Milwaukee office building to use unusual wooden frame construction

2022-06-15 21:23:30 By : Ms. Kitty Huang

This isn't your great-great-grandfather's office building — even though it will be constructed with a frame fashioned mainly from wood, instead of concrete and steel.

The unusual seven-story building planned for downtown Milwaukee's riverfront would feature laminated timber: layers of wood pressed together to create columns, beams and other building frame components. 

It's a new twist on old building materials that were largely abandoned after the first steel frame skyscrapers began rising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"It kind of went away for 100 years. Now it's coming back," said Milwaukee architect Jason Korb.

The wood frame office building, planned for the site of the demolished former Renaissance Book Shop, would be the first of its kind in Milwaukee — and among a relative handful of such buildings throughout the U.S.

An office building constructed mainly from laminated timber, also called mass timber, is lighter, made from renewable materials and provides a lower carbon footprint than a conventional office building, which uses steel and concrete, said Tim Gokhman, of New Land Enterprises LLP.

It also can create a more attractive atmosphere, featuring exposed wood interiors and big windows, for the office building's tenants, he said.

"If you're able to create a built environment that's better connected to nature, that's a huge plus," said Gokhman, whose family-owned firm plans to develop the office building at 834 N. Plankinton Ave.

The building's design calls for each floor to have around 6,000 square feet.

That would help it draw smaller firms that want to make a big impact in a location with high visibility, Gokhman said.

He said around 25 percent of the space has already been committed to future tenants. 

New Land expects to get enough additional commitments to begin construction next spring, he said.

The office building would take about a year to build.

That's a relatively short time frame — made possible because the wooden components can be assembled elsewhere before being shipped to the construction site, Gokhman said.

New Land has been working on the idea for about two years.

The firm bought the site in 2016 mainly because of its downtown riverfront location.

It hired a Kenosha contractor, Recyclean Inc., to deconstruct, instead of demolish, the two dilapidated buildings that for decades housed Renaissance Book Shop.

That deconstruction process took roughly triple the time as initially estimated, Gokhman said.

"They literally took it apart by hand," he said.

While New Land is best known for developing apartments, the narrow, 7,200-square-foot site isn't a good spot for housing, Gokhman said.

Its soil conditions make it difficult and expensive to dig deep for underground parking, he said.

The office building would have 12 parking spaces in its basement. Also, there's a large city-owned parking structure about one block south on Plankinton Avenue, Gokhman said.

Gokhman said New Land decided to use laminated timber to construct the office building after being challenged to take that approach by Korb, the project architect.

Korb, who operates Korb & Associates, first learned about laminated timber at a 2012 conference which featured a presentation by architect Michael Green.  

Green, of Vancouver, British Columbia, is an outspoken advocate of the practice — in part because it supports his area's timber industry.

Korb said New Land's building would likely use Wisconsin timber to avoid shipping costs as well as tariffs imposed on Canadian products by President Donald Trump.

Green's designs include the seven-story, 220,000-square-foot T3 Building in Minneapolis.

It opened in late 2016, and was hailed by Architect magazine as what was then the nation's largest mass timber building.

The T3 Building, which counts Inc. among its tenants, sticks out in the local landscape.

"The building smells like wood mixed with a whiff of a new car," according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune article. "The lobby has all the modern furniture of other office suites, but it gives off the aura of a lodge." 

The interior design of such buildings, including Promega Corp.'s facility in Madison, focuses on exposing the timber.

"The spaces are gorgeous," Korb said.

That's not unlike the exposed timber columns found in late 19th century industrial buildings constructed in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward — and later converted to housing, offices and other new uses.

"It's not really new technology," Korb said. "It's old technology."

The difference with mass timber buildings is that wooden layers are laminated together, using nails, dowels or glue, he said.

The beams, floors and other parts are engineered to be as strong as steel or concrete, said Corey Griffin, an associate professor at Portland (Ore.) State University School of Architecture.

Their strength allows them to be used in modern mid-rise and high-rise buildings —  eclipsing the old limits of conventional wood frames.

Cross timber products have been used in Europe for about 25 years and are a proven technology, Griffin said.

They later surfaced in British Columbia after the province passed a law requiring new public buildings to study the feasibility of using wood, he said.

Mass timber buildings have since spread to around a dozen U.S. cities, including Portland.

That city, in the heart of Pacific Northwest timber country, has around 10 such buildings either completed or under development. 

"Yes, mass timber is coming to a town near you," said Blaine Brownell, an associate professor at University of Minnesota School of Architecture.

"The carbon performance is too good to pass down, and the industry is changing rapidly as a result," Brownell said.

Despite being wood, mass timber gets a strong rating for fire safety, Griffin said. A fire typically chars the outside of the wood before eventually dying out, he said.

The buildings also have tested well for withstanding earthquakes, said Peter Dusicka, a professor at Portland State's Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering.

However, wood isn't the sole material used in the building frame.

The New Land building, like the T3 Building, will have a concrete base on its first floor, Korb said.

And its exterior walls will be concrete with steel studs, masonry and lots of glass — featuring windows that automatically tint depending on how much sunlight is present.

But the building's interior walls, columns, beams and floors will use mass timber, Korb said.

Meanwhile, Gokhman is confident that New Land will get enough additional tenants to commit to the building so the project can obtain financing.

Word of mouth has already generated a lot of interest, he said.

 "People are so excited about the concept," Gokhman said. 

Tom Daykin can be emailed at and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.