700 donated windows and salvaged waste form the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center

Questioning our ways of consumption, Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP discuss their Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center - an architecture shaped with trash and a Japanese town’s memories.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Feb 17, 2022

The instantly stunning yet stoic Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center is a recyclable and recycled architecture that actually does what most architects claim to do under the bandwagon of ‘sustainable design’. Conceived by Japanese firm Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP, the striking façade of the facility is patched across with 700 windows donated by the local community, framed and held together by handsome burgundy cedarwood, lying low against a picture-perfect backdrop of lush mountains and forests.  

The patchwork window façade of the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The patchwork window façade of the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

This comes by way of the Kamikatsu town in Tokushima Prefecture in southern Japan, aiming to become a sustainable recycling community by pledging to produce zero waste - recycling rate now surpasses 80%, about four times the national average, by sorting trash into 45 categories, with used items displayed like a store at this recycling center which replaces former "prefab shack" where garbage was sorted. The new Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center features multiple functions including a trash sorting-collection station and a recycling facility, as well as a public hall that promotes and teaches the town about the zero-waste movement, as the world gets consumed by mass-production, mass-consumption, and remains in an impasse. “We conceived architecture that will not produce waste, could be sorted, and could eventually be downsized,” the Japanese architects relay.

STIR speaks with the studio's Principal Architect, Hiroshi Nakamura, and Director, Masaki Hirakawa, about their tremendous and hopeful endeavour, and how it embodies the principle of “zero waste” as a planet-friendly complex that adds the functions of education, research, and communication to a waste-sorting treatment plant, a heart of the community.

Hiroshi Nakamura, Principal Architect (L), Masaki Hirakawa, Director (R), Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
Hiroshi Nakamura, Principal Architect (L), Masaki Hirakawa, Director (R), Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP Image: Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP

Jincy Iype: This is a success story of a Japanese town coming together to eliminate their waste production cycles and lifestyles. Can you tell us more about Kamikatsu?

Hiroshi Nakamura: Kamikatsu is about an hour’s drive from Tokushima City, nestled in a mountainous region upstream of the Katsuura River in Japan. Stunning views and rich nature remain preserved, such as the Kashihara Rice Terraces and Mount Yamainudake, with its divine boulders and dense moss creating a scenic, calm setting. Fifty-five large and small settlements are scattered between altitudes of 100 to 800 meters. The total population is approximately 1,500 (800 households), of which over 50 per cent are elderly as depopulation progresses. Forests account for 88% of the total area of the town.

The complex lies low against a lush mountainous backdrop in a remote Japanese town | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The complex lies low against a lush mountainous backdrop in a remote Japanese town Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

However, the key industry of forestry has declined with the emergence of low-cost lumber imports. On the other hand, seasonal leaves and flowers have been tapped as a new local resource to be shipped out as garnishes for cuisine, putting the town on the map for its business of selling leaves, which the elderly and women handpick, creating some jobs and also a virtuous circle of industry and welfare. The town regained their vitality, and medical costs for the elderly lessened greatly. In 2003, Kamikatsu was the first municipality in Japan to issue a “Zero Waste Declaration”, aiming to become a society that generates zero waste to protect their town’s abundant nature and maintain a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle.

Jincy: But what really is “zero waste”?

Masaki Hirakawa: “Zero Waste” comprises activities that reduce and eliminate in the long run, wastefulness, extravagance, and trash, as much as possible, from our ways of consumption and living. While most conventional waste-related policies address the handling of waste, Zero Waste starts at the source. There is a need for change in manufacturing, logistics, and consumption systems, as well as in the public, to foster a society and consumption system that will not generate waste, or help recycle and reuse all of it, in the plainest, strictest sense.

The unusual building is made almost entirely of recycled and upcycled materials and trash | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The unusual building is made almost entirely of recycled and upcycled materials and trash Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

For the town, there is still about 20% of landfill waste because there is a certain amount that has to be incinerated or buried in landfills as it is difficult to recycle at present due to technical and cost reasons, and there are no businesses nearby that can recycle the waste even if it is separated. To keep this waste out of landfill, it is necessary to develop human resources, educate the public, cooperate with companies and research institutes, and solve the problem as a whole society, and fight for a change in the system.

Hiroshi: The construction industry, in which we are involved, accounts for around 20% of all industries in terms of both waste and final disposal, which means a tremendous amount of energy is spent on disposal and recycling. Although this is not an easy problem to solve, this sustainable architecture is based on the concept of zero-waste, using local resources, not wasting resources, and producing as little waste as possible. Not bringing in goods from outside the region is the first step in reducing unnecessary packaging, transportation costs, and fuel.

We began the project by meeting and consulting with the residents in 2016 to build this centre. We visited not only the old waste station but also abandoned houses, old government office buildings before demolition, and the closed junior high school, and were shocked by their plight and depopulation – we then focused on finding value to what was no longer in use. The materials used in the building were created by utilising waste as a resource. This piece of Japanese architecture is composed of a chain of the utilisation of these resources - rather than deciding on the overall design beforehand and then allocating each manufacturer's products. The overall design process was determined from the local resources, including the waste.

The facade is made up of about 700 pieces of window fixtures gathered in a town with a population of less than 1,500 | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The facade is made up of about 700 pieces of window fixtures gathered in a town with a population of less than 1,500 Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

We also participated in the planning of the program and decided to add functions such as communication, corporate training, and accommodation experience to the town's only base for bringing in and sorting resources. The aim was to position this facility as a base for communicating zero-waste, and to make it a place for various encounters and connections for this common goal.

Jincy: How does the complex and its programmes rally toward a zero-waste system? How does it involve the residents of the town?

Hiroshi: Why buy it? Why throw it away? Why make it? Why sell it? In order to achieve zero-waste, we need the "WHY?" of everyone involved in production, distribution, and consumption. The "WHY" implores our hope that this town questions our lifestyles anew on a global scale, and that out-of-town visitors will start to question aspects of their lifestyles after returning home. As an environmental education, we aim it to be a place of spontaneous learning and discovery, rather than a place to impose dogmatic justice.

From left to right: garbage station, stockyard, repair yard, and reuse store, providing a panoramic view of the recycling process | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
From left to right: garbage station, stockyard, repair yard, and reuse store, providing a panoramic view of the recycling process Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

We wanted the town’s residents to realise that recycling waste is a creative act, and to feel proud of the zero-waste initiative, the plan was designed to allow the residents to participate in the building process. We issued a call for certain types of wastes at resident briefings and on the local public relations magazine. As a response, approximately 700 fixtures were collected in a town with a population of under 1,500 - the Zero Waste Center has become a place of community, where before, people merely came to dump their waste. Grandmothers, who used to throw away their waste and go home immediately, now meet up with each other and enjoy chatting. A grandfather, who used to avoid the attention of visitors, is now friendly and tell us, "This was my window and that was a desk from junior high school.” The children take some of the waste from the pile to their homes and indulge in some D.I.Y.  Through waste, they gather and interact with each other, deepening the bonds of their community.

Masaki: We believe it is truly a public building as it came about with the participation, made up of things and waste, their things and their waste, and filled with their memories and contribution.

The building seen from above reveals a horse-shoe or a question mark (?) plan | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The building seen from above reveals a horse-shoe or a question mark (?) plan Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Jincy: Is that ‘why’ the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center can be seen as a question mark from above?

Masaki: Honestly, that was unintentional. The zoning of the facility was planned without the question mark shape, but surprisingly holds true as one of its intentions. To truly question our ways of living.

The site used to be a landfill for waste, and is located on a 40-metre-high embankment on a landfill of waste. Therefore, we decided to build the building on the mountain side, where the ground is straighter and solid, and placed the entry and exit of cars to avoid the circuitous roadway with poor visibility. The office and the reuse shop with a concierge are located in the center, along with the entrance and exit, and on both sides of the office is a sorting area that is used by the residents, waste collectors and the community facility, while the parking area is for outsiders.

The column legs are gradually offset to allow easy access for forklifts and vehicles | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The column legs are gradually offset to allow easy access for forklifts and vehicles Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

In addition, the experience hotel is located in an annex on top of the mountain where the ground is the most stable, forming the ending “.” of the questions mark. The horseshoe-shaped plan is a seamless continuation of the recycling and reuse process, from sorting to storage to reuse and sale, and the circular town residents' sorting plaza surrounded by large eaves is a drive-through space overlooking the stockyard, improving the searchability of 45 sorting and minimising the travel distance. In the afternoon, the area is used by forklifts and trucks for recycling collection, so the external flow line for sightseeing tours is located at the periphery of the building, in consideration of the separation of foot traffic and the privacy of the town residents who dispose off waste. At the end of the waste disposal flow line, there is the reuse shop, the community hall, and the encounter hall that leads to the lawn with a spectacular view, where it is intended to create interaction between town residents and visitors.

The hotel lying at the back consists of four maisonette-style guest rooms arranged in a circle | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The hotel lying at the back consists of four maisonette-style guest rooms arranged in a circle Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Hiroshi: As the name for the facility, "WHY," was decided during the design process, and we adjusted the circular plan of the hotel building so that the entire building would be arranged in a question mark shape. This shape can only be perceived only from high up in the sky, but we instill our hope that this town questions our lifestyles, and that this will be transmitted to the world.

Jincy: “Trash” and salvaged materials become resources that make up the entire waste centre, like broken pottery being used as flooring and a beer case as countertop. Can you elaborate on all such measures employed?

Hiroshi: Our first step was to use cedarwood that could be harvested locally to recycle forestry resources while minimising the carbon footprint. We decided to use logs in their original form because rotary-cut cedar would produce wood waste. Considering that the declining population and technological advances will eventually reduce trash volume, we repeated the cross-section of the timber-framed structure so it could be easily downsized. The finish is conspicuous, with bolts used for the joints so that local contractors can handle construction/maintenance and sorting is simplified when demolished. We viewed discarded fittings and farming tools and more as resources, recycling them for the exterior, and elements of the building which are also sewn with emotions and stories. A grandmother may point to her former bridal chest of drawers and share a personal story with her grandchild looking at the wall covered with stacked bureaus at the recycling center.

Recycling waste is a creative act. – Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP Architects

Masaki: By visualising and making maximum use of Kamikatsu’s resources and not considering them to be “waste,” we begin to value things and become aware of the richness of the local lifestyle. The identity of the town is embodied in this architecture so that town residents can hold pride in their way of living.

Once a waste field and landfill site, the new facility protects the rich natural environment of Kamikatsu and pursues a sustainable future | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
Once a waste field and landfill site, the new facility protects the rich natural environment of Kamikatsu and pursues a sustainable future Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Hiroshi: We creatively combined various wastes with an awareness of upcycling, and also tried to use recycled materials and natural materials from the town as much as possible. In addition, we tried to use materials that could be separated or reused at the same time. Specifically, the wooden structure can be dismantled by removing the bolts, and the mortar and ceramic pieces used for the washed-out floor are simultaneously crushed for reuse as a recycled plastering material. This is our response to the problem of complex waste that is difficult to dismantle and separate.

Tiles as border material for rain catchers under the eaves were brought in by a resident who was organising a vacant house, asking us to use them for the building. The walls of the old town hall, which was soon to be demolished was inherited as a memory of the town by being upcycled as the exterior receiving wall of the facility. Shards of broken glass and ceramicware, as well as tableware, were turned into cullets by the hands of the town’s volunteers, and used as terrazzo aggregate for the finished mortar floor of the reuse shop.

The Reuse Shop is a place where townspeople can bring in items they no longer need, which anyone can take for free - beer crate used as the counter (L), glass and ceramic shards used for terrazo flooring | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The Reuse Shop is a place where townspeople can bring in items they no longer need, which anyone can take for free - beer crate used as the counter (L), glass and ceramic shards used for terrazo flooring Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Masaki: Old, used furniture salvaged from closed schools and houses of residents were combined to create a bookshelf for storing environmental books in the community hall.
Discarded tiles of different shapes and colours were laid randomly to form the mosaic floor of the community hall. They are placed in contact with each other as if they were holding hands, and arranged in a radial pattern, facing the podium, which also serves as the kitchen, to provide stability for the various chairs. 300 glass bottles of various sizes were bundled together to form a chandelier that hangs in the reuse shop. Beer cases were used as a counter for the reuse shop while the decorative shelf behind it is a combination of old furniture and farming tools.

One-paint cans from the construction were reused for benches (L); collected river stones upcycled as door handles (R) | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
One-paint cans from the construction were reused for benches (L); collected river stones upcycled as door handles (R)Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Hiroshi: Drawers of broken chests were combined to make the wall storage of the office and laboratory. H-steel used by the forest union as stakes to stop lumber from rolling over was converted into a car stopper for the parking lot. Paint cans leftover from construction were reused to become benches, while the border between the earthen floor and the lawn was made of scrap roof tiles and paved with river stones from Kamikatsu. Harvesting baskets from the fungus bed mushroom factory were combined to create concealed grille for the equipment space. River stones from the town were upcycled into door handles. In the guest room, the heart pillar of Japanese cypress with branches and the handrail made of wisteria can be seen so that the guests will feel the richness of the nature of Kamikatsu.

Inside one of the hotel guest rooms, whose windows, curtains and sofas are made from reused materials | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
Inside one of the hotel guest rooms, whose windows, curtains and sofas are made from reused materials Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Masaki: Farm tools, bicycle spokes and other discarded materials were consolidated to form a hotel sign. The red exterior wall is a natural finish of persimmon tannin mixed with bengara. A patchwork of fabric scraps of various patterns formed curtains, where each hotel room enjoys unique ones. The word "WHY" was letterpress printed on collected newspaper's consumer advertisement as if to ask, "Why to buy it? Why throw it away?" for the wallpaper of a wall. A sofa was made from a discarded bed frame, while the legs of a discarded table from another project were cut to make a low table. The whole building is made from timber offcuts as well.

300 glass bottles of various sizes were bundled together to form a chandelier that hangs in the reuse shop (L); The center of the hotel uses stones from the Kamikatsu river, and the surrounding area is paved with upright rows of bricks from disposals (R) | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
300 glass bottles of various sizes were bundled together to form a chandelier that hangs in the reuse shop (L); The center of the hotel uses stones from the Kamikatsu river, and the surrounding area is paved with upright rows of bricks from disposals (R) Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Jincy: How are the mismatched, patchwork of windows given uniformity for the façade?

Hiroshi: Most of the logs, fittings, furniture, and other materials used in this project are uneven. In an economy of mass production and consumption, uneven materials are disliked and considered ugly and imperfect, because they are difficult to pack, load, and control, and their quality is difficult to guarantee. Therefore, waste is generated in order to achieve uniformity, and those that are out of specification are discarded.

However, we considered the uneven shapes as a unique characteristic of the object and treated it with affection in its uneven form, which we believe gives the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center a lot of character. For this reason, the interlocking of different materials was simplified and designed to allow for differences in shape to coexist in harmony. Isn’t that wonderful?

Masaki: With the help of the town and volunteers, we took measurements of each of the 700 pieces, noted the thickness of the glass and the parts to be repaired, and recorded them in a door and window schedule for the patchwork window facade. The elevations are based on the schedule and the fixtures were laid out on the computer. During construction, we repaired the damaged parts and laid them out on the ground for a final check. As the façade that embodies zero-waste, all walls are double-paned to create a sense of unity while being uneven and lively at the same time.

The facade of gathered windows forms a lantern of hope that illuminates the depopulated town | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The facade of gathered windows forms a lantern of hope that illuminates the depopulated townImage: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

This façade is truly a collection of the thoughts of the town residents with their various personalities. In the night view seen from the lawn, it is as if the windows that formerly lit homes have been reunited, belonging to a single dwelling. We instilled a wish in this architecture to serve as a lantern of hope for the town, that struggles with a declining population. When we visit the site, elderly residents amicably approached us to say, “that was a window at my house,” or “that was a desk at the junior high!”

Hiroshi: We made it a rule to use locally-grown cedar wood for the structure and interior, holding many meetings with the Kamikatsu municipality, forestry cooperative, lumber producers, and wood-processing vendors from the initial stages of preliminary design. However, if we had started cutting wood in the mountain and drying it after choosing the contractor, we wouldn’t have been able to keep the construction schedule. We thus negotiated with Kamikatsu and separately ordered a total of 350 cedar logs over one year in advance of construction start, in the form of having the town provide the lumbers. By having local vendors handle logging in the mountain, lumber manufacturing, drying, and processing, we contributed to the local economy and revitalised woodland resources.

The drive-through sorting square provides a highly searchable space with a panoramic view of the 45-sort container yard | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The drive-through sorting square provides a highly searchable space with a panoramic view of the 45-sort container yard Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

It should be noted that in using these waste materials acquired from the town residents, we arranged for the town to provide us with the materials with authorisation from the local assembly and town hall to ease the performance/quality guarantees and defect liabilities that are generally required for public buildings. This architecture would have been impossible without the cooperation of the town residents and town hall.

Jincy: Please give us a walkthrough of the Kamikatsu Waste Center.

Hiroshi: The plan comprises rooms lining up seamlessly in the order of ‘sort, stock and recycle/sell’, the process of recycle and reuse. Furthermore, to protect the privacy of residents who come to sort their waste, the inner side of the semi-circular stockyard is divided into a sorting plaza for the exclusive use of residents, and the outer side is used for visitors and inspectors.

The community hall's floor uses salvaged tiles of different colors and shapes arranged in a radial pattern | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
The community hall's floor uses salvaged tiles of different colors and shapes arranged in a radial pattern Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Every one to two weeks, town residents and businesses in the town load roughly sorted waste bags into their cars and visit waste stations, where they are further sorted and placed in containers at the sorting and waste stations. (There is also a free transportation assistance program for those who cannot drive cars). A semi-open-air stockyard surrounding a drive-through type plaza where sorted waste is stored as resources comes up next. The wooden structure of the stockyard is designed to allow for easy access by forklifts and vehicles, and to allow for easy operation on rainy days, with the pillars and legs gradually setting back and transforming.

Masaki At the Reuse Shop (KuruKuru Shop), residents can bring in their unwanted items and anyone from inside and outside the town can take them home free of charge. Inspired by the creative reuse of various waste materials in the interior, more and more town residents are bringing in their memorabilia, hoping that someone else will use them because they are still too good to throw away. The building also houses a small office for the management of the facility, which doubles up as a reception desk for the hotel, beyond which lie the offices and labs.

Harvest containers from a shiitake factory were reused as a blindfold for mechanical space and bookshelves that also prevent buckling of mullions | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
Harvest containers from a shiitake factory were reused as a blindfold for mechanical space and bookshelves that also prevent buckling of mullions Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

The piloti, where the town residents and visitors from outside the town meet, is named Encounter Hall, while the Community Hall is used as a lounge for the town residents and as a training hall for companies. Since it rains a lot in Kamikatsu and there are no dry-cleaning companies, a laundry facility was required to wash and dry bedding and other items. Since this facility is located in the centre of the town and is a hub for all town residents to visit, a public laundry and toilets were installed facing the parking lot.

The hotel with four guestrooms brings up the rear, with two rooms with a lake view, and the other with mountains. There are no trash cans in the guest rooms, but they can sort their garbage roughly into the baskets provided, food waste into the compost and other waste can be sorted at the Zero Waste Center.

Bright blue containers are repurposed as walls  | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
Bright blue containers are repurposed as walls Image: Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Jincy: What are some of the questions architects and builders must ask to follow a similar ethos?

Hiroshi: We believe that architects must ask themselves - where did this material come from? By what kind of company? What are their principles? How is it made and sourced? What kind of by-waste will it produce?

  • Plan | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
    Plan Image: Courtesy of Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP
  • Cross sections | Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP | STIRworld
    Cross sectionsImage: Courtesy of Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP

Project Details

Name: Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center
Location: Tokushima, Japan
Site Area: 5,557 sqm
Total Floor Area: 1,176 sqm
Architect: Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP
Contractor: Kitajima Corporation
Structural Design: Yamada Noriaki Structural Design Office Co.,Ltd

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