Over To Germany

“What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused”

“Finest Worksong”, written by Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Michael Mills
recorded by R.E.M.

Two days before we were due to fly to Stuttgart, it occurred to me that, although we were to be met at the airport, we didn’t know which hotel we were staying in nor did we know the address of the factory. A quick email later and we had Stefan Possegga’s
mobile number “just in case”.

We needn’t have worried. In the arrival hall at Stuttgart was a man with a sign saying, “SchwoererHaus”. That’d be us, then. He even knew our names, and after a one hour drive we arrived at Hotel Roessle. The owner, Alexander Fischer, knew we were with
Schwoerer, but he didn’t know what time we’d be collected in the morning. Maybe we should be ready for 07:00 just in case? Apparently there were some Schwoerer people around…

We were hungry, so after checking in to our room we went down to the restaurant. We were about to order when Stefan showed up and took us over to the “Schwoerer table”. We settled in for dinner, and were soon joined by Theo Possegga, Stefan’s father. Theo is the UK salesman for Schwoerer, and Stefan has recently joined him: both work from London.

The next morning, after breakfast, we set off with two other couples to the Schwoerer factory, ten minutes away. There were four items on the agenda: the show houses, the factory, the sampling centre and The Discussion.

Around The Houses

Two of the show houses

Two of the show houses

We started the day with Theo showing us around the five show houses, which was both interesting and helpful. The houses are very energy efficient and as such were beautifully warm. The heating wasn’t on despite it being around 8C outside.


Another showhouse

Another showhouse

They’re pretty high tech too: for a start, no keyholes in the doors, but rather a key fob that you hold close to the door to unlock it. Each house has a “plant room” that houses the heat exchanger, heat pump and so on, ensuring that that warm moist air from the kitchen and bathrooms is used to heat the cooler, dryer  air from the outside. Lots of flashing LEDs in the plant room, so we definitely need one of those.

An indoor balcony / library? Certainly, Sir.

An indoor balcony / library? Certainly, Sir.

There were lots of ideas in the show houses for using the space effectively, including a living room with a library on a little balcony accessed by a ladder! Maybe not…

One challenge we’d faced with the plans Karl had drawn up was imagining what the space he’d designed would look like in real life. How large would it be? I’m sure architects can visualise such things with their eyes shut (probably easier that way, on reflection), but we struggled. The show houses helped bring that to life: so that is what a room that’s 4m long looks like.

Two sinks? Yes please!

Two sinks? Yes please!

Tree Houses

After (an excellent) lunch, we toured the factory. This started with The Rules, including “no photography” and a claim that we were visiting the factory “at our own risk” (good luck with that, Schwoerer). We were also told to be careful of fork lift trucks, of which more later.

A good look (but not the best)

A good look (but not the best)

Before being allowed into the factory, we had to watch a two minute video which, we were told, had nice music. So, six English visitors dutifully watched the video, which appeared to show a young girl of perhaps 8 or 9 looking at different parts of the factory. Occasionally a few words of German appeared on the screen. Was it a marketing video? A safety video? A don’t-leave-your-children-unattended video? I have no idea. Once we’d seen it, we put on our safety helmets and started the tour.

The log yard: six weeks' supply for the factory.

The log yard: six weeks’ supply for the factory.

The factory tour took 1.5 hours, and essentially showed how tree trunks go in one end and house walls come out the other. A fascinating process with the conversion of tree trunks to beams being almost fully automated. The enormous tree trunk yard holds enough wood to run the factory for six weeks; the factory churns out 4-5 houses per day.

When the walls leave the factory, they are close to complete. They have windows fitted, plumbing as required, wiring, ducting, insulation, the lot. All that’s left is the final finish; it’s no wonder Schwoerer only take six weeks from arrival on site to handing over the house to the new owners.

Power To The People

The waste material – mostly wood – is burnt on site, and the heat used to drive steam turbines to generate power. That power is sold to the grid, and in general they are generating about twice as much power as they need.

Their capacity to burn wood is greater that their capacity to generate waste wood, so they also buy in waste wood from outside. All of the power generated is sold, then they buy back what they need for the factory. Why? Because the cost of buying power is less than they get paid for generating it. So, sound from both an ecological and business perspective: smart!

Slick Operations

I like seeing efficient, well thought through businesses working. I’m not an industrial or factory person by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s clear that there are well-defined processes in place here and there’s a certain confidence that such an operation exudes.

One of my business watchwords is “scalable”, but I’m not sure how scalable it is to have potential customers tour the factory, at least not the way it’s done currently. There is a lot of sawdust in some places, which gets on clothes: not a problem for us, but one can imagine some customers being upset. And the fork lift trucks! Yes, we were warned, but they are a) fast and b) close at times.

Producing Samples

Selfies at Sampling

Selfies at Sampling

Next stop was the Sampling Centre. Think very large B&Q kitchen and bathroom areas, only much higher quality. Once the deal is signed to buy a Schwoerer House, two days is spent “in sampling” to choose all the fittings: windows, doors, door handles, sanitary ware, letter boxes, door bells and a myriad of other choices. The even have a height-adjustable toilet so that Schwoerer can determine the precisely optimal height for said convenience. They think of everything.

During the sampling process, the happy house owners are accompanied by one of Schwoerer’s designers to help co-ordinate the look while the customers choose. I’m not sure whether they throw in relationship counselling on day 2 or not.

After Ate

Back at the hotel, a quick change and down for dinner. Theo had a copy of the provisional plans that Karl had drawn up, and we started to discuss some ideas for making some changes. What soon came to light, though, was the fact that the house on the plans was about 50% larger than the budget Karl had agreed with us.

To be clear, these were only “first draft” plans, so the fact that they were way off doesn’t have a big, immediate impact, but it was both frustrating and disappointing, and not only to us. Theo told us that he had wanted us to sign a conditional contract during our visit, but with the plans nowhere near suitable, he wasn’t going to ask us do so.

So, we have some homework to do in terms of defining what we really need in the new house. It’s not that we will end up with a house much smaller than we want; it’s more that the revised house plans must use the space more efficiently. For example, the current plans have over 100m² allocated to hallways and landings; at an “indicative budget” price of £1250 per square meter, those are very expensive expanses of space that we won’t actively use.

It is, perhaps, a little odd that we have engaged an architect completely separately from Schwoerer. It’s good that Schwoerer can work with an external architect, and of course there are times when that will be appropriate, but we went to Schwoerer with no architect in tow. We have now engaged (and paid) Karl before having any formal arrangement with Schwoerer: were I running Schwoerer in the UK, I’d want the client to be dealing with me (even if I outsourced the architect).

We’ll Be Back

All in all, it was a very interesting couple of days. We were keen on the idea of a Schwoerer House before we went, and the visit has only underlined that idea. We were looked after fantastically well by Theo and Stefan, who both worked hard to ensure we saw all we wanted. Theo has also reassured us that, although the plans aren’t right just yet, we can and will get there.

So, we’re excited! Cecilia and I because it’s now more real, and Lucy because it’s nearly Christmas. 2016 is shaping up to be an interesting year.

Next: GOSH, It’s Been Quiet