Seeking green options, developers use more wood to build high-rises
Developers have not used wood for much other than houses since the horse-and-buggy days. But the knotty building material is making a comeback.
Seeking greener projects, which many consumers continue to embrace despite an anti-environmental mood in Washington, builders are choosing timber for offices, apartments and campus buildings, rather than the concrete and steel that dominated construction for decades.
Not everybody is on board with the trend, which is playing out from coast to coast. Concerns persist about wood’s flame resistance and strength, as well as its cost, which can be 30 percent more than traditional materials.
But proponents scored a huge win last month when the International Code Council, an influential advisory group in Washington, concluded that some wooden buildings could climb as high as 18 stories, more than twice the current permissible height, without compromising safety.
Consumers have already shown interest.
“The connections people have with wood cannot be underestimated,” said Tim Gokhman, director of New Land Enterprises, which is behind two projects in Milwaukee that are mostly made of wood. One is a seven-story office building. The other is Ascent, a 201unit luxury rental tower that, at 21 stories, would be the tallest timber building in the Western Hemisphere. Both await approvals – including permission to exceed height restrictions, which developers say will not pose any danger – but expect to break ground this year.
Unlike the production of concrete and steel, which generates huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the creation of lumber is a relatively low-pollution process, Gokhman said.
Trees are also an easily renewable resource, achieving nearly their full size in a decade, said Jason Korb, an architect and a designer of both New Land projects. He added that the United States had some catching up to do, as wooden towers exist or are underway in Australia, Austria, Canada and Norway, among other places.
“It’s really starting to come into its own around the world right now,” Korb said.
Most have metal or brick facades, a stipulation of building codes focused on fire restrictions, which means the buildings often do not stand out from the outside.
Inside, though, gently striated lumber surfaces are on full display, as they are at Carbon12, an eightstory, 14-unit condominium in Portland, Oregon, currently the country’s tallest wood structure.
Work continues on this timber office building in New York City. The International Code Council, an influential advisory group in Washington, says some wooden buildings could climb as high as 18 stories, more than twice the current permissible height, without compromising safety.