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.

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.



Inspiring new video about the CAT Graduate School for the Environment

A short film directed and edited by Dylan Byrne exploring the MSc in Renewable Energy and Built Environment at the Centre for Alternative Technology. With interviews from students and tutors including Hugh Piggot, guest lecturer and  wind energy specialist. Dylan Byrne is a student at CAT Graduate School for the Environment and a film maker. Further information about his work can be found here.

Music for the film has been provided with thanks, from Ember




Lewin on the biomass module

This month was the start of our first double practical module. There were two modules running in parallel this month, biomass heating and wind farms. I’d chosen biomass as it’s something I’d never studied before, and doesn’t require spending as much time on wet Welsh hilltops. (Although the worst of the snow seemed to have passed CAT by, torrential rain caused some fairly serious flooding towards the end of the week and kept us on our toes).

The week kicked off on Wednesday morning with a day learning about the various types of biomass heating system from Duncan Kerridge from Dulas engineering. On Thursday, primed with fresh knowledge, we were taken on a whistle-stop tour of some local biomass facilities. Seeing these systems in the flesh and talking to the people who use them gave us a great insight into the practicalities (and impracticalities) of wood as a heat source. The logistics of getting wood from a forest to a boiler without it getting damp, eaten by bacteria, burnt too soon, burnt too late or jammed in fragile bits of machinery are quite daunting! We also got to have a look at IBERS , Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Science where a lot of research is being done on biofuels. This includes chemical analysis of different plants, and selective breeding of species to increase the fuel yields. It’s exciting stuff, and we get to poke around some interesting machinery. We collected fuel samples for analysis and returned to CAT for dinner and table tennis.

On Friday, whilst the wind farm group were struggling up hills in the driving rain to erect a met mast, we pottered around in CAT’s cosy teaching workshops testing wood samples. Water in the fuel means lower combustion efficiency and more pollution, which means that the wood’s moisture content is key to the performance of a biomass system. By testing the wood’s moisture content and then measuring the performance of the heating system we can work out its efficiency.

In our evening seminar we discussed some of the wider issues around biomass heating. Is burning trees really a sustainable energy source? Would we be better off using the wood for building where the carbon is locked away? Lively debates ensued!

Saturday evening arrived, and after a fairly heavy week we were all ready for some R&R. This month’s social outing was a celebration of the 205th anniversary of Australia’s possibly famous Rum Rebellion, which has special significance to our group because A: it involves lots of rum and B: it happens to be on our only free evening this week. A rule of ‘no shop talk’ is strictly agreed on and instantly ignored, and there’s rum aplenty. I’m sure we solved the world’s energy problems several times that night, but come the morning no-one seemed to remember what the answer was. Back to the drawing board, I suppose…

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

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


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: