Wood is a promise: Interview with Prof. Hermann Kaufmann
You come from a family of carpenters how does this influence your work as an architect?
It influenced my work very seriously because wood was part of my childhood. The wood workshop was in the same house and me and my brothers had the chance to watch what our father was doing every day. When I was 6 or 7 years old I helped them sometimes. This context was very important for two reasons: we learnt a lot about materials and we developed a fascination for buildings and for craftsmanship. At the same time we got an idea about why we are alive: we can be useful, we can do something, we can help someone. Of course, not everyone is fascinated by the work of his father and grandfather, but in our family me and my brothers more or less have remained in the same field as them. I think their influence was very important for my work. For me, the process, how things are done is very important and I also like constructive thinking, and it has a lot to do with the early experience in my childhood where I saw how buildings are made. I’m trying to teach all these ideas to my student because architects has a lot to do with practical things: we are builders, we work with craft, we work with our hands.
Why has timber construction become so popular in the last decade?
For me there are a few answers. One of these is that in society we are looking for sustainable works, and consequently how we can build our houses in a sustainable way. The question is: with what resources? We face a resource problem at the moment, not only an energy problem. This forced to think about alternatives. Therefore, wood for buildings is a first choice as a material for the future. At the same time I think people are looking for a healthier surrounding and maybe a more natural environment. In this context wood is a promise. It is offering a valid alternative to the classic building process. Wood construction and prefabrication are close together and one big advantage of prefabrication is the high quality of prefabricated buildings. It allows construction to be faster, to have better quality, and also to prevent natural disasters.
Would it be possible to choose wood construction even if it is not a local material?
I think it doesn’t make sense to build everywhere in the world in wood. Wood is a largely diffused material, and also it is possible to transport it for some distances, but there is a limit. And it must make sense also in relation to different climate zones. There are climates in the world where maybe it doesn’t make sense to build houses in wood, but there are a lot of areas with a good climate for it. We have to be very careful where we use what materials. On the other hand, it can make more sense to import wood in countries where we have less resources because other materials, like concrete need to be transported too, but also produced at a high energy cost. It makes more sense, also in an ecological way.
What is the potential of timber?
You can built almost everything with timber. At the moment we are on the way to show what is really possible and we are always pushing the limits further. Normal buildings, official buildings, schools, factories, apartment buildings, also high rise buildings to a certain height are always possible. There are limits but we are not there at the moment. In Austria ther is this saying, “we have enough space to improve”. („Es ist noch Luft nach oben“)
What is the future for wood in your opinion?
I can’t say what will happen in the future, at the moment there are so many possibilities. We have invented so many things that it is now the case to use those inventions and not to invent others. There are different possibilities to use wood in combination with other materials because it is lighter than other technologies and it suits perfectly for refurbishment or redesigning. We are discussing that wood is coming back to the town as it was before: in medieval towns we had a lot of wooden buildings that then disappeared, and now it is coming back because of this redensification of towns. The advantage is that is very fast, very light for building additions and new buildings. This I think is the opportunity for wood in the future.
Why did you choose to become an architect?
I made the decision to be an architect very early. My uncle was an architect also and I watched him working and I saw how much he worked. And I said, “No, I don’t want to work so much in my life”. But my uncle replied “That’s okay, it’s your choice, you can also do it in another way”. I believed him. Now I know that architects always work very hard. But it is how they work that makes the difference.
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