Student Blog: First week on the REBE course

I have just returned home after spending my first week on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment (REBE) course at the Centre for Alternative Technology. It has been a packed week with five lectures or practical sessions each day, covering a broad range of topics. It has really fired my imagination and got me thinking about many aspects of sustainability that I knew little of before, so much so that on arriving home I had trouble sleeping as my head was buzzing so much!

I have long wanted to make a positive career change and have been aware of the REBE course for a couple of years and knew the excellent reputation that went with it. I came to the open day for the course in 2012 and could see for myself that they had an excellent setup at CAT, with some really passionate staff. I also met some students that were studying on the course at the time and they were positively evangelistic about the course and the centre. Despite this, I was uneasy about leaving the world of work and having a steady income and going back into education, particularly as I hadn’t enjoyed my first degree in mechanical engineering.

As the summer of 2013 ticked by I began to think about studying at CAT again, and clicked on to the website to discover that the course was due to start in only a matter of weeks! I got the application form filled out and was pleased to find a few days later that I had been accepted onto the course. At this stage I was still unsure as to whether I was doing the right thing, but just decided to go with it and see what happened.

The view from my bedroom

As I arrived at CAT on Monday evening I had a big smile on my face thinking about the possibilities that may open up to me in the future and the new people I was about to meet. Having now completed the week I have to say that the experience has exceeded my expectations. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about their subjects and are also very approachable and I am lucky to have a great group of fellow students that I know will be a great source of support and friendship over the coming months (that is if we don’t fall out over the table tennis championship!).

I can’t imagine having the same experience at any other university running a renewable energy course as CAT is so unique in the field of sustainability. I could keep on rambling about all the other aspects of CAT, but suffice it to say for now that I know that I have made the right decision in coming here to study.

Tom will be blogging about the REBE course after each module. You can see all of his posts here

Find out more about Tom over on his personal blog.

Serenity – CAT Professional Diploma Summer Building Project 2013

Sebastian Lomas, one of our Professional Diploma in Architecture students, shares his experiences of the annual summer building project:

As is usual for the CAT summer building project, it all began with a 24-hour design charette in June with students working in teams or independently on their proposal for the project. The site was to be the space adjacent to the recently completed biomass building with a brief to provide a covered dry space for around 30 school children with storage for their belongings. Concurrently our designing had to hold in strong perspective that we would be the ones constructing our designs within the allocated five days, making ‘build-ability’ a key consideration. One day later, and after a heated counting of the votes cast by the students, Serenity, designed by Matt Robinson and Tom Reed, was announced as winner. Carousel followed closely in second place, a wrap-around structure of undulating frames with one frame to be fabricated by each student.

Over the following three weeks the design, materials orders, and constructional logistics for the coming week were furthered between Matt, Tom, and the supporting tutors, juggling between design intentions and constructional realities in a ping-pong rally of emails. July saw the return of the students to CAT for the build week, welcomed to the site by sunshine and dry weather. The first work on site was the labour-intensive stage of clearing the site, levelling, and setting out the slate pad foundations. We didn’t get the setting-out quite right the first time, but we learned lessons along the way.

Meanwhile, the main frames were being fabricated off-site by a separate team, with a third team dedicated to the production of the elegant timber screen that would face the most prominent elevation of the design.


Day three saw the elements rapidly come together on site, with the landscape team who had been manually slating the area called in for extra hands as the purlins, floor joists, and secondary posts were being measured, cut, and fitted. Floorboards were cut from reclaimed oak found on site and fixed to the joists with countersunk screws and plugged with wooden dowels, also used for the screen. In total, over 2,000 dowels were hand made by the team.



Day five saw the first and second section of the screen fitted to the main structure, and the first layer of timbers to the purlins. Hard as we all worked however, by the end of the fifth day there were still jobs left to do resulting in an ‘extension of time’ being granted for three further days of work in September. With reduced numbers, the returning students enthusiastically charged through the remaining tasks including fitting the final section of the screen and securing it to the biomass building with a slatted covered walkway. The construction of the horizontal slatted wrap-around to the end of the main structure dramatically changed the experience from within the space, with the final slats being fitted after dark under head-torch light.

Day eight saw the construction of the strongly-engineered bar area and following a brisk cleanup of the site, the students were able to sit down around the conversation pit and experience the space for the first time in its finished state.

All photos by Sebastian Lomas

Gaining a Global Perspective – Studying for a Masters by Distance Learning

A lot of CAT’s work in the past has focused on local and community-based work for sustainable living and renewable energy. Climate change, however, is an international problem and CAT’s research has attracted global interest. As well as being able to study for an MSc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (AEES) at CAT, the course can also be studied remotely. This means that students around the world can learn about the challenges we currently face whilst living in their home countries.

One of our AEES Distance Learning students shares her thoughts on the course:

Jelly Mae Moring

I am a part-time distance learning student of CAT’s MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies programme. I am originally from the Philippines, now residing in Leicester and working as a Research Officer at an independent housing research organisation that promotes innovative housing policy and practice, called the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF). BSHF also runs the annual World Habitat Awards competition which recognises good housing practices around the world and facilitates knowledge exchange and transfer of these practices in other context. My current research follows the themes of energy efficiency in housing, housing-health linkages and reconstruction after disaster. My past working experience includes environmental awareness-raising in Vietnam, doing initial research on integrating climate change adaptation and watershed management in Laos, and working in the private sector in China and in the Philippines.

I have a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from University of the Philippines and an MSc in Environmental Governance from Albert-Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany. I decided to pursue the MSc AEES programme due to my line of work and personal interest. BSHF is one of the partners of an IEE-funded project called the PowerHouse Europe Nearly Zero Energy Challenge that aims to build confidence and capacity among social housing providers in Europe ahead of the nearly zero energy building (nZEB) obligations to be introduced in 2020.

Coming from a social science background, I often have no difficulty in understanding or analysing environmental policies. However, I do lack the technical knowledge of how to make a building energy efficient or the technical know-how of sustainable architecture. This is why I am taking the course hoping to gain technical knowledge and practical experience (if possible) on energy efficiency as well as deepen my understanding of sustainability in the built environment.

For more information about our distance learning options, visit our website.

Talking about the Graduate School of the Environment

The Centre for Alternative Technology has always aimed to educate people. As our tagline states, we want to ‘inform, inspire and enable’ people to live sustainable lives. At CAT this happens in many different ways, from interactive displays as part of our visitor centre to our Zero Carbon Britain report.

Since CAT started 40 years ago people have visited us to find out more about renewable technology and low-impact living. Like everything at our site in mid-Wales, the educational aspect of the organisation started organically. People wanted to learn, so they came to us to discover more. Over the years this training has become more formalised, and we now run a series of highly regarded postgraduate programmes. Over the next two weeks this blog series will be taking a closer look at those programmes, highlighting exactly what makes them so popular and relevant today.

For more information about our courses visit the Graduate School of the Environment website or click on one of the buttons to the right.

A busy week of building for CAT’s architecture students

This week has been a busy one as two separate groups of CAT students have been getting creative and building unique structures. The annual build week for our Professional Diploma in Architecture students is almost coming to an end, whilst 150 miles away a team of CAT students are participating in the Roots Architecture Workshop (RAW) at WOMAD.

The CAT team at RAW built one of the main evening venues – the Speakeasy. By day the venue hosts talks and lectures on sustainable architecture, and at night it is transformed into a music and entertainment venue. The structure was designed and built by a selection of CAT students and alumni. Their aim was to showcase best design and practice in sustainable architecture taught at CAT, delivering a structure which is simple, practical, innovative, fun to look at, and intriguing to engage with.

Photo by @mark_itecture
Photo by @mark_itecture









Photo by @mark_itecture
Photo by @mark_itecture











Meanwhile at CAT, the Prof Dip students faced a challenge of their own: design and build a unique structure that will be part of the visitor circuit for years to come. Last month the students were given a brief and a budget and told to come up with different designs. The students voted amongst themselves and decided on a a timber frame outdoor classroom for school groups. The building will have lots of storage for bags, space for thirty children and also the potential to be used as a social area in the evenings.

The students create scale models as part of the design process


The build in progress

More information about RAW4 at WOMAD can be found here.

If you’d like to know more about our architecture courses then head to the GSE website.

There will be a video of the summer build up on the website in the next few weeks.



Three of a Kind: Two Missions: One School of Architecture: CAT


The Centre for Alternative Technology is delighted to be displaying work from three of its Professional Diploma in Architecture students at the first ever Wales Festival of Architecture.

Running six weeks long from 23rd March to 4th May, Aberystwyth Arts Centre is playing host to the to the new festival. Organisers aim to stimulate discussion about architecture, providing an opportunity to demonstrate and discuss the wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits that well-designed buildings can bring to a community. The Festival will provide a forum for architects, planners and other professionals and the public to share views and knowledge about the built environment.

The exhibition of CAT work entitled ‘Three of a kind, two missions, one school of architecture: CAT.’ is on display in the main foyer of Aberystwyth Arts Centre and features work from three of CAT’s students as well as a sample from this year’s diploma show.The exhibition showcases the innovative and dynamic forms of teaching post-graduate Architecture students that CAT uses which is unique in the UK.

The professional diploma course at CAT places an emphasis on sustainability and encourages students to explore the themes of transition and the vital role the building design plays in environmental impact. There is a huge potential within the architecture profession for environmental change and this is pivotal to the entire sustainability debate. This is a time of great debate about the future of architectural education in the UK where many want to see architecture get out of its bunker mentality; they want it to rethink the relationship between practice and education, and to embrace the challenge of  radical climate change by reconsidering the level of design intervention and thus resource use in any given situation. The Professional Diploma course at CAT is addressing these issues and is about to embark on a whole new chapter of its experimentation,” said Patrick Hannay, Tutor, Professional Diploma in Architecture.

” What is remarkable is how many students domiciled in Wales are forced to go out of Wales for their architectural education because places are limited in in the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff. Wales urgently needs that talent to return, and thus coming back for their post-grad learning to the very heart of Wales at Machynlleth  on such a unique learning experience, in such a fine environment, would ensure that the best of talent would remain in the service of Wales.”

The Centre for Alternative Technology has won a number of awards for its building the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education including the Dewi-Prys TomosThomas Prize and the RIBA Awardsshortlist. For the last 40 years the organisation has been at the forefront of radical ecological experimentation and building design.

The Wales Festival of Architecture will open on the 23rd of March and will be opened by Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas.The launch is a free event, starting at 6pm in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre cinema.

To arrange interviews with any students or staff of CAT please use the following contact.

  Patrick Hannay  077960 65764


AEES student Howard Miller on the recent politics module

Part of the Msc in Architecture, Advanced Environmental and Energy studies at CAT is the politics module. It is a week crammed full of lectures, debates and workshops designed to give a broad perspective of ‘environmentalism’ and enable students to delve a little deeper into the politics. In this blog post Howard Miller, a student who took part in the module reflects on his learning experience.

As a long time subscriber to ‘The Economist’, the module awakened me to my ‘Green Capitalist’ theoretical standpoint. This is the idea that free market capitalism can be tweaked by adding green ‘compensatory’ measures such as carbon trading or offsetting via tree planting.

However, the book ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ by Tim Jackson was compelling. This challenges that GDP growth has ceased to be relevant to society in developed countries as once a certain level of wealth is achieved, it delivers diminishing returns of wellbeing. In fact, the continued fixation on growth (such as attempts to restore the status quo that existed before the 2008 financial crash) are counter-productive in that they fail to address problems we face such as caring for a large elderly population, providing affordable housing, or dealing with climate change. In pursuit of GDP, payment for care-homes, cleaning up pollution and rising house prices are positive as they add to the balance sheet, while caring for a relative in your own home or avoiding car use are negative.

In contrast, focusing on wellbeing as a policy aim would address these problems. For example financial support for carers looking after relatives could allow under-used housing to be made available while simultaneously reducing isolation amongst the elderly and sharing of the cost of heating.

‘Common Cause’ presented research during the module into how ‘Values’ motivate us to act in certain ways. They aimed to interrogate how marketing by environmental groups could be made more effective. For example, promoting insulation improvements by appealing to one’s values of ‘Wealth’, (e.g. by highlighting financial benefits) raises the stock of associated values such as achievement and authority at the expense of values more normally associated with environmental causes, such as benevolence and equality. The implication being that the short-term gain of campaigns could be at the expense of the wider cause.

To shift focus from valuing GDP to valuing wellbeing, a move away from values that promote self-enhancement towards values that surround societal benefit such as community, inclusivity, and responsibility are needed.

This realisation confronted how I thought about my work as an Architect. Looking through this lense, everything, especially buildings, could be considered an ‘advert’, asserting their values on society.

So-called ‘Green Architecture’ generally falls into one of two stylistic camps; ‘Hi-Tech’, which focuses on technology to reduce the environmental impact of a building, and ‘Hobbit-house’, which attempts to be low impact by embracing creativity and individualism. Neither of these styles reinforces values that underpin environmentalism. Hi-Tech is more closely associated with intelligence and power, while the hobbit-house look is associated with self-direction.

I left the module resolving to re-align my architectural design work to promote universal values such as broadmindedness, harmony with the natural environment, beauty, equality and social justice. Lets see what happens.


Congratulations to Britain’s leading women in sustainable architecture

Trish Andrews HRH Prince Charles to some of CAT's student modern architecture

We are delighted to see that Blanche Cameron from RESET development and  former tutor at CAT, Trish Andrews tutor on the professional diploma course, Fran Bradshaw a visiting tutor, Anna Surgenor graduate of CAT’s Msc Advanced Environmental and Energy studies , Sue Roaf and Sarah Wigglesworth, course participant in straw bale building have been listed in the Architects  Journal, Women in Sustainable Architecture article.

The list recognises some of the UK’s leading women architects who are working to make sustainability an integral part of building design.  Fran Bradshaw, said: ‘We like people – that’s why and how we design. Together we can make buildings which are both a pleasure and practical to live in, and which use the earth’s resources carefully and imaginatively.’

With many of these women also teaching at universities and influencing our future architects, we could see a lot more good work to come.

Trish Andrews HRH Prince Charles to some of CAT's student modern architecture

Introducing… Euan, our new student blogger


For the next few months Euan will be taking us to the heart of  the Professional Diploma course in Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy studies course he is studying at CAT. After each module he’ll write a post letting us know about the highs and lows.

You can read the work of our previous student bloggers here. We’ll also be introducing student bloggers for our other masters courses, Renewable Energy and the Built Environment and Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies.

After completing my Part One qualification at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow,  I was lucky enough towork in a variety of roles relating to sustainability in architecture. My year out began at a small rural architecture practice in Argyll where I developed a interest in community development, land ownership and sustainable building techniques. This placement led to me becoming involved with a charity in North Glasgow concerned with bettering facilities in a neglected part of the city. I moved back to Glasgow to become more closely involved with this ambitious project and assisted in designing and building a small community space intended to increase community engagement in the area. After my role finished, I ended the year working as a volunteer co-ordinator in Uganda, where I assisted running school building projects for the University of Leeds’ ‘Raise and Give’ program.

At each of these placements I was told by different people about the Centre for Alternative Technology and the Professional Diploma course. After attending the open days I made the decision to study for my part two on the professional diploma course as it seemed to have the staff and the expertise to direct my study towards sustainable architecture.

I have been impressed by CAT in my first few months and I have learned a great deal already during the modules. The staff are very supportive in the periods in between modules and will help with the projects when you’re back home as well as on site. The year group is small enough to get to know everyone very well. We all keep in touch during the study weeks in between modules, share ideas and resources and help each other out. Each time I’ve been to CAT we’ve all had a great time and it feels like we haven’t been away. So far it has been great!