Spectacular wood structures across the world bear testament to Hermann Blumer’s engineering skill. The Appenzell native has revolutionised the way the sustainable material of wood is approached. He creates delicate, towering structures that once would not have been thought possible. He predicts a big future for wood.
The Centre Pompidou-Metz in France, the Nine Bridges Golf Club in Yeoju in South Korea or the new Tamedia building in Switzerland: all of these caused controversy after completion. That’s because rather than the usual concrete or steel, their support structures are made of a sophisticated timber structure that has been sculpted into an intricate whole. The architect behind these futuristic-looking buildings is Japan’s Shigeru Ban. For the planning of the wooden structures, he enlisted Swiss structural engineer Hermann Blumer, without whom the creation of these buildings would not have been possible. Over the past few decades, Blumer has advanced timber construction with countless new developments and elevated it to a new level.
Blumer understands the nature of wood better than anyone and knows how to combine the individual elements constructively so as to create mammoth structures from these. His collaboration with architect Shigeru Ban in the construction of the Centre Pompidou-Metz art museum marked Blumer’s international breakthrough and a milestone on his “wooden path”. The building, which has a surface area of over 10,000 square metres, was opened in 2010. Other projects followed, such as the I-Park in Norway, an office complex for innovative companies with a specially designed entrance area featuring wooden box elements arranged like a fan. Hermann Blumer’s wealth of experience grows with every project, and this serves as a basis for assessing the feasibility of new ideas. At the start of his career, he continually had to venture into the unknown to reach new heights. “There were a few times where I assured an architect that I could implement the design as planned without having a concrete solution in mind at the time,” remembers Blumer. Then he went home, pondered and worked under pressure to develop an idea. Over the course of weeks, he built models, rejected them, made drawings and calculations. At a certain point, this was always followed by a sudden cathartic inspiration and, all of a sudden, he knew how to approach the project.
“If someone had shown me a picture of the Centre Pompidou-Metz in my early years, I probably wouldn’t have believed it possible that something like this could be constructed out of timber.”
The beginning of a new era
The invention of an innovative linking system for timber support structures paved the way for projects such as the Centre Pompidou-Metz. In 1978, after years of developmental work, Hermann Blumer launched the BSB system, the Blumer System Binder, which launched a new era of timber structural design. The system makes it possible to bridge spans of up to 100 metres. Another decisive factor in the progress of his projects was Blumer’s decision to automate the processes in his business. He recognised early on that using computers would help him to move into a new dimension of timber construction. Thanks to computerised machinery, the work process sped up tenfold. This helped him to achieve an as of yet unseen level of precision, and one not possible with manual labour. In 2003, Blumer teamed up with his partners to found Création Holz in Herisau. The objective of this centre of excellence was to bring together the best experts from their various fields. A core group of experts came together to develop holistic, groundbreaking solutions and contribute to the further advancement of timber construction.
In harmony with the planet
Blumer’s aim is to give timber, once sidelined in engineering by steel and concrete, a renaissance by elevating its use to a whole new level. After all, according to Blumer, not only is timber construction more precise than steel and concrete construction, it also impresses with its ecological advantages. “As a sustainable material, wood enables us to move towards an economic model whereby resource usage is in harmony with our planet and one which will provide future generations with a basis of existence,” says Hermann Blumer. He believes developments will continue to advance in timber construction and that its potential is nowhere near exhausted. The specialist predicts a race for the highest house made wholly of wood over the next few decades. At the same time, he foresees the combination of concrete and wood continuing to gain in importance.
“As a sustainable material, wood enables us to move towards an economic model whereby resource usage is in harmony with our planet and one which will provide future generations with a basis of existence.”
A taste for tricky tasks
Blumer’s latest projects include the Aspen Art Museum in the USA, which was completed in 2015, and the Stavanger bank in Norway, the construction of which is currently under way. As was the case with the Tamedia building in Zurich, the building is being constructed without nails, steel connectors and – wherever possible – without screws. This innovative technology has caused a major worldwide sensation, says Blumer. Despite his international successes, the structural engineer emanates modesty. He stresses that his projects are always a team effort, because alone you achieve nothing. The fact that, in the end, the focus is generally on the architect and not the timber structural engineer does not bother him at all, quite the opposite in fact. “I don’t like fuss and limelight,” he says. “When I see that an architect has managed to achieve his dreams with my help, that’s the greatest gift for me.” At the age of 74, Hermann Blumer has earned the right to pause for a moment and look back on everything he has achieved with pride. But that is not in his nature. He continues to look ahead and still feels the desire to dedicate his services to the timber industry and drive it forward.