Sandwiched between an overwhelmingly ugly Surrey shopping centre and a busy main road, Sir David Attenborough, no less, is planting a tree and declaring: “Today, is a historic day.” He really means it.
Maybe our children’s future is a turbo-heated Armageddon, but if it’s not, it will probably look a lot like this. The new, carbon-neutral, outstandingly sustainable home of the World Wide Fund for Nature, a hemispherical glass tube on stilts above a council car park in Woking, was officially opened today. If humanity is to survive, it is widely reckoned it will do so living in buildings of this nature.
Known as the Living Planet Centre, jumping panda animations will greet visitors to its WWF Experience, where schoolchildren will interact with Ocean, River, Forest and Wildlife Zones.
Since the mid-20th century, many of the ideas behind humanity’s attempts to protect animals and the natural world have been pioneered by the WWF. It is hoped their new home will be a living, breathing (well, almost breathing) example of that.
“The World Wide Fund for Nature is one of the great hopes for the world,” Sir David Attenborough said. “This building enshrines that, and advertises it to the world.”
Its features, to name but a few, include photovoltaic panels for solar energy, extensive glass to maximise natural light, four specially designed recycled aluminium wind cowls for natural ventilation, rainwater in the toilets, and ground-sourced heat pumps bringing warm air up from 200 metres below.
New habitats and plant species have been installed around the grounds, while indoors a home has been found for three tall trees (one of which Sir David was responsible for planting). The concrete is all recycled, as is the carpet, and the computer equipment to be used by staff has, for the most part, been recycled from the 2012 Olympics.
The sense of utter tranquillity inside, from the high swooping ceilings to the plants and trees, is all the more remarkable for the building’s urban location. It has been built between a canal and a small area of woodland designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, but even so, it remains in an ugly corner of a fairly shabby town centre, giving a tantalising glimpse of the possible.
The World Wildlife Fund, as it was then known, was finally set up in 1961, The far-sighted founders included the biologist Julian Huxley and renowned ornithologist and painter Peter Scott. Others signatories came from Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland and the US.
The organisation originally fought hard to protect individual species, such as the Arabian oryx, from extinction. Eventually, the focus shifted from individual species to ecosystems. Sir David, who is an ambassador for the WWF, said: “Now, it’s not just ecosystems. Now the shift is global. If you wanted to do something, you had to persuade people of the world not to pollute. The planet is an ecosystem. The WWF has been the leader in changing the world’s attitudes towards nature.”
It is hardly surprising that such an organisation should lead the way, with its approach to sustainability, but the rest of the world is following suit. “This building has certainly pushed the boundaries,” said Mike Taylor, whose practice Hopkins Architects designed the building. “But green credentials are crucial in more and more of the work we do. Shareholders, the public, they demand it. We do a lot of work with universities, especially in America. There, the students are holding their universities to account over sustainability. And, even if you are cynical about the environment, as energy costs are rising you will want to save money on energy.”
As is increasingly common, consultants on low carbon energy were employed, with some surprising results. “We thought about triple glazing for the facades, which would insulate better, and save energy. But, in fact, the carbon [used in producing and transporting] the frames, and in the extra glass, turned out to be higher [than the energy savings] if it was triple glazed.”
Of course, the most significant impact the building will have on the environment is through the work that is done here, by the organisation’s 200 staff. Sir David is unambiguous about the task ahead, and more importantly, unlike many environmentalists, he believes it is not too late to make a difference.
“You can’t turn the clock back, of course. You can’t put back forests that are gone, not for a century, and the population size is not going to decrease. But we can slow down the rate of increase, we can cut down the carbon we put in the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s never happened before that the whole world has come together and made a decision. To go as far as we have [done] to reduce carbon is an impressive achievement.
“But you cannot have unlimited growth in a limited circumstance. You can’t expand infinitely in a finite planet. It depends how far you want to take it, how far you want to reduce your demands. If you ask people in some parts of Africa, they want to live, of course they do, but the circumstances they live in are terrible. No food. No water. That is why overseas aid is important. When living standards rise, birth rate falls. Give women control over their own bodies. Improve literacy. Give people a vote, then birth rate falls.”