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World’s Tallest Timber Tower Rises in Milwaukee

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June 21, 2021 | Bill Esler

Milwaukee, WI—As construction continues on Ascent, a 25-story mass timber tower in downtown Milwaukee, the building’s silhouette is beginning to rise above its surroundings.

Two years of engineering development, permitting, and architectural design led to the groundbreaking late last year for construction of its concrete base. Originally planned as a 23-story tower, the building height grew with two more levels of parking and a  6-story podium including retail, parking, and amenities. At 284 feet tall with 259 apartments, Ascent is poised to become the tallest hybrid timber structure in the world, four feet taller than the current record holder, an 18-story structure in Mjøstårnet, Norway.

Unveiled in 2018, Ascent garnered international attention, and the project was presented at the Council on Tall Buildings gatherings. Tim Gokhman, director of New Land Enterprises, says working on Ascent transformed his views on timber from an aesthetic choice to a material with multiple interlinked advantages, citing its shorter construction period, lighter foundation weight, and health benefits, among others.

“What started as a visual inspiration turned into a conviction that this material represents the future of construction,” Gokhman says. He espouses that marketing new projects often touts operational sustainability but is not always transparent about how the building is built. Timber as a material could shift that in a significant way. “We know our industry has a huge carbon footprint,” he says. “But like Tesla, like online sales, mass timber is a disrupter.”

The Ascent design features much of the cross laminated timber and panel revealed in the interior spaces, with drywall for the most part used only in areas where the steel connectors are exposed, a building code requirement. Because Ascent is unprecedented in its scale and use of wood-based materials, the city of Milwaukee had to review results of testing done specifically for the project. This included flammability testing done by the Forest Products Lab in Madison, WI, using a three-hour burn test.

A three-hour burn test at the USDA Forest Products Lab in Madison demonstrated the ability of structural wood beams to withstand flames and maintain strength and integrity. (Image courtesy Forest Products Lab.)

The developers—New Land Enterprises and Wiechmann Enterprises—retained Korb + Associates Architects to lead the building design and approvals, with structural engineering services by Thornton Tomasetti. Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ascent attracted lenders and investors across the country.

“We received multiple term sheets, and are moving ahead to close the deal,” says Gokhman, managing director of New Land Enterprises. “The interest in this project is proof that the aesthetic, construction, and sustainability benefits of mass timber have captured the attention and imagination of a broad spectrum of people.”

Foundation work commenced in December, and is largely complete. The construction team is led by C.D. Smith and Catalyst Construction, with Swinerton Mass Timber in charge of procurement, logistics, and installation of the mass timber. The CLT (Cross Laminated Timber) panels and Glulam beams were manufactured by Wiehag Timber Construction in Altheim, Austria. Made from spruce, the massive wood components entered the U.S. at a port in New Jersey, then traveled by rail to a staging area in Milwaukee. Steel fasteners were embedded into the beams during production, making them ready for assembly on site.

“While the U.S. predominantly uses pine and douglas fir for CLT, we are using spruce, which provides a lighter and cleaner aesthetic,” says Gokhman.

One unique aspect of the building process involves first building Ascent digitally, down to the smallest of details, revealing any potential conflicts upfront. This eliminates time spent in the field resolving those conflicts, and coupled with the offsite fabrication nature of mass timber, will shorten Ascent’s construction schedule by 4-5 months. The construction site is also very quiet.

When New Land Enterprises opened pre-leasing last fall, it was met with a wave of inquiries and has already secured a number of reservations, including three penthouses. As construction continues, the team expects attention to increase. “We are readying ourselves for another wave of reservations, but are also preparing ourselves for calls, emails, and visits from the architectural, engineering, and development communities,” says Gokhman.

In 2019, New Land hosted a delegation from Taiwan looking to learn more about wood buildings; they made an unplanned trip to Milwaukee just to learn more about Ascent. “The realization of the world’s tallest mass timberstructure is the culmination of great teamwork from all stakeholders on Ascent. It will be an icon and roadmap for the industry and offer one of the most unique and sustainable living environments for the residents in my hometown of Milwaukee,” says John Peronto, principal at Thornton Tomasetti.

Several of the development team’s decisions, like using mass timber, now seem prescient, since COVID-19 accentuated the desire for healthier built environments like Ascent’s exposed wood structure. “We are building a world class development with unmatched aesthetics and amenities, and a big part of that is being environmentally connected,” says Gokhman. “We also went against the trend of building smaller apartments, incorporating some larger floor plans into the mix with smaller ones to accommodate a wider range of renters. Wanting to live in a location where you can walk to everything, as well as a built environment that makes you feel better, is appreciated by all generations, from Millennials to Boomers.”

First invented in the 1920s, and re-imagined as a building material in the 1970s and 80s, mass timber has been used for high rises across Europe, Australia and Canada. U.S. building codes recently opened the door for this revolutionary high-rise structural system, and Ascent received a federal grant from the U.S. Forest Service to assist with the rigorous testing needed to prove mass timber’s ability to perform as well as traditional building materials like concrete and steel.

The data, which is now available to the public, shows that mass timber performs as well or even better than traditional materials in fire, earthquake, and wind conditions. The laminated timber beams, slabs, and columns in mass timber structures are also carbon sinks. While the base, as well as the elevator and stair shafts of the building are concrete, the use of mass timber for the structure offsets the equivalent of CO2 produced by 2,500 cars, or enough energy to power 1,200 homes per year. Gokhman, Korb and Peronto are convinced that mass timber is the future of construction. The project is scheduled for completion in summer of 2022. AscentMKE.com

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