Graduates from the Centre for Alternative Technology celebrate their academic successes at ceremony.
Over 40 students from the Graduate School of the Environment at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth celebrated the successful completion of their studies with an award ceremony on Saturday 14th November.
The evening also included a buffet dinner, a welcome from CAT’s chief executive Adrian Ramsay and a keynote speech by Professor Herbert Girardet, leading environmental commentator and author of several books including the seminal “Blueprint for a Green Planet” (1987) and “Creating Regenerative Cities” (2014).
Adrian Ramsay, CEO of CAT, said they were the people who would be ‘making it happen’ in the transition to a zero carbon future:
“The world faces many challenges in the transition to a zero carbon future. The knowledge and skills that our graduates learn by studying at the Graduate School for the Environment equip them well to be the people making it happen. We are very proud of this year’s CAT graduates and look forward to hearing about their successes as they take the knowledge gained from their time at CAT into their careers, communities and home lives.”
Five students received particular awards for excellence in their dissertations. Helen Nicholls received an award for her dissertation comparing the impact of different waste water treatment systems on climate change. Lee Eyre received an award for his research into the role of metaphor in the world views of environmentalists. Elgan Roberts’ award-winning study looked at the greenhouse gas emissions from small scale hydroelectric schemes in Wales. Anne-Clare Landolt received an award for her dissertation on storing heat to improve greenhouse growing conditions. Lucy Jones also received an award for her technical report on a more sustainable alternative to supermarkets.
This year’s graduates join over one thousand people who have graduated from CAT’s postgraduate courses and are working for sustainability in their work and communities across the UK and around the world. CAT graduates have taken their skills to many professions which need expertise in sustainability and many companies have been set up by CAT graduates, bringing innovative solutions to environmental problems.
The March module of CATs Sustainability and Adaptation MSc was part B of Energy Flows in Buildings. Part A (in February) introduced us to ideas of thermal comfort and its relation to heat transfers from the human body to its surroundings. This was tied to the implications of maintaining that thermal comfort, and the impact on energy use. We learnt about calculating U-Values (used as a standard measure of the thermal efficiency of a building element), and daylighting: making best use of natural daylight in a building and calculating the resulting energy savings.
Part B expanded on this getting into more detail about limiting the flows of energy through a building, whilst addressing issues around ventilation and movement of moisture. A sustainable building should maintain a comfortable environment – comfortably warm in winter, comfortably cool in summer, ideal humidity levels, good air quality – with minimal energy input, and without moisture ingress causing degradation of the building fabric. Throughout the week different elements of possible means to achieve this were discussed.
A recurring theme throughout the week was retrofit – upgrading the thermal efficiency of existing buildings to reduce their energy use and related CO2 emissions. The most commonly stated best-estimate is that around 80% of existing houses will still be in use by 2050; the potential contribution to reduced energy use and emissions from such a large number of buildings is huge, but presents a challenge. There are advantages and disadvantages to various approaches, from aesthetic considerations (eg: changing the appearance of a building when externally insulating it), to practical (eg: loss of space when internally insulating), to technical (eg: the risk of condensation forming at the meeting of new insulation and existing structure if it is not carefully considered). Planning and conservation concerns can also influence or restrict choices for retrofit.
There are also issues and trade-offs surrounding choice of insulation materials – the most highly efficient materials may have a greater overall environmental impact than some less efficient materials. Some are more breathable (open to passage of moisture vapour) than others, which can have both positive and negative implications, depending on application.
Another recurring theme was the need to account for future changes to our climate in both retrofit and new build. In particular, too much emphasis on designing to conserve heat could lead to overheating further down the line when atmospheric temperatures increase. Careful attention to placement of glazing and shading to control solar gain can help address this, allowing direct sunlight in to provide warmth in winter when the sun’s path is lower, and sheltering the building from the most intense direct sunlight in summer when the sun is higher.
The role of thermal mass in regulating internal temperatures was discussed in a number of lectures. Depending on climate and design, thermal mass may hang on to winter day-time heat, releasing it within the building through the night – or assist cooling by absorbing excess heat in summer, if combined with effective ventilation to purge that heat at night. Used inappropriately thermal mass may add to overheating, so its use must be considered carefully.
A practical in the second half of the week provided a demonstration of heat loss through unplanned ventilation (ie: draughts). This was linked to the need to provide controlled ventilation (whether through opening windows or via mechanical ventilation), and highlighted the difficulties of achieving airtightness (eliminating draughts) in some existing buildings. The practical involved carrying out an air-pressure test to establish the air-permeability of the timber-framed selfbuild house on the CAT site (ie: how much air moved through the fabric of the building at a certain pressure). In groups we surveyed the building with thermal imaging cameras, before and during the test. The resulting images clearly showed how the cold incoming air cooled surrounding surfaces, demonstrating the impact of air infiltration on energy use. A scheme to retrofit the selfbuild house at CAT would have to include a means to reduce this.
The end of the week saw us discussing Passivhaus and visiting the Hyddgen Passivhaus office/community building in Machynlleth, with the building’s designer John Williamson. Some myths about Passivhaus were busted (for instance: you can open windows), and the physics-based fabric-first approach was explained. The standard is based around high comfort levels combined with incredibly low energy input. While on site we investigated the MVHR unit (Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery), which removes stale air from the building, and uses it to heat fresh incoming air. These are a common feature of passivhaus, as they allow the removal of moist air and other airborne contaminants and it’s replacement with fresh air, whilst minimising heat loss. This system has been the subject of some heated debates with fellow students at CAT, due to questions about the amount of energy needed to run the system and how user-friendly it is or isn’t. We were shown that when installed correctly, the system recovers more energy than is needed to run it.
As ever, throughout this course connections were constantly drawn between all the different areas covered (the inescapable interconnectedness of all things!). Nothing stands in isolation; each decision in one area can have repercussions in another. The different elements of building physics and materials must be balanced with each other and with the effect of any action on the wider environment.
The immersive learning environment during module weeks at CAT is highly effective, and very intense. It’s a wonderfully stimulating and supportive place to be, but at the end of the week that intensity needs a release in order for us all to return to our normal lives without winding up our friends and family when we get there. That takes the form of the vitally essential Friday night social, which this month was themed around a Cyfarfod Bach, a laid back Welsh social. We had beautiful music and singing, comedy, artwork, silliness, a rousing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem (not too shabby, considering only a handful of people were Welsh speakers or had any idea how the tune went in advance) and finally a leg-shattering amount of dancing, ensuring we could all go home in physical pain but happily and calmly buzzing.
See more blogs about the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course.
Toby Whiting is a student on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course at CAT. He is studying the course alongside working as a buildings energy consultant. Here he reports on the module from October, which focuses on energy use in buildings.
Another great week at CAT has flown by. As a domestic SAP and Code for Sustainable Homes assessor, this week has covered a lot of the areas that I’m familiar with. So was it a waste of time? No certainly not! Believe it or not, as a SAP assessor, I have never taken the calculation apart and played with it in a spreadsheet – it was always one of the things that I wanted to try but never made the time for. I’m pleased to say that this course has ‘ticked’ another box and allowed me to look at where the ‘numbers’ are drawn from and made me look at the SAP process from a new perspective.
High and low points of the week: Delivering my powerpoint in a session where students give presentations based on their essay topic; and the trip to an office designed to Passivhaus standard -I’ll let you guess which was the ‘high’ and which was the ‘low’ for me (but it wasn’t the one where I had to stand up and talk).
People can confuse and transpose terms like ‘Passivhaus’ and ‘Zero Carbon’ so it really has been good to get out and visit a building designed to consume less energy, rather than offset the carbon produced. For me nothing beats the experience of walking around a building like this.
Working as a consultant can be difficult because I spend a lot of time researching and advising others on the most efficient or cost effective solution and the flow of information is often one way. This course reinvigorates me and allows me to mix with like-minded individuals (both students and lecturers) and exchange ideas.
I have been able to challenge my opinions over a wide range of building performance related areas and learned some fascinating things from other student presentations. I’m a part-time student and won’t be back now until January – and I’m pleased to say I’m looking forward to it!
Come along to one of our taster open days to find out more about the environmental masters courses on offer at the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Graduate School of the Environment. You must pre-book, but these open days offer a great chance to get a flavour of the practical, innovative courses we offer and find out if one might be right for you.
Upcoming open day dates
Wednesday 11th February
Wednesday 11th March
Wednesday 15th April
Open Day Programme
11:00 – 4:30 (free and includes lunch),
Wednesday taster days take place during the masters in sustainability and adaptation modules each month and give you the chance to come along to CAT meet some existing students, speak to lecturers and decide which environmental masters degree at CAT is most suitable for you.
Have a tour of the Centre, including accommodation and teaching facilities
The open day is free but there is an option to stay overnight until Thursday morning. The overnight stay is offered at the subsidised rate of £25 including accommodation in a shared student room, dinner and breakfast. This is a great chance to have a more relaxed time at the centre and experience a few more lectures or practical sessions, and hear from other students.
To book a place please email Kit Jones firstname.lastname@example.org now, or at least one week before the open day.
Looking back on the introductory half of the first module there has been a lot to take in! Meeting lecturers and other students on the course was re-assuring and surprising; the lecturers all have good levels of knowledge and practical experience (I have paid for some courses in the past where the trainers taught from a book and didn’t know the subject), whilst the students have come from a broad range of occupations and disciplines such as finance, engineering and teaching.
So far the course has laid the ground work with lectures explaining the current energy and policy status of the UK and covered global environmental issues and equipped us with the tools to learn; access to on-line research resources and essay writing lectures to name but a few (this is essential for me as I left college 25 years ago). A lot is packed into a day, with teaching finishing at around 8pm, then time flies as we sit in the evenings and discuss the thought inspiring lectures (often intermingled with anecdotes and drinks from the bar). I’ve been impressed with the lecturer/student ratio, there is always someone to ask if I missed something in a practical session. Saturday night sees an earlier finish at 6pm (this time following a seminar with our tutor which helps to demonstrate the type of work that is expected from us) after which some of us ventured into Machynlleth to find that the pubs are good and the locals are friendly. Sunday is a short day with two lectures and a packed lunch to see us on our way. I depart for a 6 hour train journey back to Southampton and feel pleased that my fears were unfounded; I have made the right choice, now I just need to write that essay and prepare my presentation for the second part of the module… That attendance covers the physics of energy use in buildings (closely related to my work), energy efficiency and an introduction to heat pumps.
Toby works as a consultant on domestic new-build housing, carrying out SAP (CO2) and Code for Sustainable Homes assessments along the South coast. He came to CAT because he wanted to challenge the answers that assessment tools give and he feels that a ‘hands on’ approach to investigating current technologies would be more useful.
Susannah Trevelyan, who is volunteering in CAT’s media and marketing department, joins MSc students on an Adaptation Planning exercise in Castell y Bere.
Today I was lucky enough to be allowed a sneak preview into theMSc Sustainability and Adaptation’s field trip to Castell y Bere, an ancient ruin of a 12th century castle that clings to a rocky out crop in the beautiful hills above Cardigan Bay. We had been split into two groups and given a brief earlier in the morning at the WISE centre; it was our job to design a utopian climate resilient community, that within 10 years would, amongst other things support a community of 500 and be carbon neutral. Given the positions of leaders of this new community it was our job to organise food security, energy security, communication networks, clean water and sanitation, fuel, and a political and trading system. Everything a community needs would have to be worked out and presented in a proposal by the end of the week. This was a chance to share knowledge and to discuss what we would really use to build the foundations of the future.
In order to make this practical possible it was important that we make some assumptions about the project and its context, the following of which were given to us…
We must support a population of 500 people
We can use any land we can see
We must increase the sites resilience against climate change
We must be fossil free within 10 years
We must be waste free
We must be carbon sequestering
We must be ecosystem enhancing
We must develop non-growth trading
We organised ourselves according to areas of expertise and interest, and I ended up in the Health and Wellbeing group. Having worked in the arts, particularly within mental health I was acutely aware of the important role health and wellbeing could play in our utopian society, and was excited to be able to engage with the crossovers it had with other aspects of living. Maybe we could develop a preventative medicinal approach to health, with a nutritious diet and a medicinal garden? Maybe we could develop community through the farming, along with celebrations and festivities in accordance with the seasons…
Under the strict supervision of our kind course leader we arrived on site in silence, allowing all of us to naturally conceive of a vision on site. After half an hour we erupted into chatter and started to tackle some of the most pressing issues in our future community. Where would we get clean water from? Where would we live and what would we eat? These were just a few of the most pressing issues we needed to agree on before lunch, never mind the education and health system.
It soon became apparent that setting up a new utopian community wasn’t as simple as it sounds, with a multitude of complex issues needing investigation before we could move confidently on. To make the most of our time we decided to list all the potential resources the site offered and, then continued shaping the broader issues at hand.
What should we do with the ruins themselves? To put in perspective the heritage of the site, the history tells a tale not unlike that of Game of Thrones; The site of dramatic wars with the English, where the Welsh king Llywelyn the Great held his authority over the Welsh. In 1221 Llywelyn took control of neighbouring Meirionnydd from his son, Gruffydd; Llywelyn had previously placed Gruffydd in power there, but the father and son had fallen out. The prince then began to build the castle of Castell y Bere with the intent of controlling the local population and securing his new south-west border, which included the mountain trade routes between Gwynedd, Powys Wenwynwyn and Deheubarth. Castell y Bere was the first of several stone castles built by Llywelyn and the initial castle consisted of several towers positioned around a courtyard, situated on a rocky hillock in the Dysynni Valley near Cadair Idris.
Maybe we should just forget the past, as some of the group suggested, deconstruct the castle and reuse the stones for our new buildings? A fierce debate ensued, with a multitude of ideas for the castle ruins thrown into the air.
To be able to take all these complex and relevant issues into account in our plans certainly gave us food for thought, and it was there i left the group to develop plans of their own. The sun had shone down on us making this a very enjoyable day, jam packed with juice discussion. I’m sure that by the end of the week, the MSc students will have fallen out and made up a million times, be a bit battered around the edges, but also be a bit more knowledgable about exactly what it takes to plan for the requirements of future generations.
Humanity has already introduced enough CO2 into the atmosphere to raise the earth’s temperature by 4-6°C. This heat is being added at a rate approximately 300 times faster than when the earth’s ice sheets previously melted; past melt rates are therefore likely to provide low and conservative projections for the future. The earth’s remaining ice sheets contain 70 metres of sea level rise; with 40 metres of that being land locked in the East Antarctic Ice sheet that won’t melt unless CO2 reaches levels of >1000ppm. However the remaining 30m from Greenland, Western Antarctic Ice Sheet and the below sea level EAIS have all previously melted away when CO2 concentration levels were only 400-425ppm (April 2014 level 400ppm). A 30 metre sea level rise involves 50% of humanity, nearly all the world’s mega cities and large swathes of prime agricultural land. Sea levels will take thousands of years to fully rise, however 20 metres is inevitable and 30 metres probable. This needs planning for now as any manmade barrier is very unlikely to be able to cope with a 5 metre rise.
How fast will the melt occur?
Melt rates of up to 4 metres per century have previously occurred and although it is felt it would take the collapse of a major ice sheet to induce this 4 metre rate again, 1-2 metres per century is common, making the IPCC 80 cm projection by 2100 misguided considering the stakes involved. The 4m melt pulses occur due to the collapse of the marine based ice sheets. These ice sheets melt slowly at first as the glaciers get snagged on ocean bed ridges but once free of these ridges, they suddenly (after 200-1000 years) collapse in a process called rapid irreversible marine instability. These ice sheets are particularly vulnerable as they are melted from below by warm deep ocean waters lubricating the glacial flow and due to ocean dynamics warm waters (~3.5°C) currently bathe most of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s marine outlet glaciers.
The discovery that the Amundsen Sea outlet sea glaciers (that drain a third of the WAIS equivalent to 1.2 metres of sea level rise) have developed marine instability (i.e. they will now completely melt away) and are melting at an accelerating rate (30% greater than just 5 years ago) makes 4 metres a century look much more probable. Models suggest that this collapse is irreversible but may take 200-1000 years, however they didn’t account for the inevitable further warming of the melting waters. The last time Greenland, WAIS and parts of EAIS melted (120,000 years ago) melt rates of approximately 2 metres sea level rise per century occurred. The recent finding that the marine based glaciers draining the North East of Greenland (16% of it) have suddenly started rapidly melting and that the Fjords draining Greenland are much wider and extend further inland than previously thought all means that 4 metres in a century is again more likely. Therefore the recent evidence suggests that although 30 metres is the final outcome it is unlikely to occur by 2100, however 1-2 metres is virtually certain, 4-5 metres probable and greater amounts can’t be excluded.
Thus a large proportion of humanity is under direct threat from this sea level rise. The USA military are planning tactical retreat, however moving an army base is not moving a city (London), a state (Florida) or a country (Bangladesh). The first step in adapting to sea level rise is to slow it down and reduce its magnitude and the only way to do that is to remove (bio-sequester) carbon from the atmosphere and getting to 350ppm still means a 20-25 metre sea level rise and require a massive increase in mitigation efforts, which will take a transformation of societal systems to achieve. Adaptation and mitigation therefore need to be considered together. Adapting to sea level rise will mean more than building a sea wall as concrete barriers will have large carbon costs and will be overtopped eventually putting future generations at greater risk.
It seems we need to think again and take the approach of planned retreat, combined with innovative developments that embed humanity’s community into the new ecosystems and create new settlements that are robust to the extreme weather whilst sequestering carbon into the materials used to create them. That radical approach will take a transformation scale of change and the widespread uptake of progressive adaptation planning and is why here at Centre for Alternative Technology, we are putting transformational adaptation into the heart of our sustainability learning and teachings to help understand how to creatively approach the task that sea level rise imposes.
Energy use has been in the news recently, from Ofgem’s warning that Britain will come “dangerously” close to power shortages within two years, to the public outrage in response to Centrica reported that British Gas profits increased 11% after a hike in prices a few months ago.
Following on from our most recent sustainable architecture post, this week’s podcast describes current refurbishment policies in the UK, in particular the Green Deal. Tina Fawcett, Senior Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, explains why we need policy if we’re going to refurbish Britain’s buildings – and what new policies might be effective and feasible.
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.
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.
The hands-on approach is an important aspect of learning at the Graduate School of the Environment, which has lots of facilities for teaching about renewable energy and sustainable building methods onsite, including a lime kiln.
Lime has been used for thousands of years to finish buildings, though was replaced by cement in the 19th Century. There’s recently been a resurgence of interest in lime, however, as sustainable building materials have become more popular.
At CAT, we experiment with different environmentally sound building methods. If you’re interested in pursuing graduate study in sustainability, come along to one of our upcoming open days to find out what studying at CAT is like!