Architect Hermann Kaufmann: Finns have lost contact with the tradition of wood construction

Austrian architect Hermann Kaufmann, who is renowned for modern wood construction, says that Finns have lost contact with the tradition of wood construction. ”The situation in Finland is now the same as in Austria about 20 years ago. Now we should promote the evolution, not the revolution, of construction, and continue the strong tradition of wood construction in Finland too. In Austria, we succeeded in this change, because we did not lose contact with our strong expertise in carpentry,” says Kaufmann. ”Because wood construction has a future, it is worth investing resources in construction quality and training, and convincing the public sector that the promotion of wood construction is justified both economically and ecologically.” According to Kaufmann, more low-emission, renewable building materials must be used in future construction. ”The concrete industry fears this change, and expects that mistakes will be made in wood construction. If it were sensible and clever, it would co-operate with the wood construction industry.”

Although Austria is renowned for its long traditions in wood construction, the new wave in the industry that began about 20 years ago could not be taken for granted, says Hermann Kaufmann. ”Architects had to do a great deal of work for it. The development of wood construction expertise in the Alpine region is a result of a long tradition of handicraft and expertise. We aimed to introduce the old tradition to new construction, when we started to produce new, high-quality modern wooden houses. This change and the renaissance of wood construction began when some well-trained people identified this new wave of linking the new to old traditions and, together with many firms, we began to create a new kind of wood construction culture.”

The province of Vorarlberg in Austria has progressed the furthest in wood construction development work. ”We were able to sell this new way of thinking to local government, and succeeded in changing political thinking,” says Kaufmann. ”Now in each municipality wood is the primary material for public buildings, be they day care centres, schools, town halls or even fire stations. The municipal governments also understood the significance of wood construction to the local economy, since the material, its processing and construction all came from their own local areas. Why should you transport construction materials over long distances?”

”Many people do not understand the story of wood, based on the fact that we have large volumes of material in our own forests, and utilise it ecologically when we build out of wood,” emphasises Kaufmann. ”Because there is great local and national interest in wood construction, we have organised conferences and seminars on the subject, tried to influence political decision-makers and to lobby on behalf of wood.”

Such lobbying has brought results. For example, in Austrian, German and Swiss legislation, wood as a construction material is regarded equally with other building materials. “Our aim is that fire safety regulations will enable wood to be used in the construction of large building complexes such as residential, office or commercial properties,” explains Kaufmann.

A future for wood construction

Hermann Kaufmann is known in Finland as an architect who “builds durably and beautifully with wood, with people and for people.” In 2010, he was honoured in Finland with the Spirit of Nature award for wood architecture, praising “the details in Kaufmann's work, its uncompromising finishing, functionality, durability and handicraft, which can be created only through seamless co-operation between the architect and builders.”

 ”You in Finland are in the same situation we were in Austria about 20 years ago, although we had preserved solid expertise in carpentry traditions. You have lost contact with the tradition of wood construction. ”Wood construction has a future, so it is now worth investing resources in training, and convincing the public sector that the promotion of wood construction is sensible both economically and from a perspective of climate objectives.”  Wood is a material, the use of which offers possibilities for the future of the built environment. At the same time, we can construct buildings that breathe and promote good health with good indoor air,” says Kaufmann.

”Modern wood construction is a quite different way of building from old wood construction, which was seen as old-fashioned and 'the poor man's way of building’, says Kaufmann. ”With the development of prefabrication, we can produce high-quality and adaptable buildings, which fit in with their environment. We must now convince architects about the future of wood construction, because it is they who create new construction trends and best practices. For us, wood construction is valuable construction, of which we are proud and we want to show it to everyone.”

Finland must aim for quality in wood construction

Kaufman considers the arrival of major forest industry corporations like Stora Enso and Metsä Wood onto the construction market as necessary for the development of Finnish wood construction. ”Although people are starting to be open to and ready for the promotion of wood construction, neither developers, builders nor designers have prepared for it. We should now be promoting the evolution, not the revolution, of construction.  We should now proceed slowly, obtain more information and experiences of wood construction and, above all, build quality. Companies must improve the expertise of their employees and adapt building site practices to the conditions of wood construction, and they must also understand that they have a long road ahead.

In Kaufmann’s opinion, concrete construction is too popular amongst builders. ”This is due to the fact that, in architects’ and engineering firms, there is too little knowledge about wood construction. When an architect says that wood construction is expensive and complex, and an engineer says that there is no system for wood construction, the customer easily bends towards concrete construction. It is important to change such attitudes and this will only take place by increasing the amount of information available.”

”The public sector should provide more support to promote wood construction. This is most likely to happen if the public sector itself builds with wood, which will create a new market and provide good examples.”

Versatile wood construction professionals now needed

According to Kaufmann, a major change is now taking place in wood construction, involving architects, design engineers and wood construction professionals. ”The decision to promote wood construction cannot be made exclusively by large construction companies. It must be genuine and cover the whole of the industry,” emphasises Kaufmann.

In German-speaking Europe, there are many schools and institutes specialising in wood construction. The best-known of these are TU Graz in Austria, Fachhochschule Rosenheim in Germany, the Biel unit of Berner Fachhochschule in Switzerland and the Munich University of Technology, where Kaufmann is Head of the Department of Wood Architecture. ”Training is needed at all levels, because we never have enough good people. In Austria, it is possible to start a course in wood construction as an apprentice and to progress through master training all the way to university. This produces versatile wood construction professionals through good working-life experience and training.”

Wood and concrete in co-operation

From a point of view of the promotion of wood construction in the future, in Kaufmann’s opinion the most important thing is to offer different wood construction systems and high-quality, industrially prefabricated elements, to which building technology, doors and windows can be connected better than at present. He says that wood construction also suits the growing field of repair and renovation construction. Kaufmann has been involved in the development work for the TES method, which suits this field of construction.  

 ”Prefabrication is a road to industrial construction and, in this, wood provides an opportunity. Manufacturers of construction components must understand that this development work is key to the breakthrough of wood construction. The competitiveness and actual benefit of wood construction come from its speed and lightness, which can still be further developed and about which new experiences must be acquired. We are right at the start of this way of thinking,” says Kaufmann. 

According to Kaufmann, more low-emission, renewable building materials must be used in future construction. ”The concrete industry fears this change, and expects that mistakes will be made in wood construction. If it were sensible and clever, it would co-operate with the wood construction industry, because buildings are rarely made purely of either wood or concrete.” In the Life Cycle Tower built at Dornbirn in Austria, we have shown how well wood and concrete can be combined in an effective way in industrial construction. So my message to you is – co-operate!” says Kaufmann.

Wood construction a factor in climate

Kaufmann is convinced that, in the coming years, energy-efficient materials will be a hot topic of discussion. ”Now a debate is clearly starting on the demands of future construction, and this debate will guide legislation more strongly than at present. Already energy-efficiency directives are guiding the construction industry to use ecological materials,” says Kaufmann.

”The atmosphere amongst consumers is changing. Here in Austria, many factors are exerting pressure in favour of wood construction,” he says. ”It is a beautiful, aesthetic, ecological and local material, from which local builders can make high-quality houses. We have a strong tradition in the use of wood in construction, and there is now a desire to grasp hold of it, because it also strengthens local economies.”

Kaufmann reckons that climate change mitigation measures and carbon footprint reduction favour wood construction. ”The promotion of wood construction is significant for the good of the climate, and the use of wood in construction is a major change for emissions-producing construction. Although we are aware of the emissions problems of construction and living, the achievement of targets requires further knowledge about the possibilities for the use of wood in future construction.”

Puuinfo article service/Markku Laukkanen

More information: Professor Hermann Kaufmanni,  +43 (0)5572 581740,