Should the serious business of sustainability be a laughing matter? According to the holistic learning principles promoted by CAT, the combination of green technology, having fun and fresh country air can lead to making better buildings
‘It is Day One of the course and I am up to my elbows in mud,’ writes student Ben French on his blog, capturing the ‘hands-on’ approach to teaching building construction adopted by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). ‘We get to know about squashing the mud to the right consistency, how to bind it with straw and push it through a recycled mesh held together with timber lathes, forming a rough plastered wall.’ This wall is made of things that nature gives freely, rather than of carbon-guzzling, pathogen-producing, cementitious materials that the building industry has come to rely on.
Getting stuck into ecologically sound technologies of construction by literally getting your hands dirty has been central to the ethos of CAT since it was founded in 1973 by the late Gerard Morgan-Grenville, a pioneer environmentalist and aristocrat manqué, on the site of a disused slate quarry near the Powys market town of Machynlleth, in Wales.
Morgan-Grenville, great grandson of the last Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, feared that ‘ordinary passers-by’ were oblivious to ‘the disastrous course on which our civilisation was set’.
Decades before sustainability had been absorbed by mainstream debate, he established an organisation that would not only make the environmental damage caused by conventional technologies evident to the public, but also steer a new generation of professionals towards finding solutions rather than reproducing the problem.
CAT today is a multi-faceted institution. Boasting the widest variety of renewable energy systems anywhere, it attracts some 65,000 visitors a year who come to see its exhibits and demonstration buildings, and take part in volunteer projects. A range of courses – from research degrees to Community Participation and Development (CPD) modules – mobilise the centre’s mission to foster a more balanced relationship with nature.
As with most of the educational programme, the professional diploma in architecture (which satisfies the terms of RIBA Part 2), is taught in residential modules: students attend college for intensive blocks of lectures, design tutorials and practical sessions, typically for a week at a time. During these blocks, they are caught up in a lively but demanding cycle of activity, living, eating and learning together.
According to faculty member Trish Andrews, this ‘boot camp’ atmosphere symbolises the school’s ethos: ‘Everyone plays their part, no one part more important than the other, but all significant.’ Conviviality is a pedagogical principle: ‘You actually learn more when you are having fun and sharing knowledge and experience with your peer group.’
Student projects address urban challenges framed by a heightened environmental awareness, offering a more mature take on sustainability than the gestures and gadgets that populate the architectural accessories marketplace. Recent graduate Jonny Marrion designed a centre to produce and celebrate cider, strategically located on Spike Island, Bristol.
Contributing to the 600 million-litre UK annual cider market, it comprises an urban orchard, a museum, an educational facility and a cider press. The existing graving dock is recycled to provide a holding pen for aeroponically grown apples, with barges used for loading so that articulated lorries need not enter the city.
Deramore Hutchcroft hoped to build up the resilience of a crime-blighted community in Manchester through a design and construction project founded on social processes. He set up a neighbourhood group and, through public seminars, slide shows, leafleting and newspaper articles, raised support for his proposal to bring a derelict site back into use.
Volunteers helped to build a straw bale meeting place and storage shed for suburban allotment gardens. Sadly, the building was razed to the ground by vandals shortly before completion, but the local solidarity inspired by the project remains intact.
By investigating everyday issues through the prism of sustainability, these and other projects acknowledge that there are rarely easy solutions to the environmental and social problems created by our way of life. For Andrews, ‘it is no use producing idealistic students who are then crushed by the realities of commerce’.
The educational task is, rather, to prepare them for the ‘hypocrisies and compromises thrown up in practice’. But at CAT we are reminded that things don’t have to be this way. For architecture and its technologies – technologies of production and of interpretation – there is now an alternative.
Photos of The Centre for Alternative Technology: Tim Soar
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy