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Industry & Trends

World’s Tallest Wood Building Tops Out at 25 Stories in Milwaukee


January 18, 2022 | Bill Esler

A look at mass wood construction by PBS shows progress on the Ascent in Milwaukee four weeks prior to its topping out in December 2021.

Milwaukee, WI—New Land Enterprises held a topping out ceremony for its Ascent project, which at 25 stories is the tallest timber structure in the world.

The residential project in downtown Milwaukee is built of spruce CLT (cross laminated timber) panels for floors and walls, and glulam for rafters beams and columns, most of them manufactured in Austria by Wiehag Timber Construction. These were bolted and screwed together onsite with 100,000 fasteners driven into place by crews from C.D. Smith and Thornton Thomaselli, using banks of cordless power tools continuously recharged at rolling charging stations. As of January 10, 21 stories are glassed in, and the first nine floors have had cabinetry and flooring installed.

Image courtesy Council on Tall Buildings.

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, and lighter foundation weight. To assemble the 19 wood-based levels, fewer than two dozen workers were required—including one who drives 1,400 two-foot-long screws to secure flooring to the beams—at the rate of 800 per day. By contrast, nearly 70 were required to build the six-story concrete parking pedestal on which the wood tower rests. Openings are precut for in the CLT panels for ventilation, plumbing, and electrical pipes.

“What started as a visual inspiration turned into a conviction that this material represents the future of construction,” Gokhman says. He says that marketing for new projects often touts operational sustainability, but is not always transparent about the environmental impact of how the building is built. Timber as a material may shift that narrative in a significant way. In 2013, there were 13 buildings constructed using mass wood timber. In 2021 that number skyrocketed to 576.

At 284 feet tall with 259 apartments, Ascent with its six-story concrete parking structure and concrete elevator core is four feet taller than the current wood building record holder, an 18-story structure in Mjøstårnet, Norway. The Ascent project has sparked other mass wood construction efforts in Milwaukee, including a 15-story apartment building nearby, as well as research and development for the project by area architectural schools and the USDA Forest Products Lab in Madison, WI.

As the glass curtain wall is installed on the wood skeleton, Ascent’s design is more apparent. Its construction methodology will qualify it for the coveted LEED Certified Silver (v4). Aside from lowering embodied carbon during construction, Ascent also operates efficiently using a sophisticated radiant hydronic heating system (in-floor heat). The construction timeline of 22 months foresees completion of part of the building by June 2022, and the balance in August 2022. Already 10 percent pre-leased, it is running about three weeks behind schedule due to the shortage of shipping containers and upgrades to design along the way.

While most buildings wrap their entire structure in drywall, mass timber allows the builders to expose the wood structure. The result is a finish level that looks superior in many ways and in which people feel and perform better according to a prospectus by RealtyModul, which is raising $5 million in investment toward the project.

Unique amenities at Ascent include a two-story tall room with an indoor pool deck with collapsible glass walls overlooking the city and lake. The entire 25th floor features a 360-degree community space, two outdoor terraces, and a rooftop bar for residents and their guests. This stunning rooftop will offer panoramic Lake Michigan and downtown views with outdoor lounge seating, an outdoor movie theater, fire pits, and grills.

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.

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 construction 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, coupled with the offsite fabrication nature of mass timber, shortened Ascent’s construction schedule by 4-5 months, though shortages of shipping containers caused delays of three weeks.


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