Recycling center viewed from a distance

A Recyclable Recycling Center in Switzerland by HWM Architects

Fully demountable, a municipal waste drop-off center near Lucerne is green in form and function.

Switzerland’s reputation for being a clean country rests partly on a refined recycling system that offers a dense, country-wide network of so-called “Ökihöfe”, literally: eco-yards, where people drop off their trash sorted by material for eventual recycling or disposal. These recycling centers are valuable pieces of public infrastructure, but they are hardly ever considered architecture; this project in the suburbs of Lucerne is a bright exception to the rule. Designed by Swiss architects Huber Waser Mühlebach, it is not only fully demountable and recyclable, but also a bold statement of design’s role in material reuse.

The project profits from a clear spatial organization and a harmonious and humble design. The program was divided into two separate buildings: a large hall that people drive along the outside of to drop off their trash, and a five-story tower that contains administrative offices while marking the entrance to the facility. The tower’s four open floors feature offices while all common areas are placed in its clearly higher top floor, such as coat and break rooms, a staff kitchen, a loggia with a large circular window, and a large hall in the center which can also be used for conferences or events. Its wooden construction has no direct connection with the two concrete cores around toilets, elevator and staircase; this way all wooden components can be demounted and reused with almost no waste. 

Close up exterior view showing circulation, steel girders, and large wood pieces
Massive steel and timber structural components of the recycling center are designed to be disassembled and reused in the near future when a local redevelopment plan requires the facility to be relocated.

The large and unheated hall follows the same constructive logic to prevent as much waste as possible. The expansive wooden roof—393 feet long and 74 feet wide—forms a large cantilever on one side that offers weather protection to the outdoor parking spaces and trash drop-off zone in front of the hall below. The roof is carried by 24 purple steel columns which are fully demountable, are configured to allow for greater distances between the main girders. Their twisted shape also eliminates the need for any stiffening walls or structures. This grid divides the hall into eleven strips, each exactly three containers wide, two trucks deep and with one rolling gate to each side for maximum flexibility in daily use. The design of the facade corresponds with that of the tower, clearly marking them as two parts of one compound: It’s a layered composition of a dark-glazed wooden formwork on an untreated wooden substructure, aluminum roller shutters and the purple-red painted columns—the purple of the columns reappears in the textile blinds that shade the windows in the tower.

office building interior showing large windows and exposed mass timber structure
The office tower uses a simmilar mass timber design, but here it is expressed at a much more intimate scale. The office will also eventually be relocated, making design for disassembly a top priority.

It is these subtle aesthetic connections that turn a suburban recycling center into a piece of architecture, while at the same time still providing a robust and functional tool for the everyday work of collecting and sorting household trash. Importantly, this center was built to be temporary. In 20 years, the highway junction nearby will be completely overhauled and largely relocated to underground tunnels. The city planning authority predicts that once this transformation is complete, land prices will rise and the recycling center will have to move to a new location. With their demountable design, the architects planned for this eventuality, and assuming the materials age well over the next two decades, both buildings can be disassembled and moved where they are needed.  

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