Planks of burgundy cedar wood frame 700 mismatched windows, forming a patchwork quilt of glass panes against a backdrop of mountain peaks and rolling groves of evergreens.
The facade of the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center is striking, to say the least; almost as striking as the fact that it was built from trash.
Located on the banks of the Katsuura River, on a double-horseshoe bend in the remote mountain town of Kamikatsu in southern Japan, the center was opened in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic and has become a new heart for the community.
Replacing the former “prefab shack” where garbage was sorted, the new center was constructed to aid the town’s ambitious goal of achieving 100% zero waste, said Hiroshi Nakamura, head architect for the project and founder of NAP Architectural Consulting.
“We wanted to make this (center) a place that the residents could be proud of,” said Nakamura.
The center helps residents recycle waste in 45 categories, and features a boutique hotel for eco-tourists. Credit: Koji Fujii
Built with memories
Nakamura and his team began designing the zero waste center in consultation with Kamikatsu’s residents in April 2016.
For the remaining structure and interior, almost everything was recycled. But creating a building from trash is no easy task. “We usually design first and then apply ready-made materials to fit the design,” the architect told CNN. Instead, the design process took more than two years, sourcing and fitting together every piece like a jigsaw puzzle.
Some items — including roofing materials, metals for waterproofing, bolts and screws for joints, and equipment such as air-conditioning and plumbing fixtures — had to be new to ensure compliance with building codes and safety standards, said Nakamura. However, limiting the amount of new resources still helped to reduce the building’s environmental impact, and cost, which Nakamura estimated would have been double without the use of recycled materials.
Broken glass and pottery were transformed into terrazzo flooring, and green glass bottles into a recycled chandelier. Credit: Koji Fujii
The team had to be resourceful, asking manufacturers for excess or imperfect materials that would ordinarily be scrapped, such as defective tiles, said Nakamura.
Broken glass and pottery were transformed into terrazzo flooring, harvest containers from a local shiitake mushroom farm were converted into bookshelves, and a disused bed from a nursing home was transformed into a sofa. For the building’s striking facade, the residents collected old windows, some retrieved from abandoned buildings.
“The architecture itself was created with the memories of the residents, so they have an attachment to it,” said Nakamura.
A zero-waste town
Nestled in the central mountains of Shikoku Island, Kamikatsu sprawls across an expansive 27,000 acres. Its settlements cluster along a winding stretch of highway that follows the bends of the Asahi and Katsuura rivers, weaving through valleys of cedar-covered mountain slopes.
The town’s remote location, an hour’s drive to the nearest city, means that Kamikatsu has always managed its own trash, and has a strong culture of recycling, said Momona Otsuka, chief environmental officer at Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center, who moved to the town in 2020.
Old harvest boxes from local farms have been upcycled into storage shelves in the community hall. Credit: Koji Fujii
But getting to true zero waste, originally targeted for 2020, is tricky, said Otsuka: “Some categories of waste, such as diapers and disposable heat packs, are exceedingly difficult and expensive to recycle.”
The Zero Waste Center was designed to address this problem, she said. Using a one-way system, the center is divided into areas that make recycling easier: a trash sorting and collection zone, a recycling center, an education room, and a volunteer-led shop where free, reusable items such as clothes, plates, books and electronics are donated and picked up by residents. Anything that can’t be recycled is collected and sent to an incinerator or landfill in the nearest city, Tokushima.
But the center isn’t just about helping the environment: it’s also for the people. Residents typically visit once or twice a week, and with public spaces incorporated into the design, it doubles as a community hub for the spread-out town.
Media coverage has created a sense of pride in the community, said Otsuka, adding that the center is already attracting tourists: in its first year, 5,000 people visited the town, and 1,200 guests stayed at the hotel, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. As tourism opens up, she hopes more visitors will come to “experience zero waste in a positive way.”
A recyclable building
But the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center has recycling built into its very foundations. Future innovation or population decline could mean a decrease in trash, leaving the building redundant. In anticipation of this, Nakamura designed the building to be easily downsized, or taken apart entirely and recycled.
From above, the building’s question mark shape is clear. It asks people to question their consumer habits, and use less. Credit: Koji Fujii
“The concept of zero waste is not about the final disposal of waste, such as eliminating garbage (that goes to landfill), but rather we need to think about how to eliminate waste from upstream,” Nakamura added.
Designing the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center has motivated Nakamura to seek out greener architecture projects, and to be more creative in sourcing materials — and he hopes that the center will inspire others to rethink waste, too.
“My perception of, and way of thinking about garbage, has changed 180 degrees,” Nakamura said. “I learned the importance of creating new things while inheriting memories.”