UK heritage bodies’ pioneering response to climate change ahead of COP26

The UK heritage sector is united in its pioneering response to climate change, according to Heritage Responds, a new report launched this week by heritage coalition the Historic Environment Forum charting how heritage organisations are taking positive action.

Read the report here: Historic Environment Forum: Heritage Responds

The report brings together the expertise of 26 of the country’s leading heritage organisations – including English Heritage, Historic England and the National Trust – ahead of COP26 in Glasgow to highlight examples of how through revolutionary research, carbon reduction and maximising the potential of the historic environment, the heritage sector is making a major contribution to the response to climate change.

Rob Woodside, Chair of the Historic Environment Forum’s COP26 Task Group and English Heritage Estates Director said:

“Heritage organisations are pioneering the sector’s response to climate change. Ahead of COP26, we wanted to share our experience of our sustainable response to the greatest challenge of our time. The case studies we have highlighted show not only how heritage organisations are responding to the impact of climate change, but also how we can be part of the solution.”

“What Heritage Responds clearly demonstrates is the proactive work of so many organisations across the heritage sector to find solutions – leading on ground-breaking research, innovating on approaches to adaptation, harnessing the use of technology, retro-fitting historic buildings and reducing carbon emissions by retaining and reusing existing buildings. We are working across sectors to bring approaches to nature and culture closer together to help manage the green lungs in our cities and adapt to new environmental challenges. We’re also forging new skills to help maintain and adapt historic buildings. This isn’t about protecting the past but using heritage to find solutions for the future.”

The work is the culmination of six months of collaboration by the members of the Historic Environment Forum and showcases how the sector is responding to climate change, including investment in traditional low-carbon building adaptation techniques, nature-based solutions to mitigate future impacts, and renewed efforts to increase the lifespan of heritage assets and save the embodied carbon which might otherwise be sacrificed in demolition, new construction, or poor upkeep.

The case studies within the report highlight some of the UK’s leading projects to introduce sustainable solutions in the historic environment, including:

Wentworth Woodhouse, a project delivered by Robert Woodhead Limited (see page 38) which:

  • Introduced breathable insulation under, between and over the rafters has not significantly altered the roof appearance.
  • Redesigned  the gutters to cope with climate change has been possible with the undiluted use of heritage skills and does not significantly impact on the appearance of the building.
  • Explored technology and strategy for renewable heating solutions as advised by specialist consultants has changed over the duration of the project meaning technology is still evolving and new solutions must continue to be explored.

The report also features other projects such as:

  • The Grade II listed Art Deco Jubilee Pool in Penzance, the first lido in the UK to harness geothermal heating as part of a new scheme supported by the Architectural Heritage Fund opened in August 2020.
  • A £2.5m project, co-led by National Trust and the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty– aided by a £1.4m grant from National Lottery Heritage Fund – which will implement nature-based solutions to improve the resilience of the Skell Valley’s resilience to changing weather
  • A £90m Grosvenor Britain & Ireland programme to reduce energy use and carbon emissions across their historic Mayfair and Belgravia portfolio by over 70% by 2030.
  • A hidden array of 150 photovoltaic panels installed on the south-facing slope of Gloucester Cathedral’s medieval roof, supported by Historic England.
  • Ingenious smart sensors being used to help protect the priceless art collection at English Heritage’s Kenwood House in North London.
  • An innovative new heating scheme from the Church of England at Bath Abbey, using warmth recovered from Roman drains which carry the city’s hot spring water.

Historic Environment Forum Chair Dr Adrian Olivier said:

The Historic Environment Forum exists to bring people together. And there is no other single issue that requires us to work more closely together than climate change. As the world turns its eyes to COP26 in Glasgow, this work intends to highlight the positive contribution heritage organisations and their partners are making to the debate, the actions needed to adapt to a changing world, and how heritage itself is part of the solution. The work creates a fantastic repository of good practice, lessons learned and interaction between different groups and sectors that anyone can draw on. I’m grateful to all the organisations who have provided us with such a rich and diverse selection of material. Let’s continue to build on the positive progress we’ve already made.

Historic England’s Chief Executive, Duncan Wilson said:

“These case studies illustrate that the historic environment is a powerful catalyst for tackling the dual challenges of climate change – the need to deliver the transition to net zero and to adapt to a new climate.  Our heritage is threatened by a changing climate with increasingly warmer, wetter winters, hotter, drier summers and rising sea levels.  This report highlights inspiring solutions to help communities protect our historic places from these threats and drive down carbon emissions.  We’re delighted to be part of a truly collaborative effort which is shaping a growing awareness globally that our cultural heritage has a crucial role to play in charting our way through the climate crisis.”

National Trust’s Placemaking and Heritage Director, Ingrid Samuel said:

“Climate change represents the biggest single threat to the UK’s iconic historic sites, landscapes, buildings and collections. But there is much that can be done to help adapt and mitigate the impacts, and our heritage can be part of the solution. For example, making the best possible use of our historic buildings, restoring and retrofitting them in ways that are sympathetic to their character and history can help us reduce emissions and keep hold of the embodied carbon within them.

“No one organisation can address climate change alone. In the run up to COP26 we’re delighted to have contributed to a report that represents the heritage sector coming together to share what we’re all doing, to find out what works and what doesn’t, and to support each other tackle climate change.”

Historic Houses Director General, Ben Cowell said:

Historic Houses is proud to work with the Historic Environment Forum and its members to support the drive for climate sustainability. Our 1,500 member houses and gardens know very well the dangers posed by escalating and extreme weather events and are helping to power the transition to Net Zero. We are delighted to support and encourage them in their efforts.”

Matthew Mckeague, CEO of the Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) said:

“Like all our partners in the Historic Environment Forum, the AHF is committed to tackling climate change. Our involvement in Heritage Responds is to help highlight exactly how charities and social enterprises in the heritage sector are adapting to the climate crisis and to encourage further thinking about what more we can do. Jubilee Pool Ltd is just one example of a project doing pioneering work on adapting to the challenges we face, with its geothermal heating system hopefully becoming a beacon of sustainable technology that others can learn from.”

Sara Crofts, Chief Executive of Icon said:

“To achieve a sustainable future, we all need to be more generous about sharing our hard-won knowledge – both the measures that ensured that our projects were a success, or indeed those that caused them to fail. This excellent collection of case studies demonstrates the power of example, and will be a great resource to help cultural heritage organisations play an active role in addressing the challenges of climate change.”

Alongside examples from heritage buildings in public ownership, the report also highlights case studies relevant to the almost a third of the UK population who live in buildings built before 1919, showcasing how homes can be made sustainable by adapting and “retrofitting” to help them compete modern low energy standards. These include a ground-breaking project which has seen Victorian townhouses in Manchester adapted to meet demanding PassivHaus standards for energy efficiency, and new training for craftspeople on improving energy efficiency in traditional buildings.

The case studies also shed new light on how the sector is ensuring there is an active dialogue between the natural environment and historic sites, including incorporating issues of flood toleration and improving biodiversity into plans for Somerset’s historic Toneworks textile mills – supported by Historic England – and a CITiZAN’s Museum of London Archaeology historic mapping project which made use of photos, postcards and memories from the community to map twentieth century changes in the Essex coastline.

To complement the report, the Historic Environment Forum has also launched a Heritage Responds storymap providing digital mapping of all the case studies and demonstrating the geographical breadth of the heritage sector’s action to address climate change.

Press release provided by the Historic Environment Forum

The Historic Environment Forum (HEF) was established in 2000 to bring together organisations working with the historic environment in England. Today, HEF involves 21 members including English Heritage, Historic England and the National Trust, and seeks to represent the different aspects of the sector in England. The Forum is currently supported by Historic England as part of the National Capacity Building Programme and hosted by The Heritage Alliance.