There have been a lot of environmental stories coming out of the coronavirus pandemic — but one environmental win that has little to do with the pandemic is flying under the radar right here in Milwaukee.
On Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council will vote on whether or not to approve a revision to the plans of Ascent, a planned high-rise apartment building in downtown. If approved, Ascent will become the tallest wooden structure in the world after Mjøstårnet, an 18-story wooden skyscraper that went up in Norway last year.
Ascent will come in at about 25 stories, just a few feet higher than its Norwegian counterpart, thanks to revisions.
“As the building became more real, we added a foot here, and a foot there for structure and mechanical equipment, and all of a sudden we came in within a few feet of the building in Norway,” said Jason Korb, Ascent’s architect.
People have been building with wood for centuries, but mass timber is an “improvement on existing technology,” according to Tim Gokhman, the building’s developer. Most American skyscrapers were built of steel and concrete, but Austrian engineers updated the way wood can be laminated and glued in the 1980s, so mass timber can now rival traditional skyscraper building materials.
“The thinking is that a practical height limit is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 stories,” says Korb. A proposal to build more than 80 stories was entertained in Chicago and towers shorter than Ascent have already been built in the Pacific Northwest.
Wisconsin has a longstanding timber industry, with much of early construction in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana owing to northern lumber. But after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo Fire in Door County, people became very wary of flammable construction materials.
“Mass timber, because of its size, slowly chars from the outside, and can actually extinguish the fire as it forms a protective char layer on the outside that doesn’t allow oxygen to penetrate the core,” said Gokhman.
Gokhman cites the 2018 fire at Trinity Lutheran Church in Milwaukee as a testament to how even old-world wooden beams hold up under fire: “all the steel failed and the masonry fell apart, but the mass timber remained.”
Korb is working with the Milwaukee Fire Department to alleviate any additional concerns. That’s unusual given that Milwaukee already has a dedicated fire marshall who investigates buildings for safety as opposed to consults on the design process as it’s going on.
Gokhman and Korb believe that mass timber architecture has a big future in Milwaukee given the environmental benefits. They say timber construction creates a “carbon sink,” which removes emissions from the atmospheres. Wood is also a renewable resource, and the precision with which mass timber can be designed reduces waste on the construction site. Large companies like Walmart and Amazon have taken to mass timber architecture to reduce their environmental impact.
But the selling point for Gokhman is that it’s just a completely different way to build.
“It’s more than just aesthetics. People feel better, perform better, recover better in environments that have a connection to nature and that’s really hyper-critical because we spend the vast majority of our time in built environments," Gokhman says.