Sara is helping people gain access to land, with Agroecology


Sara Tommerup is a graduate from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). Here she writes about the work she has been getting up to since graduating, including setting up the Agroecology Land Initiative.

Since 2006 I have apprenticed and learned about natural building in different parts of Europe and also in the US. In 2010 I decided to do the AEES course at CAT (now replaced with MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment) which complimented my hands-on training well. The course gave me the analytical tools to go deeper into the theory and engineering of sustainable building and the wider environmental issues. Due to my convictions I really appreciated to be able to study seriously in an environment removed from conventional campus life and I think this was one of the main reasons I chose CAT. Today there are many more study options when it comes to sustainable studies – but not at such a peaceful, environmental friendly and exemplary place as CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment.

Sara’s son Johannes in the meadow. “Access to land should be a basic human right.”

I am now working as self-employed but continue to train to expand my skills and their applicability. I am originally from Denmark and now being in the UK I have picked up quite a few new natural building techniques which are traditional to this area, such as roundwood timber framing and stone walling. This year, I will be doing a stand-alone module on settlements and shelters in disaster areas which I hope to work with in the future, both as a trainer and a field worker. Having both practical as well as academic skills is something I can’t recommend enough!

Working with round wood. Sara placing rafters on a little project in the Forest of Dean

Although building appropriately is important, I have realised that without land we can’t build anything nor choose the lifestyle we want. In 2014 I co-founded the Agroecology Land Initiative, an organisation with the aim to help people from all walks of life gain access to land. The ALI has so far set up its first land project in Carmarthenshire. Do have a look at if you want to hear more about what we are up to. We also offer both short and long term volunteer opportunities.

My MSc thesis was not about building but rather on adaptive co-management in regards to social ecological systems. What I learnt from my thesis has served me well as it enabled me to understand how complex our world is and how we are better off creating societies that are adaptable instead of rigid and attempting control. I am therefore really pleased to see that the AEES course has adapted into its new form, namely the Sustainability and Adaptation MSc, a course that seems ready to take us further still.

An opportunity awaits – students as drivers for change


Chris Woodfield is a student on the MSc Sustainability and Adaptation at CAT. Having now completed the majority of his taught modules, he reflects on what he has learned so far.

The taught part of my MSc in Sustainability and Adaptation is drawing to a close, with only the May and June modules left to complete on-site at CAT. So, has it lived up to expectation, what have I learnt, and what next?

As I highlighted in my previous blog post back in October “Is this the start of something big?” it is an exciting time to be a student, and this is definitely still the case.

Chris on Aberystwyth sea front

CAT’s unique immersive on-site learning experience has definitely been a highlight as I have taken all of my modules on-site and this is something which will be missed.

I would wholeheartedly recommend choosing the on-site options rather than undertaking modules via distance-learning. This is predominantly because of the engagement and creative discussion that flows with fellow students on the course as well as with the other Graduate School of the Environment courses. Furthermore, the chance to enjoy and explore CAT’s beautiful site and lovely vegetarian/vegan food is a bonus.

The wide variety and broad nature of the modules has allowed me to expand upon and develop a holistic understanding of sustainability and adaptation, whilst also exploring specific areas of interest in more detail.

I have taken the modules Ecosystem Services, Environmental Politics and Economics, Cities and Communities, Energy Flows in Buildings Part A and B, and will finish with the Sustainable Materials and Applied Project modules in May and June.

My two most recent modules, Energy Flows in Buildings A and B, have explored energy efficiency in buildings, heat, moisture and air flows, building physics, and eco-refurbishment. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that what is more important is energy flows in humans, and the way we, as citizens, experience and interact with the environment and make decisions to influence the World around us.

Sustainability, environmental and social issues are often portrayed as negative “problems” or “issues” that we need to solve to make the world a better place.

However, my time at CAT has reinforced and strengthened the view that to enhance and facilitate positive change sustainability needs to be viewed as an opportunity; an exciting, rewarding, fulfilling and challenging opportunity.

One opportunity that many of us in a similar position to me are currently embarking upon is to carry out a major dissertation project. However, what will, and can we do?

The possibilities are endless and it is a difficult decision to narrow down ideas into a concrete research project. For me, I still have a variety of ideas and passions I would like to pursue, for example, food waste, marine plastic pollution, heathy, happy communities, environmental education and how people view and relate to nature.

With this being said, one thing is clear, we all have the unique opportunity of a lifetime to make a real, meaningful, creative and thought-provoking contribution to scientific research, community engagement and/or expanding and delving deep into the issues we care about.

Another important aspect I have developed whilst studying at CAT, is the appreciation of the scale and urgency of the change that is needed. Again, this may reinforce negativity and leave a sense of hopelessness. However, I know that in our own small way, students can be catalysts for change and rise to the challenge of not just a more sustainable world, but a healthier, happier, more socially-connected, benevolent global society that is thriving in every sense of the word.

One recent innovative example of students exploring the barriers to change in terms of CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project was an open space ideas sharing and discussion two-day event entitled “Where’s the carrot?”, organised by GSE students and the ZCB team.

Some people say change has to start somewhere, but I truly believe, positive change is already underway, we just to need harness the creative energy and ambition and turn it into action. Who and where better to do this, than students on their major dissertation project? Only time will tell….

Film from the Zero Carbon Britain – Where’s the Carrot? event.



Digging beneath the surface of buildings energy assessment

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.

Canolfan Hyddgen: an office designed to Passivhaus energy standards

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!

thermal image
Using a thermal imaging camera on the module


How studying renewable energy helped me develop my career

Claire Newton studied renewable energy and the built environment at CAT as a way to develop her role in the Sustainable Energy Department at E.ON. Here she talks about what the experience of studying at CAT was like, and how it has contributed to her career.

I had worked at E.ON within their Sustainable Energy department for a year before I chose to undertake the MSc in Renewable Energy in the Built Environment (REBE) at CAT. My job required me to undertake high level feasibility studies for renewable energy technologies such as solar PV and wind turbines for clients and I wanted to deepen my knowledge on these technologies with the underlying theory as well as broaden my knowledge of renewable technologies into other forms such as biomass and solar thermal. Another key factor in choosing the REBE course at CAT was the emphasise on the practical implementation of the technologies. CAT was a place where the environment was really at the forefront in the motivation for learning about these technologies and as such lots of different engineering solutions had been tried. Students were encouraged to be similarly innovative in testing out different solutions when we were designing and building our solar thermal system or when we were walking the windy hillside trying to find suitable locations for wind turbines and possible means for connecting these back to the grid.

renewable energy course
The course has a strong practical element, alongside academic work

I wasn’t disappointed when I got to CAT and found that all the tutors had experience in building systems and had worked in the low carbon market on average for 10 years or more. Not only were they friendly, but they were also very keen to share their knowledge with the students and prompt them forwards. This was an area where I really benefit from CAT, as up to that point I had very much been in a design rather than implementation role at work.

A typical attendance would run from Tuesday to Sunday, with the first couple of days being focused on the technical or engineering theory of the technology in lecture time and the time from Friday onwards being spent in Practicals. Evenings often involved a one-to-one opportunity with tutors to discuss essays or reports or else attending guest lectures which looked at the broader topics of low carbon technology deployment. One evening lecture that particularly stood out from my time at CAT was how renewable technologies could be deployed in rural Africa to dramatically improve the standard of living.

The whole experience of CAT had a low carbon feel for me – the accommodation was within a low carbon building where the walls were specifically designed to retain heat in the winter and keep the building cool in the summer and where the hot water for the showers was from solar thermal collectors on the roof; the food was all vegetarian and sourced locally where possible.

renewable energy course
Lecture in the rammed earth lecture theatre

In terms of benefits for my work they were many; they cemented my knowledge of the low carbon technologies; gave me an awareness of new applications for the technologies that we hadn’t previously considered; introduced me to innovative variations on technologies for example SolarWall and finally I made friends who are equally passionate about the environment. The course has meant that in the future I would be able to do investment grade level studies in different renewable technologies which I saw as an important aspect of my future development in the role.

To find out more about studying at CAT, sign up to our masters courses open day on November 16th.

A day in the life of an architecture student at CAT

The Friday of the November module was a very busy day for the Prof Dip students, with a long awaited field trip and a rather unusual social event in the evening…

The day started with breakfast together in the restaurant – for those who could drag themselves out of bed, of course!

A little later, we arrived at Portmeirion – the first stop on our field trip. Portmeirion is about an hour’s drive from CAT, near the town of Porthmadog.

Portmeirion was designed and built by Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village. While at the site, we looked at the way the site was planned and developed in comparison to the CAT site – as they are both developments of similar sizes in a similar area, there may be ways in which the development of Portmeirion could influence a masterplan for CAT.

We set about exploring the village – and, of course, stopping for photographs!

Our next project (starting in January) will be in Porthmadog. As we were already in the area, we stopped off to take a look at the town! From our vantage point above Porthmadog we could see the Cob, a large sea wall built in 1811 to reclaim the Traeth Mawr estuary for agricultural use – a development that has strongly impacted the growth and development of the town, and which could lead to problems in the future as a result of rising sea levels.

Eating our packed lunches next to the harbour in Porthmadog.

Tremadog, on the outskirts of Porthmadog, was planned by William Madocks – the man responsible for building the Cob, and the growth of Porthmadog.

Our next stop was the garden at Plas Brondanw, the home of Clough Williams-Ellis. The garden was planned to take advantage of the natural landscape surrounding the house, with a series of outdoor ‘rooms’ and carefully planned views out towards the mountains.

Dan, Dan and Andy demonstrate the range of colourful trousers modelled by Prof Dip students.

Finally, we made one last stop on the way home – a mountain road with a view back down over the Traeth Mawr. From here we could see Porthmadog and the former estuary (which is now agricultural land).

We arrived back at CAT in time for dinner with the MSc students.Photo 12Friday night is our Social Night – traditionally, the tutors and Students put on pantomimes during the November module! After dinner, we set about writing the Prof Dip panto and getting ourselves ready.

We were given Tom Thumb as our pantomime – which somehow became a skit on the Nativity at CAT, featuring Merlin, the men of WISE and of course our Dame! It was a great evening – although there were some moments which are probably best forgotten…

Finally, everyone relaxed with a drink after a long and exciting day!