Wonderful weeks of wind in wet west Wales!

A bit late I know, but better late than never I guess?? A couple of weeks ago I was back at CAT For the second week of the wind power module. This covers large scale commercial wind development, rather than the smaller scale wind module that I will be attending later this year.


Polenko wind turbine – ‘Stout’

The two weeks have been thoroughly enjoyable and extremely interesting. Before the course, wind power was my main interest, alongside hydro, so I had been really looking forward to this part of the course. It has also been quite an eye-opener in terms of just how many hoops developers have to jump through to get a project from conception to energisation, not least the biased views of ‘NIMBYs’ who can throw a real spanner in the works, despite often basing their objections on misinformation rather than fact or evidence. Alongside that you have got access issues, land designations, ecological impacts…the list goes on. Several students on the Biomass module that was running concurrently commented after hearing our group presentations that they wouldn’t be doing the wind module now as it’s far too complicated!

Despite these obstacles, my passion for wind power remains. It just makes so much sense for the UK to capitalise on its abundant wind resource, and I think we should be taking full advantage of it. Hopefully future generations will pick up the batten and NIMBYism will gradually erode away (here’s hoping!)


Nordtank wind turbine at Mynydd Gorddu

As usual on the course we had a couple of trips out, one to a local wind farm, Mynydd Gorddu which was the basis of our group presentation, and also a hike up the hills behind CAT to the bro Dyfi community wind turbines, which is what our technical report relates to. It was great to get up close to these magnificent machines, which in my opinion are very elegant pieces of green engineering (apart from perhaps the Polenko, which is quite a utilitarian-looking piece of kit!)

Throughout the fortnight we were also lucky to have several guest lecturers, covering various topics, all of whom delivered the material with real passion and enthusiasm, alongside Mike Patching, a veteran wind consultant who gave the bulk of lectures during the module, and whose breadth and depth of knowledge really showed through. One highlight for me was the final session of week two – an extremely thorough and interesting talk on offshore wind development from Pete Geddes of DONG Energy. This promises to be an exciting growth area in the UK and worldwide, especially here, where we already have a greater installed capacity than the rest of the world combined!

In summary, a great fortnight that has left me wanting to find out more, and a recommended module to take if you are thinking about joining the course.

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PassivHaus – new Euro dance genre or low-energy building standard?

Bit tardy with this blog but better late than never!

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 RE 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.

Canolfan Hyddgen PassivHaus building in Machynlleth

Canolfan Hyddgen PassivHaus building in Machynlleth

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 Powis 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!)

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The Eagle has landed at CAT

i have just returned home after spending my first week on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment (REBE) course at the Centre for Alternative Technology. It has been a packed week with 5 lectures or practical sessions each day, covering a broad range of topics. It has really fired my imagination and got me thinking about many aspects of sustainability that I knew little of before, so much so that on arriving home I had trouble sleeping as my head was buzzing so much!


The Sheppard lecture hall at CAT

i have long wanted to make a positive career change and have been aware of the REBE course for a couple of years and knew the excellent reputation that went with it. I came to the open day for the course in 2012 and could see for myself that they had an excellent setup at CAT, with some really passionate staff. I also met some students that were studying on the course at the time and they were positively evangelistic about the course and the centre. Despite this, I was uneasy about leaving the world of work and having a steady income and going back into education, particularly as I hadn’t enjoyed my first degree in mechanical engineering.

Great view from the accommodation at CAT

Great view from the accommodation at CAT (even better when cloud has lifted)

As the summer of 2013 ticked by I began to think about studying at CAT again, and clicked on to the website to discover that the course was due to start in only a matter of weeks! I got the application form filled out and was pleased to find a few days later that I had been accepted onto the course. At this stage I was still unsure as to whether I was doing the right thing, but just decided to go with it and see what happened.

As I arrived at CAT on Monday evening I had a big smile on my face thinking about the possibilities that may open up to me in the future and the new people I was about to meet. Having now completed the week I have to say that the experience has exceeded my expectations. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about their subjects and are also very approachable and I am lucky to have a great group of fellow students that I know will be a great source of support and friendship over the coming months (that is if we don’t fall out over the table tennis championship!).

I can’t imagine having the same experience at any other university running a RE course as CAT is so unique in the field of sustainability. I could keep on rambling about all the other aspects of CAT, but suffice it to say for now that I know that I have made the right decision in coming here to study.

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Renewing my education


It’s back to school for me this September!

After a mere 13 yr break I am returning to studying and will be heading to the Centre for Alternative Technology to join their Renewable Energy and the Built Environment course. In 2000 I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UMIST in Manchester. Having had a couple of uninspiring engineering jobs after university I lost interest in the field and decided to go travelling to take a break and explore the world a bit. When I returned I met a new group of friends and was offered a job working with a small construction company, which I enjoyed as it took me outside a lot. I eventually started up my own business and have been working in this area ever since.

Over the last couple of years I have become more and more interested in sustainability and green issues and particularly renewable energy. Most recently I have been working for an eco-building company called EcoVert solutions. The owner Tim Hulse is himself a graduate of the Architecture course at CAT. This has rekindled my passion for engineering, as I have finally found a branch of engineering that I can really get excited about and feel like I could make a difference to an important issue that is affecting the whole planet.

I’m slightly apprehensive about returning to study but excited at the same time and am really looking forward to learning more about renewable energy and getting hands-on with some of the kit at CAT!

Progress reports to follow!

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An Introduction to Biomass

An Introduction to Biomass.

Excellent summary of Biomass technology by Freya, from the Centre for Alternative Technology In Wales

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Trafford Mill – keeping out the cold (and pigeons!)

I had an interesting meeting today along with Tim Hulse from EcoVert Solutions at Trafford Mill in Chester. It was used for milling grain until 1952 and the site has been used for this purpose since 1302. It has two water wheels, one a double spoke and the other a single spoke, an there is a significant amount of the workings in a good condition.

The building is now used as a base for TCV Cheshire (the conservation volunteers) who carry out conservation activities such as pollarding and hedgelaying in the area, and have their offices in the mill. The building until recently was heated by expensive electric storage heating and is as leaky as a sieve when it comes to air-tightness, so it is ripe for some energy efficiency measures. Even with the log burner running you still need a coat on indoors, which obviously isn’t ideal.

They have already had a biomass boiler (log burning) installed, which fits well with their ready supply of wood from their conservation work, and this has been the stimulus for the next phase of development – to insulate and draft proof the building (some gaps are so big they are letting pigeons in!) to make the most of the heat that the burner supplies

. This is where Tim and I step in – we will be able to provide guidance and expertise on how to do this without compromising the existing fabric of the building, using natural and sustainable materials. It’s an exciting and interesting project and I will keep the blog updated with progress.

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Long time no blog!

It’s been several months since I last blogged, the main reason being that I have been busy working with EcoVert Solutions, a sustainable building company that I mentioned in an earlier post (https://renewingmycareer.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/ecovert-solutions-sustainable-and-sympathetic-developments/). So, here is a summary of what I’ve been up to.

Since October we have been working on four projects – one completed and three still ongoing. The first was a 1905 railway cottage on the Wirral that had serious damp issues having been rendered with sand and cement, leading to trapped moisture in the walls and creating problems internally. The solution was to remove the offending cement render and replace with a lime-based render system from Baumit, allowing the walls to breath and also providing flexibility that the cement render never had. The result was a reduction in internal humidity from 60-70% to 40-50%.

Existing render removed, waiting for new lime render

Existing render removed, waiting for new lime render

dandelion complete

Completed lime render project

Elsewhere, we also have the following projects ongoing: refurbishment of a 1750’s property in near Chester, also to remedy damp issues caused by cement based flooring and internal render (theme developing here!). The existing concrete floor and internal plaster has been removed and we are awaiting listing building consent for a new limecrete floor, wood fibre insulation and lime render. After digging out the existing floor, we were called back by the owner several days later after he discovered that water was penetrating the walls and pooling in the floor (the inside ground level now being below outside). To remedy this we have had to lay a french drain to the rear of the property to divert water around the front of the house, not an easy task considering the narrow access to the property and the sandstone bedrock that the house sits on!

In the Rossendale valley, we have also been working on a project on a remote former farmhouse in a stunning setting high up on the valley side. This has involved insulation with hempcrete and hemp-lime plaster to retain some warmth in this previously bare-stone building. The property is a hotbed of sustainability, also using biomass and heat pump heating systems and LED lighting (with the owner being a former lecture in sustainability at Salford Uni, I guess this isn’t too much of a surprise!)

2012-12-13 11.10.21

Stunning view down into Rossendale valley

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Detail of the window reveal after hempcrete layer

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Reveal after finishing coat of hemp-lime plaster

Finally, in Frodsham we have been working on a much more modern property – a 70’s house that has been suffering from a lack of adequate insulation. Barely any insulation in the loft and poorly fitted and low quality double glazing as well as cold bridges galore have left it feeling cold and draughty. The solution here is to use Kingspan between the rafters, and also kingspan-backed plasterboard over the top and on the external walls, and also aerogel-backed plasterboard around the windows and where space is tight. The existing double glazed windows and door unit will all be replaced with high-performing triple glazed units, increasing the comfort factor significantly.


Gaps around existing windows

lintel bridge

Metal lintel creating cold bridge across window frame

2012-12-14 10.18.37

Roof space before Kingspan inserted…

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…and after. Insulated plasterboard to follow over the top.

2012-12-17 11.47.10

Poor quality double glazing to be replaced with high quality triple glazing.

All really interesting projects and I look forward to going back and completing them over the coming weeks.

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Are we nearly there yet?…

The answer is yes!

Over the last two weeks I have been on a quest to complete the energy reviews of the National Trust’s Welsh holiday cottages, looking at things like loft insulation, doors, windows, heating systems and general property condition. In the first week I was at several locations, including Llanerchaeron, Cwmdu, near Llandeilo and Haverfordwest. With all the travelling around, I managed to get 7 cottages done.

One of the highlights of the week was my visit to Dinefwr park, near Llandeilo, home to Dinefwr Castle and Newton House, and also two cottages, Penparc and Home Farm farmhouse. The castle itself has seen better days, but sits in a magnificent position, overlooking the surrounding countryside. Newton House is a stout-looking Victorian mansion set in beautiful open parkland with the handsome looking White Park cattle milling around and chewing the cud.


Newton House, Dinefwr

Dinefwr park with its distinctive White Park cattle

Week two saw me travelling down to Stackpole, way down in the south west of Wales in Pembrokeshire. this was a much more productive week, with all the properties within a stone’s throw of each other – all within a few hundred metres of Stackpole quay.

Stackpole Quay

Holiday cottages at Stackpole Quay


Without having to travel around between properties I managed to get 13 done, including three near Amroth, about half an hour away. These three properties are all right next to the NT’s Colby woodland garden, which is a lovely rural garden retreat with formal walled garden, meadow and woodland areas (and another great tearoom!).

Pembrokeshire truly is a special place and a great area to come for a holiday. I’ve wanted to visit for some time, and this has been the perfect excuse to come and have a look around.

I began writing this post while sitting in the Boathouse tearoom down by the quay which is betting a good battering today from the wind and waves. I’m enjoying a pretty substantial bacon nap and cappuccino. Make sure you call in here if you’re in the area, you won’t be disappointed by the portion sizes! I can also recommend the cream tea, which as you can see from the picture below is also popular with the local wildlife!

On the subject of food I also had a couple of visits to the Stackpole Inn, a tardis-like pub, looking tiny from the outside, but boasting plenty of space inside. I can thoroughly recommend the Cawl, a combination of succulent lamb and fresh root vegetables in a kind of broth, it’s a meal in itself.

Just a mile away from the cottages at Stackpole quay is the Stackpole centre, where I was based for the second week. The centre is recently renovated as has some interesting energy saving features that could be applied to the cottages I’ve been surveying. To start with, the windows and doors are really well sealed, with modern double glazing, making the place very heat efficient. The low wattage lights are also on movement sensors, meaning that lights only come on when needed and can’t be left on accidentally. The centre also has heating and hot water provided by a 350kW biomass boiler (that uses wood from the estate which has been felled to provide more area for the planting of native broad leaf species). It also has solar thermal panels to provide some of the heat for hot water. the biomass boiler has an LPG backup, but gladly, this has not needed to be used since the biomass system was installed, which is great to hear as I’ve heard of several systems that have been poorly specified and hence not been so effective.

Trompe l’oeil frieze inside the pergola at Colby

Walled garden at Colby

It has been a fantastic two weeks, discovering parts of Wales that I have not seen before, with some breathtaking coastal scenery and rugged mountainous terrain.

This now leaves just three cottages to complete the whole of the portfolio in Wales, then the analysis work can begin to see what steps can be taken to improve their energy efficiency, and reduce their environmental impact.


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Famous for 15 minutes (in Wales)

Following on from an interview I did a few months back at NT North Wales HQ, here is the printed version, extracted from the Welsh National Trust members newsletter. Not my smartest outfit ever!



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Holiday Cottages – Volunteer energy efficiency work continues

Well said Paul!

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