Since the 1970s, the recycling center in El Cerrito, Calif., has been a popular place for the city: Residents rely on it as a way to responsibly dispose of everything from styrofoam to motor oil, and also as a source of free books to take back home from its exchange area.

But the center’s success had created a public-safety issue: The drop-off bins were casually grouped around the center’s parking area, so people on foot were crossing paths with forklifts and container trucks. “It was limiting their ability to expand their services and recycle greater quantities and types of recyclables,” says Chris Noll, AIA, of Berkeley, Calif.–based Noll & Tam, known for designing the Marin Headlands’ Marine Mammal Center (see “Where the Wild Things Are,” eco-structure, January/February 2010).

Working as a design/build team with Charles Pankow Builders of Oakland, Calif., the architects developed a design that not only solved the center’s logistical problems, but also underscored its core mission. The $2.8 million center, finished in April, now has a traffic-friendly, circular layout, to make drop-offs as easy and intuitive as possible. The bins are unified under a large canopy of corrugated steel, with parking efficiently laid out along the inside of the ring. Airport-style signage directs the flow of recyclables to the right bins (scrap metal, plastics, styrofoam, cardboard, aluminum foil, mixed paper, e-waste, and more). And recycling machinery is safely separated from the comings and goings of the public.

From the hill above, hikers also have something more interesting to look at than the old, nondescript sheds: a corrugated steel canopy, festooned with a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic array (which supplies enough energy to meet all of the site’s routine electrical needs excluding processing loads), a gleaming 15,000-gallon rainwater cistern (which stores water for reuse in irrigation and public-toilet flushing), and prominent landscaping—all of which speak to the city’s culture of recycling and reuse. Even the administration building was sustainably built, assembled off site by local modular builder Zeta Communities. There are also two public electric-vehicle charging stations.

And that popular reuse area? It occupies a prominent place now and is four times as large as before, topping out at 1,200 square feet of building space, with custom wood cubbies and shelving to hold those kitchen appliances, extra art supplies, and spare toys awaiting reuse. An adjacent patio with benches invites visitors to stop for a while. “It’s not a café, but that’s the idea,” Noll says. “It’s a real social space for the community.”