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The new WWF headquarters in Woking: one of the UK’s greenest buildings and a new Surrey attraction

PUBLISHED: 13:03 13 January 2014 | UPDATED: 11:58 22 April 2015

The new Woking headquarters building of WWF-UK, the Living Planet Centre

The new Woking headquarters building of WWF-UK, the Living Planet Centre

© Richard Stonehouse / WWF-UK

When the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) relocated its UK headquarters to Woking, they created not only one of the greenest buildings in the country but also a new hands-on visitor attraction that is set to open this month. Viv Micklefield gets a sneak preview...

The four experience zones cover the four key areas of WWF's work... wildlife, oceans, rivers, forest The four experience zones cover the four key areas of WWF's work... wildlife, oceans, rivers, forest

Imagine coming face-to-face with some of the mysterious creatures that dwell in an ocean’s depths, or hearing the chorus of sounds high up in a rainforest canopy, all right on the doorstep in Surrey. It’s certainly not what most people would expect, but then neither is the new state-of-the-art headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund. Indeed, their Living Planet Centre is anything but ordinary – and the WWF Experience within it, a quite extraordinary discovery in the heart of our commuter belt.

Having been based on a Godalming industrial estate for the past 20 years, WWF-UK has journeyed – along with the charity’s famous black and white panda first penned back in 1961 by the naturalist Sir Peter Scott – 10 miles north in favour of a site fit for a cutting-edge building that also had better public transport links. So, does this unusual structure, sandwiched between Horsell’s ancient heathland and Woking’s town centre, perhaps signal a change in outlook all-round?

“It’s continuing to build on what we’ve been doing for a number of years,” says chief executive David Nussbaum. 
“Of course, we’re best-known for our work with iconic species like pandas, tigers, rhinos and so on, but for those species to thrive, the habitats that they live in need to be flourishing and that’s what we’re focusing on here with this new visitor experience.

“The four experience zones cover the four key areas of WWF’s work: wildlife, oceans, rivers and forests.

“We decided to call it the Living Planet Centre because having a planet that’s vibrant and full of life in all its great diversity is what we’re about.”

Green credentials

From the outside, the centre’s curved, silver coloured roof shimmers enticingly through the trees. And, because the whole building’s supported on stilts above a public car park, it has the appearance of floating alongside the Basingstoke Canal. Designed by Hopkins Architects, the company behind the London 2012 velodrome at the Olympic Park, some of the technology originally used to power the Games has been refurbished and used here. It’s just one of the many ideas behind WWF’s ambition to reduce their carbon footprint and to make this one of the greenest buildings in the country.

As well as the extensive use of solar energy, there’s also rainwater harvesting and underground heat pumps, while the choice of building materials includes recycled concrete and, of course, timber from responsibly managed forests.

The environmental story continues inside the Living Planet Centre where wooden pillars arch loftily overhead, interspersed by huge panes of glass providing masses of natural light. It’s reminiscent of being within a cathedral, or if the imagination is allowed to run riot, the belly of a giant whale. Almost 300 people work here, connected to the charity’s global network of offices, but in the spirit of sustainability even the chief executive hot desks.

“This is a building that is trying to demonstrate what imaginative, innovative design and construction looks like because the built environment is a big part of our impact on the planet,” says David Nussbaum.

Costing a cool £20 million, the funds for the Living Planet Centre were raised mainly through an appeal, and many local companies and benefactors offered their backing too. Indeed, it’s thanks to the generosity of long-standing supporter, the Rufford Foundation, one of the charity’s key benefactors, that the idea for the WWF Experience was born.

To get more of us to understand the importance of living in harmony with nature, this meant thinking outside the box – and that’s where the visitor experience comes in.

Walking around the four habitat zones that occupy the major part of the Living Planet Centre’s entrance area is a bit like being part of a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle. Teasing glimpses between the wooden ‘fins’ that make up the conical walls of each contrasting zone provide a clue as to what’s inside. But only by immersing yourself within their warm embrace do the interlinking stories of wildlife, oceans, rivers and forests become clearer.

“The idea is that you discover the spaces for yourself,” explains director of brand expression, Georgina Bridge. “Early on in the design, we realised that we needed to take people on a journey through a physical experience. This meant finding a way to bring the natural world to life and to enable them to interact with it.”

Family fun

So, while young and old learn more about conservation activities within these precarious eco-systems, thanks to special ‘trigger’ buttons the sights, sounds, and even their scents come ‘alive’ too. For instance, explore the marine zone and breathtaking images of arctic and tropical seas rub shoulders with touch-screen quizzes and specially commissioned music. Let your eyes follow the contours of the walls and etched into them are Jacques Cousteau’s immortal words: “The sea once it casts its spell holds one in its net of wonder.” I’m hooked.

Elsewhere, in the wildlife zone, the use of old and new technology is particularly striking. Here it’s possible to observe close-up shots of different species through old fashioned ‘diorama’ style viewing boxes, while live film feeds promise a rare chance to see endangered animals around the globe.

In fact, what’s interesting is that just like the natural world, each visit could be an ever-changing encounter. “It’s going to be different daily, monthly and yearly,” enthuses the designer of the WWF Experience, Jason Bruges. As the man behind the charity’s award-winning ‘Panda Eyes’ display, he’s someone who’s used to taking a less conventional approach that gets us all talking.

And with primary schools also spreading the word about conservation, pupils have the added use of the Learning Zone. This includes a purpose-built classroom as well as an outside oasis of tranquillity: the new wetlands area, featuring a wildlife pond surrounded by bat and bird boxes, as well as native plants.

With an estimated 25,000 people expected to discover the Living Planet Centre for themselves, during the coming year, with work spaces and an auditorium that can be hired-out too, David Nussbaum is optimistic: “I hope that visitors will leave the building with a sense of inspiration of the wonders of the natural world, a consciousness of the threats there are to it and a determination to play their part in supporting efforts, including those of the WWF, to safeguard our wonderful planet.”

And there’s already been a big thumbs-up from one of the country’s leading wildlife experts, Sir David Attenborough himself, who performed the official opening ceremony. “It’s a fantastic eco-building that shows how it’s possible to use our planet’s resources wisely, but also helps us all to connect with the natural world,” said the legendary wildlife presenter at the opening of the centre.

The message is loud and clear; it’s not only about pandas.

***

Need to know…

What: The WWF Experience

Where: The Living Planet Centre, Rufford House, Brewery Road, Woking GU21 4LL

When: Due to open in the middle of January (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm, excluding Bank Holidays).

How: Admission is free – for more information, call 01483 426444 or visit wwf.org.uk and follow the links

***

Conservation in numbers…

• Nearly a quarter of the world’s mammal species and a third of all amphibians are at risk of extinction

• Every year, an area of forest the size of England is lost - that’s not only bad for forest wildlife and communities, but increases climate change

• Freshwater wildlife has declined by about 30% in 30 years

• 40 million tonnes of ‘bycatch’ (including 300,000 marine mammals) are caught and killed accidentally each year

* Source: wwf.org.uk

***

7 other great

Surrey wildlife charities

Chessington Conservation Fund

Leatherhead Road, Chessington KT9 2NE

The CCF helps to protect the future of nature and wildlife through conservation work and education at Chessington Zoo, in the local community and worldwide including South America, Africa and SE Asia.

Tel: 0871 663 4477 / chessington.com

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Saba House, 7 Kings Road, Shalford, Guildford GU4 8JU

The DSWF supports anti-poaching and conservation projects throughout Africa and Asia to help critically endangered mammals survive. An elephant orphanage in Zambia and vulnerable habitats in Gujarat, India are among the projects.

Tel: 01483 272323 / davidshepherd.org

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

2nd Floor, 3 Bridge Street, Leatherhead KT22 8BL

One of the pioneering conservation organisations for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa, the DSWT also runs one of the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation programmes in the world.

Tel: 01372 378321 / sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

League Against Cruel Sports

New Sparling House, Holloway Hill, Godalming GU7 1QZ

Helping to prevent cruelty to animals associated with countryside sports, wildlife crime and the international abolition of trophy hunting for bears, leopards and elephants are this charity’s ongoing campaigns.

Tel: 01483 524250 / league.org.uk

Restore UK

PO Box 310, Epsom KT17 3YY

A safer habitat for Borneo’s orang-utans is one of the global environmental and bio-diversity issues funded by Restore, which also continues to focus on the protection and restoration of Britain’s natural habitats.

Tel: 01737 355458 / restoreuk.org

Surrey Wildlife Trust

School Lane, Pirbright, Woking GU24 0JN

Preserving a living landscape that’s rich in wildlife and valued by all is SWT’s aim. Its reserves feature a range of habitats and species of local and national importance.

Tel: 01483 795440 / surreywildlifetrust.org

The Wildlife Aid Foundation

Randalls Farmhouse, Randalls Road, Leatherhead KT22 0AL

Established in 1980, this veterinary hospital 
is dedicated to the rescue, care and rehabilitation of sick, injured and orphaned wild animals in Britain, before returning them to the wild.

Tel: 01372 377332 / wildlifeaid.org.uk

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