Let’s start with a building material that’s readily available in Switzerland: we’re talking wood. For a long time, this word conjured up images straight out of “Heidi” – a traditional village scene with picturesque chalets, farmhouses and barns. However, many experts now see wood as a high-tech building material with a big future. And ­research shows that timber houses can withstand fire just as well as conventional buildings of concrete or brick.

Star architects love wood

For a long time wood was only used in smaller buildings and single-family homes. Then, ten years ago, the authorities changed the fire protection regulations. It’s now quite possible to use wood to build multifamily homes with up to six stories, as well as office, industrial and commercial buildings in Switzerland. Renowned architects such as Herzog & de Meuron and Peter Zumthor are designing spectacular wooden buildings. Japanese star architect Shigeru Ban has constructed a seven-story timber building for the Tamedia publishing house group in the heart of Zurich. In St. Moritz, the Chesa Futura apartment block by top architect Lord Norman Foster ­really lives up to its name – “House of the ­Future.” Its characteristic bubble-like form is clad in 250,000 hand-cut wooden shingles. In Oberwinterthur the Gesewo cooperative has erected the largest timber residential building in all of Europe. With its 155 apartments, the “multigeneration house” is a pioneering achievement in ecological, architectural and social terms.

For Michael Meuter of Lignum, the timber industry’s professional association, one thing is clear: “Wood will fundamentally change residential construction in Switzerland.” Contractors now have all kinds of options when building new rental apartments in wood or using mixed construction techniques (in combination with materials such as concrete or steel). Thanks to its lightness and flexibility, timber plays a key role when it comes to efficiently adding a story or an extension to existing buildings – plus it can be sourced locally from sustainable forestry.

CO2 savings, improved eco balance

The topic of wood is inspiring architects and researchers around the world. SOM, the influential Chicago architecture firm, recently unveiled its design for a new tower up to 42 stories in height that is to be constructed ­primarily from timber. The main argument: it will require considerably less energy to erect than a steel or concrete building. Wood has a very low carbon footprint compared with other materials.

Companies in Switzerland and Austria also benefit from other advantages: unlike concrete, which has to be poured and processed on site, wood is ideally suited to industrial prefabrication in weather-protected factories. Thanks to the latest technology, the individual elements meet the highest standards of precision and quality.

Timber-frame construction is particularly suitable for low-energy houses, as it is relatively easy to fit the thermal insulation into the same level as the load-bearing structure. Architects in the Vorarlberg region of Austria have shown just how far you can go with this system and with wood as a material. The new Life Cycle Tower in Dornbirn was con­structed using a mixed technique and mainly consists of an assembly of individual modules. The property is eight stories high and should reduce carbon emissions by a whopping 90 percent.

Concrete, aerogel and co.

Nevertheless, most conventional buildings, such as single-family homes, still use solid concrete construction. The foundations and basement, and usually the load-bearing partition walls, are fabricated from concrete. Its ­robustness makes it the number one building material worldwide. In terms of innovation, the industry isn’t resting on its laurels: new compounds are significantly improving the ­environmental impact of manufacturing concrete. Certain additives now allow concrete to be implemented on building sites during the winter months, thus increasing productivity in the construction sector.

“If we want to improve the eco balance across the country, we also need to look at the existing buildings,” explains Peter Richner, head of department at Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. For example, a new aerogel-based insulating plaster has now been available on the market since 2013. This can simply be sprayed onto the façade of a building. Extremely small pores make it an outstanding thermal insulator. Empa developed this new insulating plaster together with a partner from industry. “It’s already possible to use it on building sites,” Peter Richner emphasizes. “The costs of producing aerogel are still relatively high, but they should come down in the next few years.”

Switzerland sets a photovoltaic world record

Empa has also developed photovoltaic panels that have set a new world record for efficiency: 20.4 percent. Progress never seems to stop in the energy sector. Modern heat pumps that use very little electricity to create power from water, air or ground heat are also becoming much more efficient. Photovoltaic panels are on the global market at lower and lower prices. And even drilling boreholes for the ground probes required to operate heat pumps has become considerably more affordable in recent years.

There are many more such examples: the industry is launching new types of masonry blocks and concrete elements with integrated insulating materials. Such building materials are essential to achieving improvements in the durability of the materials and the reduction of heat loss in winter. Materials research is playing a key role in moving towards the 2000-watt society. In just a few years there will be buildings that generate as much power on site as they themselves need to source from outside to operate heat pumps, building technology and other devices.

The market

Price increase slowing

The growth in transaction prices for owner-occupied homes is slowing. In the first quarter of 2014, prices rose by 2.3 percent year-on-year – the ­lowest growth rate in over 10 years. While prices in the most expensive region, Lake Geneva, ­stagnated compared with the previous year, transaction prices in Eastern Switzerland climbed by 6.6 percent, and those in Central Switzerland by 4.5 percent. Bern, the region with the lowest price increases to date, saw a price hike of just 0.9 percent. The tightening of self-regulation currently under debate, and uncertainty regarding the trend in immigration following the mass immigration ­initiative, could herald a change in price trends.

Growth rate 2013, Q4 in percent

(comparison with previous year)

22.07.2014, Jürg Zulliger (text) and Anja Schori (photos)