Start-up spotlight

KIRIBRICKS: Modular room dividers made of Kiri wood

The start-up KIRIMANUFAKTUR builds modular furniture from kiri wood. But what makes this material so special and what do the so-called KIRIBRICKS have to do with Lego building blocks? We spoke to KIRIMANUFAKTUR founder Paul Helmeth.

Feb 21 2022

You set up your own business, KIRIMANUFAKTUR, in Munich almost a year ago. How did that come about? 

Self-employment as a sideline had been my goal for years, and of course it always makes sense to turn a hobby into a profession. As a self-taught furniture maker but with over 25 years of experience in wood construction, the "only" question was: What is the best way to do it? 

At first, I wanted to build mobile saunas that could be used on Tiny House trailers without a building permit and in a flexible way. Then, during the development, the idea of a modular room divider, the so-called KIRIBRICKS, came up.

Kiri wood, which has only recently become available in Germany and Europe, offered itself as a raw material. The choice of wood, however, was no coincidence; rather, a long-time friend – Peter Diessenbacher – put me in mind of it. He is the co-owner and co-founder of the European market leader in the kiri wood sector, WeGrow AG.

© KIRIMANUFAKTUR

Is it a coincidence that you founded in the middle of the pandemic? 

With Corona, it quickly became clear that the future in aviation – I am a full-time pilot for Lufthansa – is unpredictable. Besides the uncertainty, the crisis in aviation has brought additional free time for many employees.

I actually quickly understood this as an opportunity and very soon focused on finally tackling the dream of self-employment. It was always clear to me that the first years after setting up a business would be particularly intense. So I started with the first drawings after only a few months. 

With your KIRIBRICKS, you are serving a current trend; for example, the Zukunftsinstitut has just named modular furniture as one of the big trends for 2022. Why did you decide on modular blocks instead of wooden furniture? 

Modular systems and their numerous application possibilities have always excited me. We all grew up with LEGO and I think its success is due to the fact that users can design creatively themselves. This was also the case with my KIRIBRICKS, which I first planned for the office and home office sector.

Even the first prospective customers were immediately reminded of their childhood and had a glow in their eyes. In my opinion, the emotional attachment to a modular system is much higher. The customers and prospective customers constantly expand the application possibilities. I hadn't even thought of a trade fair stands, a telephone booth or a sound studio at first... to name just three examples. 

A modular system also has a decisive advantage in terms of sustainability. After use, further use is always possible. If the KIRIBRICKS are ever to be discarded, why not simply "build" a garden hut or a sauna out of them? There are no limits to creativity. 

© KIRIMANUFAKTUR

For people who are not at home in the wood segment: What is so special about Kiri wood? 

First of all, there are the excellent features of Kiri wood. It is extremely light, at 270kg/m3 almost half the weight of comparable construction timber such as spruce or pine at 480kg/m3. Another decisive factor for me is the homogeneous surface, as it is almost knot-free and therefore simply timeless. In addition, there is the high dimensional stability, the high flash point and the high insulation value, which results from the air inclusion of the honeycomb structure. 

In addition to the material features, sustainability is also of central importance in the choice of raw material. The kiri tree binds CO2 like hardly any other tree. On plantations in Europe, up to four times as much CO2 is bound compared to a European mixed forest. Each tree binds up to 35 kg of the greenhouse gas CO2 gas from the atmosphere per year.

As an alternative to tropical woods, cultivation on plantations protects native forests and reduces the pressure of exploitation. As a pioneer plant, the kiri tree does not require nutrient-rich soils. The large leaves produce nutrient-rich humus. As the fastest-growing deciduous tree in the world, the kiri tree grows up to six metres high in the first year.

After five to six years, the first trees are harvested, and after eight to ten years they have a trunk diameter of 40 centimetres. After harvesting, the tree sprouts again from the stump. Many generations in a row the tree can be harvested this way and the plant life underneath remains untouched. The root system remains in tact and stores moisture many metres deep after rain. In this way, it incidentally improves the microclimate in dry areas. 

Where do you source your material from? 

We obtain the kiri wood we process from KIRITEC GmbH, a subsidiary of WeGrow AG. It comes exclusively from European plantations. The aluminium profiles used comes from Alu Maric GmbH near Cologne. As soon as the KIRIBRICKS are produced in larger series, we want to use exclusively recycled aluminium. The connecting elements are currently still made of birch multiplex boards. Kiri multiplex panels are to be used here very soon. The top priority is always the circular economy.

© KIRIMANUFAKTUR

You are a lateral entrant in the furniture business, how did you find partners for logistics, marketing etc.? 

In the first step, a one-man-show is required, whereby I have received an astonishing amount of support from friends and acquaintances. The level of awareness of KIRIMANUFAKTUR is growing steadily and the network is expanding. I am aware that I have to pull myself more and more out of the operational parts so that KIRIMANUFAKTUR can continue to grow. I am open to partnerships and investments that focus on logistics, marketing and sales. 

How did you finance the start of your business? 

When you found a company these days, it's a "start-up" and in this jargon the answer is "bootstrapped". I still have to get used to that. For all those who have to google for it: self-financed. 

How does a pilot come to dedicate himself to rooted trees in addition to his work in the air? 

The main attraction for me is to create something with wood that will last for many generations. So I put a lot of time into the development of the connecting system in particular and finally realised it according to the model of old farmer's cupboards. After the Corona crisis, the climate crisis will be with us for many decades. In my job as a pilot, I already bear a great responsibility here and I am committed to the issue of sustainability in aviation.

For me, KIRIMANUFAKTUR is not about chasing a trend, but about creating the opportunity for customers to purchase a product that will be preserved and is truly sustainable. The goal is that used KIRIBRICKS are taken back and - reprocessed - remain in use. At the very least, composting would enable a true circular economy.  

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