From West Wales to East Africa

Nick Jeffries, Renewable Energy and the Built Environment alumnus, talks about his life since graduating from CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment. You can read Nick’s previous post whilst a student at CAT here

In October 2009, I sat down to write my first assignment as a new student on the REBE course at CAT. For this first essay, I asked the question: ‘Can renewable energy turbocharge international development and poverty reduction?’. This became the theme that thread its way through the rest of the year, influencing lines of enquiries and choice of research topics for monthly assignments. My interest: systems that are small-scale, suited to remote communities, affordable, easy to operate and maintain.

The Tadelle family with their Sunflower pump

For my thesis I traveled to Ethiopia where I worked for three months among farmers in the Central Rift Valley assessing a new type of solar thermal irrigation pump called a Sunflower. During this time I collected mechanical and climatic measurements, farmer feedback and socio-economic context data which together allowed me to assess the viability of future commercialization of the equipment. The recommendations from my thesis fed back into the R&D process allowing improvements in performance and ergonomics, as well as informing future marketing and financing strategies.

The irrigation pump in action

Since finishing at CAT, I have continued working with Practica Foundation contributing to the ongoing development of the Sunflower pump. Recently I have helped set up a new entity called Futurepump, which has secured almost $1million to assist with commercialisation in Kenya. In October at the beginning of the latest growing season, I kicked off the field element of this work by installing a number of improved pumps, checked performance using locally procured collector dishes and demonstrated the technology to interested farmers. Alongside my work with Futurepump, I work with appropriate technology NGO – IDE, among other things setting up field laboratories to test emerging technologies that look promising for their particular customer group.

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Student Blog: PassivHaus – New Euro-Dance Genre or Low-Energy Building Standard?

October’s module at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) was the buildings related part of the course. Having worked in building renovation for the last few years this subject was right up my street and I was looking forward to finding out more about the topic.

One of the main take-home messages of the week was that before you even think about bolting on renewable energy tech like PV panels or heat pumps you should really first consider the energy efficiency of your building – to paraphrase Rob Gwillim, one of the course leaders: ‘energy conservation is the cheapest form of renewable energy’. In other words, minimise the losses from draughts and poor insulation as this is a far more cost-effective way of reducing your carbon footprint than retrofitting RE to your building.

Again, we had some very passionate guest speakers along during the week, who showed us some great examples of intelligent building design, that made use of techniques such as passive solar heating and natural ventilation. We were also lucky enough to have a visit to Canolfan Hyddgen (The Stag Centre), just a few miles away from CAT in Machynlleth. This was the first non-domestic PassivHaus certified construction in the UK and is a multi-purpose building owned by Powys County Council. For a quick breakdown of what PassivHaus means, go here. In a nutshell, it’s a super-low energy building standard than can reduce heating requirement by around 80-90% through super air-tightness and insulation levels. The air-tightness criteria for PH is about 17 times more stringent than current UK building standards for example.

Denmark will be adopting PH as its building standard from 2015 – setting a fantastic example of how legislation can make a big difference if there is the political will to drive it forwards. In stark contrast, in the UK our government is currently discussing reducing green levies on energy bills and commencing nuclear new build!

All in all it was another interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable week (once we had got our first presentations done!). In November it’s the hydro module – one that I am particularly looking forward to (but not the inevitable soaking that is bound to occur when we go out into the hills!)

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.

Student Post: Planning for Real on the Prof Dip

We’ve asked some of our current students to write a short blog post about their studies after each module. You can see all of our student blogs here. Over the next year or so Rachel, a former long-term volunteer at CAT, will share her experiences on the Part II Architecture course.

In my last blog, I wrote about the beginning of our first project on the Professional Diploma: to create a vision for the future of the CAT site. We spent the September module forming our own impressions of the site and working on our ideas for how we felt the site could be developed.

Coming back in October for the next module, it was time to open the floor to the CAT community. In the lead up to the module, an invitation was sent out to CAT staff for a ‘Planning for Real’ exercise in the Straw Bale Theatre on the Friday afternoon of our module – a chance for us to meet the people who work at CAT and listen to their ideas. Arriving at the beginning of the week, this gave us a short deadline to get ready.

The centrepiece of the Planning for Real exercise was an enormous 1:200 scale model of the entire CAT site; a prop which would help in this discussion, and give us a chance to express our own ideas at the end of the project. In the weeks we were away from CAT, we had all worked individually on parts of the model (buildings, trees and the model base), but it became very clear at the beginning of the module that we still had a lot of work to do if we wanted the model finished by the end of the week!

Early days in the construction of the model

So we split up into groups and set about turning the bare bones of our model into something we could present to the CAT community. Some people worked on the buildings, modelling any that we had missed in our initial survey of the site, while others cut out the model base and used cork to recreate the dramatic landscape that surrounds CAT. A team was sent out to collect small bits of trees and twigs to represent the vegetation of the site, and add to the work that was being done to define some of the existing paths and areas of greenery that populate the area.

In between all of this, of course, we still had lectures to attend! This module the lectures focused on some aspects of building physics: heat transfer in buildings, thermal comfort and thermal mass being the main topics. The highlight of this month’s lectures, of course, was the sauna practical; a short stint in the sauna followed by a brief swim in the lake really helped to illustrate some of the basics of thermal comfort!

Adding the ‘greenery’

Finally, the week came to a close with the ‘Planning for Real’ exercise. We only just finished the model in time: even as people started arriving, we were still drilling holes for trees! Still, the afternoon was a success – we had a fantastic turnout, with an enthusiastic response to our questions about the future of the site. Everyone wanted their say, and we gathered a huge range of ideas and opinions during the afternoon from all the people who came.

Now it’s time to put those ideas down on paper…

The completed model

Student Blog: the first week on the Prof Dip

We’ve asked some of our current students to write a short blog post about their studies after each module. You can see all of our student blogs here. Over the next year or so Rachel, a former long-term volunteer at CAT, will share her experiences on the Part II Architecture course.

Last month I started the Professional Diploma in Architecture course at CAT. It’s a very different approach to the study of Architecture, one I’m really looking forward to!

The first week was an introduction to the realities of climate change, one that will really set the context for our studies over the next year and a half. To start the week, we were plunged in at deep end with Ranyl Rhydwen’s lecture on environmental change – an interesting summary of the science behind climate change and the urgent need for immediate action. Having worked with Ranyl for six months before the start of the course, I was already familiar with some of the topics he covered, but it was still daunting to see the scale of the challenge we face! His adaptation and transformation lecture later in the week gave us a slightly more optimistic look at the future.

Our other lecturers looked at different aspects of climate change and sustainability: Tom Barker introduced us to the importance of biodiversity and the need to protect and encourage it; Adam Tyler summarised the current energy situation – how much we use, and where it comes from. We also heard about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project from Tobi Kellner: a scenario where Britain could rapidly decarbonise and be run entirely on renewable energy. Finally, Tim Coleridge’s lecture near the end of the week talked about the role of the construction industry, and the need to adapt the built environment for future climate conditions.

The week wasn’t all lectures, however, as we also began our first studio project! We have been tasked with producing a master plan for the future of the CAT, a possible vision of what the site could be in the next five, ten or twenty years – working alongside members of the community here and building upon strategies that already exist.

Sketch by Kirsty Cassels

As most people were new to CAT, our first job was to get to know the site (or, in my case, get to know it better). So, sketchbooks and cameras in hand, we set out to explore. For two days we wandered the site collecting information, drawing and photographing the things that caught our eye, talking to members of staff and visitors and reading up on the history of the site. Even having already worked at CAT for some time, I was able to really get involved and learn new things about this fascinating place.

Later, as we collated our notes and sketches, the issues and problems we wanted to tackle quickly became apparent – as did the potential opportunities. We set about preparing some initial strategies and proposals (gaining some insight into designing by consensus along the way), and discussed how we were going to involve the CAT community in our project.

Next month, we will start the consultation with CAT members of staff and ask them what it is they want for the site in the future. We’ve done our groundwork – let’s see where it goes from there!

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