Education in Construction


Centre for Alternative Technology

The Centre for Alternative Technology has recently announced its plans to build the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education, or WISE, an ambitious, £5 million project scheduled for completion in early 2006. Each phase of the development will be opened as it is completed, and the building process itself will be open to the public, as far as possible, throughout the evolution of the project.

Funded by a number of public and private donations, the WISE project will consist of a complex of environmental education and conference facilities. WISE is designed to continue CAT's mission to 'inspire, inform and enable', to make lifelong learning in sustainable technologies both accessible and affordable.

Why WISE?

The growing popularity of CAT's courses in sustainable development has meant the Centre's teaching and accommodation facilities are in need of expansion. Coupled with this is an increasing demand from outside organisations for an environmental conference venue. WISE will be a venue in which students and conference participants can meet to learn about a range of sustainable development issues and which will also embody and demonstrate these same sustainability principles.

The scope of the WISE project also extends beyond CAT to issues of development in the surrounding Dyfi Valley area, to Wales itself, and to the global issue of climate change.

With the decline of traditional steel and coal industries in Wales, the emerging solution has been to develop a knowledge-based economy, with an emphasis on encouraging indigenous enterprise. Sustainable technologies have the potential to play an important role in this future, particularly in the energy sector. Added to this is the need within Wales to meet carbon emission reductions in line with the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's report, 'Energy: the changing climate'. A 60 per cent reduction from current carbon emissions levels is recommended by 2050, so that the combined global total is kept to a level that prevents intolerable climate change.

Meeting this target in Wales requires widespread and essential restructuring. Many organisations are still poorly prepared, as yet, to face the immediate and long term challenge of CO2 emission cuts. A key focus of the WISE initiative will be on Continuing Professional Development, helping businesses to acquire the sustainable development skills they require to meet emissions targets.

What will WISE comprise?

WISE will consist of a series of buildings, which will include the following facilities:

        a circular, rammed earth lecture theatre, with seating for up to 200 people

        3 seminar rooms

        reception facilities

        common room and bar, opening on to a private courtyard

        kitchen and restaurant refurbishment

        a laboratory

        workshops for technical course activities

        new accommodation and refurbishment of some of the existing accommodation; all rooms will have network access

        office space

        storage and IT operations rooms

        toilets, demonstrating a range of water / sewage technologies

The facilities will be fully equipped with IT and audio visual equipment as required.

In addition, WISE will bring with it numerous other outputs, including employment opportunities for teaching and support staff, an increase in student enrolment, the dissemination to CAT visitors of information about the innovative and sustainable technologies and methods incorporated into the buildings themselves, the reduction of waste to landfill, the reduction of CO2 emissions, and so on.

A holistic approach

From its inception, a holistic approach has been taken to the planning and building of WISE, not just in terms of the interrelationships and impacts of the materials and processes used, but of the people who will be occupying and constructing the complex. As architect Pat Borer notes, 'The key to achieving a successful "green" building is the continuing involvement of the users in the evolving design process, from the overall philosophy right down to the details.'

CAT staff were involved from an early stage through a process known as Planning for Real. A day long series of discussions and modelling enabled the architects to canvas views from staff on the physical nature of the buildings. Dialogue between CAT and those involved in the construction of the complex has also been encouraged using a partnering contract model known as PPC2000. The aim of this contract is to bring on board all contractors, designers and specialist consultants at an early stage in the project in order to improve communication and to minimise costs, wastage and delays during construction.

Construction approach

The project aims to minimise environmental impacts both during construction and during occupancy. Current best environmental practice in building is the BREEAM criteria - the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method. As WISE will go beyond 'best practice', CAT specialists are working with the project's designers, main contractor and sub-contractors to determine policy on such things as the buildings' materials selection, construction process, energy usage, maintenance requirements, equipment selection, transport, and health of construction workers and future occupants. A Buildings' Performance Assessment under the BREEAM criteria will demonstrate the extent of WISE's environmental performance beyond best practice.

Construction Materials and Processes

Some decisions on materials and methods for the project are not yet finalised. However, the following general criteria will apply.

Buildings - CAT's basic principles of super-insulation, passive solar design, air-tight construction and natural, controlled ventilation will be applied as appropriate. These technologies are in themselves innovative, but have already been demonstrated on existing CAT buildings. WISE will demonstrate further innovation in the following areas.

     Local, low embodied energy materials. As energy use in the building will be so low, the energy contained in the construction materials becomes a significant factor.

     High passive levels of energy efficient glazing for maximum natural daylighting and passive heat gain.

     Waste minimisation during manufacture and construction.

     Healthy indoor air quality, with good ventilation.

     Use of new building materials and new applications of known materials. The project will aim to use new bio-composite natural fibre technologies and will continue CAT's ground-breaking use of earth as a structural element. One aspect is to use prefabricated, rammed earth blocks to create the circular walls of the lecture theatre. Pat Borer and CAT are also currently researching (with funding from GLASU) the use of woodwool / lime blocks. These blocks combine two well-understood, environmentally benign materials - wood fibres and lime - and if testing is positive they will be used, primarily for wall construction.

Energy systems - Electrical equipment and systems will be selected and installed to minimise energy requirements as well as electromagnetic radiation. The WISE complex will be integrated into CAT's existing energy systems and incorporate a number of new demonstration technologies.

     Solar water heating integrated into a district heating system

     Semi-transparent PV technologies used to provide both energy and shading.

     Biomass combined heat and power (CHP), linked to the district heating system

     Transport - the project will include an analysis of CAT's transport needs and the provision of transport facilities powered by more sustainable energy sources.

Water and sewage - The focus will be on minimisation of demand, followed by natural treatment of water, grey water and sewage. The following features are proposed:

     low flow taps and toilet systems.

     water use monitoring.

     biological, zero energy input sewage treatment systems.

Ongoing education

Throughout the construction phase of the WISE project,  monitoring systems will explore the complex interaction between land use, energy, food production, buildings, transport, waste management and people. Phil Horton, project manager for WISE, says that the engineering consultants on the project are excited to work with a client who takes sustainability criteria and translates them into real design decisions. The consultants are also pleased that CAT, unlike most clients, is keen that they should remain involved after the construction phase is completed. The consultants will return to compare their design models with the performance of the buildings in use, thus allowing all partners to learn from the project.

This level of commitment to the aims of the WISE project is inspiring and it is hoped that these consultants, like future visitors to the site, will go on to use what they have learned from WISE in their future building projects and lifestyle choices.

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