The tall timber arms race is heating up. On January 22, the Milwaukee City Council’s City Plan Commission unanimously recommended that a requested rezoning at 700 East Kilbourn Avenue move ahead, clearing the first hurdle for the Korb & Associates Architects–designed, 21-story mass timber tower.

The mixed-use Ascent’s first five stories would rise on cast-in-place concrete, with up to 8,100 square feet of ground-floor retail and four stories of enclosed parking above that. The remaining 15 stories would contain 205 rental units and be built from mass timber fastened with steel connectors. Korb & Associates plan on leaving the wooden elements exposed as an interior finish wherever possible.

Rendering of a 21-story glass tower

Ascent’s glass curtain wall and strategic cuts would leave its timber elements on display. (Courtesy Korb & Associates Architects)

The 238-foot-tall tower is being developed by New Land Enterprises, which has partnered with Korb & Associates on a number of projects across Milwaukee previously. According to Urban Milwaukee, the developer hopes to break ground on the Ascent this year, assuming the rest of the approvals process continues apace. The rezoning for the site still needs approval from the city’s Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. If Ascent’s design remains unchanged, it will slightly edge out Shigeru Ban’s 232-foot-tall hybrid timber Terrace House in Vancouver for the title of North America’s tallest timber building.

According to partner and project architect Jason Korb, Ascent’s prefabricated timber components means that the top 16 floors can be installed in only four months. In a fire, the mass timber used for the structural elements will only char, not burn through, and Korb told Urban Milwaukee that, “The entire wood structure, and this would never happen, could burn down and the cores would be left standing.”

Mass timber construction has been making slow progress in the United States compared to the rest of the world, but that may be about to change. The International Code Council, from which many state and local municipalities derive their building codes, recently embraced tall timber after two years of testing. With the new code adjustments in place, tall timber in the U.S. will only continue to rise.

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