Modular boxes, craned, stacked and positioned one on top of each other, take prefabricated precision design to the next level for SauerbrauchHutton’s Hamburg Universal Design Quarter ‘Woodie’. Kerstin Kuhnekath profiles Woodie and catches up with Matthias Sauerbrauch for a handful of questions

The new dormitory building in Hamburg's Wilhelmsburg district is nicknamed Woodie, and its official title is the Universal Design Quarter. Stacked on a reinforced concrete pedestal, 371 mini-solid wood apartments rise up to form a six-storey residential building. The stairwells stiffen the structure with reinforced concrete cores. In addition, every single room module is anchored to the supporting structure to withstand even the strongest winds. The building is 100 metres long.

Designed by the Berlin architects SauerbrauchHutton in collaboration with Hamburg’s Ministry for Urban Development and the Environment, whose headquarters, sits adjacent to Woodie, and which was also designed by SauerbrauchHutton. The architects developed the floor plan and the furniture of the student rooms, working on and fine-tuning the design down to the smallest detail.  For the planning of the build phase SauerbrauchHutton worked closely with module manufacturer Kaufmann Bausysteme and Vorarlberg engineers, Merz-Kley Partners. This implementation plan was ready in just two months, after which a test module was constructed to review and check the plan. The Bausysteme modules external dimensions are 6.8m by 3.3m. SauerbrauchHutton, the building contractors and the Urban Development and Environment Ministry all wanted to work with wood, because of its suitability with serial module construction, and because of its carbon footprint performance and general sustainability credentials. In addition using wood allowed for an internal design, which highlights the warmth and benign atmosphere that living with wood conveys, with the CLT surfaces inside the building all left exposed.

Simple stacking systems

The Woodie project both pushes the limits of industrial prefabrication, and shows what an effective sustainable approach these modular box systems are: every day around four room modules are manufactured in Kaufmann’s Leoben factory in Styria, Austria, rolling off the factory’s automated conveyor system one after another. The modular 100% timber boxes are manufactured in a series of phases, with each phase optimizing the boxes construction, following production line principles influenced by the automobile industry. All told, from the first construction assembly point to the finished apartment, involves 17 factory workstations, one of the most advanced examples of Design for Manufacture – in the factory – rather than on the construction site – Design for Construction. Around 80 percent of the building takes place in the Austrian factory before each modular room was delivered to Hamburg by low loader. Only the remaining 20 percent of construction work is done on site. Once arrived on site, stacking the finished room modules is extremely fast halving construction time. For the Universal Design Quarter building construction began in December 2016 and was completed in September 2017. This said, it should be noted that construction costs alone came in at around 15 percent more than for a more conventional construction approach.

A month after completion and hand-over, the first student residents moved in last October. The building works well in the urban planning context, and SauerbrauchHutton’s room module design is of a good quality. But I found that the apartments, each reduced to minimum room sizes, and each identical to one another, rather strange. Almost like efficient production leads to efficient living. This is the life of modern students: both studying in modules and living in modules.

SauerbrauchHutton’s Matthias Sauerbruch talks about building with wooden room modules and the Woodie student dorms project.

Where did the idea come from to build wooden room modules?

We’re try to re-use wood again and again. It’s unbeatably good as a building material as far as sustainability is concerned as it binds more CO2 than it releases. After a visit to the Kaufmann Bausysteme’s factory with my students where we saw a similar project being manufactured, we began to look at using the system. Woodie’s cellular layout, which is entirely made up of one-bedroom apartments, meant that it could work for the project, and using the module system wouldn’t be either more or less difficult than other more conventional construction approaches.

What is the special attraction of modular construction?

This modular construction is even more advanced in terms of production technology, more efficient and faster than even other timber systems construction. The production line as a method of manufacturing is interesting in itself. Let's put it this way: While the wider industry is thinking about Industry 4.0, so far architecture has only reached an Industry 2.0 situation.

Kaufmann Bausysteme's Leoban factory – Photo Kaufmann Bausysteme

How is the planning process structured?

Kaufmann Bausysteme built a prototype for us, which helped us work out and decide everything. Since everything has to be thought through to the smallest detail in module construction before production is started, there’s a long lead in planning period compared to other types of construction. Making changes later, would involve a huge amount of time and energy.

Can you imagine continuing this construction in the future?

Yes, although this modular approach only suits specific tasks. You need to keep the design open when you’re looking at system-based construction, particularly designs which haven’t been done with this kind of rigorous repetition in mind.

Kerstin Kuhnekath is an architecture and design journalist and radio producer based in Berlin and runs the website www.audioarchitekten.de

This piece originally appeared in the Austrian Timber architecture and building magazine, Zuschnitt 67 -proHolz Austria (Hg.), S. 12-13