Ep 117 - Exploring Innovation and Vertical Integration with Katharina Lehmann, CEO of Blumer Lehmann

21 min 05 sec

In this episode of Timber Talks, we sit down with Katharina Lehmann, CEO of Blumer Lehmann. Katharina shares her remarkable journey with the company and highlights her proudest achievements. We explore the unique positioning and contributions of Blumer Lehmann to the industry.

Discover the benefits of vertical integration up the supply chain and how timber can address the biggest trends in modern buildings. Learn how digital design tools have revolutionized architectural processes and why understanding the entire supply chain is essential for designers. Katharina imparts valuable advice for young professionals who are starting their careers.  


Timber Talks Series 6

Series six of WoodSolutions Timber Talks, provides the latest informative and entertaining information about the best design practices, latest innovations and interesting case studies and interviews with world leading experts in timber design, specification and construction.

Episode transcript

Adam Jones (01:04):

Great. Well thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Katharina. This is the second time you've been on the podcast, but I'm sure there's a lot of new listeners right now who have been on, haven't had that first heard the first episode. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do and the history you've had at Below Layman, and we can go from there.

Katharina Lehman (01:31):

Okay. So, for 27 years I'm working for Bloom Limb and in Go South Switzerland. And we started with a sawmill with a wooden wheel generating electricity and the sawmill and then a timber construction company came across or we started doing timber constructions. And today we are a company of hundred and 50 people and still fascinating by doing timber constructions, not only of course the general ones, but the two disciplines. We really try to push our modular buildings more standardized as we can. And on the other hand, the freeform, the freeform timber constructions, which means absolutely prototyping, collaborative working, but also using the digital tools to design build.

Adam Jones (02:42):

Yeah. And I know you've been on some of the coolest projects in the world. What projects are you most proud of that you've been a part of?

Katharina Lehman (02:54):

I can’t answer this question anymore because we did so many very nice projects. Of course, the first clubhouse in South Korea was one unique one because it was the first time we tried to find out how to do these kind of free forms. Just recent projects are, for example, a rule for the technical, we see it in Sweden, which pushed the boundaries in a tech technical way that we built something which we never thought was possible to build, for example. Or what we also enjoy at the moment is building some very nice construction in Saudi Arabia because we very much like that. Also, countries like the Arabian ones which don't have any timber but still are experience or experience this material just because of the sustainability.

Adam Jones (04:10):

So freeform architecture is so amazing, and I know you pay attention to sort of standardization you're mentioning and log utilization because you look at the whole supply chain and very closely to some, maybe including myself, it seems like the two aren't balanced, but is there a way to achieve this standardization and the freeform architecture? Cause it looks so difficult and complicated and obviously you find a way to make it achievable and doable.


Katharina Lehman (04:44):

Yeah, I mean actually we learn from each other. So, when you try to find out how to standardize the process or how to build hopefully every time the same in a certain way, you think in methods and tools. And on the other hand, doing free forms means that you can't build without any IT support anymore. And to learn from these two disciplines to use the tools, right? This is what interests us. I don’t know if, yeah, maybe I should explain it a bit better.

Adam Jones (05:44):

No, I think that's totally fine. And I know I'm just following my own brain sometimes like this, but it seems like you've got both extremes. So, you've got, timber can be suitable for very simple or very advanced architecture. Do you think that's where timber sits, that it can do both very well, but if we try and do get the benefits of the beautiful architecture and try and make it cost efficient, they too opposite things that we need to decide what our goal is and pursue that or can we have both efficiency and that architecture as well?

Katharina Lehman (06:22):

Definitely mean these are just the two-week streams, but it shows the possibilities and the variability of the possibilities of timber lightweight and fast building, fast buildable. So this is one at one teach for a dense urban context. So, you bring in most prefabricated constructions to build in an urban context. That's one of the advantages of timber. And on the other hand, all these free forms, free form construction show that timber is a material which is easy to bend, easy to cut, is easy to construct also to join because the carpenters that they know how to join the details and that makes this fascinating construction possible. And just that a different way of looking at the advantages of timber. Yeah,

Adam Jones (07:30):

You mentioned it's easy to bend, easy to join I think for every supplier around the world. For most it'd be like that's very, very difficult. But I think it's a skill set that your team has learned over time and turned something that's quite complicated and made it simple. Tell us, I mean have you got unique manufacturing processes that aren't available in other parts of the supply chain? Is there some sort of unique processes that you have there to enable this?

Katharina Lehman (08:04):

Definitely, but the first process is of course the planning process. And the planning process means a precise collaborative programming of a model. And programming means the engineer, the architect, the carpenter, also the installations, the information flowing to a model which has to be developed together. And then you take all these data off the model and tried to use modern tools like CNC machines to bring out these parts. And it's not only one specialist or one explicit, the disciplines of all these specialists working on the task to make those kind of buildings possible. And because it's based by a model, those constructions are also more and more payable or more affordable just because it's a complicated form. But you find out how to break that down to a IKEA set. The parts at the end is just a beam, maybe more complicated because you use double or bent glam timber or other different raw materials. But at the end it's a beam which is sent all over the world.

Adam Jones (09:55):

Yeah. Oh, that's so great. What do you see as the biggest trends in our buildings today and how can timber help achieve some of these trends?

Katharina Lehman (10:07):

See two ones. One is of course sustainability and all these carbon capture storage or substitution topics, and timber will play a leading role in these trend of decarbonization. And the other trend is prefabricating. I think building industry has to be a bit more efficient than it was and maybe a bit more process based. And timber can also be a part of that new world of maybe more productivity in building industry. And with these two trends, I believe that timber constructions are growing bigger, wider, higher, they come back to the cities, they are more and more developed by architects as a playground. And we have to educate also, or we have to bring in knowhow because we are pushing the boundaries as a branch. And I feel very excited about the times which are coming, but it's going to be a challenge also to fulfill the needs which will be there soon.

Adam Jones (11:46):

And in what way do you see the challenges coming up in terms of fulfilling the needs? What are the big challenges that sort of Tim has at the moment?

Katharina Lehman (11:56):

I think we need engineers which are not only thinking in a structural way, but also understand the mechanism of building physics, acoustics and understanding the material as it is. And I believe the higher we build, the more responsibility is needed, that these buildings are going to last for two or 300 years. And that's about how to construct and how to resolve the details.

Adam Jones (12:38):

Yeah, and durability is obviously the key one there. And I'm not sure about in Switzerland, but sometimes it's not clear whose responsibility that is. And I think in the regulations it might be the structural engineer, but I don't think every structural engineer learns about durability and moisture and things like that at university. So, I don't know if it's the same for you in Switzerland, but I guess you've got a different education program for engineers in Switzerland. I believe it's a bit more hands-on for you. Is it in you do? Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Katharina Lehman (13:17):

Yeah, so we have got a dual building system. That means that we've got a university way of, you can become an engineer by university, but you can also do an apprenticeship as a carpenter for example, and then do a practical engineering way. It's called in German. And those kinds of engineers, they have got a lot of practice and they afterwards are specialized in all these technical skills, fracture, acoustics, building physics. And I think it's not only that education, it's also that these engineers are specialized in the material of timber and this means the backpack of know-how is unique. And that had helped a lot because the architects, they found specialists for the dialogue. They needed to have the courage also to push the boundaries.

Adam Jones (14:32):

Yeah, yeah. That's so good. We've mentioned a little bit about digital tools. How do you see digital design tools updating designs and enabling us to keep pushing the boundaries?

Katharina Lehman (14:48):

Oh, that's a large question. What do you mean by design tools?

Adam Jones (14:55):

Digital? Yeah, so digital software, parametric design tools. I don't know if you're using generative AI or grasshopper and all these sorts of things that they look really cool, they look awesome, they're so exciting. But then sometimes the practicalities I guess, yeah. Does it result in practicalities that you're actually using for real buildings at the moment?

Katharina Lehman (15:21):

Yeah, so we say for the geometry of a building, we use grasshoppers and rhino just because it's the most practical way of finding out how to generate a form or a regularity on a for free form construction. And we like it very much. So, it's a new way of generating form on a program base. And after that of there are interfaces to bring in all these information into CAD, CAM tools, different strategies of programming. Also, the machine data, just because every building is so unique that you have to find out what's the approach to bring the data most efficiently on the machine base. And one of our tasks is also some kind of simulation of the production process just to find out how to use these machines most intelligently but also most secure. That's also part of our, IT cracks doing the proof of the putting butter the machine is crashing or not.

Adam Jones (16:58):

Yeah, you can do the parametric design upfront, but then when it comes to factory throughput, does that or what's easy to go from the factory is one thing. And then also what's the highest utilization from a log? There's a lot of information that goes from the front or the way to the whole supply chain. Does that information flow through at the moment or do you just need some very smart, experienced engineers to understand the whole process from your side there?

Katharina Lehman (18:53):

Look, looking at the whole value chain, I think what's perfect for us is that we understand every step of the whole process, but there is no information transfer inbetween the board and the Glulam, because you don't get this information. But what we see is that one of our tasks is that when we go into other countries, architects are, where architects are developing timber constructions. We always have to find out what parts or what supply chain can be organized locally and there our know-how about timber industry and about all these kind of projects helps to find out what's the most feasible way to build locally in other countries.

Adam Jones (19:55):

That's great. So, what do you see is the buildings of tomorrow looking moving 10 to 20 years and from now with the different trends, what's the perfect scenario for timber of our buildings tomorrow? If we've got a fixed amount of resources, what should that resource fit into in our future buildings?

Katharina Lehman (20:20):

I think architects should think about constructing timber constructions with products for the forests. That means that the kind of wood and the amount of wood and the quality of the locks will be crucial to have the availability of the volume you're going to need. So, it's, for example, if you would only ask for high quality CLT boards to build that, it would not only be the wrong quality assumption, it would also be maybe too much would to be brought into the construction because one of the tasks is also, that's the second one to relies constructions a bit to build it more, more efficiently. So we don't use too much cubes per power, empowerment of the construction. That's one of future tasks we have to think about and optimizing yields so that when we have a lock that we find out how to use them more intelligent for a long-lasting construction.

Adam Jones (22:13):

Do you see new products evolving in the supply chain like CLT? You mentioned one, it uses saw and timber, but different products have different utilization from the log. You see there's a lot of innovation still to happen for log utilization when you think about wastage from the CNC machine through to what's designed.

Katharina Lehman (22:39):

Yeah, that's one of our responsibilities that we say we've got locks out of the forest and we should as a vision, use 100% of the wood for long lasting projects and not too much to burn it right from the beginning. And that means also maybe there is for a low quality timber where there's also potential for half-finished for products like LBL, like small parts brought somehow together. Yeah, that's a potential.

Adam Jones (23:28):

Yeah. Do you have any advice for young people beginning their careers? I'd imagine that the context is quite different today for a lot and there's a lot of new things happening. Is there any advice that you have for people just starting out?

Katharina Lehman (23:45):

Of course, packing the backpack with the technical skills and then please go into a company to just practice also some kind of project management, maybe also practice erection of a timber construction so you can afterwards bring that back into building concepts which are proved in a practical way. So, I can only say very welcome for any Australian, just want to do an apprenticeship or experience the European timber construction world and then go back and do know-how transfer in Australia.

Adam Jones (24:43):

Well, that's a phenomenal offer for anyone young listening. Yeah, I'm sure they'll take you up on that. Well, it's been such a pleasure to speak to you again, Katharina. Can you maybe end on anything that people should go to, any resources or anything people need to learn more if they want to get in touch with you? Where should we point our listeners?

Katharina Lehman (25:09):

So, you can find us under www.blumer-lehmann.com. You find any kind of information, but also on LinkedIn and on Instagram. So just follow us, see our projects and yeah, we are looking forward to receiving some interest.

Adam Jones (25:35):

Yeah. Thank you so much, Katharina.

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