I perceive a shift in thinking and a growing interest in timber construction

Sauerbruch Hutton is one of Germany’s leading architectural studios, and at Build in Wood 22-23 May, you can experience architect, partner and director Vera Hartmann. She will give a presentation on transformative expansions and take you through some of their most successful transformation projects.

In this article, you can read an interview with Vera Hartmann.

Could you share your background and describe how you and your company work with wood?

There is more than one main area of focus. Depending on the specific building brief, wood is applied in a wide variety of areas throughout our projects: whether it is employed structurally, in façades, or in interior fittings.

Our first involvement with this building material dates back 20 years, when we realised a multi-storey, serially produced element façade made of timber for the Federal Environment Agency in Dessau, which opened in 2005. Subsequently, we undertook projects such as the Immanuel Church in Cologne in 2013, our first all-timber frame construction. We also realised a multi-storey residential building in modular timber construction for a student residence in Hamburg. The experience gained in these projects deepened our understanding and refinement of working with wood in subsequent projects. Currently, we are working on our fourth modular timber building and progressing with three projects in timber element construction, with a fourth project completed last year.

As we generally work with the context, we are always striving to find the appropriate type of construction for the respective task and location. Consequently, the projects involving wood exhibit a certain diversity, with wood consistently proving its versatility as a building material.

What do you see as the most pressing challenges in timber construction at the moment and how is your company addressing these challenges?

Like any other material, wood is not infinitely available and therefore should be used as economically, efficiently and sustainably as possible. This is why we very actively engage in issues relating to material sufficiency and circularity. For instance, we examine and optimise the structural design to minimise wood consumption. We aim to develop supporting structures that can be dismantled by type and reused at the end of a building’s life cycle. Often, this places great demands not only on us but also on the structural engineer.

Another challenge we face is adapting to changes in the design process. Planning for timber module construction, for example, often requires a more condensed timeline compared to conventional methods, requiring adjustment on our part as architects.

Furthermore, the strict seriality inherent in modular construction presents a challenge as well. As for us, it is essential to combine the evident economic and structural advantages with a high architectural standard.

With the growing interest in timber construction and the increased need for specialised knowledge, how do you see the potential for timber construction in the future?

We do not seek to follow trends, but rather to break new ground based on what is already there. Each project serves as a catalyst for new insights, which in turn are further explored in follow-up projects and integrated with existing expertise. Technology is constantly evolving. For example, in a recently completed project we used composite wood-concrete ceilings, while newer projects no longer have any concrete in the ceilings at all, reflecting our commitment to circularity and recyclability.

Overall, I perceive a shift in thinking and a growing interest in timber construction.

Can you name a timber construction project that has really impressed you with its innovation?

Of course, we keep an eye on our colleagues’ designs and try to learn from them. Many buildings offer inspiration, yet simultaneously underscore the challenges all offices are currently confronted with in addressing the impacts of climate change. It is imperative to cultivate a new aesthetic and attitude when using wood or re-used materials.

In view of this question, I would like to address the significance of a responsible and forward-thinking urban development policy instead. I am particularly impressed by what can already be seen today in the cityscapes of Paris and Copenhagen. As Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo has been admirably and courageously advancing an urban transformation for many years now, not only taking into account contemporary building techniques and social stability, but actively promoting them. Similarly, Copenhagen’s initiatives to unseal public spaces actively engage citizens in re-imagining our built environment. In Germany, we could benefit a lot from broadening our view towards such pioneering examples.

What will you present at Build in Wood, and what do you hope the attendees will gain from hearing your presentation?

As the presentation focuses on roof extensions in timber, we picked out the corresponding projects. Adding additional storeys always poses particular challenges. For one, you have to familiarise yourself with the existing building, the year it was built, the load bearing capacity etc., all while often involving residents or users in the process.

We present two projects:

The Berlin Metropolitan School, completed four years ago, features a timber frame and solid timber roof extension atop a prefabricated school building from the GDR era. The use of timber construction allowed for a flexibility in design and execution that other construction methods would not have permitted. The implementation was precise and took place without interrupting the school’s activities.

The second project, the Franklin Village residential neighbourhood in Mannheim, was completed only recently. Here, the timber frame construction provides a structural basis, built on top of a very simple American army building from the 1960s. Despite the fragile condition of the existing building, we were able to realise a two-storey extension.

Both projects are very different. They demonstrate the versatility of timber in construction, but also the unique atmosphere and spatial quality timber buildings offer to their occupants and users.

Do you want to hear more fra Vera Hartmann and Sauerbruch Hutton?

Join Denmark’s largest timber conference Build in Wood 22-23 May. Læs mere, se programmet og tilmeld dig her.

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