Mass Timber is construction’s saviour: but information is key

‘Grandfather’ of mass timber sees challenges in design. With extracts from Dezeen's interview with Hermann Kaufmann published March 3 2023.

Thu 09 Mar 23


That’s the message from Austrian architect Hermann Kaufmann.

In a new series ‘Dezeen’, considered one of the world’s most influential architecture and design magazine charts the dawn of the Timber Revolution.

The series investigates the potential of mass timber and questions whether the material can break steel and concrete’s hold over the construction industry – including how we can use wood more effectively in our buildings and why mass timber should ‘always start with forest health.’

Supporting the series, Dezeen has developed a guide to mass timber in architecture – which is a must read any specifiers seeking to use engineered wood products in their projects.

Last week influential architecture and design magazine Dezeen published its Design Guide for Mass Timber in Construction. This is an essential read. (Photo credit: Dezeen magazine)

In an exclusive interview, Hermann Kaufmann notes that sloppiness and misinformation is threating large-scale mass timber construction from reaching its full potential.

“Now is a really dangerous time for wood as a resource,” he says.

“You can say it’s the saviour of the construction industry. And I believe it has a part to play, where it makes sense to use it.”

Hermann Kaufmann is considered the grandfather of mass timber construction. (Photo credit: Dezeen).

However, wood, as Kaufmann notes is a limited source which cannot be overused, particularly with other industries jumping on the bandwagon.

Interest in mass timber and engineered wood is surging, in February 2022 the Australian Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) launched it’s Timber Building Program incentivising construction projects which use low embodied engineered wood products.

Since buildings offer long-term storage for the carbon locked away in wood, Kaufmann argues that the construction industry should have first dibs on the world’s limited timber supplies.

Currently, the industry is being held back by a lack of skilled craftsmen and technical knowledge, which he warns could have a detrimental effect on building quality.

“Building with wood requires diligence but diligence is disappearing,” Kaufmann says.

According to Kaufmann, if you do a sloppy job when you’re building with wood, and you get condensation or water ingress that you don’t notice right away, the material will rot quickly and you can get huge structural damages.

“So, I’m a bit scared that there will be some cases of damage in the future, and mass timber could shoot itself in the foot.”

Although perhaps less well-known outside of the German-speaking world, Kaufmann is considered a pioneer of modern timber construction, dubbed the ‘grandfather of mass timber’ by Canadian architect Michael Green, who is well known to Australians.

Conversation between two architects – Hermann Kaufmann (HK Architekten) and Mihkel Urmet (TEMPT architects) – on architecture and wooden buildings. Video was filmed in Tallinn in 2019 and produced by Estfilm Production OÜ. (Footage courtesy of @woodhouseestonia)

Born to a long line of carpenters, Kaufmann dedicated himself to the “forgotten topic” of wood construction as early as the 1970s, when he was studying architecture at the technical universities of Innsbruck and Vienna.

“At the time, there was beginning to be some modern timber construction in the Alpine region,” he said. “But internationally, there was almost nothing. Even in Japan, the good architects that are now working in wood didn’t do much back then.”

He questions whether he was on the right path when fellow students were getting bigger and bigger projects and he was still working on relatively small things.

“Now is a really dangerous time for wood as a resource,” Kaufmann told Dezeen. “You can say it’s the saviour of the construction industry, but back then, there were no really big projects in timber. You had to go to a welder and get them to make you custom screws and steel parts so that you could build modern wood structures.”

Hermann Kaufmann in a recent exclusive interview with Dezeen

Recent examples include Barangaroo, International House which has been featured in a Wood Central Case Study.

Sustainable timber design at its finest: The award-winning International House, Barangaroo project in Sydney, Australia showcases the beauty, versatility and potential of mass timber.

Kaufmann started his own practice, Hermann Kaufmann + Partners, in 1983 and later founded one of Europe’s first dedicated institutes for timber construction at the Technical University of Munich, with the aim of reviving wood as a modern construction material.

Among his seminal projects is a Passivhaus apartment block that made use of prefabricated mass-timber modules back in 1997, a timber-skeleton secondary school that won the German Architecture Prize in 2017 and an office building perched over an artificial hydropower lake, which at one point was the largest building of its kind in Europe.

“We can’t detox our built environment by swapping out fossil-fuelled building materials for timber,” he says.

 Hermann Kaufmann’s expertise in tall wood structures was crucial in the construction of Brock Commons, a student residence at the University of British Columbia
(Photo University of British Columbia).

Kaufmann’s expertise in tall wood structures was also crucial in the construction of Brock Commons – a student residence at the University of British Columbia that was the tallest mass-timber building in the world on its completion in 2016.

But even in places like Canada and Scandinavia, which currently have a number of other record-breaking mass-timber projects in the works, the architect says there is still a considerable skills gap that needs to be addressed.

“Timber architects live off good craftsmen,” he explains. “And in countries where you don’t have that, it’s difficult. We advised on the construction of a high-rise in Canada with 18 storeys, which was the tallest at the time, and we were happy we found any craftsmen that knew what they were doing.”

Kaufmann added: “And whenever I visit Nordic countries like Sweden and Finland, my colleagues complain that they don’t have any more craftsmen, just big manufacturers that end up screwing their buildings together.

Kaufmann predicts that timber could only become the main building material in “very few countries” such as his native Austria, where timber is an abundant local resource and where manufacturers and craftsmen can build up the necessary skills to work with the material at scale.

“Many architects are changing course and discovering timber but the industry can’t keep up,” he said. “We need to have apprenticeships to train young people up and we need to build know-how among engineers,” he said.

“This whole chain needs the right knowledge to get moving. “This is happening at the moment and it could happen relatively quickly. But it won’t explode. It will be an evolution, not a revolution.”

The architect also advised on the construction of Brock Commons.

At the same time, he warns that a growing number of architects are already “playing fast and loose” with the term mass-timber and using it to greenwash their buildings.

“People will screw a couple of square metres of wood onto their facade and say the building is sustainable,” he said, comparing the process to adding a decorative spoiler to a vehicle to make it look like a racing car.

“It’s become a bit of an epidemic. I will only speak of a sustainable building if the majority of its mass is made up of wood. Everything else is greenwashing.”

On March 7, Dezeen posted an article exploring the importance of forest health in the mass timber story. The majority of Mass Timber is sourced from forests certified by FSC, PEFC, Responsible Wood, SFI and other forest certification schemes.

While the increased complexity and precision required for timber construction poses a challenge for the industry, Kaufmann says it also presents an opportunity for architects to once again become more involved in the process of building their projects, rather than just designing them.

“When you’re building with wood, you have to bring construction know-how into the process way earlier if you want the project to be successful,” he said. “This change in the planning culture is extremely exciting for us because it’s asking way more of the architect.”

Kaufmann concluded: “It’s much more interesting, and the competencies of the architect will likely have to go much deeper into the building process again, rather than just acting as a surface or colour designer and making renderings for anyone to build.”

Timber Revolution is a campaign by Dezeen exploring how materials and technology are impacting the world we live in. Illustration by Yo Hosoyamada.

For more information about the Timber Revolution visit Dezeen today.

The Timber Revolution is the third in a trio of Revolution series run by Dezeen that investigate how materials and technology are impacting the world we live in. It follows on from the Carbon Revolution series in 2021, which looked at how the much-maligned element could be put to positive use, and the Solar Revolution, which explored how humans could fully harness the power of the sun.

  • With extracts from Dezeen. Interview conducted in German and translated by Dezeen author Jennifer Hahn.

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