Timber buildings are prized above all else in the Bregenzerwald. And yet it’s easy to overlook just how much solid craftsmanship goes into the preservation of traditions. And yet nevertheless, decisive innovations and ventures have often driven development forward. For instance, Michael Kaufmann’s great-uncle Josef Kaufmann, who opened a carpentry shop in Reuthe in 1952, was also one of the pioneers of modern timber building techniques at an international level. Since that time, the company has been responsible for numerous innovations. These days, Michael Kaufmann is sixty years old. In his son Matthias, he has a worthy successor for his Vorarlberg-based timber building and carpentry company. Both readily agree: “It is essential to invest in industrial timber building in order to secure the future of the company. Many good carpentries in the Bregenzerwald have followed a similar route. But if you are unable to occupy a niche, you are at risk of going out of business. Doing nothing, of course, is also a risk.”
Timber building for visionaries
Michael and Matthias Kaufmann's new assembly and storage hall is located in the Baien district of Reuthe not far from the main road. Staggered ceiling heights and wide, structured skylight strips make a solid impression. Within its doors, the structure combines traditional carpentry with innovative, industrial timber building techniques.
Michael and Matthias Kaufmann have united the principles of industry and craftsmanship. Their goal is to further increase the quality of craftsmanship while also exploring the opportunities offered by series production. Much of what they do is a question of scale: the scale of traditional craftsmanship possible in the production process is dependent on whether five, fifty or five hundred wooden modules are produced. Both, however, emphasise the importance of not dedicating themselves exclusively to module construction. Traditional timber construction must also be given space to thrive. With these principles in mind, four years ago, the decision was made to plan a new company building with Michael Kaufmann’s brother Johannes: “The goal was to construct an efficient and flexible production hall for wood module construction large enough to build fifty to sixty weather protected module boxes including interior fittings and furniture. Delivery and assembly should be quick and efficient. The goings-on in the production hall can be readily observed from the outside.
Two areas of different heights, one at ten metres and the other at over 13 metres, house production and storage respectively. A particularly robust, load-bearing timber framework made of laminated beech-wood beams on six reinforced concrete columns separates the two areas. The result is a 30×80 m space, which is heated and thermally insulated. 28 centimetres of wood wool in the walls as well as ceiling and underfloor heating ensure optimum working conditions all year round in addition to making the space extremely economical to operate. The 2,600 square metre hall was effortlessly connected to the existing wood chip heating system, which is operated with the company’s own waste wood. Temporarily opening the gates is no problem even in winter, as the huge concrete base plate stores ample heat. Meanwhile, high, top-mounted hinges provide effective, natural lighting for the interior. The glazing on the front sides, which reaches down to the floor, allows external views. Two flat, man-high extensions with windows are used by craftspeople for preparation and storage during assembly. “In my production hall, the grazing cows outside look in on three sides,” says Michael Kaufmann in reference to the conscious effort to invite the surrounding landscape indoors. At the rear is the large work yard, which can accommodate up to a hundred large wooden modules. Through three eight metre wide gates, lorries can drive all the way into the production hall for loading. An almost three metre deep frame made of black-coloured, glued-laminated timber encloses the gates and at the same time offers rain-protected storage along the façade.
It only takes three days to empty the production hall, which is filled to the brim with wooden modules. Once transferred to the respective construction sites, the modules unite to form hotels, schools or residential complexes. Moreover, only two to three craftsmen are needed for loading. Fifteen to twenty special lorries leave the factory every day during this time, and a team of five to six people assemble on site on the same day. All this is preceded by four to six weeks of production in the hall. Detailed planning and well thought-out logistics for material sourcing, production and assembly are required to ensure that the production of the modules functions smoothly even under time pressure. At the end of the production hall, a slender tower, made of concrete and glass, houses office, meeting and planning spaces for the craftsmen. During module construction in the production hall, external employees from trade businesses provide the electrical and sanitary installations, the painting, glazing and tiling work as well as the installation of the furniture at strictly timed intervals. The modules are then transported to the hall area, which is over thirteen metres high, where they are finished and stacked up three modules high. The hall is not only important for the Kaufmann family: it also plays a role for regional trade as a whole. If timber module building were to be carried out on a purely industrial basis, specialised workers would have to achieve a high output at a location that is favourable from a transport point of view and deliver it internationally. Best of all, the approach facilitated by Michael and Matthias Kaufmann, which is performed in close cooperation with craftspeople from the region, enables production to remain in Bregenzerwald. Orders for northern Germany or Switzerland, for example, can be produced in Reuthe in a manner that remains both competitive and resource-saving. The result is an expanded construction site running parallel to the actual construction process. Finished modules are brought to the building location and assembled in a short amount of time. The quick construction times are decisive for time-critical projects such as hotels or school buildings. In this way, lost turnover or expensive replacement measures can be avoided. Most importantly, construction costs are now competitively on par with those of solid construction.
Close collaborations with other craftsmen increase the quality and offer them new export opportunities, which are only possible within the association. Matthias and Michael Kaufmann want to ensure that their employees are able to work on a broad spectrum of tasks. The production of wooden modules requires a high degree of concentration in a short time, not to mention uniform assembly work. In contrast, classic carpentry work offers a much broader scope of activities and more craftsmanship. A mixture of both keeps the work attractive for the employees. Ultimately, the Kaufmann’s believe, people are at the heart of both innovation and quality. This is the key to attracting the region’s best craftspeople.
Author: Robert Fabach
Issue: Winter 2019-20 Travel Magazine