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Winds of change: The environmental merits of Zephyr Hangar

The Zephyr Hangar building by Diener & Diener Architekten is a marvel of sustainable construction and a master class in the verticalization of manufacturing.

Winds of change: The environmental merits of Zephyr Hangar

V-ZUG’s head of sustainability, Marcel Niederberger, has a fun fact about the construction of Zephyr Hangar, which has a beautiful timber production hall on top of the building, hosting the production lines for the company’s coveted kitchen and laundry appliances. The trees required for that 1500m3 frame were sourced from large sustainable forestry operations less than 100kms from Zug, and the equivalent amount of wood in that same forest regrows in the entire Swiss forests in 1.5 days.

Compare that to the environmental cost of concrete and the choice of renewable timber seems a no brainer, but V-ZUG are still outliers in terms of these holistic assessments and decisions. It’s all part of the company’s people-planet-profit approach, which Niederberger has spearheaded over the past three years since taking on the sustainability role, and which built on his earlier experience including five years as head of product management.

Marcel Niederberger, V-ZUG’s head of sustainability.

“If you only look at profit, you wouldn’t build a building like that,” says Niederberger. “You really need to see it as a necessity to be sustainable in building buildings. Replacing steel and concrete with timber has many ecological benefits; it reduces CO2 on one hand, and on the other it stores CO2 in the timber. But it’s also more costly – so here we see the triple bottom line and trying to balance these three dimensions.”

As arbiters of timeless Swiss design, V-ZUG’s new building has an understated elegance and the environmental merits of Zephyr Hangar are not limited to its timber frame. Form and function combine in the saw-toothed roof, which was a deliberate element of the brief to Diener & Diener, both as a way of reflecting the local industrial building typology, but also allowing for photovoltaics to co-exist with opportunities for natural light to permeate. Then there is the impressive Multi Energy Hub initiative that contributes to powering the site, but before we go there we need to ground both projects in the context of the company’s history.

V-ZUG built its first factory in 1913 on the fringe of a quiet Swiss settlement. Fast-forward to today and that same site has now seen a modern town encroach to its doorstep and beyond. For most companies, growth and expansion would mean upping sticks, shedding local jobs and moving to a distant, cheap industrial estate – or even offshoring. But when a company shares the name of the town in which its based, there’s clearly a stronger attachment.  

V-ZUG’s parent company Metall Zug – still owned by the same family that established the appliance manufacturing arm back in 1913 – respected that Zug and indeed the world had changed, and that they needed to think differently about their 80,000m2 production site. Ambitions were bold: ideas coalesced around creating a precinct that included V-ZUG’s own headquarters, corporate headquarters for sympathetically aligned business, start ups, educational institutions and possible residential development. Which meant that 80,000m2 of manufacturing footprint had to reduce to 40,000m2, but with the added challenge of doubling production capacity as international orders grew. The company, Tech Cluster AG, was founded to lead this transformation.

Zephyr Hangar is the physical resolution of that aspiration and shows how carefully planned industrial buildings can be successfully verticalized and socialised in an existing community. This is no pie-in-the-sky undertaking: the housing is already completed and additional production facilities are under construction, including Zephyr East, which will use an innovative low-carbon recycled concrete product that also sequesters carbon (watch this space).

Critical to the entire initiative was being able to underpin the site with renewable energy systems, a project als leaad by the Tech Cluster AG. The Multi Energy Hub is worthy of a PhD thesis in itself, but here’s the short version from Niederberger:

“In Zephyr Hanger there are high temperature processes, up to 850 degrees, which produce a lot of waste heat which we could just leave to the environment, or you could take this waste heat and reuse it as an energy source. The Multi Energy Hub uses these different energy sources: waste heat is an important one, and another important energy source is Lake Zug. The lake is two kilometres away from our headquarters and acts as an energy source. With these two sources [process waste heat and Lake Zug] we are able to heat and cool all our buildings on the campus and be CO2 neutral energy in terms of heating and cooling.”

The Multi Energy Hub benefitted from the City of Zug having already committed to the development of a future energy system (Project Circulago) which incorporated a heat exchange with the lake water, and Tech Cluster AG was able to work with local authorities in its development. As a municipality-led project, the Multi-Energy Hub brought in also smaller users alongside larger companies like V-ZUG.

“For example, an industrial bakery near V-ZUG just opened last year,” says Niederberger, “and its waste heat is now feeding into the Multi Energy Hub. So it’s really an ecosystem; it’s not just a just the Tech Cluster, it’s an ecosystem with the city and with nearby partners and companies. It’s a collaboration.”

Wrap your head around that: the waste heat from a bakery in Zug is fuelling the production of a cutting-edge carbon-neutral factory which produces some of the most energy-efficient appliances on the planet, and on the other side of the world those same combi-steamers and ovens are producing the best home-made bread in Australia this side of, well, a bakery in Zug.

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