Thinking Wood

in Wetzikon, Switzerland

Dietliker Holzbau AG is all about wood. Thomas Dietliker, the head of the family business run by the second generation, leads us through a day in his life, as varied as woodworking itself.

Before sunrise, Thomas Dietliker walks the short distance between his home and his office. Birds are announcing a new day. His office is situated on the first floor of the main building and stands on the same premises as his home. Here he stays on top of things – actually and metaphorically speaking. He oversees the driveway, the carpentry and the cabinetmaking, located in an adjoining building. As a trained carpenter and cabinetmaker, Thomas knows his way around wood. Being the manager of Dietliker Holzbau AG though, means that most of his day is occupied by planning and organising everything around the actual woodwork.

«That's my schedule for Thursday:

6.00 Start of work at the office

7.00 Employees clock in,

discussion of pending issues

9.00 Fixed appointment has been cancelled yesterday,

doing mail and paperwork, calculating offers until midday

12.00 Lunch at home, or eat out

13.30 Meeting at a construction site in Pfäffikon ZH

15.00 Prepare different bills

17.30 End of work»

This overview gives us a first insight in Thomas' daily life. One thing to be said straight away: Planning is nice, but flexibility is way better. We realise that Thomas lives by this motto, as quite a few things don't go according to plan.

Woodwork: Being a cabinetmaker and a carpenter

The employees are ready at 7am. Their workday always starts off with a short meeting: Who's doing what today? Who's going to which construction site? Any questions? Thomas stops by at the cabinetmaking: «Just to say hello.» The cabinetmaking is led by Paul Rüegsegger, who has been working for the family business the past 38 years. This kind of commitment is hard to find nowadays and many a big business would be happy to know such dedicated workers among their staff. Thomas Dietliker states though, that it's quite common in smaller local businesses. Thomas himself has been involved in the business for 32 years now, that's a third of a century, and he's not even the most senior staff member! The cabinetmaking consists of several rooms. One of them is the machine room, where we can see dozens of woodworking machines. Another one is called the benchroom, where all the workbenches live. A big door frame lies on one of the work tables, two of the employees are making it ready for transport to the construction site, where it will be installed. Dietliker Holzbau AG employs a total of 21 persons and 4 to 5 apprentices: «I do care a lot about promoting and supporting trainees», says Thomas.

His morning tour leads him to the carpentry, a separate building on the premises of the company that, judging by its size, could well pass as a storehouse. The intense and pleasant scent of freshly cut wood gives away the fact that wood processing is taking place. «I don't even notice that anymore», says Thomas with a shrug of his shoulders. We take a peek inside and want to know: What's the difference between a cabinetmaking and a carpentry? «The former is the place where cabinetmakers work, the latter is for carpenters», Thomas explains with a chuckle. “People tend to think that a carpenter is only building roofs, but these times have long gone», he remarks and points out that nowadays, many houses feature flat roofs, where a wooden attic is no longer part of the building plan. The world of architecture has changed a lot in the past few years: «Sad but true, in many of the big new buildings, next to no wood is used. Nonetheless, wood experts are still indispensable: «A carpenter takes care of the rougher wood work and works mainly on the construction site, whereas a cabinetmaker makes furniture and finer wood work. The individual parts are crafted by the cabinetmaker and are then brought to the construction site, just like the door frame we've seen before.» Today's meeting with the carpenters doesn't take long, everybody is clear about their tasks, and the workers already start loading the trucks with the required tools and material.

The carpenters are organised hierarchically: Carpenter, foreman, general foreman and master. Thomas is master and Guido Bertschinger general foreman and hence also Thomas' deputy, leading the ten carpenters. Wood working is still a male domain – currently there is no woman in the team. Guido has the same position as Paul Rüegsegger over at the cabinetmaking and holds the main responsibility for the carpentry. Besides taking care of all the trainees, he also functions as an examiner. When taking the final examination after their apprenticeship, the trainees have to go through a whole week of exams. First, their general knowledge is tested and then their expert knowledge. The last three days of the week, the practical examination takes place. «I'm the heart of the company», Guido says with a quiet smile. After all, he did his apprenticeship with Dietliker Holzbau and has been working as a carpenter for them for the past 26 years. In the meantime, the trucks have been loaded and are ready to leave. Like a small armada, they drive out to the construction sites to do their work and will return to their «haven» in the evening.

All things wood

The big silo on top of the main building is an eye catcher: With a size of 150 m3, it's hard to miss. Filled with woodchips and scrap wood, it's the building's heating system. It needs checking every other day: «We heat exclusively with wood.» The central heating room is situated in the main building, just opposite the carpentry. Thomas turns around and points to the outer wall of the carpentry, where firewood by the pile is stored on pallets: «Of course we use our scrap wood to heat the buildings, and sometimes we get scrap wood from other companies.» The scrap wood he's pointing at was given to him by the industrial school close by.

The wood is kept right on the premises, in two different places. There is a warehouse just behind the carpentry, and a space in the attic of the cabinetmaking. Both room temperature and air humidity in these places are suitable for storing wood. Everything is carefully labelled: Ash, walnut, oak and so on. «It's important to deliver the right kind of wood to our costumers», Thomas says and shows us around the store above the cabinetmaking. We can see that wood is not just brown, there are many different colours and some of the wood even changes colour over the years. Environmental impact such as rain, sun, and temperature add to this alteration. Thomas almost exclusively buys his material in Switzerland: «It's not even a moral issue; buying wood abroad is just very complicated, that's why I always place my order with a Swiss retailer.» Beside the store with almost entire trees, there is a place for smaller pieces. «Of course it's necessary to have a certain amount of wood in stock», Thomas explains. And sometimes it's not possible to order single pieces. The spare bits are then stored here and used as required.

«I sometimes forget what a beautiful place I live and work in, and I'm always glad when people remind me of it.»

When planning wood processing, things move from a large scale to a smaller one. «Nowadays, it's possible to plan to millimetre accuracy», explains Thomas and shows us a 3D modeling software used in building design. This kind of computer programs are very complex. You need not only excellent visual thinking but also the ability to outline your idea digitally on the screen. In wood processing, too, digitalization is both a blessing and a curse: «Generally speaking, errors can be avoided because they are identified at an early stage. But due to this trend, costumers expect ever higher standards.» Once the plans are drawn, they are printed and then pinned to a large board, so they won't get lost. Thomas quickly runs back to his office to finish writing some offers. The view from his office looks like on a postcard: There are sheep grazing on the lush green meadows just in front of his home, the trees have just started to sprout leaves and further away, the Alps show their snowy caps, as if someone had sprinkled them with icing sugar. «I sometimes forget what a beautiful place I live and work in, and I'm always glad when someone reminds me of it», says Thomas and disappears into his office.

Small visit on a whim

It's 8.30am now, Thomas grabs his folder and sets out for a spontaneous inspection of the construction sites. He's a tall man, his hair tinged with grey and his blue eyes framed by discreet glasses. Today he's wearing a green polo shirt and a black jumper with the company's logo stitched on it, comfortable trainers on his feet. When we arrive at the construction site, the first thing that catches our attention is a very small fir tree, the so-called topping-out tree, rising from the top of the scaffolding. «As soon as all the beams are fixed in the attic, you can set up your topping-out tree”, explains Thomas, as we enter the construction site. It's not always easy to get hold of one of these small trees. «You can't just go out into the woods and fell one.» But Thomas' company is lucky, as Guido – the carpenter – is also a hunter and knows the right people.

This construction site is one of the smaller ones and can be entered without wearing a helmet. «Usually it's compulsory to wear a helmet when entering a construction site.» Thomas has got one in his car, just in case. His employees are busy insulating the attic. The quality of a house depends to a great extent on the insulation. When the warmer air from the inside finds a way out, it causes condensation on walls and ceiling, which is considered bad for any building. If a house is well insulated, no (warm) air will find its way outside. That's why a sheet of plastic is fixed upon the insulation material (in this case, wool): «Imagine you're setting up your tent and you're lying a sheet of plastic on the warm lawn. There will immediately be condensation. If we fix the plastic on the insulating material, we catch both the warmth and the condensation. That's important to avoid mould.» The main reasons for Thomas to visit a construction site is when there are unresolved questions, organizational issues to be tackled, or when he wants to see how things are going.

It's time for a break! Thomas sits down for a while with his employees. The two carpenters have a coffee and a redbull. «That will keep us going!», they grin. Conversation turns around work clothes, an important issue in this job. «As a carpenter, you're out there summer and winter. Proper clothing is very important», says Thomas. The building shell is their workplace, and they work whatever the weather. «These lads are weatherproof», remarks Thomas and adds: «They're almost never sick.» Carpenters can keep on working in subzero temperatures, whereas masons have to stop, because their materials could freeze. But on a lovely spring day like today, there's no need to worry about being cold. The young carpenters go back to their work and Thomas drives to the office in Wetzikon.

He can't stay for long though. One of his clients just called and is asking for a new balcony rail. Thomas deals personally with such an inquiry and goes around to have a look at the balcony. Close to the company's building, the couple receive him and show him around. They go to the garden and Thomas gets an idea of the situation. Calm and businesslike, he shows his clients which parts have to be replaced and which ones can stay. Once or twice he gets out his folding rule. After a little chat he says goodbye to the couple with a firm handshake and drives back to his office.

«During this time, we've met a lot of incredible people and have learnt to appreciate life in a different way.”

Lunch break and family matters

Midday, time for lunch! Exeptionally, Thomas won't be having lunch at home today, but at the Steiner Café in Wetzikon. «My wife's not around today, so I eat out», Thomas says. Usually he goes home for lunch. He takes a seat outside on the sun-drenched terrace and orders lunch. While waiting for his food, he tells us about his career. Having done an apprenticeship as a carpenter, he had to go off to military service. When he was done, he did a shortened apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. This training qualified him to take over his father's business. He clarifies: «I was never pushed to do it, it just happened.» He's got three grown up kids, two girls and a boy, who barely could read when he announced that he would never follow in his father's footsteps. There is no successor to take over the business in the future, yet, but Thomas is not worried about it.

Since the kids have moved out, his wife has started working as a teacher assistant. «I like to look at it as a 'granny-job'», he says but points out that this is not meant to sound dismissive, on the contrary. They had a fourth child, a daughter that was born with a severe disability. They were told form the day she was born that her life expectancy wasn't very high: «During this time, we've met a lot of incredible people and have learnt to appreciate life in a different way.»

Construction site – my workplace

After a relaxing lunch breack and with a full belly, Thomas goes back to the site. His employees haven't started working yet. They hold a quick meeting to discuss the planning of the building works. It's the architect who's invited them to this meeting, in order to discuss details and to ensure that everyone has the same level of knowledge. «I don't know quite what to expect, but we'll see» remarks Thomas calmly and enters the site, this time a school in Pfäffikon ZH. This is a public building and the works have only just started. The site is an organised chaos: a concrete mixer here, a wheelbarrow there, scattered pallets, and the building is only a shell, waiting to be finished.

Thomas walks around the site, looking for the responsible person. He vanishes for a moment into the darkness of the shell, but re-emerges and finally finds what he's looking for. The barrack is a container, meeting room, lunch room and office of the workers during the construction. Six men are wedged around a table that is covered up with blueprints of the site. The architect takes the lead and introduces the attendees: Metalworker, electrician, flat roof expert, his assistant and Thomas, who is responsible for the wood work. They realise that someone's missing: the expert for the frontage. The architect pulls out his smart phone and calls him up. He's on holidays, they agree on a substitute who arrives shortly after at the site.

The meeting can continue. It is a very confined space, but the team manages to discuss the most important issues, and all experts display their expert knowledge. When it comes to discussing the frontage, the group goes outside to have a look at the situation on the spot. A long discussion ensues, they are looking for the best option to deal with the frontage. When they're done, they move back to the container to continue discussing other pending issues. The architect and the building contractor try to keep on top of things, while their assistant takes minutes. «Is this going to be my job, too?», the flat roof expert wants to know. It's not always clear which expert is responsible for which stage of constructing. We realise how complex it is to build a house. «Alright, let's have a look at deadlines now», the architect finally says. Thomas is responsible for the external wall insulation which will be done at the very end of the project. His deadline will be the last one, so he doesn't have to attend the meeting any longer: «Do you still need me?» Everybody says no and thank you and Thomas is on his way. He has to go back to Wetzikon once more.

Traditions and a well earned after-work beer

First thing Thomas does as he gets back is retrieving the messages on his phone and jotting down the numbers to return the calls. The doors to the carpentry are still open, waiting for the trucks to come back. On one of the work tables in the hangar, two of the apprentices have spread their things. They have to build a model for a project at school and take advantage of their free time to do their homework in a familiar setting. Guido watches them from a distance, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Isn't it dangerous to be smoking in a carpentry? «In the past, there was the risk of a dust explosion; but nowadays we have better vacuum cleaners, so the risk is basically reduced to nil», he explains. He radiates a sense of calm that is hard to find, thus leaving the impression of being a natural authority. As he smokes, he explains the tradition of taking the road: «That's the years of travel of a carpenter. Usually, you take off for two years and a day, or three years and a day. You can't come closer than 50 km to your hometown and you're only allowed to work two weeks in a row in one place. Usually, you work on a construction site in exchange for room and board. Although nowadays, the carpenters on the road usually get paid money.» Carpenters take off in order to gain working and living experience. Guido himself never took the road, though: «I could still go today», he says with a sly smile, «but I've got a wife and kids, I guess they wouldn't be too happy about it.»

Meanwhile, another apprentice has entered the carpentry and joined his friends. One of them approaches Guido and asks shyly for help. Guido walks over to the work table, has a look at the plan of the model and asks playful: «Did you look at the plan upside down?» He corrects the plan with a few strokes and demonstrates them a small error in reasoning. The apprentices watch the experienced carpenter attentively and thank him for his help.

In the meantime, Thomas is taking care of the paperwork until everyone is back at the company, ready to fill in their time sheet. Once a week, he checks and completes them, before handing them over to the secretary. By and by everyone is returning from their respective construction sites. Cold beers are waiting to be opened. «An after-work beer before the weekend is good for the team spirit», Thomas says. After work, he will have dinner with his wife who's coming back from holidays tonight. Besides, he's determined to practice his tuba. He's an active member of a brass band and the music helps him to maintain a good balance: «When I play the tuba, I feel like being on another planet. For once, wood doesn't occupy centre stage.»

«When I play the tuba, I feel like being on another planet. For once, wood doesn't occupy centre stage.»​

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