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.
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.
Having 22 years’ teaching experience, and not liking the way things have been going for some years, I decided to try somehow to make a difference both to my life and possibly the lives of many others by taking more practical skills and thinking back into the classroom. But how to do it? Budgets are tight and present government educational climate wrong to try to do it from the inside, so, having long been interested in the world of renewable energy, sustainable building methods and permaculture design, I have decided to get trained up and qualified, and try to deliver what I feel is crucial stuff back into the world of primary and secondary education from the outside.
And so I began to look into the possibilities. It didn’t take long to realize that the courses available at CAT offer something you cannot get anywhere else, in terms of the wealth of knowledge concentrated there, the immersive environment, the “what you see around you everywhere reflects what you learn” whole ethos of the site itself, the great reputation of CAT and its long-standing history. I visited CAT as an enthusiastic 7 year old, and remember the revolutionary half-flushing toilets and hand-made wind turbine. From tiny acorns, as the saying goes.
I arrived on Saturday morning feeling excited but rather apprehensive about the weekend, and as the funicular carriage heaved me up the steep slope, it was difficult not to feel seven again, with my weekend’s belongings stuffed in a bag and a thousand questions stuffed in my head.
The gathering of people in front of the WISE building reflected the sheer diversity of those interested and driven to make whatever differences they can to tackle the environmental changes happening to the world, and to learn more about it, or to pass on their expertise, and I was immediately made to feel welcome, and taken on an impromptu tour of some of the work undertaken by students during a week of trying out different wall building and rendering techniques, including home-made lime putty, pizza ovens and a potential sauna. CAT students obviously know how to have fun 😉
The weekend formally began with an introduction to CAT from Tim Coleridge, followed by a lecture about climate change and adaptation delivered at lightning speed by Ranyl Rhydwen, who could get his message across to a sack of spuds, so lively is his style and passionate is his conviction. Catching our breath (!) we were whisked off on tours of some of the AEES [course to be replaced by Sustainability and Adaptation in September] students’ projects, and very industrious stuff it is too. From investigations into the properties of different mixes of hemp shives and lime, to exterior render experiments, some even including flour in the mix, and various different building projects underway, it was all very interesting. Brain overload was avoided by discussing also the social side of things; the starlit sauna up the steep slope behind the WISE building, or a, dare I say it, drinking den down the Magical Mole Hole!
Following a well-earned break, an exemplification of course modules and a Q&A session we went off to find our rooms. The first thing to hit me was the aroma of wood oil, and then the sliding door onto the decking area with daisies and a PV array, courtesy of this year’s REBE students. I could have stayed in there for the rest of the evening, except for the promise of pizza baked in a clay oven, a cool cider, some great company and an unexpected stomp up the slope to see the site from the wind turbines and to get eaten alive by midges as the sun sank behind some lenticular clouds.
A peaceful sleep, a renewable shower and a vegetarian CAT-special breakfast later, we were all gathered to listen to Tobi Kellner’s Zero Carbon Britain lecture. This was possibly one of the most powerful 40 minutes I have ever experienced, and one with a hugely positive message. I have since returning home, downloaded the pdf file of this lecture with its brilliantly clear and user-friendly info-graphics.
I had to leave early, to see if my wild-camping partner and dog had made it to Aberdovey in the heat of the weekend (which they had), but my head was left buzzing with all the activities and messages I had seen and heard, and the fabulous folk I met, and hope to meet again, as a student. Fingers crossed.