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Alpine Convention: Sense and Sensuality

Felix Näscher (Liechtenstein), CIPRA Director Andreas Götz, architect Johannes Kaufmann (from left).

Felix Näscher (Liechtenstein), CIPRA Director Andreas Götz, architect Johannes Kaufmann (from left). © Zeitenspiegel Reportagen / Heinz Heiss

Climate change mitigation in construction and renovation is tantamount to providing for the future; it also makes economic sense. Better still, the Konstruktiv architecture award shows how sustainable construction can also become a sight for sore eyes. CIPRA co-initiated the award in order to publicise exemplary solutions. Imitations expressly permitted!
Sometimes, when he’s designing a municipal building, the mayor will ask him what sort of timber he’s planning to use. Johannes Kaufmann then usually replies with a question of his own: “Well, what sort of trees do you have in your local forest?”
You could say that Austrian architect Johannes Kaufmann is conservative, despite the ultra-modern buildings he designs. “I’m very much a fan of the thought: how did our forefathers do it?” says Kaufmann. “They went into the forest and had a look at the sort of wood they had. And then they looked at the best way to cut the trunks to make sure they felled as few trees as possible.”
Nowadays, he believes, the tendency among many developers is to saw any old cross-section out of a trunk. A vast amount of waste wood is then “transported hundreds of miles by road so that, somewhere or other, crates can be made out of it”. In Kaufmann’s view it’s this sort of wastage that goes against the grain. The 43-year-old comes from an old family of carpenters in Austria’s Bregenzerwald; he never attended university. After his carpenter’s apprenticeship he worked as a draughtsman for a number of renowned firms of architects before getting his master’s certificate as a carpenter and builder and setting up his own business. Today Johannes Kaufmann is a figurehead of Vorarlberg’s innovative timber construction movement. And an award-winning one at that. One of his buildings has been commended by the jury of Konstruktiv, the Liechtenstein Award for Sustainable Construction and Renovation in the Alps co-initiated by CIPRA. The architect and the municipality received the first prize worth EUR 25,000 for the planning and construction of the Raggal municipal building in Vorarlberg. The judges’ decision was swayed by the way in which the timber structure combines stringent, almost purist beauty with high energy efficiency.
The cubic structure now adorns Vorarlberg’s landscape, which for centuries has remained virtually unchanged. Farmhouses and hamlets lie dotted about the steep slopes of the GrossesWalsertal. Some 700 years ago, the forefathers of today’s inhabitants fled the hunger and poverty of Switzerland’s Valais region, but the fertile land down in the valley was already widely settled. The new settlers had to go further up and clear the forest where meagre soil and steep slopes held the promise of only a modest livelihood. The walls of the old farmhouses are supported by mighty beams. The widely projecting gable roofs are designed to withstand heavy loads of snow. Often the façades are protected against the battering storms by a carapace of shingle, each farmstead a fortress against the ravages of time. So the new municipal building is all the more surprising. No tall gable here to defy the ferocious weather. Instead, the timber cube nestles modestly into the slope, at pains almost not to attract attention.
However, this did not in any way disturb the international jury of renowned architects and architectural critics – on the contrary. For the Konstruktiv award, sustainability also means respecting the landscape and the culture, as expressed by the municipal building. Above it, Raggal’s vicarage, church and primary school are grouped around the village’s old linden tree. From the square, the perennial gathering point for the community’s mountain farmers, the view extends far down to the valley. Across to the Walserkamm, the mountain chain overlooking the valley, the protective forest above the scattered houses, and the deep ravines cutting into the sloping meadows. The first time Johannes Kaufmann stood beneath the linden tree, he realised: “Nothing must ever come in the way of this wonderful view.” Contrary to the municipality’s stipulations, which required a conventional gable roof, Kaufmann presented his modern design with a gently sloping pitched roof – and won the tender.
Werner Asam, who heads the local council, recalls the discussions they had about the entries that were submitted for the competition: “Initially we all tended to favour the more conventional designs.” The councillors reviewed each model in turn. In his draft design Kaufmann had grouped most of the rooms on a single level. Immediately to the left of the entrance was the tourist office; to the right the municipal office, separated only by glass: transparency as the key element, for both the spatial design and the administration. Adjoining behind the offices is the Walserstüble, where groups and associations are able to meet and get together. The only room on the first floor is the municipal council’s assembly hall, which boasts extensive views. In the competing drafts the offices were all spread out over three or four storeys. “Although we were all laymen in architectural terms,” says Werner Asam, “we soon began to realise the modern design’s special quality.”
Plus there was another argument that no local politician could fail to ignore: promoting the regional economy. The community’s own forests would supply the silver fir and spruce trees. The felling and wood processing would provide work for the woodcutters, sawyers, joiners and carpenters in the valley. Wood chips, also from the local forests, are used to heat not just the offices, but also the vicarage, the church, the school and some private homes, too, via district heating. And the insulation concept inspired by passive-house technology would also provide a good energy balance.
On a November day in 2010 Johannes Kaufmann accompanied around the premises two men who felt a particular kinship with his design and ecological ideas. One was Andreas Götz, the Director of CIPRA International, whose organisation has long advocated a more sustainable approach to construction and renovation in the Alps. The other was Felix Näscher, Head of the Liechtenstein Office for Forests, Nature and Landscape, who together with CIPRA wanted to encourage innovative building concepts. As they toured the premises the two men remembered how everything had begun with a huge disappointment. In March 2009 the Ministers of the Environment of the Alpine States presented their “action plan for climate change in the Alps”, a plan initiated by CIPRA. It was a bitter disappointment. “That paper did not in any way meet the challenges posed by climate change,” says Andreas Götz. CIPRA had suggested a far broader concept to the ministers, with concrete measures and objectives for alleviating climate change and mitigating its impact. The Alps should become a “model region for climate change mitigation”. It meant that oil-fired heating systems would be banned in new builds and that the passive-house standard would be introduced across the board. All these proposals were missing from the action plan. “It’s a meaningless paper with a few random measures,” says CIPRA’s Director. “To a large extent it’s an abstract concept that is not tailored to the Alps,” agrees Felix Näscher.
CIPRA’s criticism of the ministers’ plan prompted Felix Näscher to come up with a project. Together with CIPRA he came up with the idea of the Konstruktiv architecture award. While the Liechtenstein Office raised the prize money, CIPRA with its know-how and its network helped to organise and publicise the competition. Applications poured in from all over the Alpine region.
“Very few developers know exactly what sort of building they want,” explains Felix Näscher. “Essentially it’s the architect who determines what comes out at the end.” That’s why the competition was intended to show developers and planners alike that “exciting architecture and energy efficiency are compatible”. Andreas Götz also stresses that energy can be saved during construction itself. “It makes a huge difference whether I expend a lot of energy manufacturing and shipping building materials such as concrete and steel or whether I source natural raw materials locally,” he says, pointing through the panoramic windows at the forests on the valley slope opposite. Not to mention the fact that when wood as the raw material comes from small-scale sustainable forest management “it also reflects our identity,” as Felix Näscher remarks with reference to the old farmhouses of the Walsertal. “It’s something we had lost sight of.” As a building material wood had been regarded as a symbol of backwardness. “But here we are, sitting here, and we can see just how modern the concept of building with wood can be!”
The ecological specifications were ambitious. A genuine passive house could not, however, be built at this location. No rays of sunshine get through during the winter months. “For me it’s not a matter of dogma,” says Johannes Kaufmann, listing his standards: triple glazing, ecological materials, and an air-tight building shell. “The most important thing for me is to build intelligent buildings in which people feel at ease.” And that’s something genuinely palpable in this municipal building. For instance the off-white wall panelling. The panels of silver fir were made without wood preservative and merely sanded down. The workplaces in the offices are filled with light; the materials used are healthy, and they smell good, too. At the end of the visit Andreas Götz comments: “For me this building confirms that climate change mitigation and sustainable solutions do not mean sacrifices; instead, it’s all fun and sensuality.”

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Orchestrated timber renovation: Second place in the Liechtenstein Award for Sustainable Construction and Renovation in the Alps went to a 170-year-old timber structure in Austria’s federal province of Vorarlberg. The Gasthof Krone in Hittisau is an exemplary illustration of how to renovate and upgrade an old building in terms of energy efficiency and, at the same time, enhance its character. 29 artisanal businesses from the Werkraum Bregenzerwald association contributed their regional handicraft skills. The timber itself was locally sourced, with the heating being provided by the nearby biomass heating plant. Further information: www.krone-hittisau.at
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Committed to sustainability: The Alpine Convention is an international state treaty under which the eight Alpine states Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Switzerland and Slovenia as well as the EU are committed to sustainable development. The set of agreements came about as a result of pressure from CIPRA, which also advocates a climate action plan. The Liechtenstein Award for Sustainable Construction and Renovation in the Alps is a further development of that plan. It is financed by Liechtenstein and organised by CIPRA and Liechtenstein University. Further information: www.cipra.org/en/alpine-convention and www.constructive.li (de/fr/it/sl)
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Source: Annual Report 2010 CIPRA International
www.cipra.org/en/CIPRA/cipra-international