Fresh Purpose

Noll & Tam gives the 40-year-old El Cerrito Recycling and Environmental Resource Center a net-zero update.

Noll & Tam

El Cerrito Recycling and Environmental Resource Center
7501 Schmidt Lane

El Cerrito, California

Before household recycling became popular enough to have its own bit on the comedy show Portlandia, it was a rather hippie thing to do, even in California. In the early 1970s, as Christopher Noll of the Berkeley-based architecture firm Noll & Tam says, “Everyone from Berkeley used to drive up to El Cerrito to dump their stuff—this recycling center is legendary.” Last April, his firm finished a $2.8 million net-zero replacement that will keep that facility relevant today.

The advent of curbside recycling meant that the focus of the El Cerrito Recycling and Environmental Resource Center had shifted to items that require special treatment: computers, hazardous waste, chemistry equipment, bathtubs, and more. The range of materials required a separation between, say, the people dropping off out-of-use inkjet printers and those handling used cooking oil, but the client wanted to maintain a sense of friendliness among all recyclers. Noll & Tam’s solution was to install a circle of Dumpsters. “We did some math and realized that this radial layout gave us the length on the outside of the circle and a shorter inside,” Noll says, providing more linear Dumpster feet. But more than that, the circular form was emblematic, both of the recycling process and of the site—a hollowed-out, circular quarry that now has a new use.

Noll & Tam pushed the idea of total reuse by devoting part of its small design-build budget to a water tower. “We got the biggest storage tank we could afford,” Noll explains. The facility, which its designers expect to receive a LEED platinum rating, collects water on the roof, filters it, and then uses that gray water for toilets and landscaping. In addition, the architects say they reused “as much of the old facility as we could,” salvaging building materials from the existing site and recycling the rest. For the administrative buildings, the team imported two prefabricated structures that went up in a day.

The highlight of the center, and what renders this a quintessential East Bay project (aside from the fact that it’s a low-budget, community-friendly facility devoted to saving the earth) is what’s called the Exchange Zone, where people can drop off reusable items like washing machines, books, and bicycles. “There are volunteers that curate the exchange,” Noll says, cementing the idea that, to California-ize an old proverb, one woman’s recycling might be another’s incredible new garden pots.

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