By Tarren Bolton

With a family history in the timber industry, Kuratle Group AG CEO, Roger Kuratle talks about his history with the timber industry, his take on the misconceptions concerning timber architecture and the Kuratle Group’s outlook for the future.

The Kuratle Group comprises a number of companies, many of which have a long and rich history in the timber industry. “The family company was founded by my grandfather in 1955. My father, George, who has built up the company, involved myself and my two siblings [sister, Corinne, and brother, Fabian] from an early age – we grew up in the company and have worked in various branches to get to know the business. After returning from working abroad at the age of 25, and after my university studies, I realised the great potential of timber as high-tech material, which motivated me to join the family business,” says Kuratle.

The international company combines construction materials and timber products, offers custom solutions and delivers end-to-end services in the areas of construction, interior construction and related areas, industry, DIY and flooring.

Kuratle’s most memorable experience in the timber industry was when the group built a new warehouse for their trading company in Switzerland back in 2018. “I was aware of the potential, but our team and our clients exceeded my expectations. The over 9 000m², 14-metre-high warehouse, with a parking deck on the roof as well as offices and an exhibition area was put up in
6 months. It includes a green field, and 6 months later a fully operational logistic hub built entirely with timber. That was a memorable experience for me,” enthuses Kuratle.

The 10th Annual Wood Conference

Together with HWZ International – a subsidiary company of the group – the Kuratle Group held the Wood Conference in Cape Town at the end of February. “HWZ International fills the gap between the demand of products which we have created through the Wood Conference, and the current availability on the market,” says Kuratle. “The Wood Conference was created and established by my father, George, to improve the whole industry as a neutral knowledge-sharing platform. I have been involved since the founding but was not actively involved in our operations in South Africa until about 2014,” he says.

The conference is an important platform for sharing and expanding the knowledge of all participants who attended. “I believe that, once again, it has brought more innovative and creative thinking to local architects on ways to use timber from the examples of projects presented over the years by the various speakers.”

Timber for construction in South Africa

A common misconception in South Africa is that a timber house or timber construction is less durable or offers less quality than a brick and mortar house. To the contrary, Kuratle has found that timber houses which have been built thus far have proven that they offer a more attractive living or working space, have proven durability, quality and capability in terms of structural custom design challenges, as well as fire resistance.

He offers some advice regarding the development of the South African timber market: “I believe that the South African market has great potential due to many factors, such as the availability of labour but also as the need for sustainability. My advice is that investors and property developers should engage, and together challenge the more established methods. I am certain that with in-depth knowledge and innovation the building costs of timber can be reduced. Also, a full cost-analysis, where time, quality, running and maintenance costs and even recycling costs should be implemented to show how a timber construction will have more benefits than a concrete construction.

According to Kuratle, the timber industry has had its fair share of challenges, and depending on the area – production, trading, logistics or building – these vary quite a bit. “In the bigger picture, Europe has reached a time where the doubts about timber have slowly been eradicated. We have solutions for multi-storey building structures, fire resistance, sound insulation and any other challenges that have been used as argument against the use of timber. To overcome these, it took time, endurance and facts – and has all been established through innovation.

In a South African context, Kuratle feels that public, supply chain and industry perception regarding timber construction needs to change. With growing demand, the supply will be more locally provided and produced due to the available labour resource South Africa has to offer. He believes that, like any cultural change, it takes persistence and courage from different people in the industry to be open-minded, work for the sector and dare to implement innovations.

His vision is that buildings in 20 to 30 years will be mostly built with timber and use the available materials, each with its advantages. Concrete and steel will still play a role but in a more supporting role for timber. He envisions cities of the future where young professionals and families want to settle will be green and carbon neutral.