Pioneering waste management – meeting the design challenge

Thomas Bender
22 December 2010

Waste management facilities and new power plants could usher in a new chapter in English industrial architecture. They have an important pioneering function and are being built in increasing numbers.

This is in response to sharply escalating EU landfill tax and the general move away from landfill. In 2009/10, ten per cent less municipal waste ended up in landfill.

CABE’s design review has already seen 36 proposals for waste processing facilities and new power plants. Many are less than promising. Good design for these plants is particularly important because the dimensions are so vast: they can easily intimidate an urban neighbourhood or spoil precious rural views.

There is the opportunity for these new plants to match the ambitions and quality of the great tradition of British industrial architecture.  Saltaire in Bradford, St Pancras Station in London and the Boots Factory in Nottingham still look surprisingly modern masterpieces.

CABE has already seen some excellent contemporary designs. A simple approach produces the best results and it is possible to create a building which is a source of public inspiration if the design and the visitor facilities are good enough. Here we look at how to achieve good design.

Teesside power station

This proposal for a biomass-fuelled power station on the banks of the Tyne is a successful marriage of high-quality architecture, landscaping and engineering. It celebrates its function and has the potential to be a beacon for the regeneration of Teesside. Image by Thomas Heatherwick.

Waste management facilities comprise a variety of technologies, each requiring a different architectural solution. Whether incineration, recycling or biological treatment, all these plants share the need to house complex and sizable technical equipment. An incinerator, for example, requires a large hall to receive the waste, a boiler house where it is combusted and a turbine hall where the energy is generated. Filter systems, air condensers and the stacks form the other major elements.  The general bulk of the plant can reach a height of up to 50 m, the stacks can be up to 80 m tall and the length of the building can be up to 200 m. Those dimensions easily surpass the length of St Paul’s Cathedral (158 m) and are as high as a 15-storey apartment block.

So it is critical to test different ways to arrange the equipment within a tight, well tailored building envelope. CABE urges teams and local authorities to identify views for the visual impact assessment and to use this tool to inform the design of the proposal and the position and articulation of the buildings.

Energy recovery facility in Staffordshire

The design for this energy recovery facility in Staffordshire was based on a careful analysis of the surrounding area and a thorough visual impact assessment. The plant could become an interesting building in an area which is likely to be dominated by bleak industrial sheds. Copyright Biffa and SLR.

Designs for energy from waste and power plants are often over complex, with no clear ordering principle. They try to clumsily conceal the bulk of the building with a confusion of elevations and a wide variety of forms and materials.

In most cases ‘less is more’, although this does not mean replicating standard catalogue solutions, which results in buildings that resemble distribution sheds surrounded by acres of tarmac. It means acknowledging the industrial character of the building and taking an appropriately simple, unembellished approach, and enhancing the grounds with quality landscaping.

What makes good design?

Local identity and regional diversity

Waste plants should be assessed with the challenging criteria as defined by PPS7 in terms of contributing to a sense of local identity and regional diversity, and being an appropriate design and scale for its location.

Energy from waste facility in Central Bedfordshire

This proposal for an energy from waste facility in Central Bedfordshire reflects the careful analysis of the site and its industrial heritage. The proposed colour scheme and stacks match the nearby listed Stewartby Brickwork chimneys. Image by LDA Design/Covanta.

Impact on the setting

Providing a suitable site for a new plant can be a difficult task for the local authority and the waste company. Ideally, a site is located close to residential neighbourhoods or around the edges of urban areas where the waste is produced, to minimise traffic movements and to use the heat, the by-product of the process. In rural areas, the location needs to be chosen to minimise traffic. 

Waste incineration plant in Coventry

This waste incineration plant, situated in a residential area of Coventry, looms over the rows of homes in an intimidating way. Photo by Thomas Bender.

All this makes good design critical. From the beginning of the planning and design process, the team should work collaboratively - architects and landscape designers, engineers and technical specialists - to develop a project that responds well to the site and the context. The team can challenge the technical specifications of the equipment inside the buildings and create a building that is both functional and architecturally compelling. The landscape concept around the plant can help mitigate its impact and enhance the setting.

Abbey Mills Pumping Station

Abbey Mills Pumping Station, complex equipment and an elegant form produce a compelling building, Allies and Morrison. Photo by Peter Cook.

Industrial character

The support structure of the buildings - the system of bearing elements, of girders, columns and walls – can inform the appearance of the plant. High quality materials and careful detailing will limit maintenance costs and to allow the building to weather and age well. Previous generations of power plants and industrial buildings were built in brick. Although metal cladding may seem an obvious choice nowadays, it may not be the right choice to reflect the value of a pioneering civic building – and there could be more sustainable solutions too.


Waste management facilities generate traffic and need large areas for servicing. Grounds are often entirely covered by tarmac. Intelligent landscape design will mitigate the impact of a plant and enhance its setting and provide sustainable urban drainage, but this requires careful planning to ensure that equipment, road systems and weighbridges leave adequate areas of the site for planting. Planting is not only about screening the buildings; it should embed the buildings in their environment and fit with the local character. Well designed outdoor spaces can work well for staff and provide a visitor attraction in their own right, perhaps providing a new venue for school ecology projects.  

Great Blakenham Energy from Waste

Great Blakenham Energy from Waste (SitaSUEZ). Image by Grimshaw.

Local community

These facilities are a huge public investment and need to actively contribute to the local community with a public building that sets a benchmark for good new design. Visitor centres can provide venues for community activity.

Energy from Waste (EFW) Facility, Richmond Hill

This energy plant in a rural and costal setting clearly had design aspiration at the heart of its design brief which now helps showcase the waste process in a positive and celebrative way. Photo by David Millington.

Welcoming visitors

Design teams should ensure that visitors can explore the building to understand the benefits of recycling, waste processing and generating renewable energy. Visitors should experience the smell and noise of the processes. There should be a welcoming and exciting visitor centre and a route around the site which celebrates the bold dimensions of the plant. There is the potential for exciting views, whether from the top of the building or with views into the main hall to observe the processes.


Many schemes do not pay enough attention to sustainability. Building materials should be local, reclaimed, recycled or of very low carbon impact. Schemes need to be flexible and adaptable - the Tate Modern power station is now a gallery. The landscaping strategy should include biodiversity, planting and sustainable urban drainage systems. The exhaust heat of any plant needs to be used for local district heating systems, big industrial neighbours or local community greenhouses, for example.

Good design and good planning

Good design includes functional efficiency, sustainability and responsiveness to the site. It requires strong local authorities and clients, a thorough brief and designers who can engage in a challenging and constructive dialogue with the public sector procurer, end-users and the supply and manufacturing base. All this will help to bring proposals through the planning process.

Thames Barrier flood defence system

The general approach to designing energy from waste plants should achieve a balance between technical requirements and good design. The Thames Barrier flood defence system is interesting because it demonstrates the way in which elegant design can be combined with a technical requirement.