Ricola’s new herb centre combines business with nature

© Ricola.

Ricola’s herbal powers are now stored in Europe’s biggest earth building – the Kräuterzentrum herb centre designed by star architects Herzog & de Meuron. Ricola’s herb processing operations have been centred there since 2014. The pioneering project represented a substantial investment for Ricola. This should be recovered through the building’s low operating costs.

Yvonne von Hunnius, 11.08.2015

This is where they are stored, the mint leaves grown on the soils of Valais glacier moraine. You can literally feel their strong essential oils with every breath you inhale. Before being transported to Laufen in the canton of Basel-Landschaft, they were harvested at an altitude of 1,800 metres by a mountain farming family. Since January of this year, the extract obtained from the leaves has been giving Ricola’s new Glacier Mint sweets their flavour. Ricola’s Communication Manager, Hrvoje Tkalcec, points to the sacks of herbs in the vast warehouse and says: “The new product is selling so well that we need more herbs than our farmers can supply. We are currently in negotiations with another farmer who works on the same glacier moraine.” There is plenty of space available here for his herbs. The new herb centre has formed the heart and soul of Ricola’s herbal sweet and tea manufacture for a year. This is no ordinary building, but Europe’s largest earth structure based on a design by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (HdM). It was built using sand, clay and gravel, which originate from the immediate surroundings of the herb centre and were processed to produce rammed earth.

A temporary production site for the Ricola building was established in neighbouring Zwingen and equipped with specially produced machines. These were needed for the prefabrication of façade elements, which weigh 4.6 tonnes.
© Ricola

Herbs – the company’s most valuable asset

Until the new centre was opened, some of the herb processing was carried out directly on the farms but now everything runs through Laufen, the long-established headquarters of Ricola. All of the elderflowers and sage leaves – an annual total of 1.4 tonnes of fresh herbs – are cleaned, dried, cut, stored and mixed here. And the herbs are Ricola’s most valuable asset. They come from over one hundred Swiss farms. All of the farms must cultivate the herbs in accordance with strict organic principles – the use of pesticides and herbicides is forbidden.

© Ricola

The new herb centre should ensure that everything runs even more efficiently than before. Drying can now be carried out using an ingenious new system. For chopping, the herbs go through a complex labyrinth of machines. They then stand waiting in large sacks until they are needed in the sweet factory. As the world’s biggest producer of herbal sweets, strict environmental and quality management is crucial for Ricola. Five billion herbal sweets are dispatched to 50 countries throughout the world from Laufen every year. And each product must keep the company's promise that it does not contain any artificial flavourings. It all starts with the herbs.

© Ricola

Earth provides perfect conditions

Ricola is already renowned for unusual architectural projects in specialist circles. HdM and the family that owns Ricola have already collaborated on seven buildings which have made Laufen into something of pilgrimage site for architects. And these architects will now be joined by colleagues with an interest in earth building. The new herb centre appears to be the perfect project for this sustainable construction material: the herbs need uniform conditions and, thanks to the earth walls, the humidity in the building automatically ranges between 40 and 60 percent. This meant that the building services technology could be reduced to a minimum. Aesthetically, the building aptly reflects the material it is used to store: despite its powerful dimensions of 110 metres in length, 20 metres in width and eleven metres in height, thanks to its earthy colour, the earth façade integrates seamlessly into the lush green landscape.

© Ricola

Gathering experience for the future

Designing an earth building of this size is no easy task. The architects welcomed Martin Rauch on board for the design and implementation of the project. With his company Lehm Ton Erde (“Loam Clay Earth”) in Schlins in Vorarlberg, Rauch is Europe’s leading expert in earth building. A temporary production site for the Ricola building was established in neighbouring Zwingen and equipped with specially produced machines. These were needed for the prefabrication of façade elements, which weigh 4.6 tonnes. The building has a reinforced concrete frame. It took a total of 16 months to complete.

Earth building needs projects like the herb centre to enable the refinement of its production efficiency and the further development of rammed earth building techniques. Although the herb centre cost CHF 16 million to build, it is hoped that savings will be made through its low operating costs. Ricola’s Director of Technology Daniel Bhend, has the following to say in this regard: “The building is a low consumer. However, we will have to collect the data on it based on experience.” The figures on its efficiency will be produced by the future as there is reference structure available as yet. What is already clear is that the exhaust heat from the adjacent production works can be relied on to cover all of the energy needed to dry the herbs and for the air conditioning.

CO2 balance for each cough drop

Ricola has not yet published any environmental reports. This is due to change in the future, however. The company is currently establishing the impacts of its various initiatives with the help of climate protection experts from the myclimate organisation. For example, a seven percent saving on packaging material was recently achieved through the optimisation of the flip-top boxes used by the company. The annual CO2 emissions have been reduced by a total of 1270 tonnes since 2001 thanks to millions of francs of investments. Electricity is obtained from regional wind power, among other sources. In terms of sustainability, at the end of the assessment process it should be able to provide a CO2 balance that is broken down for each individual cough drop. Hrvoje Tkalcec says: “The herb centre represents an important milestone in Ricola’s quest to become more climate-friendly.”


The rediscovery of earth building

Over one third of the world’s population live in houses built entirely or partly of earth today. Up to industrialisation, earth building was also standard in Europe. It then fell into almost complete oblivion but is currently undergoing a rebirth. With the new visitors’ centre at the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach, Switzerland’s first three-storey earth building was opened in 2015.

Besuchszentrum der Schweizerischen Vogelwarte
The Swiss Ornithological Institute’s new visitor centre. Switzerland's first three-storey earth building was opened in May 2015.
© Schweizerische Vogelwarte, Lukas Linder

A rammed earth vault was constructed on the ETH Hönggerberg campus in November 2014 for the purpose of gaining new insights into earth building. As was the case with the Ricola herb centre, earth building expert Martin Rauch was also involved in the projects in Sempach and Zurich.

Kuppel  ETH-Campus Hoenggerberg
A vault consisting of elements produced from non-stabilised rammed earth was constructed at the ETH Hönggerberg campus in Zurich in 2014.
© ETH Zürich, Gian Salis

Overall, the advantages of earth as a building material lie in its climate-regulating effect, its good sound-insulation and fire-protection properties, and its lack of pollutants. In addition, earth is suitable for use in very individual designs and can be recycled any number of times. On the other hand, building with earth is very labour-intensive. However, the construction period is considerably reduced today by the pre-fabrication of elements and their installation by crane. In many cases, earth building is combined with the use of reinforced-concrete or timber-framed structural elements.

Ricola and the issue of eco-certification

As a company Ricola is committed to organic standards. However, its products do not carry the Bio Swiss “Knospe” (bud) label, nor do they bear the “Bio-Kräuter” (“organic herb”) designation. Hrvoje Tkalcec explains: “The main reason for this is that the farms are not certified.” Although the 1.4 tonnes of fresh herbs required annually by the company are produced under strict organic conditions at all of its farms, only 70 percent of the farms have the “Knospe” certification. “We cannot and do not want to dictate to the farmers about how they should run the rest of their farms,” says Tkalcec. If the company were to purchase the remaining 30 percent of its herbs from certified organic farms abroad, the “Swissness” of its products would be undermined. This rule does not prevent Ricola from obtaining some of the sugar for its herbal sweet production from abroad, however. Tkalcec explains: “We only use sugar from neighbouring countries if the volume produced in Switzerland is insufficient.”

A family concern with a global reach

In 2014, Ricola’s turnover from the sale of herbal sweets and tea products was CHF 315.9 million and it had a workforce of around 400. Ricola is considered the world’s biggest producer of cough sweets and 90 percent of its total sales are made on over 50 foreign markets. Established by Emil Richterich in Laufen in 1930, the family concern is managed today by the President of the Board Felix Richterich and, according to Ricola, the company is completely self-financing. Despite the current difficulties in relation to the Swiss franc exchange rate, the company expects to record moderate growth this year.

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Last modification 15.09.2015

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Ricola: Website
Herzog & De Meuron: Website
Lehm Ton Erde: Website
Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach: Website
ETH Zurich: Website Departement of Architecture
Bio Suisse: Website of the federation of Swiss organic farmers