“Hermann Kaufmann” has evolved to become “HK Architekten”. With this evolution we have grown, gained skills and created even more wonderful projects and partnerships. We want to share our gratitude with each of the members in our team: Your dedication has been the cornerstone of our success!
Looking back, we’ve achieved much and now, standing at the brink of a new chapter, we are filled with hope for the future. In today’s world, our commitment to sustainable practices is more crucial than ever. We will continue leading in responsible design, shaping a future where wooden architecture is synonymous with environmental responsibility.
Here’s to the next 40 years of innovation and a steadfast commitment to a more sustainable world.
To kick off the celebrations, we interviewed the founder, namesake and the man who built everything from the ground up, Hermann Kaufmann.
Still as active and pivotal in the office, a dedicated trail blazer, international speaker in demand and globally requested consultant, we wanted to know what inspired him, what does he hope for the future and what has he learnt along the way?
This office was founded 40 years ago. We would like to look back on this time, but also take a look forward. We want to know more about what you have learnt and how this has influenced the development of the office and you personally. What influenced you to forge a relationship with timber and its use in architecture?
My godfather Leopold Kaufmann was an architect, my grandfather and father were carpenters. When I started my architecture degree, my prospect was to work for my godfather at some point. As I delved deeper into the subject of architecture and construction during my studies, I realised that wood was misunderstood. That’s why I wanted to get more involved with this material.
At that time, the subject of wood was not very important in the construction industry. At university, we learnt things that my father no longer did because they were outdated. That motivated me to keep working with this material. I made this fundamental decision at the very beginning of my studies.
Then I met my mentor Professor Ernst Hiesmayr at the university in Vienna. He wasn’t a wood specialist, but he was very interested in this subject. He took me into his office, which meant that the topic of wood became more important in his work. I then realised a few timber projects with him until I had so many commissions in Vorarlberg that I was able to set up my own business and form an office partnership with Christian Lenz. We were soon able to realise several projects, not only through competitions, but also through many direct commissions. Back then, it was even easier to gain a foothold as a young office than it is today. Of course, the fact that my carpentry family was well known helped.
When you look back on 40 years of working in architecture: What has really changed you and what has changed your work?
I don’t think you can pin this down to individual events or projects alone. The path led from the small scale to the medium to the large scale. It was a continuous process of working with wood. Fortunately, we always had projects where we were able to try out something new, such as the Ölzbündt residential complex in 1996, where we were able to realise a completely prefabricated multi-storey timber residential building for the first time. This was the prototype for a new timber construction system for housing, the development of which was supported by the Austrian Research Promotion Fund.
Building systems, prefabricated timber construction and standardisation in timber construction are topics that our office has been following all along. The big problem is that timber construction is far too confusing and offers far too many possibilities. That’s why every project is a little different. In the past, there were no standards and the multitude of different products led to different solutions, fuelled by the small-scale timber industry. Timber constructors outdid each other with “new inventions”. This was an obstacle to the spread of the idea of wood, because nobody really knew what they were doing.
This has improved somewhat, and today there are standardised solutions, in which we are not entirely uninvolved, because system development has always been important to us. Then came topics that are of course very closely related to wood: we took ecological and sustainable construction seriously very early on. We were certainly one of the first to deal with passive houses and were at the forefront when it came to ecological or resource-optimised construction.
A key project here is the Ludesch community centre, which was also scientifically supported. Together with the municipality, we were able to secure research funding to develop a model project for public construction in Vorarlberg in terms of ecology, sustainability and low-emission construction. As the research results were made public, this had a strong influence on the state’s funding guidelines.
The next step was then to take wood out of two and three storeys into multi-storey buildings, to the edge of the tower block and beyond.
Here, too, we first worked on developing a construction system. It was important to us to have a suitable construction system with a high degree of prefabrication so that you don’t have to reinvent things every time. This resulted in the LCT ONE and subsequently also the Illwerke Centre and other projects.
These are the key projects that we have realised on the subject of timber construction and sustainability. And of course the school in Diedorf, which we planned together with Florian Nagler, which also started with a research project. Diedorf wanted a showcase school in the PlusEnergy standard with prefabricated timber construction and low-emission realisation. The German Federal Environmental Foundation formulated and supported this research project and made the results available to the public. This school made quite a splash and won the coveted German Architecture Prize, for example.
Today we would simplify the project because the energy efficiency was realised with too much technology. But that’s the point of research: to try something out, to sound something out and then to rethink things self-critically afterwards.
In terms of the use of wood in architecture, is there a gap that you see in the understanding and use of the material? Or is it just the standards and acceptance of the material that need to catch up?
There are always gaps. Timber construction is still more complex in terms of authorisation and implementation compared to other building materials. It requires a very high level of expertise within a planning team and the topic of prefabricated construction also requires a modified planning process, in which constructive knowledge must be incorporated at a very early stage.
The lack of expertise in planning and execution is a major obstacle and all too often motivated clients become frustrated and timber construction gains a negative reputation. I see this as the biggest danger at the moment, because timber is in vogue, everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon but there is not enough expertise.
Dramatic mistakes are being made, which can deeply undermine confidence in timber construction. There are now many schools and institutions that are trying to combat the knowledge deficit.
Hopefully it will be possible to scale up knowledge in a short span of time. During my time at the Technical University of Munich, I tried to do just that, and the idea of modern timber construction fell on fertile ground with many of my students.
A lot was also initiated through our research. For example, we have made an important contribution to standardisation with the further development of Holzforschung Austria’s internet-based component catalogue “dataholz.eu” in cooperation with various institutions.
Standards and laws must also be further developed in order to make timber construction easier to assess and more predictable. Acceptance of timber is currently exploding. Every effort needs to be made to ensure that this develops towards continuity. There is a risk that a lack of expertise could lead to mistakes being made in both planning and execution, which could bring timber construction into disrepute.
Sustainability and architecture belong together. How do your personal values and convictions influence the direction you take in architecture?
Environmental and nature conservation issues have always been very close to my heart, even when I was at school. That’s why I have remained so persistent on these topics. But never dogmatically.
I always made compromises and tried to implement these things in our buildings as best I could and as well as people understood them. But not dogmatically. Perhaps a little more dogmatism would have been good sometimes.
If we look to the future: What do you hope for the future of architecture and for this office?
I have a plan – this is not a hope, but a plan – to tackle the issue of climate protection consistently now. As far as sustainability is concerned, we know that our standard is nowhere near the standard we could have.
Resource-efficient construction, reuse, creating the possibility that buildings can later be dismantled and the building materials reused. In addition: making buildings more durable by making them better suited to accommodate a wide variety of functions in the future. We need to consistently pursue these issues.
The fact that it is now possible to produce buildings that consume hardly any energy, that are almost self-sufficient, has recently disappeared into the background. The topic of passive houses has been called into question somewhat in recent years, as people have realised that it is not necessarily the ideal solution. The task we have before us is to implement the latest scientific findings in projects.
If we talk about the future and the plan you have, it will be realised together with your team. What advice would you like to offer young, aspiring architects?
We have the advantage that we can build on a wealth of experience, that we have a good foundation and expertise. We can build on a good foundation for the things we want to take forward now.
This is not a new idea that comes out of nowhere, but a further development of what we have done so far. That’s interesting for young people: not having to start from scratch, but being able to build new things on certain experiences.
We have to consistently implement topics that interest young generations.
You have worked with this team and some members of this team for decades, which is a great achievement. What has the next generation working in the office taught you? What have you learnt from working with these younger people?
A lot! We learn a lot from the young employees. At the moment, I notice that we are a bit slow in the office when it comes to implementing new tools and the possibilities of digitalisation. We can learn from the younger generation to implement these things more into our daily routine. The younger generation has dealt with completely different topics in their training than we have. We can also take these things further in the office.
You are a team of around 25 people in the office. What makes you a team?
We regularly sought external support and coaching on the topics of office management, team leadership and understanding a team. I do believe that this has fostered team spirit. When you realise that you are working together on things that also involve difficulties and problems, that is very important. The team spirit is also supported by the fact that we are perceived by the public as an office with a specific message. It is attractive for employees to work in an office that is definitely heard by the public. This also includes the publications, such as the monograph published by DETAIL Verlag. I can imagine that it’s great to be part of such a team.
One last question: What are you most proud of?
I’m only talking about the professional side – of course there are many other things. But professionally, I am proud of the fact that we have managed to achieve a certain relevance in the professional world. We were able to spread certain messages beyond the borders and contribute to wood becoming such an important topic in the construction industry today. We were integral in this, and I am proud of that.