An interview with

Tillmann Schütt

When you look back at the history of Schütt, what do you see as the crucial developments or milestones?

→ We’re in our fifth generation now and I have to say that every single generation has left its own mark on the company. If we look at my grandfather, who went to war and was taken prisoner, we can see that his circumstances were completely different to mine today. The company underwent a drastic evolution with my uncle Claus Schütt, who came back to his father’s business full of energy and enthusiasm in 1961, having completed his training as an architect and carpenter in Eckernförde. He managed to bring about a lot of change. For example, he was in charge when the in-house glued laminated timber production facility was introduced in 1966 – this was undoubtedly a huge milestone. In 1975, his brother Hans Schütt joined the company and set up the engineering office. The addition of an internal technical office was definitely another huge step in the right direction. And I mustn’t forget our fully automated joinery machine being commissioned in 2007. This suddenly opened up a whole range of brand new opportunities and allowed us to take on relevant projects. For example, we wouldn’t have been able to work on the whale-shaped building in Friedrichskoog without this system.

Is there one of your predecessors who you feel you owe a lot to in particular?

→ I couldn’t single out one individual. I feel a sense of responsibility to all of our employees and I believe this is something that has been passed down to me. I learnt from my uncle – not from my grandfather as I was only seven years old when he passed away – that we are one big family and that we should feel indebted to everyone who works for us. The same is actually also true for the region as a whole. There are some slightly mixed feelings here, though. We work on the understanding that although we happen to be based here, we are in a position to achieve success across different regions and indeed on an international level. As far as the employees are concerned, it’s a good spot. There are very definite fundamental values in place here in the countryside, so it’s a fantastic location in terms of establishing these qualities. When it comes to the distance from our building sites, however, then there’s no denying that a more central location would be better.

I want to make people say with amazement, ‘Can you really do that with wood?’

What achievement would you like to be remembered for in your company’s history?

→ I want to create buildings with special features, which combine functionality, aesthetics and energy efficiency. Yes, what I really want is to build constructions out of wood that aren’t typical wooden houses. I want to make people say with amazement, ‘Can you really do that with wood?’ And, of course, sustainability has an important part to play here, too. I always hold back when it starts to sound like I’m preaching, though. The word ‘sustainability’ is being thrown around a lot at the moment but I do feel a huge sense of responsibility – maybe that’s the same for everyone. It would be a dream come true if I were able to help the company develop to such a level that people would think of us when they heard words and phrases like ‘sustainable’, ‘responsible construction’ and ‘high energy efficiency’.

At the end of the day, I’d love to be able to look back and say, ‘I’m proud of what I did here.’ At a very fundamental level, I’m focused on managing our finances to ensure that the company is stable and to enable us to invest and continue to grow. So we can afford to have a nice website, buy new machinery and build a hall. My own personal wealth is not the driving force behind what I do.

All preconceptions annoy me.
They don’t even have to be related to wood.

Which preconception about wood as a construction material annoys you the most?

→ All preconceptions annoy me – they don’t even have to be related to wood. But restricting my answer to wood, I would have to say it’s the issue of longevity. It really bothers me when people assume that anything built from wood won’t hold its value for as long as if it were made using other materials. And that’s linked to the belief that wood is very sensitive to the weather and susceptible to rotting.

And what about the alleged lack of fire protection?

→ Absolutely – that’s up there on the list, too. There is a common opinion that wood burns too quickly and that it is a lightweight construction material. You know what they say: light is bad and heavy is good. As if the mass of construction materials used to construct a building is a sign of its quality. We need to eliminate these preconceptions and we mustn’t forget that it is our fault that they exist in the first place. As an industry, we developed an incredibly fast and cheap method of construction back in the 1970s, when prefabricated ‘cardboard’ houses were erected. There later came a point when nobody was happy with them anymore. These types of buildings are also completely unsatisfactory in terms of their energy efficiency levels. We created this stigma for ourselves.

And now we have to somehow manage to get people on board and convince them that a timber-frame wall with a double layer of plasterboard and a wooden core is on an equal footing with a plastered brick wall. And that it actually boasts advantages in terms of sustainability and conservation of resources.

And then come the questions relating to the physical properties of the buildings. Is the sound insulation as effective? Do the walls absorb as much heat and cold? Walls are assigned incredible properties these days. People will happily choose to forget that brick walls often won’t feel warm as they are radiating cold or that masonry walls often get damp from the bottom, causing efflorescence in basements. It’s true that building with wood requires greater care and closer attention to detail. This is the only way to ensure durability. But when I pay that much attention to detail, I am also able to benefit from a whole host of other advantages afforded by this material. I gain a level of modularity that no other material is able to offer me.

What exactly do you mean by modularity?

→ Well, I have the option of building a single wall element with built-in installations, or I can create entire modules – say sanitary or room modules – that I can piece together. Owing to the weight, this is something that is impossible with other construction materials. So, yes, I have to pay very close attention to detail, but once I have taken all the necessary steps, I am in a position to reap the other rewards, including speedy construction and a dry building design.

The best outcome for us is when a customer falls in love with the plans.

What is the vision that drives you?

→ I always ask that the team I’m working with is enthusiastic about what we are doing. But if you want to be surrounded by good, talented people, it’s important that you offer them something of substance in return. This is something I give a lot of thought to. For me, we all need to be having fun together when we are coming up with unique solutions. Buildings that are born from this environment are guaranteed to be something special. But I’m very much of the opinion that the path we take to reach our end result is just as important as the finished product. I’m also always really happy when we come up with timeless results, when we create buildings that will still look modern in 10, 20 or 40 years. I am incredibly lucky in that we can always get our customers on board with the concept. We can use the quality of the plans as a way of guaranteeing that we will win the building contract. The best outcome for us is when a customer falls in love with the plans, as this means we can also have a say in the materials that are used. Being able to get involved at the design stage is the bit of my job that I love the most. Of course, I’m rather limited in what I can do here. While I do have a good understanding of architecture, I can’t really put it into practice as a structural engineer. Luckily for me, I have people in my team who can do it for me.

Is there an architectural period that you really admire? That you think represents eternal beauty?

→ Yes, of course. Not Bauhaus, but what came after. I love the straight lines in the architecture. I’m a huge fan of minimalism and clarity. Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe are names that come to mind. But we have to do more than just refer to this style of architecture, we need to reinterpret it and adapt it to the modern day.

I wish that the proportion of wood construction projects rise from 20% as it stands now to, say, 40 or 50%.

Let’s pretend we could travel forward to the year 2116. What might the buildings look like?

→ I think we will move away from the idea that we build for generations. I do love the feeling of stepping inside a university building that was constructed in 1812 and getting a sense of what it was like back then. Having said that, I don’t have anything against demolishing old buildings and reconstructing them, as they are doing with the Berlin City Palace. The way we live will become much more flexible and living space won’t be tied to people the way it is now. Our concept of property and ownership will change. We already share cars rather than owning our own. This will be applied to our living spaces, too.

In view of future urbanisation, we can expect to see people from different walks of life coming together more. This idea was at the heart of urban planning in Berlin back at the end of the 19th century. There will no longer be a neighbourhood for the rich and one for the poor – all layers of society will be brought together in one area and even in one building. There will be a greater sense of community when it comes to different age groups, too. And we will share our living space. Families whose children have left home will let out rooms to young families with newborn babies.

This level of flexibility will be dependent on the buildings though, won’t it?

→ That’s right. It will need to be possible to remove or insert walls. This level of flexibility will be an important task for planners to tackle. At some point in the future, we will start to move away from our fixation on having an excess of insulation. I think we will also start to make use of solar energy a lot more than we do now. And we won’t have to factor the production of costly solar cells into our energy footprint. In the next few decades, we will learn how to make much better use of the solar power generated. Plus, we will, of course, start to focus more on building up. In Vienna, the ground was recently broken for a 19-storey building made of wood. So work is already starting on these kinds of flagship projects. The typical Hamburg developments – with four storeys plus a roof – may well be a thing of the past as we move forward.

Making building fronts green is another issue. Façade systems as we know them are set to change, with building fronts themselves being made more functional and roofs set to go the same way. It would be amazing if we could see the proportion of wood construction projects rise from 20% as it stands now to, say, 40 or 50%.

We need to push much harder for this issue of moral responsibility to be discussed across
all sectors.

What do you see as being the main challenges facing construction companies at the moment?

→ It all goes back to the state needing to reassess the way in which contracts are awarded. The system is based on the idea that the contractor offering the most cost-effective price will be commissioned with the project rather than the one offering the cheapest price. But this analysis of cost-effectiveness does not actually take place. I think a lot of these ‘cost-effective’ prices are subsidised by companies that have either miscalculated or have kept their quoted price unnaturally low out of financial necessity. And they actually end up making their financial situation worse. It’s not a healthy system by any stretch of the imagination.

In my view, it has a detrimental effect on the quality of construction and the economy. With the aim of keeping costs low, cheap subcontractors are booked for projects despite the fact that they are only just managing to keep their heads above water and they end up cutting back on materials and staff. I’ve even heard of workers sleeping on pallets at the building site overnight. There are some serious double standards at play. Whilst we have all these restrictions and stipulations in place, those at the end of the supply chain are struggling. Even though the construction industry is booming, this system guarantees that there are plenty of companies and people fighting for survival day in, day out. And something needs to be done about it. We need to push much harder for this issue of moral responsibility to be discussed across all sectors.

Who are your role models?

→ That’s a tricky question. I’ve never really thought about it. I admire people who have achieved great things but still managed to keep some distance and stay true to themselves with their feet firmly on the ground. My father is one of those people. Yes, if I had to choose a role model from the people closest to me, it would have to be my father.