compulsory to recover oil and gas beneath our land where it is found, and allows it to take place anywhere and everywhere.

In Lancashire, the testing ground for shale gas fracking, a campaign by “the Nanas” managed to persuade the county council to turn down planning applications. The Government’s response was (as per the Infrastructure Act 2015) for the minister to call in those decisions. The latest Government initiative to get fracking underway is to issue secondary legislation (we received this news on Christmas Eve) which means no public need to be notified nor planning consent sought for the first stage of gas exploration – namely environmentally damaging seismic testing involving vibrating plates and/or explosives, and drilling boreholes and monitoring drinking water.

So the fracking exploration firm, newly established South Western Energy, could arrive at any time stealthily to start exploring for coalbed methane (CBM) – their stated primary objective.

Government and the Forest’s local MP – Mark Harper, chief whip – will doubtlessly try to tell us that CBM does not mean fracking. The Government definition of fracking is hydraulic fracturing which uses at least 1,000 cubic metres of fluid (a mix of water, sand and chemicals) pumped into rock. CBM involves pumping water out of the coal seams. Only if the gas doesn’t flow out naturally once the coal has been “dewatered” is the fracking technique used – and because it typically only uses 200 cubic metres of water, it isn’t subject to any restrictions. It can also take place just 200 metres below ground, rather than 1,000m (or 1,200m in ‘protected areas’) as for shale gas.

The gorgeous woodland hollows as seen in the new Star Wars film are in the private showcase Puzzlewood, on the edge of the Forest of Dean. The hollows are unique natural phenomena called scowles and were used since pre-Roman times to extract iron ore from close to the surface. Some reckon that Tolkien, involved in archaeological digs in a nearby set of scowles, found his inspiration here for the Shire and Middle Earth’s battle against the dark forces of Mordor in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (though the forest scenes in the film were in New Zealand).

The scowles frame the Forest of Dean coalfield. Since ancient times, locals have had the right to “freemine” – a tradition that continues and is enshrined in law. But the law also allows freeminers to sell their gales (mining areas) to outsider capitalists – and this meant that between the 1780s and early 1960s, the Forest’s stability was undermined by colossal honeycombs created by a massive coal-mining industry.

These days, there is a push and pull between celebrating the Forest’s mining heritage and the continuing freemining of coal and stone. Old timers in the Forest, my own family included, remember spending their waking hours underground in order to earn a crust, preferable to starving. But a free market economy doesn’t let us hanker back to the old days of working-class camaraderie and full employment.

Gerwyn Williams, director of South Western Energy – and other fracking exploration entities Coastal Energy and UK Methane – is from the Bridgend area of South Wales. Williams’ background is in mining engineering – he worked for British Coal for more than 20 years. He witnessed the devastating impact of the end of the coal industry on South Wales communities.

He tried and failed to get CBM going in the Mendips, Somerset, but in his own backyard, he has found sympathetic councils waving aside protests and granting planning permission for CBM and shale gas exploration. Fractivists are currently on the alert for the arrival of machinery.

Williams may find less support for this approach in North Somerset, West Wiltshire and Dorset, where he has also been granted licences. For many of these licence blocks, Williams/ SW Energy has made a “firm commitment” to drill at least one well.

The argument that fracking is a “transitional” energy source, which – along with nuclear power – is essential for keeping the lights on until our renewables technology is up to the task, is a nonsense.

The Centre for Alternative Technology‘s flagship research project and report Who’s Getting Ready for Zero? robustly charts “over 100 research projects and programmes that demonstrate how we can reach very low or net zero emissions by the second half of the century with existing technology and without harming social or economic development”.

The Resilience Centre has calculated the Forest of Dean could produce 160% of its energy needs from renewable sources.

Even with the quite unprecedented achievement of the Forest of Dean District Council unanimously backing a motion to call on the Government not to issue fracking licences, the Government ignored it.

The most vociferous people against the Resilient Energy model of community renewables have been local gentry. UKIP, the Tories, the Greens, Labour and anarchists are mostly united against fracking.

While signing petitions, lobbying politicians and opposing planning applications should go on, the only way fracking will be stopped is by mass direct action. We are watching and waiting.

Meanwhile, the pursuit of profit continues while out of control climate change manifests as extreme weather events.

Join Frack Off Our Forest on Facebook here.

CAT’s latest research project, Making it Happen, explores the barriers to achieving a Zero Carbon future, at the rate required by the climate science. Join the Facebook page here.

Owen Adams is part of the campaign group Frack Off Our Forest.

Re-gifting: Green Giving This Christmas

Is she mean, or is she green?

This Christmas an astonishing 52% of people are expected to pass on an unwanted gift on to a friend, colleague or acquaintance. Many more will donate presents to their local charity shop.

reduce_reuse_regift-k5zw67-d1Boxing day is a traditional day of gifting, when servants and tradesman would receive a Christmas box from their bosses. For many of us, it is the traditional day of putting away those unwanted Christmas presents, to be re-gifted in the future to people that may appreciate them more.

So, you got smellies but have sensitive skin? Or three copies of the same book? Or milk chocolates when you have been vegan for years? What is the best way to make sure that your unwanted gifts go to someone that would appreciate them?

One nice idea, adopted by CAT friends in Brighton, is to take an unwanted handbag and fill it with toiletries, sanitary wear and treats and give to a homeless woman.

Every town and city has charity shops that are grateful recipients of unwanted goods at this, or any time of year.

Appropriate clothing can be donated to any number of refugee charities – waterproofs, warm clothes, socks and new underwear are most welcome. Mobile phones are invaluable to people fleeing war and torture.

Food items can be donated to your local food bank, especially nice treats rather than the ubiquitous tins of baked beans.
Unwanted gifts can be put to one side for the inevitable school raffle prize.

Many people keep a drawer of presents, for those last minute surprises – just make sure that you label whom they were originally from – it’s bad form to re-gift a present back to the person that gave it to you!

Re-gifting – what’s not to like? It keeps consumer items out of landfill. It will make someone else happy. It stops new items being made.

Just make sure to follow the golden rule: don’t give Nana those oversize handknitted socks that she gave you last year!

More information:
List of refugee charities: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/refugee-crisis-what-can-you-do-to-help
Charity shops near you: http://www.charityretail.org.uk/find-a-charity-shop/
Homeless charities: http://www.charitychoice.co.uk/charities/housing/homeless?onlinedonations=0
Find your nearest foodbank: http://www.trusselltrust.org/map

(Research by Menulog, Nov. 2015)

Green Christmas Tree tips

Every year around six million Christmas trees bring festive cheer to our homes and offices.

In my family we gather round, mulled wine in hand while Mum finds the Christmas carol CD that’s been around forever and we decorate the tree.  It’s hard to see what could be wrong with something so romantically and definitively Christmas.

But Christmas trees can be very damaging to the environment:

  • The vast majority of the trees we buy from garden centres and garage forecourts are intensively farmed on an industrial scale.
  • Christmas trees are typically sprayed with potent fertilisers and herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate), affecting local biodiversity.
  • According to the Fair Tree project, the majority of seeds for Christmas tree production originate in Georgia. Cone pickers climb pine trees of up to 30 meters, collecting seeds under risky and primitive conditions.
  • Only 10% of Christmas trees are recycled in the UK each year.

The good news is that there are solutions to making sure that your Christmas tree doesn’t cost the earth. Here at CAT we are lucky, we cut down trees from our sustainably managed woodlands.

Here is this years Christmas tree being transported in our electric vehicle sponsored by Good Energy.DSC_8487

But if you haven’t got your own woodland, here are some ideas for keeping your Christmas tree green:

  • Rent a tree. You choose the tree and the supplier digs it up for you, delivers it to your home, complete with a sustainable root system. On the 6 January, the tree is picked up, replanted and grown on for next year.
  • Both the Soil Association and Forest Stewardship Council have lists of retailers that offer sustainably sourced Christmas trees.
  • Prune a bigger pine tree or use an interesting shaped branch as an alternative Christmas tree.
  • Plastic trees are not eco friendly- it’s another piece of plastic, made thousands of miles away and shipped across the globe.
  • Make sure you recycle your Christmas tree. Most local authorities offer Christmas tree collection points.


CAT responds to cuts to the Feed in Tariff

Statement from Adrian Ramsay, CEO of the Centre for Alternative Technology, in response to government cuts to support for renewable energy

“With the ink barely dry on the historic deal to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees C, the UK government has this week shown just how meaningless the agreement could become.

“Today’s announcement of substantial cuts to the Feed in Tariff threatens the UK’s ability to provide a clean and resilient energy supply, risking locking us into an energy system reliant on polluting fossil fuels, and wiping out thousands of jobs in the renewables industry.

“With these changes being announced just one day after MPs voted to allow fracking under National Parks, the direction of travel of UK government policy is clear – and it’s not towards a safe climate future.

“The science is clear – we must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. The technology is available – CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research has shown that we can reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions using technology available today. What’s needed is the political will. The deal agreed in Paris signalled that the world’s governments are finally acknowledging the urgency of the problem – now they need to make their policy match their rhetoric.”

CAT responds to Paris Climate Deal.

Statement from Adrian Ramsay, CEO of the Centre for Alternative Technology, in response to climate deal agreed in Paris 12/12/15

“We welcome the deal to keep global temperature rise to well below 2C, with an aim to keep it below 1.5C – this is a significant step forward in the global recognition of the dangers of climate change. However, the deal does not set out a timeline for the phasing out of fossil fuels, and therefore fails to offer a good chance of meeting its own target.

The Redlines action at the Arc de Triomphe Paris 12/12/15

The COP agreement must rapidly convert its goals into new national pledges in line with what the science tells us about how much remaining carbon can safely be burned. It should also acknowledge that the major share of this belongs to developing nations that have not been burning coal, oil and gas for the past 150 years.

To have a reasonable chance of meeting the 2C goal, all investment in new fossil fuels must be halted now – both coal and fracking. Public funds spent subsidising fossil fuels should be redirected into renewable energy and used to support poorer majority world countries to build the clean energy infrastructure they need.

The science says we need to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions globally by mid-century. CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research has shown that this is achievable using technology available today. The UNFCCC has set the goal – now they must implement the pathways to achieving it.”