Meet the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment students….

REBE Student Interview

MEET the new REBE’s ! (Renewable Energy in the Built Environment) Students…

Dashing between lectures, I managed to catch a quick word with some of the people studying on the MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment masters at CAT. Who are they, why did they come and what do they want?

Charming and professional it seemed like they were in thinking mode and it was only by the skin on my teeth that I (a media and marketing volunteer) managed to meet these lovely people on a mission. Lets hear what they had to say…

REBE Student Interview


What motivated you to do this MSc?

“I wanted to learn more about different renewable energy technologies, and so this seemed the right course for me. A colleague of mine did the course a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I came up to look around a couple of times and was really impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment from staff”

What were you doing before you came?

“Well I did and still do work full time for  a medium sized wind turbine consultancy in Swansea, called Seren Energy”.

What do you feel you are getting from the course?

“I am getting hands on practical skills and knowledge from people who work in the industry”.

What has the most interesting thing that you’ve learnt about since doing the course?

“Everything, All of it! Its too hard to choose as everything has been very relevant and interesting”.

How do you find the course structure/ teaching?

“Brilliant! But intense… Its a lot of work since I am working full time”.


REBE MSc student and Electrical Design Consultant for Atkins.


Occupation: REBE MSc student and Electrical Design Consultant for Atkins.

What motivated you to come on the course?

“I wanted to continue progressing in this field, following completion of an undergraduate degree in renewable energy. More specifically, I felt the practical aspects of the REBE course would help to solidify my academic knowledge”.

What do you feel you are getting from the course?

“Practical experience combined with new academic knowledge; it’s really interesting learning from people who not only teach, but also work within the renewable energy industry. They know their stuff!”

What is the most interesting thing you have learnt about so far?

“Learning about Passivhaus was especially interesting, with the practical we did in the self-build really bringing the concepts to life”.

What do you hope to do with your MSc after the course?

“I intend to apply for profession registration with the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET). Following this I would ideally like to complete a doctorate, hopefully based on the dissertation I do as part this MSc”.

How do you find the course structure/ teaching?

“The first week was a bit of a shock, as its quite an intensive schedule, but I have got used to it now. The teaching is of a high standard and I certainly feel I’m getting my moneys worth!”

Would you’d change anything?

“I wouldn’t mind a bit more time to recap on lecture notes, as there really is a lot to take in. So maybe an additional free period would be helpful”.


New Skills in 2014: Timber Frame Building

We have a host of exciting short courses taking place at CAT in 2014, and up until the end of January there’s 10% off! One of our most popular courses is Timber Frame Building, a five day course from 31st March to the the 4th April 2014. 

This course is for anyone interested in sustainable construction, timber buildings and building your own home. This course particularly welcomes participants from NGOs working in development, self-builders, construction teachers, individuals looking to re-skill and architects. Over the five days students will gain unique hands-on experience, underpinned by talks on the process of planning and building timber structures.

The tutors on the Timber Frame Building course  are all experts in the field: Pat Borer is an architect with over 35 years experience in designing and constructing green buildings; Duncan Roberts is Programme Leader of CAT’s Part II in Architecture and Geoff Stow built his own home in Lewisham and is part of the Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB).

Timber Framers in 2013

The course attracts a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds such as Yotin, who came on the course with his neighbour last year to learn how to live off-grid. The two explained that “the lecturers are kick-ass, down to earth and informative” sharing their expertise with a “hands-on approach”.

At the end of the course participants understand timber frame design and are able initiate their own timber frame self-build projects.

For more information about the Timber Frame Building course visit our website.

On the 16th August there will be a new course closely linked to this one: Traditional Timber Frame Joints. The course will cover an overview of the tools and techniques used in marking and cutting joints in a series of hands-on workshop session.

Remember, we are offering a 10% on courses booked before the end of January. For terms and conditions please visit our website.

A Splendid Day Visit for Steiner School Students

We had a great visit from the Steiner Academy in Hereford today.

With a strong focus on teaching for sustainability, the school practices what it preaches by generating its own electricity on-site using photovoltaic panels. They also have a wood chip boiler for under-floor heating in the classrooms. Core to the school’s ethos is bringing nature into the classroom, supporting creativity in students and promoting respect.

During a tour of the CAT site by Ann, a member of our Education Team, the students interacted with our on-site displays. The students, who are currently doing their GCSEs, said that ‘they enjoyed the site very much’ and the willow sculptures on-site reminded them of their own school. Some students said they found ‘the mole hole a little bit scary’ but thought it was ‘very creative and artistic’.

Visit our Education Centre to find out more about what CAT can offer to school groups.

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.

CAT is an educational charity, dedicated to training the engineers and architects of the future. This would not be possible without the support of our generous donors. If you would like to be a part of this exciting and important work you can donate online today on our website

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

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.



ZCBlog: Educating for a zero carbon future

This week on ZCBlog Sarah Everitt, a long-term volunteer at CAT, describes her work linking between different parts of the CAT team: Education, and Zero Carbon Britain.

Within the first week or so of settling in to the Zero Carbon Britain team I was finding out all about the progress of the research, the schedule for the report and the communications strategy and aims. Having a parent who works in education support I expressed an interest in how we would enthuse young people about ZCB and spread the message through schools.  It then became apparent that a gap existed between the researchers who produce the ZCB report and the Education department who inform young visitors and schools about the work that CAT does.  Therefore, it was suggested that it would be useful to have someone who could provide a link between the two departments, and I was glad to be appointed the responsibility.

The benefits of creating such a link were obvious, in that Education could tell me what they want or need from ZCB to best convey what ZCB is all about – whether it be to better understand what the scenario portrays and advocates, the science behind it, possible resources and ways to communicate the scenario, or specific information needed to put together accurate and informative ZCB activities.

From the beginning of this project, it’s been clear to me that CAT’s Education team has a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity about ZCB and its importance to society.  Deirdre, Ann and Christine have all been working at CAT for over ten years and are lovely people to work with.  They already give presentations and a workshop on ZCB, and have a great deal of insight into the key details they would like to put across, their target audience and how their audience may question things.

In the workshop, several types of activities are based around a giant map of Britain.  The students can interact with the map and use it to present what they would do towards a ZCB and where.  Looking at these existing materials, we compiled a long list of requests for scientific notes, updated information, clearer graphs and diagrams and updated resources.  There were also a few questions about the ZCB scenario that they had received from audiences, which I could then enquire about with the appropriate ZCB researcher.

They were very happy to have someone to whom they can direct their questions, and who has more time to help tweak technical and visual details of presentations and resources.

So far I have enjoyed adding notes to their presentations and adding new slides, and as the report is finalised I will continue to update their ZCB presentations.  I have found it really interesting to see all the work and enthusiasm that goes into producing the Educational material.  Also, in the process I have learnt a lot more about climate science and policy, and the ins and outs of the ZCB scenario.

For example, I have learnt about how the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be explained as the carbon ‘bathtub’ effect.  It is like a tub filling with water, where more water flows from the faucet than the drain can take away. And, as the global temperature increases, the size of the drain decreases as current stores of carbon either cannot take in enough to match the rate of emissions or the stores themselves begin to degrade and release carbon.  This perpetuates the cycle and increases the rate of temperature change. The ‘bathtub’ effect essentially explains the runaway rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations – and with humans pumping vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, the current CO2 level is higher than it’s been in at least 800,000 years (NRC, 2010*).

I am looking forward to creating and updating some engaging resources and activity sheets to complement Education’s existing resources and presentations.  An example of a type of resource used is maps of wind speed and water depth off UK coasts, with a brief info sheet explaining offshore wind turbines. Using this, high school pupils are asked where they would place offshore wind turbines and how many.  This gives an idea of the research behind the scenario.  I will create a more accessible map key and put together a more up to date and visually appealing info sheet.

It is great that in the future there will be more opportunities to create educational resources alongside the updated report.  I hope that there can always be a person there from ZCB whom can give time to work together with education, and provide them with ZCB information and resource material.  An idea for a future resource could be a snazzy, child friendly, information and activity pack provided alongside a presentation or workshop.  Pupils could then take home the ZCB vision of the future and perhaps act on or ponder it, or perhaps even just leave in a drawer and rediscover it a few years later – a spark of curiosity reignited. Some will want to find out more about what is happening towards ZCB now, or maybe discuss ZCB with their parents and decide on some things they can do together as a family to help achieve a zero carbon Britain.

I would like to help develop a workshop package that could be sent out to schools, including a whole host of activity ideas and resources that the school could base a non-curriculum day around (perhaps even a ‘A ZCB Future’ day).  In this way ZCB could be communicated more widely across the UK, even to schools that haven’t yet heard of or visited CAT.  There is great potential for creating this from what education already work with.  I look forward to discussing it further with them, and hopefully to begin creating the package alongside CAT’s enthusiastic Education team.


Are you a student, teacher or someone else interested in learning more about CAT’s educational resources on Zero Carbon Britain – or in helping to develop new resources? Contact Sarah at with your questions!


*National Research Council (USA) (2010), Advancing the Science of Climate Change. Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change.

Raw Experience – Becca

“I hadn’t lost interest in engineering but I lost all, sort of… respect for it I guess. Because whilst beer and trifles are good things in and of themselves you get very fed up very quickly of people taking them so seriously… Whereas of course renewable energy is… is deep blue hero stuff! You actually get to save the world whilst doing something interesting with spanners. That is the difference for me, it gives me the chance to do something that I find fulfilling and meaningful.”

Becca graduated from the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment masters course at CAT a couple of years ago. On a recent visit back to talk to current students about her projects we caught up with her to talk about her experience of studying at CAT. Here she talks openly about the difference it made to her:


I originally studies mechanical engineering at Salford University a long time ago. I had a couple of summer jobs doing building services and then I spent 4 years working in process engineering – mostly dairies and breweries. I got fed up of that, left engineering all together and then spent several years doing a random selection of things.


In 2007 I found myself at a bit of a crossroads and I applied to be on the volunteer programme at CAT with the engineering department – and got in. So I spent 6 months doing that. At the end of that I thought “you know what, actually I would like to be back in engineering again and this is something I could feel passionate about”.


I put a CV out on a job site and one of the job agencies came back to me and said “how would you feel about doing some more studying – one of the companies is quite interested in you but you have been out of engineering a long time”. And I said “Yeah – I’d take their hand off” and then I thought god, I actually meant that.


And the REBE course was just starting up at CAT then so I came into the department and had a chat with them. I started a couple of weeks later.


I hadn’t lost an interest in engineering but I lost all, sort of, respect for it I guess. Because whilst beer and trifles are good things in and of themselves you get very fed up very quickly of people taking them so seriously. You think ‘well really, the sun will still come up on Monday if M+S don’t get their Ski yoghurt on time’. I just couldn’t really care about it as much as the people who are working on that need you to care about it. Whereas of course renewable energy is… is deep blue hero stuff! You actually get to save the world whilst doing something interesting with spanners. That is the difference for me, it gives me the chance to do something that I find fulfilling and meaningful.


I started work a couple of weeks after I did my first module, with another building services firm. That was based partly on my summer at CAT and partly on the summer job in building services I had years ago. That was a very steep learning curve. They had some really good environmental aspirations and had done some really good work on low energy building for a lot of years. We were bought out by a multinational then merged with another company…


Since I graduated I moved into the climate change and renewables team. So I’m still doing some buildings energy, using my existing knowledge on that, but I’m getting to do more specific renewable energy and also carbon management programmes. I’ve been involved in BREEAM looking at the more big picture sustainability stuff looking at things from every angle”.


The course is incredibly intense. You turn up on a Tuesday evening and from then until Sunday afternoon you are sleeping, eating, breating, living that particular module.


The people who came on the course – it is partly that the course inspires people to great things but also that some really interesting individuals are drawn to CAT anyway and and I learned just as much from the people I was studying with as the lecturing staff – who were also brilliant. I’ve stayed friends with a number of them and I’ve got a really good network through that.


They were just putting up the rammed earth walls for the WISE lecture theatre when I was volunteering – running practice trial with endless different variations in the woodchip barn – different amounts of water and techniques for tamping it down – taking the mould off an seeing it crumble into the ground. So it’s really exciting to see it finally up and operational.


The first lecture I had in here was when I did the science symposium last summer and presented my thesis. For my thesis I was looking into bacteriological levels in domestic hot water cylinders that are twinned up with solar thermal. Basically trying to investigate whether the addition of low grade heat means that you are running the risk of increasing your bacterial levels, specifically Legionella because that is the big one.


I would like to do more on district energy and not just looking at it at a building scale but at a district and community level. I think that is where you can have projects that are technically viable but small enough that they can be approved by one council, built by one developer, funded by one backer. And local enough that you can hopefully get some sort of community ownership or engagement with it.


Keep a look out on the CAT blog for more raw experience student stories over the next few weeks.