Of forests and factories – the Murau valley source of CLT

Winter in the valley: KLH's factory in the snow, January 2018 – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Austria's Murtal river region was alive with the sound of timber culture long before KLH's first solid timber factory arrived on the scene. In fact KLH and CLT was a high profile late-comer in a timber revival that has continued to grow in the years since.

It was bitingly cold the morning I visited the KLH factory, and snow lay deep across the fields, the cluster of factory sheds, warehouses and other buildings. The site looked like the industrial park it was, sky quiet and a grey morning light above the winter landscape.

By car, we were a few minutes from Murau, main town and centre for the Murtal valley, deep in the folds of the Austrian Alps. As with most valleys, a river runs through it – in this instance the icy river Mur. The small village of Katsch an der Mur - the name on the KLH postal address - lies maybe half a mile off to one side of the fields, while in the other direction the Mur river travels on down the valley. On my visit, I hoped to get a clearer sense of the local CLT factory start-ups that are, below the immediate surface, one of the striking aspects of the CLT revolution; as well as an idea of the earlier wood culture from which these factories sprang.

Bird's eye view – Photo KLH
Google map - Katsch an der Mur to Dalston Lane, 895 or 900 miles
depending on the route!

Katsch an der Mur can lay claim to being the original source of CLT: the small group of saw millers who instigated the research work by Gerhard Schickhofer at Graz Technical University – see the Schickhofer piece – came from here; and the first CLT company KLH was built here and opened in 1999. The opening of the factory triggered an exponential growth in other CLT operations, so that by about 2006/7, three of Europe’s main international timber companies had also established CLT manufacturing mills; Stora Enso, BinderHolz and Mayr Melnhof, are all concentrated within this very small patch of Western Styria. Remarkably, these, together with a few other mills, have dominated CLT production in the period since, and, as of the beginning of 2018, continue to do so. As the main Austrian timber industry online website Timber Online illustrated recently, over 60% of all CLT production is within a 100 km radius of Ubertauen, a ski resort to the North west of Murau and the Mur river valley.

If you’re from outside the Austrian timber scene but nevertheless know this story, you are probably know more than 95% of those architects, engineers, timber companies and others, who have been joining the CLT bandwagon in recent years. But what I’ve never seen anyone mention in the English language even in passing, is that actually, the arrival of CLT was a latecomer in a recent chapter of Austrian timber and wood culture; already well developed by 1999, the year KLH received the legal documents from their lawyers to confirm that they were a bona fide company. Nor has KLH, or the arrival of CLT been written about as part of a wider response to the long-term decline of a regional wood culture, and one of various attempts to find new ways of using the forests. In the decade between 1981 and 1991 nearly a quarter of jobs disappeared in the Murau district, many in farming, with mountain farming – which crosses over into forestry - traditionally making up three quarters of the farmers across the region. KLH and CLT research was an attempt, extremely successful as it has turned out, to find new industrial uses for wood from the forests. Initially however and over a prolonged period, it was subsumed into the broader picture of efforts to somehow maintain a rural forestry culture then at risk of disappearing.

Like a number or people I imagine, I’d become aware of KLH through their two early UK projects: dRMM’s Kingsdale School sports hall – see the dRMM and CLT feature here, and Murray Grove - see the Hackney piece here, the ‘original timber tower’, as Waugh Thistleton’s website likes to put it. Considering the broader picture: how research at Graz Technical University had incubated the massive wood panel development, plus related stories about older wood craftsmanship and ‘a timber road’ - I had long been curious about this seemingly singular CLT take off. How and why had it all happened in one part of Austria? - where “all the factories are”, as one person I spoke to early on put it. There must be more to it than one single factory getting a particular production line up and running? There had to be a story. And indeed, there was.

On the road north of Wolfsburg - Photo Oliver Lowenstein

The day before the KLH factory visit, I had made my way from Graz to Murau. En route, I stopped off at and then visited the first of Stora Enso’s two regional factories on the edge of Bad St Leonhard - another small town, this time situated along the Lavant river valley. CLT 1, as the young head of the CLT division Gernot Weiss called the plant, had opened in 2007. Weiss said to me, “and CLT 3 will open in the summer in Sweden", mentioning Ybbs, CLT 2, an hour or so north, as well. I had caught a local bus from Wolfsburg, twenty minutes south of the Stora Enso factory and across the border in Carinthia; spending two hours there before continuing on north to Zeltweg.On the edge of the town was another big factory, Pabst-Holz, this time focused on glulam. Every few miles we passed factories, sawmills and timber processing plants large and small, plumes of smoke rising against an empty blue sky. The last leg of the journey was by train, arriving in the dark on a small narrow gauge line running into and along the Murtal valley to Murau. Arranged by the local tourist office, here I’d stay the night, before visiting KLH and other wood related projects the next morning.  

KLH factory. Photo's - Oliver Lowenstein

The sheds, long and industrial grey on the outside, glulam and CLT visible on the inside, were fronted by an administration building, with, this time, a fully  visible wood facade. When KLH was launched, there must have been brand identity consultants around, as the branding effort you find if you check the subsidiary KLH UK website, or their promotional literature, was evident around the factory as well. The red background and white (like the Austrian flag) that are the KLH three letter logo these days, are also evident in the factory itself. Red doors against the grey walls and likewise, found in the businesses foyer area for example.

Soon enough we walked out towards the sheds. No photos I was told, once inside the first shed: KLH’s machinery was still the subject of considerable secrecy. Originally, when Wolfgang Weirer, Heimo DeMonte and Franz Lercher, the three saw-millers had launched the factory, there was a single production line; resulting in low levels of CLT production in the early years. I was reminded of Prof Gerhard Schickhofer’s words the previous day, “that there was no Plan B,” and how the three saw-millers had initially been close to going out of business. Marco Huter, the factory’s manager, told me in a follow-up phone call a few weeks later, that the three men designed the first machinery themselves, and that “the families all were working on the presses.” Later, substantial changes occurred when the saw-millers sold the factory to one of the largest Austrian timber companies, Offners. The takeover deal brought investment, including a second production line added in 2014.

KLH factory - photo's Oliver Lowenstein

Walking towards the entrance we passed a small mountain of sawdust, offcuts and other waste wood, waiting to be used to heat and power the factory. I recalled how some fellow sustainable sorts have picked up on these timber factories, and their closed loop energy sources direct from the forest residues, as an example of circular economy long before the jargon had been invented, inhabiting the wider CLT scene. That morning - and travelling into the heavily forested region of one of Europe’s most forest covered countries the day before, I had wondered if it was as straight forward as that. Weiss, the Stora Enso man, had mentioned how, with changes in climate and different weather patterns, the tree line was moving up the hillsides. Worrying, he said. Looking ahead at the coming century, no-one knew how climate change was going to affect the forests.

Inside the new KLH production line facilities – photo's Ledinek

We walked around a further corner, to the entrance. A blast of warmth combined with a blast of industrial noise hit us as we stepped in though the door, and onto the factory floor.

CLT production is a relatively straight-forward if, none-the-less industrial process. As the raw sawn wood enters the first of several big pieces of machinery, the first thing that happens is a moisture check; wood needing to have between a 10 to 40% moisture content, in order to work with the glues. Thin sawn planks then shuttle along a first rolling belt and are graded, each plank x-rayed for defects and quality, and undergoing a rigorous scrutiny from the human eye of one of KLH’s factory workers. The Ledinek machines are from the Slovenian company who are at the forefront of the industrial timber machinery which has been a prerequisite of the CLT revolution. On a raised walkway by now, we watched the planks shoot forward, each one colour coded, four different strength and types; domestic, industrial, non-visible and visible as Erwin Salzger, the young admin staffer showing us round, explained. ‘The new machine was part of the 2014 Offner investment’ - he half shouted through the din of the Ledinek. The sound of machinery did not obscure the view however, and I looked around aware of how few people – (all men) - were on the factory floor. Most were looking from computer screen to the timber in front of them, checking and checking again.

From this section of the factory, the planks are stored in a moisture-controlled area, kept at a constant 20 degrees and divided into eight levels for the different grades and types; all before the first finger-joint gluing of the planks takes place. Finally, the glue laminates are applied and the soundscape changes, becoming more like a buzzing industrial hive.

Making the panels – the principle steps: i) Finger joint planks together with glue,
ii) edge glue together to make single layer panels,

iii) bond together the panel horizontally,
iv) bond together vertically

Variations of panel types All illustrations from Gerhard Schickhofer's Athens 2009 CLT presentation (7MB)
The glues are one of the principle potential weak points in CLT’s environmental credentials, critics will contend. Across the timber industry, the glues used are polyurethane, principally from Henkel, the German adhesives giant. In many respects these are wonder woods, and super strong adhesives have been the literal glue for their existence. Depending on your perspective, the adhesive component however, may compromise the green credentials of engineered timber. Many point to how far glue-laminated materials reduce footprint, compared to other industrial materials such as concrete or steel. For some minority purists the glues are nonetheless potentially toxic, their chemical properties a serious problem and drawback. Advocates of the Brettstapel – see this Unstructured Brettstapel feature - approach highlight these limitations, comparing CLT unfavourably to Brettstapel’s glue free, dowel based panel systems.

Above the galley walkway, large container vats are full of glue ready for the gluing and bonding process. Here, the planks are first edge glued together into panels, and then several layers are face glued together, one layer on top of another. The glue hardens quickly - about half an hour, KLH’s Salzger said - before the next step, the pressing, begins. The pressing process takes two hours, bonding the panels both vertically and horizontally; and it’s here that the cross lamination occurs, with panels placed on one another crosswise to each other, an incredibly simple though remarkably effective strengthening method. The resulting panels can be 16 metres or longer in length, and 3 metres in width. For absolute stability the glue, though dry, is then left to cure and fully bond over a further 24 hours.

Planks on the Ledinek machine before being face glued – photo Ledinek
KLH’s first production factory under construction – photo KLH

By now, we had moved on into another of the factory sheds, apparently the oldest. This was the first fully timber shed to be built, with great glulam beams spanning the ceiling, and CLT walls rising up its sides. Here, for the first time the flat panel sheets emerging from the pressing plant were recognisable as CLT boards, looking, to my eye, like outsized pieces of lasagne. Climbing up onto another galley walkway, Salzger explained this stage of the production process; how various delamination and related performance tests are made regarding quality and safety standards of the final CLT panels.  A further surface check is done, and for those panels colour coded ‘visible’ - that is, exposed to the public on a wall or floor of a school, home or swimming pool - further sanding along the grain completes the process.

A panel emerging into the final processing shed, prior to being CNC cut and then loaded onto lorries before delivery to sites across Europe – photos Oliver Lowenstein

It is in here, the oldest factory shed, that the CNC machines cut the lasagne sheets into the customised shapes and forms that have been waiting in the digital order books. KLH use two CNC machines, a 3 axis and 5 axis machine, running up and down eight feeder lines, onto which the CLT emerges from the factory’s previous glue and curing section.

I watched, as cut ready panels hanging from crane wires, gently swayed along the length of the shed, before being loaded onto waiting lorry trailers: wall sections stand vertically, floors and ceilings lie flat on the trailer deck - not rocket science. Once packed, the lorries head out to various parts of the continent.

We made our way out of this last part of the factory, our feet crunching again on the snow. Lorries were parked up, and I asked Salzger how full their order books were. Full signed for orders, or likely but not yet contracted work, he asked. Two months he replied when I said the former, though six to eight months of work on the books. Gerhard Schickhofer, in Graz the previous day, had mentioned how full the factories order books were, a graphic indication of the levels of business KLH are working to keep up with.

Murau from the MeiliPeter bridge
Murtal valley – photos Oliver Lowenstein
I never made it into Katsch an der Mur. Driving away towards the main road and Murau, I wondered if the village which had acted as midwife to KLH, was as typical of the villages and small towns dotted along the winding river Mur, as it looked from afar. This far into the Alps the river is small, but as it runs east towards and through Graz, the Mur is on a much longer journey; becoming a major tributary through Slovenia and down towards the Danube basin. In the valley the far side of the valley covered in forest. Larch, spruce, oak and ash all grow well, although spruce dominates CLT production; the quilted hills serve as a reminder that this is, and always has been, woodsman country; part of the culture from ever since, or at least long before living memory.

Alexandra Galler, my host and minder from the Tourist office who had helped arrange the visit and was driving, greeted various KLH workers as old friends. She’d grown up in Katch an der Mur, and some she’d been at school with. “My grandfather was a forester”, she said on our way back towards Murau. I asked what he would have made of KLH, and those running the factory, and she pointed to the young Salzger, who’d shown us round. “They all have university educations now,” she said, hinting that her grandfather might have found it difficult gaining employment at the factory. Certainly, this engineered timber revolution is powered by academic expertise; and I would have found any number of graduates from university forest industry courses at the other factories, had my visit extended to them.

As Galler’s grandfather testified, up until relatively recently the woodsman culture had continued intact: a patchwork of farmer-foresters with small plots of land had been the norm for centuries. But forestry practices nowadays, have gradually lost ground to larger businesses and industrial forestry practices, mechanisation reducing feet on the ground, even if a significant proportion of the forests remain owned by small producers. The valley’s wood culture remains a mix of the culturally conservative and, in places, the technically radical. Murau, where the river crashes through a gorge, and is then channelled into small hydro-power, is a pretty as a postcard town, selling itself on tourism. But I could understand why many who could, moved away to the bright lights of the big cities - if not Vienna, then Graz. The Germanic rural clichés, lederhosen and frumpy maiden’s dresses, lager and slap up sausages, plus a singular absence of diversity were very much in evidence. “We’re so far up the valley, it’s difficult to get to,” Galler had responded when I asked if they got many foreign tourists. Galler herself had returned after a period of globe trotting and working in Australia. The clichés were ripe for satire, and Monty Python would have had a field day. Beyond the stereotypes however - and with KLH as a particularly successful local example, it is clear that the turn towards timber mirrors other growth. Timber building culture and also biomass and renewable energy predominate, examples of which can be found up and down the valley. All of these predate the coming of CLT to the valley by several years; and each has grown in the decades since, part of a broader shift that, like CLT, signal how fully the green economy has arrived in this forested neck of the Styrian woods.

Logs being turned into biomass above the Nahwarme power plant
Photos Oliver Lowenstein

Biomass has become a crop for local forest farmers, with wood chip and bio-pellets powering heating and other energy plants in or near the valley’s various villages; or fuelling district heating systems in towns such as Judenberg and Zeltweg. Like KLH, the wood based bio-energy industry has been about finding new ways of using the forests abundant waste-wood. Fire isn’t exactly new, but Austria has been a bio-energy tech leader, and can provide some impressive state of the art technological kit, now being introduced to power the Murtal’s local version of Germany’s ‘Energie Wende’ strategy to be fully energy independent. On one of the earliest projects, Naturwarme, fourteen farms close to, or in St. Lambrecht, rallied together in 1993 - half a dozen years before KLH opened - to start producing wood chips. The most recent energy addition is Murau’s own Nahwarme biomass heating and power plant, providing energy for the local hospital, 55 homes and Murau’s castle. Along with the small-scale hydro energy produced by the river Mur, there are photovoltaics, and also some wind power up on mountainous higher ground. It is the biomass network however, which has been the major factor enabling the Murau valley to dream of realising its own independent local energy strategy.

These sorts of wood based energy initiatives can be found across Austria. Join up the dots, though, between the waste wood energy activity and the diverse spectrum of buildings, bridges and other timber structures found in the Murau valley, and you begin to appreciate how KLH, and the network of CLT and engineered timber factory’s have hardly come out of nothing. They were not, and are not the only show in town. If I had continued along that same valley road, I could have gone on to further factories – Binderholz in Obertauen and the Thoma Holz 100 factory in Stadl an der Mur. As it was, a day later, I was on the same train heading back down the valley the way I had come, and reflecting on my timber route and brief glimpse of the forest and factories which have been powering CLT’s vertiginous growth across Europe, and worldwide.

Roof canopy at the Ernst Giselbrecht designed Murau Carpentry School
Photo Ernst Giselbrecht Architekten
It was not the Timber Road, though. Nor, if I’d assumed that the CLT factories represented the regional timber culture, would I have been showing much knowledge of what had long existed; other recent strands to a story which has been drowned out by CLT’s usurping eruption.

Historically, West Styria had always been Forester’s country. As the tourist office woman’s example, her grandfather, had illustrated, as recently as the mid-twentieth century, the majority of families made a living out of some form of forestry related work. Some farmed smallholdings mixed in with working patches of woodland; others were employed as foresters on large estates. Carpenters, joiners, furniture makers, and myriad other crafts were part of the rural economy. It went further though. The absence of local iron meant that other rural industries evolved: coopers and barrel making, wainwrights with particular kinds of carts and, more obvious for a snowy, mountainous region, artefacts such as sledges, ski’s and winter boots and the like. All these were part of the traditional rural culture, conservative to be sure - many parts of Austria are pious Catholic strongholds and the Murau valley is no exception – but which remains strong up to the present day; far from the metropolitan sophistication of Graz or Vienna, and relatively remote and distant up in the mountainside valleys.

You can get a sense of this forest wood culture in the Holz Museum in one of the smaller villages west of Murau - St Ruprecht ob Murau. Rows of tools, axes, lathes, and ingenious rigs set to assist making specialist various crafted objects, beer barrels being one. Opened in 1988, the museum was founded by members of the local community, and is old school; it hasn’t – yet – had the modern museum makeover. The Wood Museum was the last meeting of the day in the valley, and I was shown round by one of its members. There was an engaging sense of the amateur, the different galleries crammed full of artefacts, displayed across three old buildings. We walked over to the main building. Upstairs the curator was keen to show me an architectural intervention, a new window, a sharp cut into the barn, a single modern moment amidst the old. The curator wanted to emphasise a symbol of how the new met the old in the museum. I couldn’t help think of Vorarlberg’s Bregenzerwald and the Werkraum, where contemporary architecture, in the shape of one time cabinet maker and Pritzker Prize anti-architect Peter Zumthor, had created a ‘craft lay-by’ container for rich German tourists heading south towards Italy, could pull in to indulge in some cultured retail therapy. This had none of that, yet the comparisons still made sense.

Holz Museum display – photos Oliver Lowenstein

If the Wood Museum was set up by a local community keen to find ways to preserve something of the local craft heritage, it was followed a year later, in 1989, by a more top down, bureaucratic, and naked attempt at tourist promotion of the region. This was the Timber Road, which I had first heard about in the late 00’s. It turned out that this road was an EU and regional Government funded project, aimed at supporting the Murtal valley economy. The idea had been to highlight different places along the valley that showcased timber in the region, aiming to underline the many different ways in which timber was being used. The programme also funded a number of structures, mostly buildings, but also a first set of eight bridges. The programme had helped reintroduce timber into West Styria’s building culture.

Murau Town Hall – redesign by Rudolf Paschek – This and next photo Rudolf Paschek Architekten

“It was only in the beginning of the 1990’s that we realised that we actually live in the middle of the forest,” wrote Rudolf Paschek in an email reply to a set of questions I’d sent him, after I returned to Britain. Paschek is a 75 year old Graz born architect, whose forebears are from Murau. After ten years working in a Munich studio, he moved to the small town of his forebears in 1975.  At the time he was the only architect in the town. I had been given his name, and made contact, as he had been very involved in the prehistory of CLT’s development.

“Wooden buildings in the modern sense did not exist at that time.” He writes in one of the email answers. “Hunting huts in the mountains were built in wood. The construction technique with us was the so-called block construction, which emerged from the historical construction of the farmhouses of the region, but was not further developed.”

He has, he says, always admired the craftsmanship of the region’s carpenters, “how they use one hand to bring a floorboard into its proper position by a simple vibration. This includes an inner relationship to the forest, to the tree, to the topic of wood.” The reputation of wood used in timber buildings suffered in the post war decades: building from the WWII period including converted barracks used as residential buildings, hadn’t worked well. “Design was rather a dirty word and thus the entire timber construction was vilified… Murau is one of the most densely wooded regions of Austria with wood for building – but which, except for trusses and a little facade cladding, was not used.” He notes its renewable qualities and its carbon footprint, and adds, that, “the whole philosophy on this subject affects people as a beneficial whole. Wood has so many emotions within it. You can feel it in the arts, in the craft and very much in our rural building history. You can still feel the unity of material, form and use as something quite natural.”

Paschek cites Hans Edler, head of Murau’s Forestry Department, for changing the relationship to wood in the region. “What we encounter today around the wood owes much to his tireless work.”

Holzwelt Information Centre by Rudolf Paschek Arkitekten

I was told about Paschek while talking with Erich Fritz, who has headed Holzwelt Murau, Timber Road’s tourism replacement. We were talking in the Tourist Holzwelt Bureau, one of the architects’ buildings. The Bureau cantilevered out over the edge of Murau’s steep hillside, struts supporting the structure, with a lower floor tucked unobtrusively under the small public foyer of the lightweight building. There are other Paschek’s projects in the scenic town, and in the villages dotted along the valley. Tourism has been a part of Murau’s economy for decades, Fritz noted, and the focus on wood culture is popular today with visitors, particularly old buildings, including churches and other religious buildings.

The local wood building culture, the locally sourced wood, its links to craft and carpentry, as well as the development of industrial building systems, was reminiscent of Vorarlberg even if there isn’t the level or numbers of architects that has made the Vorarlberg scene known across Europe and further afield.

At the time that Schickhofer was beginning his PhD as a young post-grad in Graz, and much further away in Aichach Bavaria, Merk’s director Karl Moser was involved in his first ‘thickwood’ housing experiments, there were parallel stirrings in the Murau valley. I am reminded of an interview I conducted with Dietmar Eberle, founder of BaumschlagerEberle, and one of Vorarlberg’s original Baukunstler generation pointing out how the region’s building scene came out of the making the best of what was there, the forests: “Agriculturally, it rains too much, so you cannot grow anything. You could only use wood and keep cattle. From this people made the best from everything they had.” From those early steps, Vorarlberg became internationally famous for its integration of its local forests, timber companies and leading edge sustainable architecture.  At roughly the same time – 1984-1989 - Frei Otto was helping get the Hooke Park experiment off the ground, using local woods to build experimental structures in Dorset. These are all of a piece and it is difficult not to see these Murau valley experiments as part of this broader wave. Today there is a new wave, or perhaps an after-echo of those 80/90’s experiments; look for instance at the Dutch Mountain outside Eindhofen, where, wrapped up in the confectionary of the Circular Economy, regional poplar stands are being considered for the CLT in the project – see the Netherlands section of Further CLT@Scale .

Europa Bridge – photo HolzWelt

Another figure who was particularly influential on this early Mur valley wood culture, was Julius Natterer, the Munich born, timber engineer. “Yes, Prof. Natterer was of course a model for us. He was a lighthouse”, Paschek says, himself one of a Murau valley group who visited Natterer’s Lausanne EPFL research centre, IBOIS and where they were introduced to early versions of his glue-free Brettstapel massive wood panels. “What was interesting for us, was the completely new way of dealing with building material and the system.” There were also building visits to a five storey residential building, where they saw timber-concrete composite systems being used for ceilings, and early version 13 m Brettstapel walls. The visit was also instructive, because the Swiss were dealing with comparable building problems to those Paschek and his colleagues were beginning to face, but at a different professional level, resulting in IBOIS conducting tests for the Murau group.

“The boldness with which Prof. Natterer implemented this relatively simple construction impressed us all. It took courage to disassemble this natural building material starting from the tree in boards and to put together slices, simply nail together. We thought, ‘everyone should be able to do something like that.’ Wolfgang Weirer worked with Katsch’s village community on a bridge using Brettstapelbauweise. “It is probably the only bridge in Styria made by the community citizens in their spare time. “

The Mursteg St. Ruprecht-Falkendorf bridge, a few miles west of Murau
Photo Holzwelt

According to Paschek, it was another River Mur bridge that introduced Graz University’s timber engineering research to the valley. Planning for a concrete road bridge at St. Georgen ob Murau was quite well advanced when, in conversation with Murau’s mayor, Paschek mentioned Graz University’s professor Richard Pischl, Schickhofer’s predecessor, and how the bridge might be constructed from timber. Within weeks, a lunch meeting had taken place and, after discussion, the decision to build what became known as the Europa bridge at St Georgen am Kreischberg built from local timber was taken.

The introduction served the valley well, and a series of further early CLT projects were carried out in the region including further bridges, and early CLT housing in Frohleitning and Jüdenberg West. Then, Graz University’s involvement chimed in with another initiative, which, in turn propelled Murtal’s timber reputation into the national limelight; bolstering West Styria’s nascent timber architecture and building reputation.

Focused on timber building culture, planning began on a big regional showcase for West Styria in 1992. Holzzeit, or Time for Timber, was a festival celebrating wood and wood culture that took place along the Murtal towns and villages through the summer months of 1995. The Swiss architectural writer, Walter Zschokke was chosen as its director, project competitions were held, and the novel idea of linking up Murtal furniture makers with nationally known architects, was introduced.

Murau bridge by MeiliPeter Architekten built for the 1995 Holzzeit festivities - photos MeilPeter Architekten

One of the main competition projects was for a new Murau bridge. Won by fellow Zurich architects Meili & Peter and Graubünden engineer Jürg Conzett, the Murau footbridge sits a short distance from the old road bridge that separates the main town and the rail station and the municipality’s administrative buildings. The covered walkway was built halfway through Meili & Peter’s principle timber project of the time, the Swiss Wood Engineering School in Biel; and the building’s monumentality is echoed in the heavy cubical form of the bridge which, spanning the Mur, is joined by a staircase descending from the rail station side. It is hard not to imagine the bridge as a prime candidate for CLT research, had the project and festival been half a dozen years later.

A series of pavilions were sited in different parts of the town for Holzzeit, each hosting related timber themes. Vorarlberg’s Hermann Kaufmann contributed a plain, functional and dismountable timber pavilion box, designed to highlight various timber building systems and products. A lightweight structure, the roof was carried by a series of simple ribs. Again ahead of the curve by a few years, it’s difficult not to think that the exhibition themes were preparing the way for CLT. In front of the station was another of the main exhibition pavilions, this time by Ernst Giselbrecht from Graz, who, three years earlier, had already designed the town’s Carpentry School, worked on an open walk through platform pavilion in front of the railway station; while on the town side, Helmut Hafner’s ProHolz Steirmark pavilion was a base for the state’s timber promotion organization. Above the waterfront, a further, glass façade viewing pavilion and café was completed by one of the best known of the then current Graz School architects, the late Gunther Domenig.

Time for three pavilions - From left Hermann Kaufmann, Ernst Giselbrecht and Helmut Hafner– photos Hermann Kaufmann and Ernst Giselbrecht Pavilions - Paul Ott, Helmut Hafner Pavilion Helmut Hafner

In the villages along the Mur, exhibitions, events and projects extended Holzzeit’s reach throughout the valley, helping to ease contemporary timber architecture and design culture circa the late nineties, into this relatively backwoods country region. One particular project, matching furniture makers with architects on joint projects, was particularly influential, apparently spurring the Werkraum Bregenzerwald initiative along a very similar path. Within a year of the end of Holzzeit, Graz University’s Wood Technology and Timber Engineering department began a new round of bridge research projects, which would lead to KLH setting up their factory in Katsch in 1999. At the same time timber projects began to pop up in and around Murau, for instance the first ever multi-storey timber car park, the same year as KLH’s factory. Things haven’t really stopped since.

Murau timber car park – Photo Holzwelt

These days, KLH is one of the sites on the map of Holzwelt, the wood culture tourist programme which replaced the Timber Road in 2011.  Deemed tired and in need of a facelift, the Timber Road was put out to pasture and the new public face of Murau valley wood culture was launched; the number of sites broadened to encompass the CLT factory and the increasing biomass and other renewable energy and power projects. Themed and clustered under the Holzwelt umbrella, they include Building and Architecture, Wood and Energy, and the popular religious buildings theme, Heaven and Wood.

In 2000, five years after Holzzeit was established, most of the years 50,000 m³ CLT rolled off KLH’s production line. As Paschek put it, “We simply told the Lord, ‘we'll leave the nails now and take glue.’” The material seeped into local and regional projects, building on the initial research projects, from KLH’s factory building to four storey housing in Jüdenberg West. While those in Britain following timber’s early post millennium take-off first stage may have been hearing about dRMM’s Kingsdale sports hall, a local Murau village, St Lambrecht was getting CLT stands and dressing rooms - completed by 2004. Rudolf Paschek restored Murau’s town hall using the material, and each year brought new CLT connected projects: a local beer transport centre, the first Spar supermarket, fittingly in Murau, also in 2009 a first Passivhaus supermarket, complete with photovoltaics and solar energy. However, these developments were not limited to the Murtal valley. Regionally, if further afield, there were earlier projects also actively focused on timber in and around Graz, principally connected with a Graz practice founded by Werner Nussmueller, navigation, the first of which was Blumenhang Birkfeld; three hillside housing terraces in 2000’s, and the Wood Technology and Timber Engineering own Technology Building a year later.

Holzwelt supermarket – photo Röthl Architektur
Blumenhang Birkenfeld housing
Nussmueller Architkten

And so it has continued. In Austria at least, CLT is already the old normal. In the Mur valley, the factories have multiplied and are continuing to do so. Nussmueller, the Graz CLT related office worked on Mayr-Melnhof’s HQ building outside Leoben, which was completed in 2008. Another, more recent illustration, is that growth in the proportion of timber social housing in Graz, has risen from 3% in 2004, to 27% in 2017. KLH was sold to Offners and, by prior arrangement, had opened its doors to Holzwelt visitors. The artic lorries head out of the factories to not quite all, but many points west, north and north-west. CLT has become an almost invisible part of West Styria’s wood culture, integrated into both the local Holzweit tourism effort, and the broader initiative to make the valley energy independent.

As I write, an email arrives from Graz TU’s Schickhofer. In a footnote he says, ‘Sweden is coming”, and mentions three new CLT factories opening in the Scandinavian country in 2018. This is only the beginning, and to think that it has all evolved from this river valley deep in the Alpine forests. When the time comes for the history books to tell the story of CLT, they will point to the KLH factory sitting outside Katsch an der Mur. That indeed was the source, although, as a visit to the Murau valley will testify, there was much else besides to this true story.


Travel was supported by ProHolz Austria and accommodation by Murau Tourism

St Michael Railway Station