Gavin Harper is a whizz-kid on a mission. Most university students find that studying for one degree is time-consuming enough. Not Gavin. He is working towards a master's degree in sustainable architecture from the University of East London, while completing a bachelor's degree in technology with the Open University.

On top of that, his fourth book is about to be published. Pretty good going for someone who's still only 19 - an age when many students are nursing hangovers, watching television.

It's an unorthodox route to academic stardom. Gavin left school at 16 and skipped A-levels in favour of working for a building services company. Not everyone thought that leaving school was the right decision.

"The teachers told me I was mad. I came across a lot of opposition. But as I was coming up to GCSEs, I had been finding school a bit too easy. I didn't really feel challenged."

Things didn't fall into place smoothly at first. After working for six months Gavin realised that the job didn't live up to his expectations. So, at 17, he signed up to do an undergraduate degree with the Open University and started writing his first book, 50 Awesome Auto Projects for the Evil Genius, based on his hobby of snazzing up old cars.

Explaining where his drive stems from, Gavin says that when his job didn't work out, the bruising experience made him more determined to make it. "When I left school, it almost felt like I was a bit of a failure. So I wanted to try to turn that failure around and succeed at something, to prove that there's nothing wrong with throwing yourself into something and realising it was wrong. Life isn't a dress rehearsal."

Gavin is focused on the environment as well as his career. His master's degree at the University of East London, an architecture MSc in advanced environmental and energy studies, runs in conjunction with the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales.

Students on the course spend five intensive days at the centre every month, investigating how buildings can make use of sustainable technology, such as solar panels and wind power.

"Technology is all well and good," Gavin explains, "but it's got to be done in the right way." And he's already putting his new knowledge into practice - his latest book, Solar Energy Projects for the Evil Genius, was inspired by what he learnt on the course, and he's about to fly to the States as the United Kingdom representative of a fuel cell company.

Gavin chose to study at the Open University and University of East London because of their reputations for open access and flexibility. "People at both universities were really receptive when I applied. And both courses are designed to fit in with people's lives."

He thinks a traditional academic route might not have been such a good match for him. "My friends at other universities have told me that it wouldn't have suited me, since there's a lot of time sitting around doing nothing. I don't feel like I missed out at all, because I've met lots of really interesting people from all different ages and trades. It's an electric environment."

Kara Millen, a zesty Scot who is Gavin's tutor and a senior lecturer at the University of East London, says that in spite of his youth, he fits in very well with the rest of his older classmates.

"We have a diverse range of psychologists, landscape architects, and engineers studying on the course, but it's a really cohesive group. Most people who are doing the MSc have been working and want to change their lives in some way, so they are really eager to learn, and Gavin has that drive and ambition too. And because the course is residential, they're immersed in study during the day, but they can spend their evenings chatting together over a pint."

Gavin is thrilled with how things have turned out, but he's keeping his feet glued to the ground. He lives with his family in Essex, and when not writing books he works as technician.

And then there's the small matter of parallel parking. In spite of having written a book delving into the minute inner mechanics of cars, Gavin admits he hasn't passed his driving test. It may not be the usual order of things - but this is someone who leapt on to an MSc instead of A-levels. "It's ironic," he says, "but I like doing things differently."