Great Chicago Fire slowed interest in wood buildings, but city's first mass timber tower could soon take shape

·7 min read

CHICAGO — Developer Sterling Bay is set to begin construction of Chicago’s first mass timber building, a nine-story, apartment tower in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. If approved by City Council, the $50 million development may kick off widespread use of the modern technique, already popular in other cities, which boosters claim is more environmentally friendly than concrete or steel and provides residents with a warmer ambience.

Company officials said they hope to break ground by 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 debut up to 135 new rental units.

“This is something I’ve long aspired to do,” Sterling Bay CEO Andy Gloor said. “Hopefully, this project will lead to other mass timber buildings throughout Chicago.”

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

But an overhaul of Chicago’s code began taking effect in 2020, bringing it more in line with international standards and raising hopes among advocates that local developers can finally start mass timber 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 mass timber apartments. Producing steel and concrete emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide, but timber-based frames remove carbon from the atmosphere, an important selling point for environmentally conscious residents and office users.

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

The technique is much different from using 2-by-4s to construct wood frames. Mass timber builders glue wood sections together, forming thick prefabricated beams, posts and panels, usually left exposed, giving interiors the look and feel of older, loft-style buildings, and complete with openings for plumbing, electrical and other building systems.

And although some people may worry about the safety of wood-based skyscrapers, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with scientists from the U.S. Forest Service, conducted a series of fire tests in 2017, and found mass timber structures hold up as well or better than concrete or steel buildings even under extreme conditions. Researchers found mass timber surfaces would char, but the wood itself, and adhesives holding it all together, didn’t burn, allowing buildings to maintain structural integrity.

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

The company isn’t ready to break ground on either, but last year did bring aboard a brokerage team from Stream Realty Partners to hunt for potential Goose Island tenants and has fielded inquiries from several corporations about its Oak Brook proposal, according to Brian Atkinson, Hines’ Chicago-based managing director.

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

The search accelerated after COVID-19 appeared, as more companies look for ways to entice workers back to the office, and now consider mass timber structures as a possible way to set themselves apart, providing spaces with all the amenities of new buildings, but with the added bonus of comfortable wood surfaces, added Atkinson.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the depth of interest we’ve had from very recognizable brands, including Fortune 500 companies,” he said.

Hines finished T3 Minneapolis, a 221,000-square foot, seven-story mass timber office building in that city’s North Loop neighborhood in 2016, and Atlanta’s T3 West Midtown, another seven-story timber building, in 2019. Both were hits with big tech firms, with Facebook signing on as a major tenant in Atlanta, and Amazon establishing 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 mass timber office developments either planned or under construction across North America, including two in Toronto and one in Vancouver, as well as seven others overseas.

“Next year at this time, we’ll have another two or three completed,” Atkinson said.

Sterling Bay hopes to have similar success with apartment dwellers. Ray Hartshorne, co-founder of Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, said there is a big market for new wood-based residences, partly because rehabbers spent decades snapping up and renovating every old timber building they could find in River North, Fulton Market and other former industrial neighborhoods, drying up that source of units. And if renters still want the tall ceilings, big windows and exposed wood often provided by century-old timber structures, 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 up mass timber buildings. Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture also designed the just completed INTRO Cleveland, a nine-story, 297-unit mass timber residential building in Cleveland’s Ohio City’s neighborhood, which is now 90% leased and 70% occupied, according to Paul Alessandro, an HPA partner.

Timber buildings are most popular in areas committed to sustainable architecture, including West Coast cities and Scandinavia, he said, but recent initiatives such as “Our Roots Chicago,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s promise to plant 75,000 trees, shows the city also takes pride in its green reputation. And local developers could jump at the chance to create more sustainable buildings, if it remains cost effective.

“I do believe we are going to see more, and taller, timber buildings in Chicago,” he said.

Mass timber still costs slightly more than traditional materials, but the prefabricated components can be assembled faster, cutting construction 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 mass timber buildings in Chicago would have limited office buildings to six stories, and apartment buildings to five, neither more than 85 feet, too small to generate the returns needed by Sterling Bay to justify construction.

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

A spokesperson for the Department of Buildings did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Sterling Bay’s project isn’t a done deal. The developer still needs to secure a zoning change for the property and final approval from City Council before breaking ground. Neighborhood activists can also oppose apartment developments on this scale. But the company already has the approval of the local alderman.

“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 know that this groundbreaking new mass-timber development will be constructed right here in Lincoln Park,” Alderman Brian Hopkins said in a statement.

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

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

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