Lake States leading the way with major new mass timber projects

Planned downtown Milwaukee building would be tallest timber structure in U.S.

Rendering of the Ascent building planned for downtown Milwaukee (Photo courtesy of New Land Enterprises)

MADISON, Wis. -- Three remarkable new buildings constructed using mass timber are under development in the Lake States. The biggest is in Downtown Milwaukee, where developer New Land Enterprises LLP is pushing ahead with a 21-story apartment complex, which will be the tallest timber structure in North America.

Plans for the building received approval from the city’s plan commission earlier this year. It will be constructed with cross-laminated timber, a system of very strong panels that are constructed by combining sheets of wood at right angles to one another.

Mass timber (either cross-laminated timber --- CLT--- or glue-laminated timber --- Glulam) are desirable because they require a small fraction of the energy to source and manufacture than traditional building materials like steel and concrete. CLT and Glulam have been proved to be fire resistant in extensive testing.

Ascent, the new Milwaukee apartment building, will be constructed at North Van Buren Street and Kilburn, just east of Juneau Park on Milwaukee’s lake shore.

Adoption of mass timber construction techniques are being inserted into the next version of the International Building Code, which will allow structures up to 18 stories. That new building code will take effect in 2021. The previous code allowed only low rise structures, topping out at six stories in most instances.

Wider adoption of mass timber could be a boost for forest landowners, with CLT and Glulam plants needing lesser grade timber that previously was sold mainly to paper mills for pulp.

Meanwhile, the viability of mass timber projects is being reinforced by its incorporation in the $100 million STEM Teaching and Learning Facility at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. Construction commenced last year and the building is to be occupied in September, 2020. The new construction features both CLT and Glulam. It merges the new building with repurposing and renovation of a former university power plant, Shaw Lane. The project adjoins Spartan Stadium.

“We compared mass timber with other framing methods and were intrigued by how far wood has come as a building material,” said John LeFevre, planning, design and construction director at MSU.

The Ascent apartment building and MSU facility follow on the leadership of Promega Corporation near Madison. It used CLT and glulam technology in The Crossroads, a 52,000 square foot reception area which serves as the front door of Promega’s 300,000 square foot manufacturing facility. The Crossroads was opened in 2013.

Use of wood construction allowed a more welcoming feel than the necessarily stark environment of the biological manufacturing facility that is at the core of Promega’s product offerings, according to David Rousseau of Alchemy Consulting of Vancouver, B.C., which worked on the project. Architects for The Crossroads were Uihlein/Wilson of Milwaukee and Ewing Cole of Philadelphia.

With three huge projects underway or completed, Lake States have shown leadership in the use of mass timber materials. However, the competition is growing. Sidewalks Labs, which is owned by Alphabet (Google’s parent) has a plan to build a whole neighborhood using these methods in Toronto. They are naming it Quayside and say it will contain 12 buildings, the tallest of which may be 30 stories.

Rendering of the Ascent building planned for downtown Milwaukee (Photo courtesy of New Land Enterprises)
Rendering of the Ascent building planned for downtown Milwaukee (Photo courtesy of New Land Enterprises)
The Feynman Manufacturing building at Promega campus in Fitchburg, WI (Photo courtesy of Promega)

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