At the annual general meeting of a Zurich-based English-speaking club, of which I am a member, we recently discussed the possibility of making alterations to the premises the club uses. During our discussions it was pointed out that the whole building was due to be saniert in 6 years' time.

Though we spoke English throughout, we used the German word 'Sanieren' because there is no equivalent word for this in English. Yes, we repair and renovate buildings, but we sanier them so rarely that we do not have a single word to encapsulate the full meaning. We do not remove all the occupants, windows, floors, plumbing, electrical wiring and even the roof for good measure and proceed to rebuild using just the raw walls of the old building. This Swiss concept of reconstructing and reorganising buildings happens so rarely in Britain, that when it does, as with the recently completed Peter Jones department store in London's Sloan Square, it is featured on the BBC TV evening news.

At our club meeting, the most remarkable part was that the owners of the building knew the year when this was going to happen. Sanieren apparently has more to do with the calendar than the actual condition of the building. Most of the club members had lived in Switzerland long enough to find nothing odd about this situation because Sanierung is such an everyday part of life here.

On my first visit to the town of Zürich some 25 years ago, I wanted to take some panoramic photographs of the town from the Lindenhof. Unfortunately, I was unable to take a single shot that did not include at least half a dozen cranes. I recall counting at least 20 cranes visible – all of them there in the name of Sanierung. Today the cranes have moved their positions, but they are still there. In fact any view across any built-up area in the land is blighted by cranes as the never-ending cycle of reconstruction goes on relentlessly.

Any man-made construction in Switzerland apparently needs to be shrouded in scaffolding and, with accompanying noise, dirt and inconvenience, be rebuilt every 25 years or so. It is not only buildings that are subject to this treatment. Roads, bridges, statues, fountains and even the Bundeskasse can be and are saniert. There will doubtless be dancing in the streets in the Seegemeinde of Kilchberg this month to celebrate the completion of its Sanierung of the Seestrasse. This four-year master work of road Sanierung came to its climactic conclusion with the complete closure of the Seestrasse in the direction of Zurich, making a vital access route to Switzerland's largest and most important city possible only via gravel-strewn back streets. If the rest of the western world followed Kilchberg's example, the effect would be far more dramatic than doubling the price of oil overnight. Economies would collapse as road transportation was subjected to total gridlock.

A local hotel was "super-saniert" last year, meaning that even the walls were removed in the process. This is not unusual at all; another hotel on the lake was knocked down and rebuilt a few years ago looking remarkably like the one they destroyed. On the relaunch of the super-saniert hotel another sinister trend revealed itself. Instead of being called the friendly sounding 'Thalwilerhof' the hotel was renamed 'Sedartis' – or to be more precise Zurich's Splügenschloss Hotel has just emerged from the scaffolder's cocoon like a butterfly metamorphosed to start a new life as the Hotel Alden. Splügenschloss was always a bit of a tongue-twister for English speakers, but nevertheless a memorable name of great character.

Clearly this reconstruction is big business, employing hundreds of thousands of workers and costing the Swiss economy billions of francs each year. Nor does that appear to be the full story. Many such Sanierungen are done to avoid preservation orders and local planning restrictions. Regulations that limit the number of parking spaces or make requirements about distances for other buildings are totally avoided, because the original building is theoretically still there. Not a stone's throw from the former Splügenschloss is a new Swiss Re office block. The original plans some ten years ago were to clear this plot by removing the old office block, but planning regulations meant that a number of private flats must be provided in the new building. This did not make commercial sense, so the building was stripped down to concrete floors and supporting pillars and rebuilt from there – cleverly avoiding the planning niceties that would have applied to a new building.

The end result of Switzerland's luxurious and apparently unchecked obsession with Sanierung is that many of Switzerland's oldest, most historic and significant buildings will never get to be more than 25 years old.