At an altitude of 2,883 metres and nestled among the glaciers and imposing peaks of the Valais Alps, the new Monte Rosa mountain refuge rises from the icy landscape like a giant sparkling shard of rock crystal. As soon as it opened in September 2009, visitors have flocked to this futuristic alpine cabin in their droves. An intriguing blend of avant-garde architecture, state-of-the-art technology and sustainability, the Monte Rosa refuge signals the opening of a new chapter in high alpine construction.
A sparkling metallic-grey shard of rock crystal in the heart of the Alps
In 2003 the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) celebrated its 150th anniversary. To mark this momentous occasion, it launched a series of projects, including one to construct a sustainable, innovative and ecosystem-sensitive mountain refuge. Having successfully floated the idea to the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), Monte Rosa, famous across the world as home to the Gorner and Grenz glaciers and to the highest mountain in Switzerland, was chosen as the site of the new refuge. Although Monte Rosa already had a mountain refuge, it dated back to 1895 and was in dire need of extensive repair and renovation. The decision therefore was taken to tear it down and build a new high-tech refuge in its place.
Considerable planning work for the new mountain refuge kept an interdisciplinary team of ETHZ architecture, engineering and environmental science professors and students busy for three years. They worked closely with other experts and SAC members on the design of the five-storey, 120-bed refuge. The timber frame is built on stainless steel and concrete foundations which are embedded deep in the rock. With its shining aluminium membrane, extensive glass panelling and distinctive polygon shape, the new mountain refuge resembles a giant shard of rock crystal. Yet, despite its futuristic appearance, it is a harmonious addition to the surrounding alpine landscape.
... yet environmentally sustainable
The new Monte Rosa mountain refuge is visionary not only in terms of its architecture. It also boasts a pioneering ecofriendly energy system, allowing it to generate enough electricity to cover 90% of its needs. Photovoltaic panels installed on the south-facing wall collect energy from the sun’s rays. This is then stored in batteries for later use, just like the system used in Bertrand Piccard’s “Solar Impulse” plane. The remaining 10% of the refuge’s energy needs are covered by a combined heat and power unit running on rapeseed oil and a heat recovery ventilation system. This means that the refuge can remain self-sufficient even during peak consumption periods or during unfavourable weather conditions.
The building also features a specially designed water storage system: snow melt from the glaciers is collected during the summer and kept in a large underground reservoir for use in the winter months. Also, domestic wastewater from the kitchen or showers is collected and filtered before being used to flush the toilets. Every single system in the mountain refuge is environmentally friendly and sustainable.
The new Monte Rosa mountain refuge continues to be an important research station when it comes to energy efficiency and structural engineering. Experts from the ETHZ have designed it in such a way that it doubles up as a type of high-altitude laboratory, equipping it with a highly advanced IT system, which continually collects different types of data, such as weather conditions, water levels, and stored energy. Thanks to these data, not only will the running of the refuge become ever more efficient but valuable knowledge will be generated with regard to improving the sustainability of existing building technologies.