The Great Fire slowed interest in wooden buildings, but Chicago's first solid-wood tower could soon take shape

Developer Sterling Bay is set to break ground on Chicago’s first solid wood building, a nine-story apartment tower in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. If approved by the City Council, the $50 million development could initiate widespread use of modern technology, already popular in other citieswhich, according to the promoters, is more ecological than concrete or steel and provides residents with a warmer environment.

Company officials said they expect to break ground early next year at 2100 N. Southport Ave., several blocks north of Sterling Bay’s planned $6 billion Lincoln Yards development, and within another 24 months to break even 135 new rental units.

“This is something I have aspired to for a long time,” said Sterling Bay CEO Andy Gloor. “Hopefully, this project will lead to other solid wood buildings throughout Chicago.”

Chicago will have to catch up with other cities. The Great Fire of 1871 left lingering concerns about wood-based buildings, and a strict local code discouraged massive wood construction even as such structures began to dot the skylines of cities in Europe and North America, including Minneapolis, Atlanta and Milwaukee, where a developer just put the finishing touches on the world’s tallest building using solid wood, a 25-story, 284-foot apartment tower called Ascent.

But a revision of the Chicago code began to take effect in 2020, bringing it more in line with international standards and raising hopes among advocates that local developers can finally start massive wood construction.

That would mean another weapon in the fight against climate change, according to Megan Zack, director of sustainability at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, which designed Sterling Bay’s proposed solid-wood apartments. Steel and concrete production emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, but wood framing removes carbon from the atmosphere, a major selling point for environmentally conscious office residents and users.

“Wood is also a much lighter material, so it reduces the amount of concrete we use for foundations,” Zack added.

The technique is very different from using 2 by 4s to build wood frames. Mass lumber builders join the wood sections together, forming thick prefabricated beams, posts and panels, which are usually left exposed, giving interiors the look and feel of vintage loft-style buildings, and complete with openings for plumbing, electrical and other construction systems.

And while some people may worry about the safety of wooden skyscrapers, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with scientists from the US Forest Service, conducted a series of tests of fire in 2017 and found solid wooden structures. hold up as well or better than concrete or steel buildings, even under extreme conditions. The researchers found that mass wood surfaces would char, but the wood itself and the adhesives that held it together did not burn, allowing the buildings to maintain structural integrity.

Other developers have also hatched plans for massive wooden buildings in the Chicago area and will be watching Sterling Bay’s progress closely as it works to get full approval from the city. Houston-based Hines, best known locally as the developer of trophy office towers like the 835-foot Salesforce Tower, unveiled plans in 2017 for a six-story office development at 1017 W. Division St. on Goose Island. Chicago, and later a seven-story building at Oak Brook Commons, his $500 million redevelopment of the former McDonald’s Plaza in Oak Brook.

The company isn’t ready to start with either, but last year it brought in a brokerage team from Stream Realty Partners to look for potential Goose Island tenants and has fielded inquiries from several corporations about its Oak Brook proposal, according to Brian Atkinson. . CEO of Hines in Chicago.

“We are actively looking for anchor tenants,” Atkinson said.

The search accelerated after COVID-19 hit, as more companies look for ways to entice workers back into the office and are now looking at solid wood structures as a possible way to differentiate themselves, providing spaces with all the amenities of new buildings, but with the added bonus of comfortable wood surfaces, Atkinson added.

“I have been pleasantly surprised by the strong interest we have had from very well-known brands, including Fortune 500 companies,” he said.

Hines completed T3 Minneapolis, a seven-story, 221,000-square-foot massive wood office building in that city’s North Loop neighborhood in 2016, and Atlanta’s T3 West Midtown, another seven-story wood building, in 2019. Both were successful with big tech companies, with Facebook signing on as the lead tenant in Atlanta, and Amazon setting up a hub at T3 Minneapolis, which Hines sold in 2018 to Chicago-based LaSalle Investment Management for $87 million. Hines also has more than a dozen other massive wood office developments planned or under construction in North America, including two in Toronto and one in Vancouver, as well as seven others abroad.

“Next year right now, we’ll have another two or three finished,” Atkinson said.

Sterling Bay hopes to have similar success with apartment dwellers. Ray Hartshorne, co-founder of Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, said there is a huge market for new wooden residences, in part because rehabbers spent decades buying and renovating every old wooden building they could find in River North, Fulton Market and other old industrial buildings. . neighborhoods, drying up that source of units. And if tenants still want the high ceilings, large windows and exposed wood that century-old wooden structures often provide, they’ll need developments like Sterling Bay’s Southport project.

“In terms of size and amenities, you could call this a conventional apartment building, but the feel will be more loft-like,” he said.

Residents of other cities are filling wooden buildings en masse. Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture also designed the recently completed INTRO Cleveland, a 297-unit, nine-story solid wood residential building in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, which is now 90% leased and 70% occupied, according to Paul Alessandro, partner at HPA.

Wood buildings are most popular in areas committed to sustainable architecture, including West Coast cities and Scandinavia, he said, but recent initiatives like “Our Roots Chicago,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pledge plant 75,000 trees, shows that the city also prides itself on its green reputation. And local developers could seize the opportunity to create more sustainable buildings, if it remains profitable.

“I think we’re going to see more and taller wooden buildings in Chicago,” he said.

Mass lumber still costs a bit more than traditional materials, but prefabricated components can be assembled faster, reducing build times and overall costs, according to Alessandro.

The key for Sterling Bay was getting the green light to build nine stories, he added. Initial guidelines for massive wooden buildings in Chicago would have limited office buildings to six stories and apartment buildings to five, no taller than 85 feet, too small to generate the revenue Sterling Bay needs to justify construction.

But the developer’s team submitted its proposal to the Chicago Department of Buildings’ Testing and Standards Committee, which in early June approved the company’s nine-story, 116-foot plan, Alessandro said.

A Department of Buildings spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The Sterling Bay project is not a done deal. The developer still needs to secure a rezoning for the property and final approval from the City Council before beginning construction. Neighborhood activists may also oppose apartment developments on this scale. But the company already has the approval of the local councilor.

“Chicago’s rich history of architectural innovation is one of our city’s most notable contributions to the global community, and it’s very exciting to learn that this innovative new mass-timber development will be built right here in Lincoln Park,” 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins said in a statement.

Gloor said the Southport building will not be the company’s last use of mass lumber. It has another residential building and office project already in the planning stages, but will not disclose possible locations.

“We would love to do more,” he said. “Hopefully, this is the first of many.”

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