A life of clay

In May 2009, the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture's answer to the Nobel Prize, for the newly built Kolumba diocesan museum in Cologne. The interior contained a 28-metre long and 14-metre high wall that was to be coated without any expansion joints that would spoil its appearance. The Cologne-based company Stuck & Akustik Weck chose to use clay plaster from Claytec in the town of Viersen. The light grey clay plaster surfaces, totalling 6,500 square metres, set standards both for the industry and for the viewing public. The sand crystals in the clay plaster glitter if they catch the light right.

Clay plaster is now in demand around the world. The historic Al Jahili fort in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, for example, is one of the projects that Peter Breidenbach and Claytec can lay claim to. The name of the company that Breidenbach founded in 1984 highlights the medium that the company produces and works with: the technology of clay. For Peter Breidenbach, working with clay is both nostalgia and avant garde. Clay is an ancient cultural technique that should not have been allowed to fall out of use. Clay plaster, which can resist mobile phone radiation, is today a completely modern material. Its use promotes protection of the environment, sustainability and health. More than any other building material, clay fulfils today's requirements for ecological compatibility. Clay is available locally, its manufacture requires little energy, and it does not emit any pollutants. Clay plaster regulates the humidity, provides good acoustic insulation and stores heat or solar radiation in a room.

There are a lot of arguments in favour of clay, but for many years it was not considered remotely modern or self-evident to work with it. Everything started at Breidenbach's parents' farm. Hermann and Inge Breidenbach had been running an architecture firm in Viersen since 1960 and had always been committed to the preservation of ancient monuments. In 1975, in their spare time, the parents started restoring a half-timbered farmhouse in Viersen known as the Tho-Rieth-Hof and built in 1661. In 1978 they started their first tests in working with clay. Peter Breidenbach, 15 years old at the time, and his school friend Ulrich Röhlen, who was a few years older, were involved from the very beginning. Today, Peter Breidenbach's older brother Martin lives and works as an architect on the farm. His architecture firm, founded in 1987, plans new residential properties but is also active in the preservation of monuments and in restoring old buildings while ensuring that aspects of energy consumption and ecological compatibility are not neglected. A current example is Liedberg Castle. Naturally, Martin Breidenbach also works with clay.

Peter Breidenbach chose another path. After finishing secondary school, he went straight to work instead of going to university. Certain builders, architects and tradesmen were interested in clay, but there was no logistical, machine or human infrastructure. Peter Breidenbach saw this gap in the market and decided to close it by opening his own company. So, in 1984 at the age of 21, he founded the building company Lehmbau Breidenbach and obtained his first large building contract. In 1985, the company was entered into the craftsmen's register of the Düsseldorf Chamber of Crafts and was Germany's first building company working exclusively with clay. Breidenbach was also a pioneer when it came to machinery. Modern clay construction previously hadn't existed. The machines to do it first had to be developed. Suitable staff also had to be found. Breidenbach's school friend Ulrich Röhlen, who studied architecture in Aachen, was on board from the start.

The young company was involved in renovating important half-timbered houses all over Germany, such as the Haus Römer 2-6 in Limburg; built in 1289, it is one of the oldest half-timbered houses in Germany. Mixing was always done on the building site itself, which meant a good deal of work. In 1989, for reasons of quality and cost, Peter Breidenbach decided to preproduce clay building materials and distribute them to craftsmen's enterprises. For the production of Claytec building materials, he chose a special place: the old brickworks in Viersen, built in 1908 and home to the last intact circular kiln in the Rhineland. The kiln was in operation until 1935. Peter Breidenbach, who was born in the Viersen district of Süchteln in 1963 and grew up there, always passed the ruins of the brickworks on his bike on the way to school. It was a veritable adventure playground for the local boys. When it was decided to demolish the brickworks, Breidenbach distributed car bumper stickers demanding it be saved. Funds from the state made restoring the brickworks possible. Today, 27 employees work there and in the office.

Watching production, you learn quickly that clay plaster can come in a variety of colours. The Yosima designer clay plaster allows 138 tones to be mixed by finely tuning the proportions of five basic colours. Just as the car brand Mercedes was taken from a girl's name, Peter Breidenbach chose for his product line a name formed from the first letters of his children's names: Yosima is derived from Yola, Simon and Max.

Peter Breidenbach has increasingly stepped back from the role of craftsman to avoid competing with the buyers of his products. Training and sales are being expanded, however. Seminar rooms are being set up in the former master's house of the brickworks. Modernisation of existing buildings is on the increase. New energy standards for renovation play right into Claytec's hands. "Woodchip wallpaper is dead, long live Tuscan plaster," Peter Breidenbach laughs. It is a question not only of aesthetics or trends, but of substantial arguments such as the indoor climate. Clay, the world's oldest building material, has made the transition into the modern age.


Peter Breidenbach
Nettetaler Str. 113
41751 Viersen

Tel. +49 2153 918-0
Fax +49 2153 918-18