ALONG ENGLAND’S EAST Anglia shoreline the high tide comes, as ever, each and every day. But with every passing year the realisation that significant parts of this low-lying fenland are living on borrowed time is hitting home. It’s very likely that parts of the famous Norfolk broads will, before too long, be under salt water rather than fresh – for many a seemingly inevitable consequence of climate change. Indeed, coastlines all around the country are being redrawn by the increasing commonplace of extreme weather. For many non-governmental organisations the challenge is about how to preserve or adapt the natural habitats of the most vulnerable parts of the coastlines.

The National Trust is one of the organisations with land directly affected by the rising tide, with many hundreds of miles of coastal areas under their stewardship. East Anglia has become one climate-change frontline amidst the Trust’s total of 270,000 hectares of land across Britain. Known the country over for its maintenance of the UK’s diverse heritage – from grand aristocratic country houses or industrial archaeological sites, to many less grandiose and humble buildings: farms, barns and cottages – the National Trust is also committed to maintaining the many aspects of agricultural ways of life along with the skills still required for this maintenance and preservation.

It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the last thirty years the National Trust has been gradually and increasingly adapting many of its working methods to serious environmental practice. This new environmental awareness has been underlined by the Trust’s director, Fiona Reynolds, who has recently launched a Climate Change Initiative. Coming hard on the heels of the organisation’s recent move to its new Swindon headquarters, where it is housed in a flagship sustainable office, this initiative is intended to send a message that the National Trust is a bastion of environmental awareness.

OUT ON THE Norfolk Broads, local residents and some government agencies talk of holding back higher sea levels through concrete sea walls and other defences. They still hold onto the idea that climate change can be held at bay, an idea which, according to Rob Jarman, the National Trust’s Head of Sustainability, is doomed to fail. By contrast Jarman points out that the Trust is accepting that some change is inevitable, and that adaptation and managing change are the only realistic approach. This means that certain habitats are inevitably going to disappear, so that if unique or highly significant Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are irretrievably vulnerable, then moving them and creating the same conditions in other similar though safer areas is a substitute of last resort.

So the invaluable freshwater ecosystems of the North Norfolk coast which will before too long turn into brackish salt-marshes, are being gradually recreated in a new place, in this case amidst 10,000 hectares at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire.

The new wetland is but one graphic example of many instances of the National Trust’s nature conservation work. All across the country its staff are reporting changes in growth cycles, habitat and ecosystem disturbance, which can be traced, as the recent report makes clear, to climate change. The organisation’s adaptation strategy is underscored by the belief that what the future holds is unpredictable, rather than readily mapped, even if much of the work is based on an assumed one-metre sea-level rise by 2100.

ALONG WITH NATURE conservation, which comprises about a third of the Trust’s work, adaptation has meant ongoing changes to make the organisation as green as possible. Historically, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the many farms and other rurally oriented businesses that were under the stewardship of the National Trust were run commercially whenever possible. This meant that on Trust farmland – about a third of its total land – as much fertiliser was used as by the next commercial farmer, soils were exploited to close to breaking-point, and water was often polluted. It was only with the widening influence of the environmental movement in the 1970s that there was a dawning realisation of the damage being done.

Since then the Trust has been committed to an environmentally appropriate approach. Not only has this environmental concern required the emergence of nature conservation as a central part of the Trust’s activities, but it has also produced a concern for water quality and for the importance of good soils. The emphasis has now turned towards a farming practice that demonstrates and assists both small farms and rural communities to survive and, indeed, to thrive. The Trust has sought to do this in practical ways, from helping with training for environmental management and enabling diversification, to supporting village shops, rural and green transport, and rural industries, many of which have been close to disappearing. For these the Trust has set up training courses and supported people through studies, thus preserving the special skills pool, whether in dry stone walling, traditional plastering, joinery or specialist gardening. Often support has continued in the form of ‘careership’ schemes, particularly as some of these are the increasingly rarefied skills that are needed for maintaining the many older buildings in the Trust’s care.

All told, the National Trust is responsible for around 40,000 buildings. Be they old or new, there is an overall attempt to ensure that maintenance and upkeep are based on ecologically sound principles, so that both Forest Stewardship Council-sourced wood, and the organisation’s own timber, are used where appropriate. With old buildings the aim is to be as historically and aesthetically appropriate as possible. In similar vein the aim is that all new buildings are to adhere to sustainable design processes – from the layout of new buildings, to low water use, natural lighting and the use of local and renewable materials. At times this is spelt out to the general public at some of the visitor centres: for example, Yorkshire’s Gibson Mill runs on hydropower, includes solar power on its roof, and is only accessible on foot.

THIS ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS is evident at the Trust’s new showcase, its Swindon headquarters. Designed by one of the leading sustainable architectural practices in the country, FeildenCleggBradley, the trapezoidal office building – called Heelis – displays many environmentally sound features, including light-wells to ensure that natural light extends to every work-space; a concrete slab roof for thermal mass, and wind cowls for natural ventilation; and water-saving airflush toilets, all contributing to energy efficiency and minimal fossil-fuel use. It also boasts the largest office roof coverage of photovoltaics in the country. The result of the decision both to centralise the organisation and to house it within a sustainable showcase also sets an interesting architectural precedent, as it demonstrates that office spaces, just like other buildings, can be built with many eco-features integrated.

Unusually, the Trust does not own the building. Rather, it is a commercially owned and leased new office, built to the Trust’s specification but still ‘at market’, raising the question that if the National Trust can do this, why not everyone else? Whatever one thinks of large open-plan offices it is a reassuring counterpoint to the depressing high-rise office blocks dominating much of Swindon city centre’s skyline. And as if to drive the point home that in one way or another this is what is happening, Heelis’ floor-space is carpeted with a specially developed natural material derived from a flock of National Trust Herdwick sheep, a gesture, after foot-and-mouth, towards making this wool commercially viable again. All in all, the guardians of so much of the nation’s history and heritage are also playing their part in helping in the guardianship of our common environmental future.

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Oliver Lowenstein is Editor of Fourth Door Review.