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Ascent tower — supported by timber, not steel — wins Milwaukee Commission’s OK

The proposed 21-story Ascent tower in downtown Milwaukee — which would use timber beams for its frame rather than steel — won approval from the city’s Plan Commission on Tuesday.

Ascent’s building technique, called mass timber, relies on wooden boards pressed together for structural support. It’s an uncommon method of construction that developers say is better for the environment and more aesthetically appealing than building with concrete and steel.

After winning the unanimous approval of Milwaukee’s plan commission on Tuesday, the project now heads to the common council. Tim Gohkman, director of New Land Development,  the company heading up the project, said the proposed mass-timber tower, when finished, will be the tallest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Construction on the project could start in fall and wrap up in spring 2021.

“It’s a really exciting technology and would put Milwaukee on the map not just nationally, but internationally,” Gohkman said.

Not everything in the building will be made of mass timber. Concrete will still be used for a four-story parking garage with 260 spaces. Above that, the building will have 16 timber-framed floors with 205 apartments in total. Those will be able to be built in just four months, much faster than they could were they made of steel, said Jason Korb, of Korb + Associates Architects. That’s because mass timber components can be assembled off-site and installed quickly.

Korb said the tower’s timber frame will both make the building striking and reduce emissions of carbon. If developers obtain the wood from carefully managed forests, new growth can be expected to replace the timber needed for the tower very quickly, Korb said.

Mass timber is also resistant to fire, a fact on display when the century-old Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee caught fire last summer. Although the fire caused the church’s roof to collapse, its large wooden support beams remained intact.

Testing on other projects has separately shown that mass timber holds up at least as well as concrete,  Korb said. A fire will char the outside of heavy timber and prevent oxygen from reaching its core, which keeps beams structurally sound.

Although mass-timber construction is rather novel in America, it’s not in Europe, Korb said. The tallest mass-timber project in the world is a 24-story tower in Vienna, Austria.

“The Europeans are way ahead of us,” Korb said.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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