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The beauty of thinking ahead

The beauty of thinking ahead

The beauty of thinking ahead

Architect Georg Bechter has converted his father's former cowshed into a lamp factory, think tank and communal kitchen with a vegetable garden. Where there used to be cows, the company now boasts a multi-story office environment where they consider every aspect of architecture, light and production. The results yield products for a circular economy. For Bechter, everything is connected and sustainability goes beyond just construction.

At Georg Bechter’s workshop in Hittisau, it’s possible to witness firsthand how beauty can arise from necessity. Out back, a huge conservatory stretches over three levels and a large part of the length of the building. Within this glass structure, everything fits together. The winter garden docks with the original outer shell of the barn. The room performs many functions, serving as a sheltered winter garden, lounge area, staircase, heat storage, greenhouse for fruit and vegetables, communal kitchen, retreat, meeting zone and connecting platform. Here, the inside and outside meld together.

The space also provides access to the different areas of the building. Access is provided, for instance, to the plaster manufacture area for lamps and lighting solutions on the ground floor, as well as to the adjacent packaging and shipping station. Meanwhile, on the second floor, there is entry to the reception and communication areas. This leads up to the workstations via a sculptural staircase. Here, the space is openly organised around a central core; everywhere, there are lines of sight to the individual levels and galleries open up islands of space that allow for privacy. The materials on the ceilings and walls, even the ones that you don’t see, also absorb sound and the design is thoroughly resource-friendly, attractive and proportionate.

The wood is sourced from the forest nearby and the clay for the walls comes from their own excavation pit. Meanwhile, the ceilings are covered with dyed sheep’s wool, whilst the walls are insulated with thick straw bales. This is in homage to the building’s former function. “These days we do design work where straw and hay used to be stored,” says Georg Bechter. “Insulating the building with this material seemed to be a logical step. 650 bales of straw were inserted into the existing timber frame, and clay plaster was applied on top. Even the floor is nothing more than pounded clay. After being sanded and refined multiple times, it is now clay terrazzo.” All materials used can be reclaimed by nature or reused without further processing.

Thinking ahead leads to surprising solutions
The process matters to Georg Bechter: For instance, maintaining the cycle, adding only as much as necessary and doing things yourself or simply leaving them out. These principles apply to both construction and usage. When he thinks aloud about these connections, he stops speaking in dialect. Small wonder: For a long time he taught at various universities, and he is frequently invited by them to speak at round tables. The voice he is using now is that of an international expert. However, when it comes to his own backstory, the skilled carpenter and trained architect briefly lapses into Bregenzerwald dialect. Of course, the word “childhood” sounds the same in both tongues.

“When I went to primary school, my father’s stable was one of the first large farm buildings in Hittisau. These huge buildings have made their mark on the landscape of the Bregenzerwald. Today, many of them are no longer used for agriculture. They stand empty and represent a major challenge for spatial planning. How these buildings should be used is a question that all of us are forced to ask ourselves. For me, the answer is “repurposing.” This practice allows me to continue writing the history of this area, which has been farmed for generations. My tools are architecture and light.”

At their “place of work,” the talented cook Barbara Kranzelbinder comes by three times a week to prepare a dish from home-grown ingredients in the communal kitchen. Dinner is served in the winter garden. “I’ll admit that the conservatory ate about an eighth of our total budget. The fully glazed extension is actually superfluous. We could have gone with an external staircase instead, but luckily for us the structure is now the bright, beating heart of the building. It has become clear to me that the world of work is completely changing, that work is also seen as a way of life. So I wanted to offer something to the people who move here to the countryside.” The winter garden brings the staff closer to nature. Views stretch across meadows, gently rising hills, and a panorama of landscapes. Inside the building, the brown of the clay on the walls and the rich yellow of the sheep’s wool on the ceiling reflect the natural colour scheme. Lampshades made of wafer-thin porcelain hang like eggshells above the kitchen island, and the walls are fitted with built-in lights from the company’s own production. The lounge islands are equipped with self-designed benches.

Everything here is based on an original idea, a reason. The architect works with what he has and then thinks beyond the original concept. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of this, there are some surprising spatial experiences, for example a round funnel of light. A large glass hatch directs daylight from the roof seventeen metres down into the building, into the heart of the offices and reception area. The counterpart to this is located elsewhere in the building, a walk-in air funnel. This is actually a terrace integrated into the building structure that faces the village and the western sun. It serves as a protected outdoor space for employees, while offering light and air for living and working.

An ice-storage heater in the septic tank
In addition to being an oasis for fruit trees and people, the spacious conservatory is also a buffer zone for temperature regulation in the building. For the heating system, Bechter used what was already available and took an experimental risk that was certainly unusual in this region: an ice-storage heating system was installed in the farm’s erstwhile septic tank. This principle is well established in northern Europe. In combination with solar collectors, it is an excellent, climate-friendly heating option, as Bechter explains: “One component of the heating is the ice storage in the septic tank, the other is the solar collector on the south side. When water changes its state of matter and freezes into ice, it releases energy that can be used for heating with the help of a heat pump. That sounds spectacular, but for us it came about as the result of forward thinking in cooperation with experts from the energy sector, such as Gerhard Ritter from Andelsbuch. We never let up until we found the right answer for us.”

When it comes to lighting, sustainability and proportionality are also Bechter’s guiding principles. Here, the company takes care of everything itself, from production to distribution. If this is not possible, they look for (and for the most part find) partners in the local area: from suppliers of a custom-fit connection part for a single new luminaire to toolmakers for repairs. Even discarded lamp parts are recycled. “We buy back broken lamps, repair them and transform them into a second-life collection. That’s why we are in need of new staff: we are currently looking for at least three new employees.”

“Georg Bechter Licht” is more than capable of carrying out large orders on its own without depending on large corporations. This allows the company to retain 85% of their added value in the Bregenzerwald. “From the metal parts to the plastic parts and the tooling: everything here is made in the region.” For the most part, the production routes are manageable on foot or by bicycle. Things they need for everyday life are available just around the corner. “Basically, I am just continuing the principles of my father. Together with a few other farmers, he managed to get mountain cheese produced in Hittisau once again. Until the 1980s, it was not uncommon here for dairy farmers to be mere suppliers to large producers. People then began to produce cheese again for their own consumption. In this way, the traditions of the Alpine dairies could be preserved and their own products brought to market. The basic idea behind all this is to keep the added value in the region. With cheese, this is already going quite well. When it comes to construction, this also works sometimes. But now we’re thinking about the entire production process and beyond.”

Author: Carina Jielg
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2023