High on Sustainability: Modern Design in the Alps

Profiled Firm: Bearth & Deplazes Architekten AG and ETH Zürich |  Location: Switzerland
Monte Rosa Hut in the Monte Rosa Massif mountains

The Monte Rosa Hut sits 2,883 meters high in Monte Rosa Massif mountains, between the Gorner, Monte Rosa, and Grenz glaciers near Zermatt, Switzerland. It was conceived as one of fifty projects undertaken to commemorate ETH Zürich’s 150th anniversary. The head of the anniversary celebration formed the Studio Monte Rosa at the ETH Faculty of Architecture to design and build a structure that would replace the original lower elevation Monte Rosa Hut, which was in great need of repair. 

The new structure would serve two important purposes: to provide alpinists and hikers protection from the elements and a comfortable space to eat, rest, and commune with fellow travelers; and to provide ETH Zürich with valuable research on effective sustainable practices. 

The redesign and construction of the Monte Rosa Hut was realized through constant collaboration among the ETH students, the Swiss architecture firm Bearth & Deplazes Architekten, and the Studio Monte Rosa ― a combined group of selected ETH students and Bearth & Deplazes architects. With guidance from Bearth & Deplazes Architekten, the ETH students and the Studio Monte Rosa worked diligently on the design concepts for four semesters. After crafting twelve different proposals for the facility, they narrowed their ideas down to one groundbreaking design.

The program’s accurate, flexible symbol libraries were very helpful to the team because the designers did not have to create the components from scratch.

Professor Andrea Deplazes, Bearth & Deplazes Architekten AG

model of Monte Rosa Hut

Solitary Outpost

There are no roads to the Monte Rosa Hut. Visitors travel by foot over rocky, snow-covered terrain — a traveler can walk two to three hours from the nearest train station in Rotenboden or drop in by helicopter. 

The facility can accommodate up to 120 guests. The bedrooms feature trapezoidal mattresses in various sizes made to minimize wasted space by matching the shape of the human body (broader at the top and tapering for the legs). During the specialty research phase of the project, the ETH students used Vectorworks® software to maximize the placement and number of beds within the given space. By simulating many different scenarios for the beds and other building elements, the design team optimized the hut’s entire design, which saved a great amount of development time and significantly reduced building costs. 

The design team used Vectorworks Architect to create the complex geometry of the Monte Rosa Hut, designing 420 different wall and ceiling elements that were pieced together. It was a challenge to coordinate the different geometries while keeping the detailed solutions as similar as possible. The program’s accurate, flexible symbol libraries were very helpful to the team because the designers did not have to create the components from scratch.

Monte Rosa Hut top plan

Vectorworks also provided the basis for calculating project costs according to Swiss standards. It also enabled the students to employ a “digital chain” methodology to fine-tune the hut’s components at each step of the project and move their data seamlessly from concept, to design, to development, to fabrication, to construction. 

The end result: precisely manufactured building elements and smooth collaboration with numerous other project teams. By using the digital chain to address complexities and efficiencies, the team reduced the number of building elements by 30 percent and the weight by 40 percent, and they were able to adjust design elements throughout the process.

A Sustainable, Self-Sufficient Solution

The team chose high-quality renewable building materials. In a nod to traditional mountain huts, the architects selected local spruce and fir approved by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. To showcase the construction, they turned the large blonde wooden beams around, exposing the mortises and dovetails. Since the joints were exposed, their formation required perfect precision. 

The design teams selected low-pollutant building materials that could be transported easily and efficiently, and could eventually be recycled or discarded with little effect on the environment. In addition to keeping costs low and optimizing sustainability, the designers had to contend with the challenge of building the new Monte Rosa Hut in an isolated site, off the power and water supply grids. Most of the Monte Rosa Hut was constructed from pre-fabricated sections no more than 400 kg in weight that were transported to the site by a helicopter, which was used as a crane and to ferry materials to the building site approximately 3,000 times.

group of people on the exterior decking of the Monte Rosa Hut

The design is nothing short of amazing, and its result is a 90 percent self-sufficient facility. The Monte Rosa Hut earned the MINERGIE®-P label from the Swiss Confederation and Swiss Cantons because it provides “high-grade, air-tight building envelopes and the continuous renewal of air in the building using an energy-efficient ventilation system.” Vectorworks Architect files served as input and output for the energy design. The facility houses a state-of-the-art research lab which measures the building’s efficiency as a self-sufficient entity. It also has an energy management system so sophisticated it factors in the weather forecast and the number of guests in its calculation of energy usage. 

ETH Zürich’s work with the Monte Rosa Hut has solidified its commitment to addressing global climate change with cutting-edge technology. It is currently in the process of developing model-based regulation software to help it apply its findings. 

Now owned and operated by the Monte Rosa Section of the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), the Monte Rosa Hut has claimed several awards. Although the new Monte Rosa Hut is just one of 153 shelters maintained by the SAC in the Swiss Alps, it has become an important piece of the mountain’s sustainable legacy — and of modern design.

Images courtesy of Bearth & Deplazes Architekten, Holcim Foundation, and Wikimedia Commons