Studying sustainability requires a global discourse

The Centre for Alternative Technology is located in a beautiful site in mid Wales. The masters courses run here are taught in a world leading environmental building – the Wales Institute for Sustainability Education (WISE). In many ways, the unique location is one of the things that make studying renewable energy or environmental building at the Centre for Alternative Technology so special. So why do we offer a distance learning option where students never have to actually attend CAT? The answer is that it enables us to create a course that gives sustainability a global perspective.

Doing a course by distance learning puts you into a classroom that spans the whole world. It means the range of perspectives that are brought into that classroom are more diverse than any other method of learning. For a course based on sustainability this is crucial. Sustainability shouldn’t be taught as an abstract theory amongst a group of people that all basically come from the same background, it should be taught as a discourse amongst people with diverse experiences of its practical application.

Of course, all university courses will have some international dimension to their intake. But the barriers of increasingly restrictive visa regulations and cost mean that in reality physically attending a course in the UK is increasingly difficult for many overseas students. Distance learning courses, on the other hand, are accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

We offer a distance learning option for our MSc Sustainable Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Systems course (we call it AEES). The course is open to people from all backgrounds and professions who are interested in getting the edge in sustainability, sustainable design and the built environment. There is ample opportunity for students to pursue their own interests in depth, choosing eight modules from a wide range of topics covering global energy issues, renewable energy system design and sustainability in the built environment.

Each unit is taught through the online learning environment. Students attend seminars and discussions online, but can access the lectures at a time to suit them. They can access support online from academic tutors and student support officers as well as UEL library staff and UEL technical and student support staff.

Anna Pamphilon has recently graduated. She valued the course for its technical depth:

“I wanted to find a course with sufficient technical depth that would compliment the knowledge I had already acquired. The course at CAT was detailed and technical enough to do this, whilst also being offered in a long distance format that enabled me to choose when I studied, which was ideal for my situation.”

Flexibility is at the heart of the course. We are still accepting applications to start in September but there is also a March intake. Students can study where and when they please, and also pause the course for a period if other commitments arise. We find these things mean that the students that are attracted to AEES are often professionals already, with their own wealth of experience that they can bring to the course. The other students you interact with on the course become as much as a learning resource as the lecturers, books and exercises – they also form a great network for professional collaborations.

Click here to find out more and apply now


Four reasons why it is great to be a student at CAT

CAT is a truly inspiring place to do a postgraduate course in Renewable Energy or Sustainable Architecture. Here are four things that make the postgraduate degree courses at CAT unique:


1. The structure of the degree courses

Students don’t come to CAT to study full time. They come here for a week at the start of each module for an intense period seminars, lectures and practicals – they then go home to work on their essays and reports. This means that a lot of our students are working full time alongside their degrees. I think this kind of solution will become increasingly popular as degrees become increasingly expensive and living costs fall relative to wages. We also have distance learning options.

2. The network students establish

In part because the degrees here are so immersive (when students are here they are literally living in the university building) students build up a very close network with each other very quickly. The fact that so many of our students are also working (and many of them are mature students) means that between them they have a wealth of experience which we and they really value. This is great for their careers and it also means we have developed quite a radical pedagogy where students are encouraged to share their expertise as well as lecturers.

3. Practical approach rooted in the industry

Unlike a traditional university where most of the lecturers are full time academics, at CAT virtually all the lecturers have other jobs and projects in the renewable energy and sustainable architecture industries. They can bring this experience into their lectures and it is clear that students really value this.

4. An inspiring environment

Situated in a disused slate quarry on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, with a 7 acre visitors centre demonstrating a wide array of renewable technologies and sustainable building techniques, CAT is a pretty utopian place to study. The WISE building (Wales Institute for Sustainability Education – our graduate school building) itself is an impressive example of what can be achieved integrating stunning architecture with environmental principles. It has won prestigious awards (including RIBA) and students often comment on what a great place to study it is.


You can hear directly from our students on this blog. So far Colin, Becca and Richard have spoken about their motivation. More blogs on this subject from CAT students are coming up.



Profile: Rufus Ford CAT Graduate now working for SSE

In his current role as R&D Manager for Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), Rufus is responsible for coordinating R&D activity across the SSE group. Prior to this, Rufus was responsible for demand-side policy development with a particular interest in energy efficiency and renewable heat. He sits on the board of Scottish Renewables and chairs the Scottish Renewables Heat Working Group.

Rufus has a degree in physics and a Masters degree in Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies from the Centre for Alternative Technology / University of East London. His MSc thesis considered whether the waste hierarchy was still appropriate in the light of the development of advanced thermal treatment of wastes.

During and after completing his MSc in 2006 Rufus has worked in waste education for an environmental charity and managed a consultancy team in a small not for profit company carrying out work such as renewables feasibility studies and climate change strategies for local authorities, before joining SSE.

Experience at CAT

Rufus writes about his experience at CAT:

“I signed up for the AEES course at CAT having been travelling after my undergraduate degree. I was looking for a good use for a mathematical physics degree and had an interest in renewable energy and sustainability, which needed a focus. I had visited CAT as a child and stayed on a farm in South India powered by an off-grid PV system and owned by a man who had also been inspired by CAT having visited there in the 1970s.

“The course really helped me to focus my ideas and gain a good understanding of the issues from the diverse range of lectures. However for me the course is really categorised by the inspiring setting and the people I met whilst studying, many of whom I have remained friends with and worked with professionally over the years.

“It was great to return recently and to see the completed WISE buildings for the first time. These are first class facilities in a unique and special place. It was also good to hear about the exciting work going on such as Zero Carbon Britain which is helping to shape the critical energy policy debate.”

Read more about postgraduate courses at CAT in renewable energy and sustainable architecture.


Interview: Top Student Anna Pamphilon

Today’s blog post is a short interview with Anna Pamphilion. Anna graduated from the Sustainable Architecture course at CAT this year achieved one of the top marks in her year group for her thesis looking at post occupancy evaluation of buildings.

How does it feel to have graduated?


I must admit that it feels very good. I was studying at the same time as working part time and looking after a toddler, so finding the time to study was frequently quite a challenge. However, the highly interesting course content and my passion for the subject kept me going!


What particularly attracted you to the course?


Prior to starting the course, I had headed up the sustainability group at the architectural practice that I was working for. Through both this, and working as a project architect for a number of years, I gained quite a bit of knowledge in the field.


I therefore wanted to find a course with sufficient technical depth that would compliment the knowledge I had already acquired. The course at CAT was detailed and technical enough to do this, whilst also being offered in a long distance format that enabled me to choose when I studied, which was ideal for my situation.


What did you write your thesis about?


Working as an architect I was both highly aware and concerned about the gap between designed and actual energy use, compounded by unfulfilled user expectations. As a consequence I became interested in Post Occupancy Evaluations (POEs), a process of evaluating built buildings through monitoring and feedback, and their real potential to help bridge such gaps.


Through the thesis I wanted to investigate the veracity of a number of opposing opinions in relation to POEs. It seems that whilst there is one school of thought that believes POEs to be one of the most cost effective actions to reduce the environmental impact of buildings both present and future, there is a reluctance from industry to believe a POE’s potential for delivering useful information that could help architects (and the wider construction industry) design more ‘sustainable’ buildings.


The research comprised a literature review, a POE, and an analysis of a POE’s potential for change when compared to other opportunities for improving the sustainability of a building.


In order to assess a POE’s real potential, I felt it crucial to carry out a POE first hand and was lucky that the company I worked for, Hawkins\Brown LLP, were actively looking to carry out such a study of the recently completed New Art Exchange in Nottingham. Whilst this particular POE was extremely positive, demonstrating that the building’s users really liked the building and that it fulfilled many of its initial objectives, it also demonstrated the very real need for more effective handovers to ensure efficient building use and user satisfaction.


Ultimately the principal findings of the thesis were that POEs do have the potential to deliver useful information that will help architects (and the wider construction industry) design more ‘sustainable’ buildings and that they represent a very cost effective method of doing so.


What do you want to do next?


I have really enjoyed working as a Senior Architect and Sustainability Consultant for Hawkins\Brown LLP whilst studying for the masters. I’m expecting my second child in a couple of weeks and expect that that shall keep me busy for a bit. However, I shall continue to stay informed with current thinking in the world of sustainable architecture and will continue to offer advice / consult on sustainable design going forwards.


View Anna’s Website:


Raw Experience – Becca

“I hadn’t lost interest in engineering but I lost all, sort of… respect for it I guess. Because whilst beer and trifles are good things in and of themselves you get very fed up very quickly of people taking them so seriously… Whereas of course renewable energy is… is deep blue hero stuff! You actually get to save the world whilst doing something interesting with spanners. That is the difference for me, it gives me the chance to do something that I find fulfilling and meaningful.”

Becca graduated from the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment masters course at CAT a couple of years ago. On a recent visit back to talk to current students about her projects we caught up with her to talk about her experience of studying at CAT. Here she talks openly about the difference it made to her:


I originally studies mechanical engineering at Salford University a long time ago. I had a couple of summer jobs doing building services and then I spent 4 years working in process engineering – mostly dairies and breweries. I got fed up of that, left engineering all together and then spent several years doing a random selection of things.


In 2007 I found myself at a bit of a crossroads and I applied to be on the volunteer programme at CAT with the engineering department – and got in. So I spent 6 months doing that. At the end of that I thought “you know what, actually I would like to be back in engineering again and this is something I could feel passionate about”.


I put a CV out on a job site and one of the job agencies came back to me and said “how would you feel about doing some more studying – one of the companies is quite interested in you but you have been out of engineering a long time”. And I said “Yeah – I’d take their hand off” and then I thought god, I actually meant that.


And the REBE course was just starting up at CAT then so I came into the department and had a chat with them. I started a couple of weeks later.


I hadn’t lost an interest in engineering but I lost all, sort of, respect for it I guess. Because whilst beer and trifles are good things in and of themselves you get very fed up very quickly of people taking them so seriously. You think ‘well really, the sun will still come up on Monday if M+S don’t get their Ski yoghurt on time’. I just couldn’t really care about it as much as the people who are working on that need you to care about it. Whereas of course renewable energy is… is deep blue hero stuff! You actually get to save the world whilst doing something interesting with spanners. That is the difference for me, it gives me the chance to do something that I find fulfilling and meaningful.


I started work a couple of weeks after I did my first module, with another building services firm. That was based partly on my summer at CAT and partly on the summer job in building services I had years ago. That was a very steep learning curve. They had some really good environmental aspirations and had done some really good work on low energy building for a lot of years. We were bought out by a multinational then merged with another company…


Since I graduated I moved into the climate change and renewables team. So I’m still doing some buildings energy, using my existing knowledge on that, but I’m getting to do more specific renewable energy and also carbon management programmes. I’ve been involved in BREEAM looking at the more big picture sustainability stuff looking at things from every angle”.


The course is incredibly intense. You turn up on a Tuesday evening and from then until Sunday afternoon you are sleeping, eating, breating, living that particular module.


The people who came on the course – it is partly that the course inspires people to great things but also that some really interesting individuals are drawn to CAT anyway and and I learned just as much from the people I was studying with as the lecturing staff – who were also brilliant. I’ve stayed friends with a number of them and I’ve got a really good network through that.


They were just putting up the rammed earth walls for the WISE lecture theatre when I was volunteering – running practice trial with endless different variations in the woodchip barn – different amounts of water and techniques for tamping it down – taking the mould off an seeing it crumble into the ground. So it’s really exciting to see it finally up and operational.


The first lecture I had in here was when I did the science symposium last summer and presented my thesis. For my thesis I was looking into bacteriological levels in domestic hot water cylinders that are twinned up with solar thermal. Basically trying to investigate whether the addition of low grade heat means that you are running the risk of increasing your bacterial levels, specifically Legionella because that is the big one.


I would like to do more on district energy and not just looking at it at a building scale but at a district and community level. I think that is where you can have projects that are technically viable but small enough that they can be approved by one council, built by one developer, funded by one backer. And local enough that you can hopefully get some sort of community ownership or engagement with it.


Keep a look out on the CAT blog for more raw experience student stories over the next few weeks.



Podcast: Chris Dixon on permaculture and building design

In a lecture to our Professional Diploma in Architecture students, Chris Dixon discusses permaculture and building design. Chris first encountered permaculture in the early 80s, and since then has gone on to be an Associate Editor of Permaculture magazine, as well as developing Tir Penrhos – a site near Dolgellau demonstrating the principles of permaculture and offering courses in permaculture design – with his wife Lyn.

You can stream the podcast here or

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. The second part of the lecture is available

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, and the third part

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Previous podcasts

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A chance to find out more about our sustainable postgraduate courses…


On June 22nd, we’ll be running another of our popular open days offering prospective students the chance to find out more about our masters course in renewable energy and the built environment.

The course, which is taught with an unique combination of academic study and practical experimentation, explores the theory and practices of renewable energy technologies with special reference to the built environment. It’s aimed at those interested in becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits and drawbacks of the major renewable energy technologies, including biomass, solar photovoltaics, wind power, solar thermal and hydro electricity.

Leanda, a student who has worked in the construction industry in Bristol for the past seven years, has been writing about the modules and her experiences at the Graduate School of the Environment on her blog. She says “one of my favourite things about this course is the people on it. You get to know them so much better than you would on a standard university course. The course is pretty intense; you spend a lot of time time with each other. However, I’m lucky to be surrounded by such great people. No-one else at home would engage in conversations with me about the possibility of harnessing power in a giant hampster wheel. Big ideas have to start somewhere!”

The open day will give anyone interested in joining the course the opportunity to meet students and lecturers and explore the unique study environment that is CAT. Visitors will be given an introduction to the course, an update on the jobs market and the experiences of past students, a site tour of CAT with all its fascinating displays of renewable energy systems and the chance to sit in on lectures.

For more information, head to, where the schedule for the day will shortly be available. Email if you’d like to book a place.

Student Blog: Rebecca on burns night and green economics


Back at CAT in 2012… The focus for us 4th years was the design pin-ups for the ‘affordable and sustainable housing project’ for a site near the sewage works in Machynlleth. The presentations weren’t till near the end of the week on Saturday, so amongst everything else occurring that week, in coffee breaks, early mornings and throughout the night, we were to be found working away on last presentation finishes, models and details in the old shop and strawbale studios.

At the beginning, on Tuesday night the 5th years celebrated having finished the final presentations of their part 2 and the external examiner’s interviews, they opened the show for us all to see their inspiring designs after dinner. Work included a number of very interesting urban housing and mixed use schemes, an arctic information and research centre, a Baha’i house of worship, timber barrel-vaulted winter gardens in Barmouth, a seafront development and many wonderful hand drawings.

For this module, we could choose between two lecture series, I chose ‘Environment, politics and economics’ which introduced and discussed subjects including zero carbon Britain, Eco-localisation and local money networks, a critique of neo-classical economics and green economic theory. This important subject opened up a whole new field of learning to be done and a reading list that extends the length of my arm, very inspirational and I can’t wait to learn more. The practical continued these themes of thought in a ‘world cafe’ scene where we tried out methods of ‘hosting large group dialogues’ within a flexible format with Blanche. This was a really fun and dynamic day, where discussions and debates often make people feel isolated and self-conscious, this gave everyone a chance to talk evenly and equally.

Julian took the other lecture series; ‘Principles of light, biomass and hydro’ He says:
‘…lighting plays a massive part in design. Lighting, both natural and artificial affects people’s environment and lives in many ways. This module focused on harnessing natural light to use within buildings and at a human scale. We analysed this in built examples including famous landmarks, many of which had not been completely thought out in respect to how daylight will affect internal conditions – some23 have lighting on all day even though the room is flooded with daylight!
We also looked at biofuel and hydro energy, from small scale to city wide schemes. During the practicals, the hydro-energyist’s were getting their hands wet in the stream understanding flow rates and head heights, the biofuels group learnt in detail about C.A.T’s own biofuel unit, and the session I took used IES to analyse a buildings performance. In this extremely interesting practical, the IT suite was packed – in groups we used the software to asses heat performance of our housing projects and compared retrofitting a conventional building up to current building regs standards with one retrofitted up to passive house standards, looking into the economics and payback time of each.’ – Julian

Saturday morning we started our presentations, we had all pinned up the night before (well most of us except some extra determined and/or crazy people who worked the last slog,) ready for first thing in the morning – we wanted to get everything done before the Burns night celebrations. Seeing all our work up as a group for the first time was great and the quality of work my peers produced made me proud to be part of it, and hopefully, when the grades come out next week, the hard work over the festive holidays will have been worth it.

Marcus’ solar street is designed to ‘…uptake and retain as much of the sun’s energy as possible. As and when required’… and uses phase change material for thermal qualities within the structure. His presentation stood out with some eye-catching renders and sun path analysis.

Matt’s minimum impact, self-sustaining, development was a self-build scheme that ‘…provides the opportunity for local residents to not only build, but to also learn the skills needed to build their own homes, and therefore a skill that could turn into vocation. The scheme is arranged around the community house in a semi-circle ring of gardens, allotments, wetlands. This approach assists the development to blend into the existing built environment, providing a unique place for residents and the community…’

Martyn set out to ‘…determine how a non-vehicle environmentally aware estate would work whilst planning for future expansion…’ and arrived at a ‘…geometrical design deriving from the Fibonacci sequence, focused on viewpoints, incorporating localised construction and design phases.’

I took the approach of whole-life cycle design for community, with existing demographics and density determining site content. Exploring courtyard design with shared communal facilities that responded to site through landscaping and suds network to cope with the saturate soil and flood risk of the area.

This is Clare’s ‘…first foray into a holistic approach to sustainable design using timber from local forestry and attempting to be independent of mains of energy supply and waste treatment.’ The scheme was demonstrated through presentation boards of beautiful hand drawings, created on her retro-style drawing board.

Charlottes scheme was a subtle design, continuing the existing urban grain and investigating straw bale infill to timber frame construction with ‘lanterns’ to catch light and heat from the sun.

These were amongst many other great ideas including Dan’s Transient Landscapes and James’s design for deconstruction, hemp/lime construction, modular design, timber framing, straw bale systems and floating home devices. Here’s Ben’s housing model and Tim’s beautiful and subtle housing.

Student story: Leanda on building related issues


Quite literally fresh from finishing my essay, with so many acronyms and online library passwords swarming around my head that I was having trouble remembering my own name, I arrived at CAT for Module 2 – Building Related Issues. Thankfully Rachael, the Student Support Officer, was there to greet me and she, somehow, manages to remember everyone’s name.

I have never had to write an essay like the Module 1 essay before. In fact it’s been over 13 years since I finished my degree dissertation. What I planned to write, and what I eventually ended up writing were two very different things. It sort of evolved as I got into the researching of it, before finally finding some sort of valid structure. It will be much easier to write them in the future.

I had decided to stay out of the bar, for this module, as it was time to get more serious but strangely the long lecture days and then doing ‘bits and pieces’ in the evening still managed to stretch to midnight easily. There were even stories, from others, of staying up into the wee small hours trying to finish their essays and get on top of their presentations.

Y Plas

Module 2 was packed with lectures about producing low energy usage buildings and also undertaking energy audits. We had a couple of lectures from visiting professionals; Ashley Bateson of Hoare Lea gave us a lecture on ‘Delivering Low-Carbon Buildings’ and John Williamson of JPW Construction gave us a lecture on ‘Passivhaus’. It’s fantastic to get a perspective on how ideas are applied in the real world and the advantages and disadvantages involved. In fact, all of the lecturers have their fingers in a number of pies and their practical knowledge is constantly brought into our lectures.

We left site during this module, for a number of practicals to visit a Passivhaus and to assess the energy use of Plas; a community use building in the centre of Machynlleth. It was great fun to use a real building as an example and we also learnt a lot. The best bit was getting to see the workings of the boiler room. Gosh how my life has changed, I never imagined I would be admitting to that!

I had to do my presentation, this module. I’m really not great about thinking on my feet but it’s something that I will persist with and, with practise, will get better at. It gives you an appreciation of how good the lecturers are at presenting, and also how amazing the students with English as a second language, are for doing them. Sometimes I really struggle to find the words in English.

The group really bonded on this module. I guess we all sort of knew what to expect this time and felt more relaxed because of that. I got a chance to chat to those that I hadn’t before and those new faces, on the second year of their part-time course, got welcomed into that group also. I would say that the majority of the people on the course have been in the workplace for some time and that experience of life is brought into any discussion.

We were willing on each other during our presentations. Questions asked, were mostly from those who knew the presenter much better, which helped them to relax and to bring out their best. After all, we’re all in the same boat – it was lovely to experience the consideration involved.

This visit, I finally managed to donate to the experiment of feeding the Tiger worms. The high fibre, vegetarian diet has such a detoxing effect on your digestive system that I decided to help out with CAT’s research.

All in all, I had a really good time. There is one area, however, that requires some work. Although Saturday is officially a ‘school night’, it does lend itself to being the night to go out and let your hair down a bit. When you are sitting in lectures the next morning, after barely 4 hours of sleep and with vodka still in your system, letting your hair down a bit doesn’t seem like such a wise idea. Much improvement required there I think!

George Monbiot speaking at a lecture at CAT last week

Leading British Environmentalist says climate talks are now ‘dead’

At a recent lecture given by George Monbiot at the Centre for Alternative Technology and pocast in part here, Monbiot argues that the international climate change negotiations are failing.  He says that we are faced with  “the complete collapes of the international process, the process is now dead…. it died in Copenhagen”  and says that for the first time in his lifelong work as an author and activisit  he has not got a clue as to what the answer is  “my certainities of what needs to be done have crumbled in the face of the complete ineptitude and uselessness of the worlds governments.”

The 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference was held in Cancún, Mexico, from 29 November to 10 December 2010. Although world governments reached agreement, many environmentalists have criticsed the Cancun agreement. John Vidal, writing in The Guardian, said the Cancun agreement did not show leadership nor tackle underlying questions such as how the proposed climate fund will be financed or commit to a legally binding emissions reductions.

George Monbiot- Author and Journalist
George Monbiot- Author and Journalist

George Monbiot was speaking at a lecture on the MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment (GSE) that offers a range of inspirational post-graduate programs. Courses are directed by a unique combination of leading professionals, academics and authors. They are based in CAT’s stunning new eco-educational facility, the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education. With flexible learning programs to suit all needs, and teaching that places sustainability at its core – CAT offers an unparalleled academic and practical learning experience.

Other lecturers on the course include

Paul Chattertonwatch you tube video

Senior lecturer of Geography at Leeds University

Lotte Reimer- watch you tube video

Tutor on the MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at CAT

For more information on this or any other part of the Centre for Alternative Technology’s work in informing, inspring and enabling practical solutions for sustainable living, please contact the press office.