Mass Timber Construction Podcast

Special Guests - Philipp Zumbrunnen - Eurban - The Old Art and the New Digital Craft

February 01, 2023 Paul Kremer Season 3 Episode 141
Mass Timber Construction Podcast
Special Guests - Philipp Zumbrunnen - Eurban - The Old Art and the New Digital Craft
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Show Notes Transcript

In this special guest episode I speak with one of my oldest friends in the industry. A Director of Eurban located in the UK and one of the hardest people I know who works around the world.  Philipp  Zumbrunnen was born in Switzerland, training first as a carpenter and foreman and then as a Project Manager for a Zurich-based Architectural office specialising in timber buildings. Philipp then studied at Bern University of Applied Science, Architecture, Wood & Civil Engineering in Biel, qualifying as a timber Structural Engineer in 2007. He went on to work at Blumer-Lehmann AG as a Project Engineer before moving to London to work as the Design Director at Eurban. He currently directs and manages Eurbans team of Engineers and Architects.

You can visit the website here:

About Eurban:
In 2003, Eurban became the first to endorse cross laminated timber construction as a high-quality, efficiency-optimised building system in the UK. This followed the use of the material in Switzerland during the 1990s, and its adoption in central Europe slightly later.

Recognising the extraordinary benefits cross laminated timber could offer not only to the construction and design industries, but also to the aesthetics of the built environment, Eurban developed a unique design, manufacture and installation process which now serves a global market.

Delivering value through an all-encompassing approach to advocacy and thought-leadership.

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Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, wherever you're on the world today, welcome to the Mass Timber Construction podcast.

And it's been a long time in the making for this particular guest.

I normally say a special, special guest.

This is an extra, extra special, special guest.

And Phillipp, thank you for coming on.

Could you please introduce yourself and when you're doing so, just so people understand the experience you have, tell us how long ago it was that you were involved the first what we'll call mass timber back then projects and give us a bit of a brief history of your life in mass timber until now please.


Thanks Paul.

Thanks for that nice introduction.

Now the pressure is on.

Yes, my name is Philip Zumbrunnen.

I'm originally a trained carpenter, became a timber engineer.

I was born and raised in Switzerland and moved to in UK 15 years ago.

I'm in the timber industry since over 25 years.

I came across CLT.

At that point, it wasn't called CLT about 24 years ago.

And my journey in mass timber continued rapidly when I moved to urban in the UK 15 years ago.

Eurban is now 20 years old.

We are celebrating our 20 years anniversary with #Urban20.

And yeah, it's amazing to see how many projects we have done around 400 projects all over the UK.

And now also more and more worldwide, some smaller projects to start and the projects are getting bigger and bigger, like the NTU project in Singapore, which most of you most likely know.

Yeah, and we'll get to the projects in a minute, but I just want people to understand the legacy.

So 24 years to put that into perspective, I think modern mass timber has been around since 2007 or so.

So it's certainly not 24 years old and urban's 20 years old.

So it's certainly the modern mass timber is not in that same caliber even.

And you and I have known each other since you came to Australia way back in 2010, I think it was 2012,  2012.

So we've known each other for 11 years now.

And it was specifically that you were giving a talk.

Lendlease was  just building the Forte building at that point.

And that was really the time when I would say the mass timber movement became international because you had some bigger mass timber buildings in central Europe as well as in the UK and for us we have been involved.

Our first multi-storey mass timber building was in 2006 with the Fermiol house and then it went on with most people know Stockhouse on Murray Grove by our friends from KLH and we done then Brickport House and at that point we were invited to travel to other countries like Australia to show that we had a lot of visitors from Australia, from Lendlease to look at what we have done and I feel that building made it outside of Europe and it became that bigger movement.

What was interesting about the Lendlease  scenario was that Lendlease  was their own supply chain.

They were effectively working on the design, they were doing the engineering.

Their design team worked with their development team to deliver the building.

Once that building was established, the next challenge was can the market sustain an independent architect working with an independent engineer, working with an independent builder, an independent contract team to create a building and do that outside of being, you know, lend-lease with their very insular way of delivering buildings.

And thankfully that happened.

And I think the the genesis of Forte building, lend-lease being in the UK as well as in Australia was really one of the significant reasons why CLT got up with the Forte Building and I think it's a testament to the work you and others have been doing in the UK to get Mass Timber becoming a global phenomenon rather than just a European or UK phenomenon.

Yeah, it's quite interesting what he said.

Like, yeah, is it possible to build it outside of big organisations.

I get asked that question a lot and I say, yes, it is because we Eurban is a small organization.

At the moment, we are a little bit more over 30 people.

It was started by Jonathan and Liam 20 years ago, two people, two laptops and a mobile phone.

And we have developed the master market in the UK with others as independent companies.

We work with architects, with engineers, with different developers.

Quite often, it started small and then when companies like Landlase took it on in Australia and other bigger companies in the US as well, including Landlase, and people said, "Oh, but we are too small, we can't do that.

" And I think Urban has proven that over the last 20 years.

You don't need to be big.

What is really important that you have this knowledge and that's what we try to nurture internally all we have with people who come from the timber industry like myself, but we also try to integrate new people who are just like to build with timber who are interested, but also people who don't have a clue what timber is, but they're really good in the digital construction.

And I think that is important to bring this cross-fertilization into the industry, which is really missing in central Europe and they are catching up now.

And in other markets where you don't have the massive timber knowledge, you need to nurture your own talent.

And what do you think is the key secret to the way that your organization and particularly your self-work that feeds into or fits into the supply chain in the marketplace.

You mentioned independence.

But is it because you have expertise in the design or is it because you have expertise on site or is it a combination of both.

I think it is a real combination and also an understanding.

It is a close circle.

There is a lot of talk of the moment in the UK about building safety, quality and all that.

And I would say it's the golden thread.

It's a closed loop.

You need to look at the whole thing holistically.

I'm not saying you need to be a carpenter and the specialist in production and everything, but you need to be able to understand that all these parts are used, or we usually talk of the three pillars, the design, the engineering, the manufacturing and then the on-site assembly and all these three, they have to work together.

And if you don't have the knowledge internally or yourself, then it's important to work with others together, I believe.

We at Urban, we are quite lucky because we are such a wide spread of people with a lot of experience and therefore we have, we employ a lot of architects, engineers, carpenters and therefore we we have built this knowledge internally, but that wasn't there overnight.

It started with two people who loved, they knew about the industry, they knew a little bit about temper, and it was really this developing of the knowledge.

And the UK was pretty progressive in using mass timber products, mainly CLT and GLT, in the school sector.

That was a very, very strong area of growth.

And now it seems to have moved through to a genesis before Grenfell happened.

And just to repeat, Grenfell was not a mass timber building that went up.

It was a cladding issue, a combustible flammable cladding issue, and a very, very tragic event as it was.

And now you have restrictions on combustible materials and people looking at different things like gauge steel for the wall structures and CLT floor plates and things like that.

Where do you see it going now in the UK.

The school market, the whole education sector is still extremely strong.

We do a lot of them and we started more or less with schools.

As you said, there was a time where residential was a massive hype in the UK as well.

But schools are important for us.

On the residential market, I think we have a crisis in the UK about the quality.

How do we build.

It's not just a question of fire, it's a question of moisture.

It's the quality control.

And I feel, if you look at it, material independent, because the material is only one part.

But if you don't know what you're building, if you don't know how to build it, that's a massive issue.

And I feel that's where mass timber has such a benefit because we build everything in our computers first, or we build a digital twin, and therefore we have a proper documentation of the project.

And that's, I feel, that is the most important thing.

Or coming back to the golden thread, quality, we need to build better quality.

And I feel this is also the key for us to be able to build again in residential to demonstrate to people we're building safe and what we are designing is also what we're delivering and I would say that is that is something what is hard and yes timber is a combustible material but if we use it correctly in the right environment we've tested, build up certified, following standards and using the knowledge we have all over the planet, then we can really build safe and sustainable structures using mass timber.

It's always surprised me that when an engineer designs a connection, when an architect works works on the building envelope and specifies, I don't know, passive house principles, or at least just having building wrap on the outside of the structure, whether it be a stick frame, framed building, or whether it be mass timber.

And then the translation to what actually happens on site, you know, the workmanship, that translation, you know, I think mass timber's got a huge advantage in being able to what is designed in that digital twin, as you said, will actually be delivered on site.

And you have an operations team that works with you.

Is it the skill of that team to translate what happens from an architecture and engineering design capability that meets the quality standards that you set on site.

Or is it that just generally contractors get it and they love to do the right thing all the time.

I think it is.

There's always the question people ask me me about what is the difference between you as a timber engineer and the structural engineer.

I would say our education, especially in Switzerland, similarly, when you get in Austria or Germany, it's a more holistic view.

Or we are not just looking at the structure, we're looking at the detailing, how to put the stuff together, how to manufacture, how to assemble on site, But also thinking about building physics, acoustics, the fire question.

We have, we're not specialists in this, but we have an understanding to look at that.

And I feel that is something that is so important to support your architect and the project engineer as really assisting them, helping them, growing knowledge, but also making the project work.

And then it's really this, this we need to get away with this blue color, white color thinking.

We need to work together with the people on site because everybody's saying, oh, we have a labor shortage.

We need to upscale our labor.

We need to bring them together, forget these different colors.

We are one and the people on site, they have a lot of knowledge.

They should be respected for their skills and crafts and I sometimes call it the crafts from the past and the digital which we have now.

If we bring this together we have such a great chance to make really high quality buildings and also that what we design and what should be built is also built on site.

There is then distrust and this working together and not against each other.

Yeah, I employed a couple of people from France who were in engineering and specifically when they do their timber engineering aspect of their program, they spend a year out in the field.

And when we were in the interview, we said, well, what did you learn when you were out in the field.

And the applicant turned around and said, well, was the differential movement even between the types of timber and the way that the timber is crafted, whether it be solid section, and it has checking and cracking, or whether it be plywood.

And we would use two different types of timber to create dimensional stiffness, some sort of connection system they were creating.

And it was incredible to hear that an engineer was sitting in front of us, applying for a job to do modeling using CAD and CAM and was able to talk articulately about material types in timber and the differences between them and almost the differential movement between the two types of material he was using and he'd actually picked up a hammer and nail and I think to me you know that was a hallelujah moment for us in that we employed him straight away and said we need you here because you understand it.

And I think we just need more of that.

And I love the analogy of put the colour colour away and just saying, no, no, we're all in the same industry.

I'd love to be able to work out some way that we can foster that.

So if you've got an idea, let us know.

Yeah, I know.

I think it is.

We have interns every year from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and also from France.

And they come to us.

They have knowledge, they have a basis.

But some of them, they haven't worked in a practical environment.

Well, they're not there.

Maybe not carpenter, that's fine.

They learn so much and seeing it on site.

And if they sit in the office for a month or two, and doing stuff, doing modeling and see that only in in a computer world, and then they go to side and on that evening when they come back, you can see it in their eyes.

It's the eureka moment.

Oh, that's how it works.

And then they understand, oh, this is 120 millimetre pre-layer COT board.

Oh, and this is this screw.

And it's not because you have a lot of really clever people they can tell you, oh, this is this screw and this manufacturer is here a little bit feather and the other one in there.

But understanding what it means, what tools do you need to put the screw in.

What it really means to be behind the drill and putting it in.

Or what does it, what torque really means.

And I feel this such thing, every engineer, every architect, everybody in the building industry who will have an office-based job should be in touch with site during education or doing internships.

And also in the beginning, starting on that, most engineers who come to us, they start in a, in we call it the project designer rule, to work really through understanding the material and understanding how it goes together.

And similarly, when it comes to the construction sequencing, so it's great to design things, it's great to put things together.

Do you tell the people that are sorting out your construction sequencing to actually go to site and look at the props and look at how they start a project and make sure that there isn't any safety concerns with the way that the sequencing works so when they're designing it and then it potentially goes to a manufacturer and then gets delivered to site in a sequence that is all considered part of the programme.

Well, absolutely.

We sit down with our construction people from our construction department, but also internally with people like myself or others who have a lot of experience on site to look at the project from the beginning or defining the strategy for the material procurement, but also for assembly, because it makes no sense that we design something which we can't put together.

Or there is side logistics, can I get this to this place.

In the UK, we're quite lucky we can put everything on trucks from Europe.

But if we work overseas, can I put this in a container.

And then you're absolutely right, or propping temporary works.

Does that, is that fitting on site.

Can I have all these props, how do I put them up.

And then yes, a seven and a half meter prop is pretty heavy.

And you can't carry that anymore, you need about three or four people to carry it or a crane.

That's okay, I can put that up.

But how do I put it back down again.

And this is really from the start, or we're going through sort of buildability workshops internally, where we play that through before we press the button, produce.

And that's, and also our people who draw it or design it, they go to site on a regular basis.

And on the end of the project, we do like a close loop again, the lessons learned, where people talk to each other and say, Oh, that was really good.

This wasn't, how do we improve that.

And I feel it's, it's, it's keeping knowledge in the business.

it's increasing the knowledge, but for me it's also increasing the trust and appreciation of each other, because we need each other to produce a building.

Yeah, it truly is a team effort and that concept of collaboration is not a fluffy word to be thrown around.

It's actually a legitimate concept and you've mentioned all the way through.

It's this department with that department with this logic and thinking.

Let's run through this in a programmatic way to make sure that we can actually get the best outcome.

How many projects do you think you personally have worked on and then say what has Urban done to be able to develop this culture of it sounds like continuous learning.

How many projects have you been involved in with, say, I must say.

Well, I think urban has done around 400 projects.

I joined year four, year five of urban.

I mean, I must have been involved in over 300 projects myself.

I have done also some back in the past in Switzerland, maybe another 30.

For me, it's not just about the amount of projects because, yes, you can, I could have done thousands of projects but not really care.

That's not the case.

So I'm really interested and that's also testimony to my two business partners, Jonathan and Liam.

They went to site, the first few buildings, they used the hammer themselves on site, understanding that nowadays we're not allowed to do that because of health and safety regulations, but it is really important to go there, talk to the people.

I hate this when people say, Oh, I'm the engineer, I'm not going to side, or I only talk to the supervisor.

I try to talk to everyone.

And now if I see something that they do a detail, and I knew that detail was was quite tricky, I asked the guy, how easy for you.

And sometimes he's telling me quite bluntly in words, I wouldn't use here.

But that's exactly that understanding and I feel this is something where we have to nurture.

As you said, collaboration, that's a massive word, but collaboration doesn't mean just sending models around and sending nasty contracts and lectures.

It's really, you need to live it, you need to work together.

And that's also our office is one big room.

We talk to each other and sometimes the discussions are a bit heated.

But that's how you transfer it through the generations of a business.

So in 20 years' time, we have seen over 100 employees work for us.

And therefore, everybody's saying if an employee leaves, you lose knowledge.

I would say with every new employee, you're gaining knowledge.

You just need to make sure that you work with that person, because everybody comes with knowledge, they will gain more and they will go with that knowledge as well, but it doesn't mean they take it away from the company.

As long as you integrate them properly and work to get rid of each other, collaboration has to start internally and then you can also carry it outside.

And that's something to feedback what we get from a lot of people that said, "Oh, this is great having you there from the beginning, but also till the end.

" Yeah, and the Japanese have a word for it, which I'm not going to try and pronounce because I know I'll do it a disservice.

But the short version in management cycles or philosophy is called the Gemba Walk.

And Gemba, I think loosely translates to something like go look and see.

And they used it for, you know, places like Toyota, etc, etc.

So that the senior managers who were trying to make sense of what's actually happening when something went wrong or production was down or something needs to be improved or they did some sort of blitz on their performance of their systems, they'd actually go and look and see exactly what's going on.

And I think that's been a common theme that's come through from you today in the podcast has been, no, no, no, get out of that seat, even though you're the modeler, go and actually have a look.

And I think that extends not just to the site, I think it extends to the manufacturing plants.

You know, I remember when our Hundecker arrived here in Australia at X-Lam and we compared the way we did a lap joint, a half lap joint in the new plant versus the old manual plant.

one had brand X and one had a Hyundai.

I can say the Hyundai get because it's the one I'm going to talk favorably about.

I won't say the other brand because I'm not going to necessarily talk favorably about it.

The point being that selecting the right tool, an 80 mil sort of pencil routing tool to do a half lap and how many passes you need to do for that versus a disc mill of 500 millimeters and diameter where it does one or two passes, you know, understanding that whole concept and then translating that to site is vitally important.

I think your words of wisdom to the audience have been noted.

Let's have a chat about projects.

So let's do three topics.

First of all, your favorite project you've ever worked on.

What would that be.

Oh, that's really hard.

I think for me, we have done so many projects.

And some of them are special to me because that was my first project.

That was my biggest project, my tallest project.

But one thing for me, what is really important are the school buildings.

And I remember we We'd done a school and it was one of my early projects with Urban and it was really hard.

It wasn't so easy, it wasn't in London and yeah, we had some difficulties to get it through because it was also early.

And then for me, really the great moment was when I saw images of the kids running around in the school and hearing from the bad teacher how great it is and what an impact it made to society.

It's not the best area of their town and people moved away because they couldn't find the teachers, the school was really bad.

But with this new school, the teachers came back, the level of quality teaching went up.

And therefore people came back and I think this This is for me the most important thing.

With the schools, we're doing something for the future.

We're teaching our kids the next generation that you can build with timbered understanding that.

And I also feel when you walk in a school where you have exposed timber, it feels more natural.

It feels warmer, much nicer.

And I feel that is our duty.

Yeah, some of the big projects which are made, which are built for big developers and make them a lot of money.

But do we really make something for society.

Do we make something which lost everybody wants a legacy.

Or it sounds quite grand.

But I feel with this school, but with most of our school buildings, we don't we don't something which will last and which have a massive impact.

And that's that's a great thing.

That's, I would say, most of the school buildings are my favourite projects.

And your largest project, what was the largest project you've worked on, either yourself or as a company.

Our largest project was the NTU building in Singapore.

That was the largest project we ever did as a company.

And it was challenging because you're working in a different country or you have different time zones and it is large.

It is by far the largest in Singapore and larger than most buildings in the world and getting everything together, the different suppliers, the client, the design team there and also internally, all we worked with a lot of people on it and I'm personally extremely proud of what we achieved as a business to make this project work.

It wasn't just us, a lot of other people were involved.

And it needs everybody.

But I feel we as a business, we were a vital part to deliver this project.

But also we as a business took a lot of experience out of that.

And I'm not too worried now if somebody comes and says, "Oh, we have a project with 10,000 cubic meters of timber.

" Or maybe before the Singapore project, I would say, Ooh, that's a lot.

That's a lot of material.

It takes a lot of time, but we improved our processes and we have proven it.

Not just to myself, but also to other people in our business.

And I think that is important.

And you need to be able to celebrate achievements like that.

So many times on the end of the year, we don't take the time to look back because it's for you to be proud, but for everybody involved.

It's extremely important.

And then people who come to us, they haven't done this before.

And then they learn a lot with that.

And what about the last project.

Let's go with what was the biggest challenge.

You don't need to name the project, but name the challenge, because I'd like to know what is it that you had to overcome to get the project across the line.

Well, the obvious one is always competition.

But I feel what we have at the moment is a lot of people are interested in mass timber.

Everybody wants to build a mass timber.

That means we maybe work with a company who had done a lot of mass timber before as architects, as contractors, but they bring in new people.

Therefore, sometimes it feels you have to convince everybody from the beginning again.

And it's the big question at the moment is the insurance.

Are you you spoke with the insurance brokers and insurances before it's like, oh, how do we prove that is OK.

And I feel we as a bit we as an industry in the mass timber industry, we have to share with the insurance companies because it's not like that.

They that they hate timber or don't want to do timber for them.

It's it's data.

They want data.

They want to understand how many projects have we done or some insurance companies, they say to us, we're not worried if you do the project.

But if Joe blocks mass timber industries, which has started yesterday, there's a project of that size, we are worried because how do they have the skills.

And therefore, we need to be open, we need to share with them.

And that's what we're trying to do.

And the fire, the fire discussion is in the UK, unfortunately, extremely heated.

But I feel with proper collaboration and sharing knowledge with people and explaining to them that we are there from the start to the finish, we are checking that all the screws are in, but checking that everything is produced how it should be will help.

And that's to overcome this.

And this is this is a bit the thing what we have at the moment on a lot of the projects to overcome what you call it, a fear.

It's just an unknown and we need to help people to solve these unknowns.

And quite often we need to solve the problems for them before they even realize there is a problem.

Yeah, I think I call it prejudice and that's just not knowing about something.

And then what happens is the fear it comes from that, which then provokes anxiety.

And I think that's a spiralling down effect.

Whereas if you do go back and have listened to the podcast two seasons ago, you know, Jake and Cannon out of the US and Marcus Saunders from the UK, both from Gallagher Insurance, they have taken approach of trying to understand and know what mass timbers about and they've been working with people in the UK and in the US and trying to be part of the testing regime, be part of the engineering design, be aware of what the developer wants for their project so that they can apportion the risk and broker the best insurance for that particular building.

And I think you're right.

I think from a project perspective, getting the project to become viable whereby the insurance covers it is a significant challenge.

So I think it's a very diplomatic answer, Philip.

I think you avoided the question of your worst project and said, no, no, it's the challenges on the project.

So I appreciate it.

Look, last question.

What are you and the fellow urbanites going to do for your 20 year celebration for the organisation.

Is it true you're building a timber Taj Mahal somewhere in your factory.

- No, we're not building something like that.

And the point is we don't have our own factory.

We are independent from supply.

We work with a lot of the big mass timber suppliers.

And that's also strength for us.

And because we are having a white net inside, we have a lot of different skills in the business, but because we can go out to everyone, we can also use their skills.

We can really work together and that's something what we really want to do this year.

Or we don't want to make a big exhibition, a book or sell and tell everybody how great we are and invite them for parties.

The first thing is we have a campaign on social media set before #Eurban20, where we want to show to people what we have done over the 20 years.

For every year, we have selected the project.

And then it's really for us internally to have a celebration and share knowledge again.

And that's the most important thing, to build our team, because that is, I would say, that's the biggest key of Urban as a business of everybody who worked for us.

Everybody brought something to the table and yeah, there is a legacy of everyone.

Some a little bit bigger than others, but yeah, I mean, it was everyone brought a little stone, a little Lego piece to build urban what it is.

Always very generous with your knowledge, your information and your time.

So I want to Thank you.

And please, how do people get in contact with your organization or with you specifically.

And just a bit of an expose of what you can help them with.

So if someone's sitting there going, "I'm an architect somewhere in the world and I really need some support on how to design a building, can you do that.

" or are there other things that people need to be considerate of.

So give yourself a plug is probably the main point.


Yeah, you can get in touch with us via our website, our social media channels.

You can find myself on LinkedIn as well.

And if you have any questions, get in touch.

We like to work with people.

We like to support them projects and share the knowledge.

Or it doesn't in the UK, we do usually design supply and install, but on overseas markets, we're more than happy and interested to work with people on the ground where we can help on the design side, maybe there is some input on the supply or we can also supply material, but if you have somebody locally we can help them and the same with assembly doesn't we don't want to go out and tell everyone how it's done.

We want to tell people how we do it and how we have done it, that you can do the learnings and we can develop it together because we don't want you to make the same mistakes we did.

Or at least not all of them.

And that's an important thing.

We're looking to work with people on projects all over the world.

The other point, yeah, if you're interested to maybe become part of our team or we have an office in London and we have an office in Switzerland, we're always looking for talent, please get in touch as well.

And maybe there is a place, maybe there is, you can become part of our future journey.

And we would love that.

I would love that because that's what we all need.

And don't be afraid if you're not a mass timber specialist or not in the industry since 25 years.

If you just think this is the great thing, and I want to be part of it, please get in touch.

You're always such a wonderful and receptive individual and I really love the call out for people to be involved in the sector.

Thank you so much for your time, Philip.

It is always a joy to catch up with you both personally and professionally through the podcast and thank you very much for telling us about your story and Urban Story.

Thank you very much, Paul.

It was a pleasure for me and hopefully I see you soon in person.