Sustainable education: eco-palace rises in the West

Students wanting to take their jobs in a green direction can sign up at a new institute in Wales
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The Independent Online

Ten months ago, one of Europe’s greenest postgraduate education centres for sustainability courses was a jumbled mess of rotting wood and black mould after a dispute with the contractor. Today, its official opening, the centre in Wales rises on the slope of an old slate tip, as if nesting in a forest glade, made of 300 tons of earth, wood, hemp and lime.

This is the new home of the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (Wise) that specialises in postgraduate courses in renewable energy, green architecture and sustainable land use. It is part of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth, which has expanded to meet demand for its qualifications.

The thick walls of the wood-framed building are constructed of subsoil from a local quarry rammed into a shuttering system until they have the consistency of soft rock, and finished with Hemcrete, a mixture of hemp and lime.

The centrepiece is a huge, circular lecture theatre with views over the southern peaks of Snowdonia. But it nearly didn’t happen. The contract was terminated in June last year after a dispute with the contactor which ended up in the High Court. Meanwhile, the unfinished building was left exposed to the elements.

“The site was a distressing sight for us, and the architects who had done the greatest design of their lives,” says Phil Horton, CAT’s special projects officer. “The wooden frame had not been properly protected and water had damaged the timber, which was covered in mould.”

The High Court ordered the contractor to pay £530,000 within two weeks, just enough time for the company to go into liquidation. With little chance of getting the money, CAT launched a fundraising appeal, which has nearly reached its target, and appointed a contractor to finish the job.

CAT, which also runs a visitors’ centre and free information service, attracts architects, engineers, energy experts and other professionals, who study for its Masters degrees, which are validated by the University of East London.

Though it is possible to do the Masters courses full time in a year, most combine their studies with employment, attending for eight intensive five-day sessions over two years to gain a diploma which can be converted into an MSc on completion of a thesis.

The architecture Masters in advanced environmental and energy studies looks at the relationship between humans and the environment, offering an ecological perspective on building.

For those with an engineering background, the MSc in renewable energy and the built environment combines practical work and lectures. Modules on a range of energy technologies are offered, such as biomass, solar and wind power plus building physics and design, energy conservation and basic electrical theory. The centre also provides a doctoral research degree, validated by the University of Wales. The residential element brings together students from a range of backgrounds, from those working for local authorities or public bodies to businessmen and career changers. Ana Perez Calvo, 30, senior planning officer in the planning department of Kensington and Chelsea council, in London, is sponsored by her employer to do the part-time Masters in renewable energy in the built environment.

“I hadn’t actually been to the centre when I applied, and I was surprised how lovely it was when I arrived for my first residential module,” she says. “I live in London and I couldn’t believe a university could be found in the middle of the mountains.”

With a degree in biological sciences and a Masters in integrated environmental studies, she is able to understand the more technical parts of the course. “If you are not interested in how the technologies work, then it would be better to do the architecture Master,” she says. “What I am learning is helping me already – I work with surveyors on big developments and it is much easier to assess energy statements and discuss them now I have a better understanding of the technology.”

Sylvia Juzwa, an architect, found a new job through contacts made at CAT. She became a sustainability consultant for a large architecture and engineering practice just a few months after enrolling on the MSc in architecture, advanced environmental and energy studies. An American graduate of the University of Illinois, she came to the UK five years ago after winning a fellowship to observe sustainable architecture in Europe.

“From my first job, I could see that sustainability wasn’t being addressed in architecture and I thought something was wrong,” she says. “I have continually tried to find more sustainable firms to work for. Eventually, I realised I wasn’t going to learn everything I wanted to know through practice alone.” Sylvia has been studying part time at the centre for two years, has submitted her thesis and is planning her new career.

Today marks a new era for a centre that was founded more than 30 years ago by a group of young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. “The building with its sustainable materials, natural ventilation and renewable energy sources has remained true to their principles,” says the architect, Pat Borer.

"WE DECIDED WE WANTED CAREERS IN RENEWABLE ENERGY"

Chris Coonick and her husband, Steven, were working in financial services when they decided to uproot from Bristol and restore a derelict barn in the south of France. They were aiming for an alternative lifestyle in the beautiful countryside and planned to use renewable energy sources.

But the authorities would not allow renewables, because they would be noticeable in the Pyrenees National Park. “We ended up with a massive diesel generator, so we quickly got rid of the barn and decided we wanted careers in the renewable energy industry,” she says.

Both enrolled on a vocational degree in electrical engineering and renewable energy at the University of Plymouth and then the CAT Masters in renewable energy and the built environment.

Once they have got enough industry experience, the couple’s long-term plan is to set up as renewable energy consultants.

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