Daniel Hager, Chairman Hager Group, and architect Matthias Sauerbruch from Sauerbruch Hutton, Berlin. Photo © Hager Group
Questions for
D. Hager &
M. Sauerbruch

Jun 2, 2013

Swift solutions thanks to new, innovative technologies. This is what the Hager Group, based in Obernai in Northeast France, is famous for. In 2012 it posted sales of EUR 1.6 billion and its Hager, Berker, Daitem, Diagral, Efen and Elcom brands are among the world leaders when it comes to building technology. So expectations are naturally high if such a company holds an architectural competition. The brief for the new build included that it blend in with the surroundings, reflect the company’s values, consider ecological aspects and boast an atmosphere that appealed to the staff and visitors. Entries were submitted by renowned companies such as Wandel Höfer Lorch, Saarbrücken, and Lissoni Associati, Milan – and among them Berlin’s Sauerbruch Hutton, with a design that stood out: a building with an H-shaped footprint and a massive wooden roof. Plans envisage the foundation stone being laid in summer this year and the building being commissioned in 2014.

Robert Volhard: So what’s it like for you as an architect, Herr Sauerbruch, designing a building for so complex a corporation, and into the bargain one that is rapidly developing with its technologies for building automation and controls? Are you despairing?

Matthias Sauerbruch: No. One of the qualities we looked for was a very simple underlying structure, namely the H footprint, with its very clear structural hierarchy. There’s the roof on stilts, and then there are the levels that host the workstations. The goal is a structure that is highly flexible and can absorb technologies which we cannot yet imagine perhaps but which will exist in five years’ time. Flexibility can of course give rise to arbitrariness. So the goal must be to create a very precise setting in terms of atmosphere, where the materials, the entire design, the proportions, the surfaces, the light and much more besides are truly coherent, while at the same time affording maximum freedom of use. That’s a very interesting task, not just as regards Hager, but in general for other corporations, too.

Herr Hager, as an entrepreneur renowned for flat hierarchies and a motivated team, you’re now a developer. To what extent did you involve your staff in the planning process for the new building?

Daniel Hager: We first asked ourselves what we wanted to do in this building. And then consulted various departments and established what their requirements are: Marketing, Sales, Training, Design and Business Development. I’m convinced that communication at and across all levels is immensely important to ensure we do not think only in silos. That applies also to the development of our corporation at this very moment. We’re thinking in solutions and systems, and that’s only possible if there’s diversity. We therefore tend to go for open-plan offices and in this way kindle communication. People are simply compelled to meet and interact at the various nodal points.

So are there spaces that offer privacy if required?

Hager: Yes, of course, there must be places people can withdraw to, especially if someone needs to work on their own – and also if you need a place for a meeting. It is a different, a new way of working, and to advance my company the way of working must be moved forwards, too. Things must change. I believe flat hierarchies and communication are essential.

Herr Sauerbruch, the new Hager Group Corporate Forum will be one of the few buildings you have designed that is not colored. It has a metal façade, boasting different surfaces, ranging from polished to satin.

Sauerbruch: For outsiders, it may look as if certain topics always recur. However, we seek a new approach for each project. Sometimes in terms of the look, sometimes in terms of the technical equipment, sometimes both. For the Hager Group project we swiftly thought of wood as the material. There are many wooden buildings in Alsatia. So we chose it as our preferred material, and also because we’ve worked using it quite a bit of late. And because we had the feeling, and this was communicated to us, that the building was to have a strong feelgood touch. Wood fits that bill well, of course. At the presentation, Daniel Hager aked me somewhat provocatively “is this supposed to be some Black Forest cabin?”. As there are enough of them around here. (both laugh).

I wouldn’t have called your design a “Black Forest cabin”.

Sauerbruch: Well that had of course crossed our minds. Which is why we felt something else was needed, too. We went for metal, as we saw that Hager works a lot with metal. After all, this is an industrial estate. A little down the road there’s a supermarket and another corporation that is very colorful. So we thought a degree of elegant restraint was definitely appropriate.

Does the restraint you mention also apply to the company designation on the new build? All I saw was the Hager logo, not the Hager Group.

Hager: The Hager Group is the element linking all the staff in the group. We have adopted a guideline whereby we more strongly emphasize the Group brands, especially at locations frequented by clients. And that is the case with the new build. Once, the color blue performed this task. And over the years we got carried away with the color, blue becoming so dominant that in recent years we have really cut back on it. It would have been cheaper to paint the new building blue, of course. But the effect we will achieve with the metal façade, with the shades of gray and the sails that open up depending on the solar radiation will be far more interesting I believe.

20 years ago you were one of the very first to opt for an in-company training center. And you consider training really important to foster client loyalty. Can we expect to now see a new training center?

Hager: The interesting aspect will be how we eventually use the building. The design is exceptionally flexible. Given the units that the building will feature, not to mention the design elements, we hope to encourage colleagues to make the building their own. We think that this edifice will spur us on to greater things and that the time we spend there with our clients and partners will be an unforgettable experience.

You’ve set yourself a tough schedule: The foundation stone is due to be laid this summer and you want to commission the building in January 2014. How’s that possible?

Sauerbruch: A public building process such as this of course gobbles up time as there are very exact tendering procedures involved, specific deadlines, and so forth. That all takes forever, which is why we took the second step first: We’re already sitting down with several companies negotiating before we even know how exactly the one or other thing will be handled. That really speeds things up.

Hager: I’m confident we’ll achieve the milestones we’ve set ourselves. The roof is one of the key milestones. If it’s in place by October, then we can keep to the rest of the schedule. We’re all looking forward greatly to the new build.

As a visitor, in the new building I’ll walk past developers busy working on new switches or cabinets. Is this transparency intentional and in line with what you want?

Hager: There’s always a thin line between an element of secrecy and communication with the outside world. We’d like to have our own design agency, Winco in Strasbourg, working here in-house. And they of course also work for other clients. The goal is to experiment with our main designer Erwin van Handenhoven and get closer to client wishes, to the needs, say, of an architect, a planner, an electrical engineer. By incorporating the client’s direct experience into the design process we’ll be developing our products in a new and different way.

Herr Sauerbruch, is working with a family-owned and run business different to working with a large joint stock corporation?

Sauerbruch: The difference is simply immense. In a family-run company decisions get taken swiftly, the executives identify strongly with the decision once it’s taken and there’s a pronounced willingness to shoulder the responsibility. These are all things that you can’t necessarily assume exist if there are more elaborate hierarchies. And that is key when it comes to architecture. Really good architecture only arises if a good developer joins forces with a good architect. New things get generated by the dialog that ensues between developer and architect, with ideas bounced back and forth. That’s the great opportunity of working with a company like the Hager Group, which is managed by people who have opinions, preferences and their own clear interests.

Thank you both for your time.

Modern “Black Forest cabin”with massive wooden roof. Photo © Hager Group
A simple underlying structure with the H footprint should create precise atmospheres. In this picture, the entrance hall. Photo © Hager Group
The construction phase starts summer 2013 and will end 2014. Photo © Hager Group
The jury in action: with Daniel Hager, Chairman of Hager Group (third from left), and architect Jens Bothe (end of the row), who opted also for realizing the forum. Photo © Hager Group