First Approval Granted for Possible Tallest Mass Timber Building in North America

Rendering of Ascend, by Korb + Associates

Rendering of Ascend, by Korb + Associates

A new 21-story apartment building proposed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin as received unanimous approval from the City Plan Commission. If built, the new tower could possibly be North America’s tallest mass timber building.

Although the total height of the 21 story tower, called Ascend, reaches 238 feet, only the top 16 floors will be constructed out of mass timber.  The remaining bottom floors will be built with traditional concrete and include 4 levels of parking.

The current tallest mass timber building is a residence hall at the University of British Columbua in Vancouver, Canada.  The Brock Commons Tallwood House, as the structure is known, stands 18 stories tall and 190 feet in total, according to The Skyscraper Center.

Those opposed to mass timber projects have cited fire resistance and strength concerns, but according to the journal sentinel, Milwaukee Fire Department officials have had a “very positive reaction” to the design. Scientific tests have shown that the solid wood structural elements will actually protect themselves from fire through a layer of char on outside of the wood.

In the summer of 2018, Oregon became the first US state to permit mass timber buildings over 6 stories high just before the ICC officially voted to approve a building code change to also allow mass timber projects up to 18 stories high and 270 feet tall.   The code establishes varying safety standards based upon the height of the building, including covering all wood primary structural elements with a fire resistant material and providing a sprinkler system for the tallest group.  

The next step for the tower will be to get approval from the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. No date has been announced for when that will take place. The developer hopes to begin construction on the building in fall of 2019 and be completed by spring of 2021.