Raw experience: Richard West

I’ve never had a job that is any way worthwhile until now. I never had a job that I felt made the world any better – this gives me the potential to do that.”

Richard has been a Student on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT since September last year. He is doing the course part time over two years. Here he reflects on what he has got out of the course, and his motivation for taking it.

Richard West: "I've always been interested in it, probably since before it was called renewable energy"


I work in the construction industry on the technical side although most of my career was in IT. I never really aimed for IT, but I always just sort of gravitated towards it. I’ve always drifted in my career up until this point and then I made a conscious decision that this is what I wanted to do, that I wanted to be involved in renewable energy.


CAT seemed like the obvious route to do that. For me at least it has always held a sort of mystique as a world leading place where they push the boundaries. I’m not quite sure they do push the boundaries any more because most of the boundaries have been broken. But they certainly practice what they preach and they certainly have a long history of understanding the way these sorts of thing work because they use them and have been using them for a long time. All the people here who are involved in the course have practical experience of actually working with the technologies that they are teaching us about. They are not geeks from universities who have learned about these things and are teaching us from text books. The are actually engineers who live in the real world, who consult on commercial situations and who understand how things change because they work in this world. They also understand all the regulatory changes because they are affected by them every day and they pass it onto us.


The diversity of students is incredible. They are different ages – everything from recent graduates to retires. We’ve got people with an enormously broad spectrum of world experience and work experience and they all bring something to the table and you can learn something from all of them so just sitting round chatting to them is absolutely fascinating.

"We've got people with an enormously broad spectrum of world experience and work experience and they all bring something to the table"


I always look forward to it actually. Everybody is friendly, everybody is quite good fun. I can’t think of anybody here who I don’t like and the social aspect of it is good fun. It’s interesting. A lot of the time I have quite a lot of work to do so I can’t necessarily drink in the bar until midnight each night, which otherwise I would love to do. Yeah, it’s good, it’s very good.


I’ve always been interested in it, probably since before it was called renewable energy. As a child I was fascinated by the idea of generating electricity from water or from steam. I’ve always been interested in wood fired heating. Just from the very idea that I could plant a tree and it would grow and years later I could chop it down and derive heat for it – for about ten years my parents house was heated exclusively heated by wood and I was involved in that process. And I think I’ve grown up to value resources in a way that people don’t tend to these days. And so I naturally want to conserve them – it’s in my nature, that’s who I am, that’s what I like to do. I find it very unfulfilling to work in areas where there is a high degree of waste – and there is almost everywhere. I live in London so there’s waste all around me and I just don’t like it – though I contribute to it and I freely admit to that.


I see this as a way of doing something that is a bit more more worthwhile and putting something back. I’ve never had a job that is any way worthwhile until now. I never had a job that I felt made the world any better. And this gives me the potential to do that. So it’s I suppose it is my need to feel that I am doing something that’s valuable and worthwhile. And I’m hoping this will help me to indulge that need.


WISE (Wales Institut is absolutely excellent, It’s absolutely excellent. I can’t believe that somewhere like CAT has a building like this I mean it’s just absolutely fantastic. I mean just look at it. It’s there’s plenty of space, there’s plenty of light, it’s well ventilated, it’s full of natural materials and it’s just a very calm and pleasing place to be. I wish I lived in a house that was built like this.


Raw Experience is a series or articles on the CAT blog where Students on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment masters programme describe in their own terms what it is like to study at CAT. This is their raw testament: unedited, unbiased, real.

Built environment course open days fast approaching

You want to find a masters course that qualifies you for a profession in the design of buildings and spaces… but you want to find one that doesn’t just tack sustainability on as an optional extra; you want sustainability principles to be at the heart of the programme. Sounds like you need to come to the open day for our masters programme MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (AEES) on the 14-15th July.


The MSc Architecture: Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies (AEES) course provides a holistic approach to sustainable design, architecture and building. Taught at the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid Wales, the course is based in the award winning Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE). Various teaching methods draw on the expert knowledge of our tutors, and on the Centre for Alternative Technology’s 35 years of experience in teaching sustainability.


To find out more about the open days, click here.


To find out more about the course, or to read a student blog from one of the students currently on the course, click here.


If your thing in more Renewable Energy than Environmental Architecture, there is still just about time to book into the open day for our Renewable Energy and the Built Environment programme, which is this Friday 22nd June.


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 gse.cat.org.uk/opendays, where the schedule for the day will shortly be available. Email msc.rebe@cat.org.uk if you’d like to book a place.

CAT architecture students suggest ways to put sustainability at the heart of Birmingham


Students from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Graduate School of the Environment last week revealed their designs for the proposed regeneration of a site near Birmingham’s Custard Factory. Developer Lucan Gray chose to use CAT students to help put sustainability at the heart of his proposals.

The corner site in Digbeth may eventually be developed into a dynamic entrance to Birmingham’s creative quarter. The Custard Factory, which today houses boutiques, artists’ studios and other small and medium sized businesses has been gradually redeveloped in recent years, transforming what was once the home of Bird’s custard-making operation into a creative hub.

Built by Sir Alfred Frederick Bird, son of the inventor of egg-free custard, the site lay empty after the custard production moved to Banbury in 1964. The redevelopment of the site by Benny Gray and son Lucan has sought to re-invigorate the area, aiming to create around a thousand jobs by the project’s completion.

Central to the operation has been re-casting the industrial legacy of the area ­ what was once a loading bay is now a lake at the heart of the complex. The site, with its stunning historic buildings, provides exciting opportunities for renovation and conversion, a core concern for the students, whose studies are focused on sustainable architectural practice. Utilising the existing buildings in creative ways, the students proposed ideas for developing the area in an integrated, cohesive manner.

Situated as it is a mere ten minutes away from the Bullring, Birmingham’s premier shopping destination, the proposals will also explore ways that the site can be used to engender an economic alternative to out-of-control consumerism.

The students visited the site in February 2012 and carried out a survey, returning on the 14th of May to exhibit their project designs at the Lake Gallery in the Custard Factory. The event was attended by prominent architect Glenn Howells, his staff, local architects and Custard factory tenants.

The semi live project gives the students an opportunity to become familiar with the concerns of the developer, the local community and wider considerations based in reality. This is vital, as building designers/clients often misinterpret local needs and these are usually fairly mixed with some conflicting ambitions, and are set against a backdrop of global concerns, so it’s a very useful way for the students to start to pick their way through local politics, funding issues, local and regional concerns.

Lucan Gray said that he was extremely impressed by the designs and was astounded at the breadth and difference in the students design approach. He was very happy to see a sustainability approach in design. The students thoroughly enjoyed presenting their work especially having a real live project and client involved the design project.

CAT hope to continue to collaborate with the Custard Factory as a view to integrating art and media as vehicles of education to encourage people to live more sustainable lifestyles.

Student Story: David on his first two months studying long-distance


Well, I did it, submitting my 1st assignment 3 days ahead of schedule. Bejeesus, it’s a miracle.

The last few months have seen heartache, passion, a neglected back garden rise up and demand my attention, a neglected partner subjected to monologues about pro-western bias in the composition of sustainability indicators, and a file full of terrifying articles from journals with names like Ecological Indicators, Environmental Economics, and (my particular favourite) Environmental Impact Assessment Review.
How did it come to this? I joined the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2003, at the ripe age of 32. “Once you’re here for five years, you’re unemployable anywhere else”, said one of my new colleagues. Eight years on I am doing my dream job (alas, temporary) in sustainability and climate change at DWP and hoping to prove them wrong, by distance learning with CAT.

What is studying at a distance like? Challenging. So I was prepared, my friend Christine gave me a copy of her handy little text Studying at a distance.

In mid September study material arrived from CAT. Get down to it, laddie. You need to make time, set reasonable objectives and seize those unexpected moments of free-time to study. But I made lots of false starts. Frequently I would start work early, plan to finish early and get stuck into studying, but instead get stuck at work and finish at the usual time, tired and fed up with staring at a computer screen.

I found myself putting aside big blocks of time at the weekend, allowing me to ease in gently and tackle that opening hour where you find yourself strenuously filing emails in an attempt to avoid studying. Hence the neglected garden.

Helpfully CAT provides online seminars, discussion groups, reading lists, and a very patient tutor Saskia, who reins in my highfalutin literary adventures. ‘Don’t essays have to use words like ‘fungible’ and ‘inchoate’, Saskia?’ Apparently not.

I expected fellow students to come from a range of places, but I never realised how international CAT’s reputation was! In my online seminars I found myself sitting with American volunteers in Uganda, Malaysians in Bhutan and furniture-makers in Australia. All typing our expectations of how climate change will affect buildings in our area. Hard to fit into an hour-and-a-half.

How can I describe the smell of the University of East London library? Well – I can’t, because I doubt that I will ever venture in there, but I lurrve their electronic journals. Roll out tired clichés about kids and candy stores, because each article about sustainability indicators tended to reference another 15 who in turn each referenced another 15. And they all seemed to be in Ecological Indicators. I took to thumbing, in a virtualised way, through all the copies, and after a while everything started to look relevant, interesting, or both. I sought help.

Surprisingly, we are normally encouraged to choose our own essay titles for each module. Happily for the opening module, we were given a range of possible essay titles to choose from. I went for a thorny question about measuring sustainability, because I had helped review Defra’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) new sustainability indicators, and had also developed tools for measuring the sustainability of DWP’s policies.

I’ve done many new and unexpected things in the past 2 months, but a particular highpoint was retreating to bed early with my netbook so I could listen to Nick Baker’s podcast, whilst my partner watched Downton Abbey downstairs. This is the good life! Ventilation and condensation beckon.

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!

Graduate School Blog: Rebecca writes about her latest week at CAT


This module we explored the practicalities of living in a Walter Segal inspired, self-build, timber frame house, which was the accommodation for most Prof Dip students, cosily packed into the small house in bunks, two showers to share and the luxury of a common room – the setting for discussions, drinking and games for the week. The rest of us stayed in the above-the-restaurant-accommodation, described as a chicken-coop, due to its maze of small corridors and pocket-sized rooms.

Whilst we were gone from CAT, we tried out ways to collaborate, share research and work as a team whilst being scattered across the country, Ben set up a wiki, and George set up a dropbox. We are now looking into ways to better organise the communications, after getting lost in the multiple mass of emails circulating around. Getting stuck into our design project, we agreed groups for site analysis, organised by Kirsty, we each researched one subject – Jodie and I looked at Sewage – As a year group we created a detailed book of information, something that would have been difficult to achieve alone.

Back up the slate quarry in Powys, Alison and Trish took us through a 360 degree review to share initial designs for the housing project in Machynlleth. Not a traditional pin-up, we had 2mins each to present, followed by posting feedback on peers work, leading to much discussion around central topics, “If you don’t create a reason for young people to stay in a town (such as employment and amenities) then what’s the point in building affordable housing? It seems logical to create ‘reasons to stay’ as a first priority, as housing will naturally follow this” -Charlotte on community housing. We had the privilege to speak to the dynamic, interesting and knowledgeable client of the project site, sustainable local butcher Will Lloyd Williams, who gave us a new understanding of the site in addition to turning the project into a competition with prizes.

Our lectures, shared with the MSc students, began with architectural practice; Pat Borer who described his obsession with L-shaped plans, amongst other endeavours “…these buildings are made of sticks and what they do is bring in the nature…” The talks continued on a theme of thermal comfort, full of analysis, regulations, equations and design reactions because “…If you don’t know about it, you can’t tell people what to do about it.” – Francis Hill. The tutors devised a way of really making us understand all this by a full-on day of practical workshops. My group started out in the sauna, to see how our bodies react to heat – Jason pointing his surface temperature laser all over the place to prove it – followed by a very quick dip in the 9 degree Celsius reservoir, our surface temperatures dropped by 30 degrees! Refreshed we attended Tim and Alison’s workshop to think about how a building reacts to its environment to achieve thermal comfort. The afternoon brought a U-value seminar and gadget session, devising mini-experiments using tools to measure humidity, surface temperature, core temperature, lux-levels, CO2 levels, etc…

Spooky Saturday Night; Halloween came early to CAT. Some had come prepared with skeleton suits; others raided Mach’s charity stores for vampire attire. Some dressed in plastic, handcuffed themselves together and shuffled around claiming to be carbon dioxide…good ale, good dancing, great friends…

The dancing always takes place in the lobby space outside the rammed-earth lecture theatre, and for many reasons it’s my favourite space in the WISE building. What could have been a corridor between teaching places, bar, courtyard, theatre and bedrooms, Pat Borer and David Lea decided to merge these separate spaces together on the turning axis of the plan, creating a shared-use space that flows. The curved triangular space has light coming in from 3 directions, two on the horizontal as well as from above trickling down the staircase; one side is completely fronted by the calming drop-pool courtyard bringing the experience of outside within. From what I’ve seen so far, (and I’ve only been to CAT a total of five times now,) events occurring in this space include but are not limited to: degree show exhibitions, waiting for interviews, photography for student cards, drawing classes, day group seminar sessions, drinking, DJ and dancing, many people working quietly on laptops, tug of war games, lining up for lectures, experiments of many kinds, a luxury transition space from public to private, moving up to the rooms, people sitting quietly with a sketch book thinking… And the amazing thing is that for each and every one, the atmosphere adjusts and suits perfectly.

Sunday’s lectures concluded the week with Part-L talks whilst nursing sore heads before all falling asleep on the train home. The weight of the work to be done in the 4 weeks before our return looming, next session we need to be ready for hand-ins and presentations.

Student Story: Laura Mark, architecture graduate


Laura Mark studied BA (hons) Architecture at the Leicester School of Architecture, De Montfort University, before completing the Professional Diploma in Architecture with Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at CAT. She is an architectural assistant at Pick Everard Architects in Leicester and sits on the council of the Leicestershire and Rutland Society of Architects. Below she writes about how studying for a diploma at CAT has opened doors, and helped her to believe in her own abilities.

When I enrolled on the professional diploma at CAT, I was looking for something different. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. Like many others on the course, I hadn’t had the best experience of architectural education in the past and I was hoping that CAT would be different. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.

From the start of the course our views on architecture were challenged. We often asked the question, ‘should we really be building at all?’ – not a question architects would generally ask. Through the lectures we gained an understanding of the theory and science which was then implemented in our designs.

My tutors recognized the potential in me, even though I struggled to see it. They encouraged me to explore my ideas and designs. They knew how to push me and how to get the most out of me. I am sure without the support they gave me I wouldn’t be where I am now.

Urban Food Belt, final diploma project

I finished the professional diploma in January. After such an intense period of working it was a relief to be finished but I also felt somewhat lost. I knew that was the end of my monthly trips to CAT. It was almost like I was going to have to survive on my own now and this in itself was a scary prospect.

In March I was offered a place as the sustainability intern at the Architects’ Journal. This was a position I never expected to get. It was probably a good thing that I didn’t start for another three months; it gave time for it to sink in.

Starting at the AJ in June, I didn’t really know what to expect; I’d been told I would be attending lots of events and meeting architects, but other than that I had no idea what it would involve. Maybe I was naive or maybe just slightly overwhelmed by the whole experience, but for some reason I hadn’t really thought about what I would have to do; I just knew it was an amazing opportunity and one to make the most of.

The Angel Building by AHMM or Disability Essex by Simmonds Mills Architects

Throughout my four months as the sustainability intern I attended various talks on topics relating to sustainable design and architecture, visited buildings including bere:architect’s Camden Passivhaus, Simmonds Mills Architect’s Disability Essex Centre, Zumthor’s Serpentine Pavilion, AHMM’s Stirling nominated Angel Building and many more. I attended exhibition openings, book launches and even a trip to Austria with Internorm, looking at the manufacture of their highly efficient timber and u-PVC windows. I wrote about all this on the AJ’s sustainability blog – www.ajfootprint.com, and even got the chance to write for the magazine. I threw myself in to what I was doing, and actively searched out projects that I wanted to see and be involved in. Working at the AJ made this a lot easier, it was like a VIP pass to the architectural world.

GOAL! By Koebberling and Kaltwasser

One of the highlights of my time at the AJ, was working with the previous winners of the AJ Small Projects Awards; Koebberling and Kaltwasser. It was a rather rainy day, and I had heard that they were to be building an installation on the Greenway, by the Olympic Park. I decided to go along and see if they needed help. The diploma at CAT gave us the chance to gain hands on experience with materials and construction, and since leaving I haven’t often had the opportunity, so I leapt at the chance to get a drill in my hands and start working. Read my article on this experience, here.

I also had the opportunity to join this year’s professional diploma students during their summer school in August. Joining them for the practical part of the summer school, whilst they were building a bird hide and a pavilion for Shambala Festival in the woods at Coed Gwern. It was great to see how the course was progressing, and indeed how its students had progressed. Last year my group created the frames for a classroom on the spot which the bird hide now inhabits, so it was particularly poignant that I would be returning as part of my role at the AJ. My article on the professional diploma student’s summer school can be read, here.

Through the internship I developed my ability to critically analyse architecture; a vital skill in the field of sustainability for sifting through the greenwash and looking at whether something really is as green as it claims. This ability to critically analyse the merits of sustainable architecture was deeply founded in the knowledge given to me by the initial lectures at CAT. They really helped to add a depth of understanding to the subjects I was required to write about. The experience at the AJ took what I had learnt at CAT and developed it in relation to mainstream architecture. I realised the challenges facing sustainable building in the construction industry and it helped to put into context what I had learnt. If you’d have asked me before I started at CAT whether I could imagine myself working at the AJ, I’d have thought you were joking, but through my experience on the diploma and the internship, I have learnt to believe in my own abilities. I realise what a privilege it was to have this experience and I am really grateful to have had the opportunity.