175: Wooden Skyscrapers, Listener Feedback, and Jason Korb Interview

Matt and Sean talk about comments from the mailbag (rail guns, and ambient heating), as well as Matt’s full interview with Jason Korb, Principal Architect at Korb + Associates Architects, who design Ascent Milwaukee.  It’s currently the tallest mass timber building in the world, but is building tall wood buildings a good idea?

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, Why Don’t We Build Skyscrapers Out Of Wood? https://youtu.be/1N0tdEc4oTw

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Sean Ferrell: Hey everybody. On today’s episode of Still To Be Determined, Matt and I are gonna be talking about, well, mainly your feedback. We’re also gonna be chatting a little bit with. One, Jason Corb. Jason is the principal architect at Corb and Associates Architects who designed the Ascent building in Milwaukee.

And this is a unique building in the fact that it is mass timber. It’s currently the tallest mass timber building in the world. And I say currently because as Matt has shared in the comments, more are on the way. So yes, mass Timber, its use and its safety features is going to be the subject of a long form interview that Matt did with Jason, and we’ll be going to that in a little bit.

But for right now, we’re starting off with some comments from the mailbag. Basically your comments on previous videos and episodes that we’ve done. Before we get into that, just to remind everybody of who the heck we are. I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer. I write some sci-fi. I write some stuff for kids, including the most recently released the Sinister Secrets of Sge, which is a middle grade adventure book, which is out now available everywhere.

And with me, of course, as usual, is my brother Matt. He’s that Matt. I’ve undecided with Matt Farrell, which takes a look at emerging tech and its impact on our lives. Matt, how are you doing this weekend?

Matt Ferrell: I’m doing great. It’s been a good weekend. How about you?

Sean Ferrell: It’s been a great weekend except for the fact that it’s been about 4000000% humidity.

Here in New York City area, I step outside and immediately Moss begins to grow on my back. The big question is, why is my back always facing North? I can’t explain. That’s

Matt Ferrell: that, that’s it. That’s, that’s the mystery of of, of all of us right now. That’s, Yeah,

Sean Ferrell: so I guess I’m always facing the sun. Just

before we jump into Matt’s discussion with Jason, some comments from our previous episodes like this one from episode 1 73, which was our discussion around First Lights Research. First Light is the company that is developing based on the B F G, the big friendly Gun, which mm-hmm. The adolescent part of my brain always wants to use different words in that acronym.

Yes, but I won’t go into that. The B F G rail gun, which is in concept to fire a, basically a coin shaped object into another object at such a speed that fusion will take place, energy will be released. Everybody will sing, we’ll all enjoy a Coke, and then that’ll be the end of it. But before all that can happen, first light is in the early steps of the research and Matt and I just had a quick conversation cuz I forgot which stage they were on.

They’re at stage three. So there was this comment from Kuck Lug who wrote After First light reaches Machine four. Their plan is to make a 50 megawatt electricity demonstrator and hope to completely financing it by pro producing extra tritium just when it’s at its highest demand and lowest supply.

Mm-hmm. The full size reactor after that I’m recalling, will be like 700 megawatts. Nick, who is part of the team. Matt, you can jump in now and remind me if Nick is in fact one. He’s the founder, one of researches on this. Yes, he’s the founder. Yep. Yes. Nick did a paper where he did a Montecarlo simulation of all the parameters that affect the cost and output of first light machine, so you see the lowest and the highest prices and where the most likely price point of the possible combos cluster.

The lowest price was two $20. Per megawatt hour, which would certainly be fantastic, while the cluster seemed to be from the 40 to $70 range, as I recall. So they have advertised their target as 45 megawatt hours, $45 per megawatt hour that might compete with 50% of the energy market with solar and wind making up the first 50%, getting more expensive with more storage and backup as it goes higher.

Mm-hmm. I think this was really interesting background information. Thank you. Jumping for. Jumping in, Kuck. Clearly you are a person who knows the details of what’s going on, not only with the company, but with the market. Yep. So thank you for jumping in. Matt, I wanted to visit this with you a little bit.

Is everything he’s saying in line with what you were hearing in your discussions and is their ultimate goal, did they basically take a targeted approach to say, we don’t. Necessarily want to guarantee that we’ll be the lowest in the market. We just wanna say we’re gonna be competitive.

Matt Ferrell: That’s what’s funny is every fusion company says something along those lines.

We will be price competitive is usually what they say because obviously it’s really hard to predict. But Nick, like that paper he mentioned, uh, my conversations with him, he basically touched on all those points with me in person about how they’re targeting that $20. But most of the clusters are gonna be on that $40 kind of range.

It, it fits with what he was saying. They’ve got that targeted approach of how they’re gonna overproduce tritium in the beginning because that’s gonna help give them the money they need to build the future demonstrator, plant, all those kind of things. Mm-hmm. They’ve, they’ve figured out how they want these dominoes to fall to be able to fund everything.

It’s part of the reason why they’re getting so much investment from the private, private investors, because they have a very clear roadmap ahead of them. It’s very logical. Very engineering. You can tell he’s an engineer cuz it’s like an physicist. It’s like mm-hmm. Because he’s taken this very logical approach of how everything’s supposed to fall into place.

So yes, it’s, it’s right in line with what I had talked about with

Sean Ferrell: Nick. I’m curious, and I would invite you to talk a little bit, and this is pretty much off the cuff. You’ve read a book about this, so I invite you to jump in now with the vision provided by, Around the concept of disruption. Mm-hmm. And how this perhaps applies to fusion tech and where these companies see themselves going into the market.

If you could give us a quick snapshot of what I mean by disruption and then do you see these companies as taking that model as their way in?

Matt Ferrell: Yes, absolutely. It, it’s not a good analogy cause I’m gonna go from energy generation to consumer technology, but the mo, it’s recent memory for everybody. Mm-hmm.

The iPhone moment. It’s like when the iPhone came out, you had companies like Microsoft and Blackberry saying they’re not just gonna walk in here and take over the phone industry. And Blackberry basically putting blinders on saying, you know that that touchscreen thing doesn’t work. They customers, they want keyboards.

It’s like there was all this kind of like blindness to what was happening. And then you have this person that comes and this company that comes in and basically just turns the everything upside down. And create something that’s a better mousetrap that people actually want to use, that has value to it.

That’s usually what happens in disruption is that the people who are getting disrupted recognize the disruption, but they’re in denial about the disruption. And that’s kind of what’s going to happen with companies like Healon and First Light Fusion and General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

They’re trying to create this whole new approach of generating electricity. Nobody thinks it’s gonna ever happen. Cuz if you look at the comments, nobody thinks fusion’s gonna happen, but at some point it will. And at that point, when it does, it’s like it’s gonna be kind of a reckoning in the e en energy industry because it’s gonna be completely disruptive.

It’s going to anything that’s a natural gas, coal plant or coal plant or anything like that is just gonna be at that point done. It’s just. It’s already, you could already make the argument. It’s kind of done now with renewables, with wind and solar and hydro, cuz that technically can, we do have the know-how now to get off of fossil fuels and there is a disruption happening with renewables and fossil fuel industry.

That’s already happening. But once we have the nuclear fusion industry kind of. Kick into gear, it’s gonna be another disruption at that point. Um, I don’t think it’s gonna overtake renewables in the sense of like, it’s gonna make solar worth worthless to do, but it’s definitely gonna be like the final nail in the coffin for the fossil fuel industry.

And it’s just gonna be, the future of everything will be fusion. Solar, wind, hydro. That’s gonna be what’s gonna be around the world. Or fis like or fission. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fi fission. I don’t wanna mean to leave that out. It is absolutely part of the mix. Yeah. But it’s one of those, even when you take fusion outta the equation, there’s already disruptions happening today with the stuff we have in place today.

Battery energy, storage, all those kind of things. There’s a lot of the market that’s in this blinder. They’re not just gonna walk in here and take over the industry. Well, they already are. And you, you’re either in denial about it or you do recognize it and you’re literally lying to try to make sure that you don’t ha lose investment.

Cause Yeah. You see the writing on the wall, so it, it’s definitely happening. And the fusion industry is the one that’s the, I don’t wanna say the hardest to call out, but it’s because nobody has successfully done it yet. Yeah. Which makes it very easy for people to discount it. But there’s, it’s, it’s gonna be, it’s seriously gonna be like a light switch as soon as somebody does it.

It’s just like, All bets are off. It’s just like at the at at some point it’s going to happen, and when that does happen, it’s just gonna be a holy crap. Everything just goes upside

Sean Ferrell: down. I’ll probably regret giving this away for free, but to whichever fusion company I. Is the first to market billboards that simply say fossil fuel energy.

That’s so last millennium. It’s just, you know, that’s right there for you to take. Also, from our previous episodes from episode 1 74, the was an note from one of our viewers that was about a way to handle insulation and I thought this was clever. They wrote our flat had carpet flooring. When my parents bought it, we all hated it.

So as soon as they could afford it, they changed it. Actually, my dad and a friend, if I recall correctly, to CLO cork flooring. It wasn’t radiant heat, but it certainly was warm and a decent distance away from the radiator. I really liked it. I thought that that was a nice reminder that not all home solutions have to be high tech.

They don’t all have to be cutting edge sometimes, and this. It goes back to something Matt and I say, ad nauseum the right tool for the right job. So if you are hoping to create a more sustainable yeah, you know, lifestyle and you live in an old home, you go with the tool that’s gonna provide you with the right sort of.

Uh, result. I live in a building that was built probably in 1920. It is. We have two floors, one of them being a converted basement, which has a tile floor. Yeah. The tile actually helps keep it very cool. It is pulling like the heat gets like wicked away. Mm-hmm. So in the high heat that we’ve been having here in New York City, our basement.

Tends to feel air conditioned compared to the upstairs. So that’s just a simple like benefit of a tile floor as a, it would be different, I think if we had carpeting covering everything and then all that warmth that would be down here would just be sitting in the room as opposed to be getting wicked away.

Same goes with. This kind of cork flooring, like the simplicity of putting on a cork floor and keeping heat in the room as opposed to wicking away, kept it nice and cozy. So yeah, it’s a good reminder, the right tool for the right job.

Matt Ferrell: The, the flooring we have in our basement, we have a finished basement too, in a 1950s built house.

And it gets very cold down there in the winter. It’s great in the summer, like you just mentioned, but in the winter it gets very, very cold. And when we had the, we had a little bit of a flood, we had to do some work and we replaced the flooring with a fiberglass like laminate that has a backing that’s, I think that’s a quarter inch thick piece of cork.

Just like that. So it’s naturally insulating. And that floor down there in the middle of winter, it’s very comfortable because it’s got that cork backing. And then the bathroom down there, it’s a towel floor, like what you got. And it’s really funny to walk from the floor that’s, that, got the cork backing into the towel floor and it’s just like, suddenly you’re like, Ooh, my feet are freezing.

It’s really cold in here. Right. But on the other floor it’s, it’s very

Sean Ferrell: comfortable. So thank you to our listeners for jumping into the comments. We always appreciate it. Please jump into the comments again, and I would encourage you to remember, and there were some actually comments in our most recent episode, weighing in on how people feel about my planned restructuring of these conversations.

I asked everybody for feedback saying, do you. Think that a wide ranging, going through multiple episodes and revisiting number of topics would be better than our deep dives. And there were a lot of responses that were like, either whatever you guys prefer is what I like or you, yeah, wide ranging sounds like a lot of fun.

And there were a couple of people who said deep dives are better, but we’re gonna be trying to do a nice melding of both. So I encourage people to jump into the comments on not only this episode, but if you’ve watched an older episode, put some comments on those older episodes too, because I am going back and taking a look.

To make sure that we are having conversations that reflect your current thinking. And anything you say about an older episode that might be new information is a nice reminder to us to revisit topics and go back and have a new discussion on those things. So please jump into those comments now onto Matt’s conversation with Jason Cob Once again, Jason Cob, the principal architect at Corbin Associate Architects and the responsible party behind the engineered wood building.

In Milwaukee, that is now one of the first signs that we have a new building material coming into our city Constructions.

Matt Ferrell: Hi Jason. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Oh, good afternoon. Thank you. Yeah. So I just wanna ask you before we get into the conversation where I wanna talk to you about the Ascent building you designed and using wood and large scale construction like that.

I’d, I’d like to learn a little bit more about you specifically. Cause I know you’ve been designing buildings like this for decades now. Could you kind of give me a little bit of your background?

Jason Korb: Sure. Uh, very briefly. Uh, I am, uh, my name is Jason Cor. I’m an architect in. Milwaukee, Wisconsin Co-founded an architecture practice in 2006 with a partner.

Bought that partner out in 2015 and started working with current Mass Timber client in 2017 and started exploring Mass Timber with them in 2018.

Matt Ferrell: And so was Ascent the first timber building that you’ve

Jason Korb: designed? It’s the first building that, its primary structural system is mass timber. Uh, we’ve worked on other timber buildings in the past, but.

Typically, historically, those heavy timber elements have been roof structures for specialty buildings, churches, academic buildings, et cetera. So what was

Matt Ferrell: the impetus behind designing Ascent primarily as a timber building?

Jason Korb: So we had been chatting back and forth with our client in 2017 about the potential of building, uh, mid-rise and high-rise residential buildings out of mass timber.

And initially they were interested in it as an aesthetic differentiator. So the way that it came together was they were seeing that differentiator in the developers of father and son team within a week of, of each other, independently. They came together on the idea of pursuing a timber building on a property that they had owned for about 12 to 15 years.

They had gotten. Prior to the Great Recession, a 19 story residential high-rise approved on that site. The project was put on hold in 2009, as were many projects, and during 20 17, 20 18, as they became more acquainted with the idea that you could build mid-rise and high-rise buildings primarily out of timber, they directed us to sort of take a look at it.

That was in March of 2018. Again, primarily. They were initially interested in the material as an aesthetic differentiator, right. In a fairly crowded multifamily market.

Matt Ferrell: Right. So it was mainly aesthetic. Which leads me to a question of the structural question around it. Is there a significant difference between using, are you, were you using clt, which is, was it cross laminated to temper?

Was that what was used?

Jason Korb: That was one of the timber components used. So the timber components in Ascent and in most of these types of buildings basically come in two flavors. And you’ve mentioned the first one, which is cross laminated timber, and that is exactly what it sounds like. Layers of dimensional lumber laminated on top of each other, perpendicularly.

So they develop strength in two directions. Those are used primarily for floor assemblies, but can also be used for walls. The other timber components that we see are used for, uh, columns and beam, and they are glue laminated timber. And those are typically timber sections that are laminated together in one direction.

And again, those are primarily columns and beans. Mm-hmm.

Matt Ferrell: Are there any advantages to using wood in a construction like this over Coto concrete or steel?

Jason Korb: So, uh, there are, as I mentioned, you know, our, our client’s initial desire to investigate this material was aesthetic, but as they really dug into it, they became as, as did we, we already sort of knew it, but they became increasingly aware of its environmental benefits.

And so the single biggest benefit for a developer that is interested in sustainable development is the carbon capture of timber. That is, these assemblies are made from trees that are not old growth forests, but they replicate the behavior of old heavy timber. So here in Milwaukee, they were very, and other Midwest cities, frankly, uh, they were very acquainted with heavy timber buildings, which everybody loves, largely built in the late 19th century.

However, to create heavy timber buildings, you’re harvesting trees that are oftentimes up to 800 years old. To get the wood sections needed for members of that size mass timber recreates, the structural qualities of, of the old heavy timber buildings, however, it’s much more rapidly renewable because as I mentioned, it’s smaller sections of dimensional lumber that are laminated together under pressure.

Mm-hmm. And as such can be regrown very quickly. So there’s a, there’s a carbon capture benefit. And there’s a regeneration benefit. So for instance, at Ascent, which we’re gonna be talking about, our structural engineer estimates that even without planting new trees to replace the ones that are harvested, which, which they do, by the way, the the fiber, the wood fiber in that building will be replaced by natural growth.

In our case, in North American forests. The analysis was done. In approximately 25 minutes. And again, that’s without planting any new trees. And the, the, the folks that supply this timber, you know, for everyone they take, they plant two or three because they own their own forest. It’s in their interest to keep them healthy.

Right. Exactly. It, it’s, it’s a crop. They probably look at it as a crop. It’s a crop. Exactly.

Matt Ferrell: Okay. And one, one of the big questions that always comes up around buildings like this, I’ve also heard this about just homes from European viewers that watch my channel of mm-hmm. I can’t believe Americans still build homes outta wood.

We do brick or concrete and they can’t burn. Mm-hmm. What about the burning concern for a skyscraper? Cuz the, one of the, it’s, it’s horrifying to think of a, a fire in a skyscraper cuz you could get trapped, but Correct. It’s what about how, how, how’s the fire resistance? How, how does this compared to a building out of concrete or steel?


Jason Korb: the codes dictate gear or in Europe, so mass timber behaves very differently than I believe what your, your other viewers and subscribers are talking about. Where, you know, we build homes in this country primarily out of lightweight stick construction, two by fours, two by sixes, members with small cross sections.

The timber sections in mass timber buildings in ascent are up to over 40 inches in in depth. And so basically, imagine you’re camping and you throw a gigantic log on the campfire. Mm-hmm. It doesn’t burn. I mean, it’s there in the morning when you wake up. And so what happens is when you get sections of wood that are that large, unless they’re subjected to, you know, spectacular levels of energy, the outer layer of that wood chars and the char layer prohibits the flow of oxygen into the center of the member.

And the wood basically fire proofs itself, and that’s been proven in test after test. So in our building, because we crossed certain height thresholds, the required fire ratings to match, for instance, the safety factor of a concrete building or a steel building, that that test had to be done by a third party agencies.

Mm-hmm. In our case, the, the test that needed to be done was actually performed by, The Forest Products lab in Madison, Wisconsin, which is, you know, a subsidiary of the Department of Agriculture. So our testing, our independent testing was performed effectively by the United States Federal government.

Other tests as required to prove up the fire safety of the system had already been performed, uh, largely in Oregon and in San Antonio, Texas, for other components of the system. Because the way these buildings get approved is that, The, the code allows a performance based path to approval. So if you can prove your building performs as well in a fire, for instance, as a concrete building or a steel building, the Coto, the building code allows for a path to approval, which is what happened here in Milwaukee.


Matt Ferrell: fascinating that it, the way it burns and chars, it basically protects itself after a certain point. It just can’t burn anymore. That’s something that I was not aware of.

Jason Korb: Well, it it does require that mass, right? Yeah. So right. A two by six stud in a wood building as, as your viewers are talking about, simply doesn’t have the mass.

We have a protective layer, for instance, on our vertical structure at Ascent, it’s four and a half inches thick. It is structurally unnecessary. It exists to protect the part of the member that is structurally necessary. And the way codes work in, in this country anyway, is, uh, it’s a survivability basically factor.

So for instance, if you cross 180 feet in height, your structure has to survive in a fire for three hours, right? And so in a timber building that basically means. That the protective layer, and this has to be proven again through third party testing, has to, you have to prove that the, the part of the member that is not part of that protective layer is still intact after being burned for three hours.

And so, The testing that we were participating in, again performed by the Forest Products Lab, they proved that was correct, and what they found was that the, you know, they’re burning this thing in a chamber for three hours. The exterior of the members at 1200 degrees. But in the center, it’s still 75 degrees.

That’s how well the protective layer works. Wow. Because they embedded, they embedded sensors in the, in the members all the way to the center. So they knew exactly what the temperature was throughout. They knew exactly what it was at all layers of the member. Correct. Oh,

Matt Ferrell: that’s fascinating. Do they have to do, do you do similar testing with concrete or steel buildings, or is that just kind of a known quantity?


Jason Korb: it’s a known quantity. I mean, what, whatever test, the short answer is that testing has been done. Those materials are known quantities. Those, those tests have been done for, you know, many, many decades. Right? So those are, to your point, those are known quantities. So steel requires protection in, in taller buildings.

So, um, steel wor behaves terribly in fires, much worse than wood actually. So when you build tall buildings in steel, there’s synthetic fireproofing that is sprayed on them. They’re wrapped in drywall. So you’re protecting that. It’s the same principle. You’re protecting that structural member with other materials.

Mm-hmm. Um, in concrete, the, the weak point again, is steel. You’re protecting the rebar in that concrete with more concrete. So in timber, you’re protecting the timber with more timber. So all of these systems actually get protected. The methodology is the same, but the path to get there is different. Well, that’s

Matt Ferrell: fascinating.

That’s fascinating. Well, it kind of leans into, one of the reasons I’m doing this video is cuz Mass timber skyscrapers are relatively new. This is kind of a new phenomenon that’s starting to catch on. And right now, I know Ascent currently holds the title for the tallest hybrid timber building. Was that a goal of, of building it?

Did you wanna get the tallest or is that just, it just

Jason Korb: happened to work out that way? It, it happened to work out that way. So when we were directed by Newland, our client. To pursue the feasibility of a timber building, our directive was to pursue a 19 story building. And the reason for that is that that is the height of the building that they had gotten approved prior to the Great recession.

So for instance, from a real estate developer standpoint, they knew that they could get that approved again cuz it had a building of that height had already been approved. And then as the project evolved, Frankly, the economics of the project worked better if they added a few floors. So what happened was they added two floors to help the economics of the, of the project before it was ever even announced, which happened in the fall of 2018.

And during design it again for economic reasons, it it made sense for them to come back to us and say, we want to add two more floors and. The final sort of boost in height happened during the final sort of detailed construction documents where part of the building that we thought was uninhabitable just because we thought it was going to be the ceilings would be too low to occupy, became habitable.

And so a number of program elements, primarily storage, got moved out of the building’s parking structure and into the lower level. And so we went to the developer and said, well, We’ve figured out how to park 35 more cars in the same area. Hmm. Um, and so then they then had a choice to make, they could remove parking or they could add residences.

And so they elected to add two more floors, taking us to 25, which is where we, where we landed. And then what we found was that, frankly, at that point, Yeah, we were within about four feet of the world record, so we changed a roof and we beat it by a few feet. So, but it was never, it was never our goal or the developer’s goal to be the tallest.

It sort of evolved into that and we’re already being passed. We already knew. We knew we would be from day one. Yeah. There’s a building which is a extreme hybrid in Sydney, Australia that’s going to cross 600 feet. Wow. Okay. Well I call that building a kitchen, sink. Building. The vertical structure is steel, so, The cores are concrete and the floors are timber.

So I think, in my opinion, you could barely call that a timber building, but I might be, I

Matt Ferrell: might be biased. I think you might be biased. Look, but I think you’re also, I think you’re also C correct though, so

Jason Korb: it’s still a very cool building by the way.

Matt Ferrell: So, yeah. So when it comes to mass timber for the height, one question I do have, is there a limitation for how tall you could make a building constructing it the way you did?

I think there’s

Jason Korb: technical limitations. I mean, part of part of what got my client excited about mass timber was in. 2017, he saw a case study that was done by Perkins and Will and Thornton Thomasetti architect and structural engineer, respectively. They did a case study. It was never meant to be built. It was a case study called River Beach and it was a theoretical building in Chicago.

And they basically, these two firms did the design and engineering and demonstrated that you could in fact build a timber building up to 80 floors in height. And so, and it’s, it’s a beautiful case study, but. Is it financially feasible? Probably not. So what happens is timber is like any other building material.

The taller you make it, the more robust the structure needs to be to become. So technically speaking, if we were to apply the methodology, we use it ascent. Technically speaking, right now, we could build a mass timber building under the approvals we’ve already received up to 420 feet tall. Whoa. Okay. The, the, but the technical challenges as you start to approach that height become greater and greater and to the point where it probably becomes financially infeasible, right?

That is the columns on the lower level will become so huge that, you know, they’re, they’re eating up, you know, too much of your floor for it to be viable, right? So, I mean, our, our largest columns on our bottom floor in some dimensions are over 41 inches wide. So, Now imagine you’re adding another 10 floors of weight to that.

So Yeah, so

Matt Ferrell: it’s, it’s a practical issue and an economics issue that would just prevent it from getting too tall.

Jason Korb: That’s, we believe that’s correct. Right. And that’s why these hybrid systems are so important. To my kind of joke about the building in Sydney, to build that building, 600 feet tall with timber columns, those columns would’ve been out of control from a size standpoint.

Right, which is why they’re being done in steel.

Matt Ferrell: But even in a hybrid format, you’re still getting some of the benefits you talked about

Jason Korb: earlier of carbon. That is correct. You would still get a significant amount of carbon capture. You also gain, uh, great efficiencies in construction speed because it’s all prefabricated and you know, other benefits.

So there’s carbon capture, there’s speed, there’s carbon emissions during construction, for example. We saved thousands of, of truck trips by concrete mixing trucks to the job site as opposed to a concrete building. Huh. And. Ascent. The timber structure is 19 stories tall. It was delivered by one truck, one truck, and one driver.

Just going back and forth between our project site and the Port of Milwaukee where the timber was staged and it was a flatbed truck. They would load what they needed to load on it for that day, make a few trips back and forth. If it was a, a concrete building on poor day, you know, they would be ha they would have lines of concrete mixing trucks around the block.

Anyone that’s watched a concrete high rise get built has seen this. We learned this after the fact. A fully loaded concrete mixing truck gets three miles to the gallon because it turns out concrete is very heavy. So imagine how many concrete mixing truck trips we didn’t take during construction and the construction was seven months of timber.

So other, other carbon benefits became clear after the fact. It’s

Matt Ferrell: kinda fascinating. It sounds like there’s a lot of. Some of the benefits. It’s kinda like there’s a sweet spot for the size and type of building you’re building cuz then you can really maximize on the, you’re making it faster, less back and forth or less machinery needed to bring things back and forth.

Sure. So it’s like if you can hit that sweet spot, it sounds like economically it absolutely can work.

Jason Korb: It’s interesting, the material, at least in, you know, 2020 or even today in most markets cost more so the cost premium. Is easy to quantify. You know, concrete costs, $35 a square foot, timber costs 40. You add that up across, you know, hundreds of thousands of square feet.

That’s a big number, but there are savings that are a little more difficult to quantify. For instance, a few things. Ascent is built on poor soils, which means that we had to drive steel piles, you know, up to 180 feet into the ground for its foundations. If you’ve ever been near an active pile, driver A, they’re environmentally nasty.

They’re awful to be around. Pile material is huge. Steel pipes filled with concrete because the timber is so much lighter than concrete. We had to drive approximately a hundred fewer piles than we would have if it was a concrete building. We saved a month on schedule because of that. In addition to the cost of the piles, And saving the environmental impact of those piles.

So that’s one example of savings in timber. Another example is if this was a concrete building on the day they were pouring a deck, they would have 30 to 40 workers on the deck in a timber building. We have eight to 10. Wow. Because it’s all prefabricated. And our timber supplier told us ahead of time, if you have more than 10 people on the deck, you will, they’ll just be getting in each other’s way.

And we thought they were crazy. But it turned out they were absolutely correct. So we had eight to 10 people on the deck putting together a 17,000 foot timber floor plate in five and a half days. So it was also almost twice as fast as concrete with a quarter of the crew. So again, the savings can be more difficult to quantify, but they’re there.

Right? Our client estimates at the end of the day, he may be paid a one to 2% premium. But that’s specific to this market, which our structural engineer has said, and he works all over the world, has said this is a cheap concrete town. So in other towns, concrete is more expensive. Maybe the sa, maybe it’s a one to 2% savings, not a one to 2% premium.

Who knows? Right. It’s different everywhere we go. Yeah. It’s gonna be a very

Matt Ferrell: regional thing. Very much so. And speaking of the, hard to quantify, I’ve also been reading about how wood buildings can improve quality of life, because I’ve been reading studies that have shown that you, you’re more relaxed, there’s less stress, it’s better quality of life.

Jason Korb: Ev every, you’re absolutely correct. Every study done, the, the term you’re looking for is biophilia. That is, human beings react well to being in and around natural materials. So, In hospitals, people heal faster in, in educational environments, people learn better if you combine natural materials with natural daylight.

Study after study has proven that. Our example in a sense is that without exception, almost with that, I mean without exception, that I’m aware of every person that we took to visit that building. During construction, when we get them up onto a wood floor, the first thing they do is put their hands on it because people want to touch it and be around it.

Yeah. You know, I’m an architect. I love all, you know, building materials, but nobody has reacted to a steel building or a concrete building that way that I’ve ever seen. And, and what we found, even from an economic standpoint is I’ve met people that, you know, that have moved into this building. I met one couple in particular, they moved here from Georgiou, not to live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but to live in ascent.

That drew them to

Matt Ferrell: the area just to live in this building.

Jason Korb: Well, they were design people by trade, so it was, yeah, a little, you know, they were a bit of an outlier probably. But that was, that was eyeopening

Matt Ferrell: to say the least. That’s. That’s incredible. Are there other benefits, like, like does, does mass timber help with sound insulation?

Does it help absorb sound

Jason Korb: in different space? Mass timber, that’s probably the one place that it’s not as good as concrete because again, okay, it weighs 25% as much as concrete. And so sound is sound Attenuation is developed through mass and so if concrete weighs four times as much as timber, it’s going to do better.

Acoustically, however, And we talk about these things being hybrids, where we land in any of these buildings, timber buildings, office or residential, it’s always a hybrid system. So there’s lightweight, concrete, or gyp, gypsum based concrete toppings that go on top of the timber. Mm-hmm. There’s sound mats, there’s finished floors, and so it’s an assembly that gets built up.

You have to pour a topping on the timber anyways to protect it from fire so that it’s getting its fire protection from a topping either concrete or gypsum based concrete, and that protects it from the top down. And then you add sound mats and finished floors, and you get to the, to the code required soundproofing that you need.

Then the difference between timber and concrete is the assembly and timber is a little more elaborate. Well, another question

Matt Ferrell: that would come up from people that are concerned about the structural integrity is how would this building handle severe weather earthquakes or other kind of harsh environments?

How would it Weather?

Jason Korb: Weather? That’s good question. And timely. I mean, so in our, in our case, our weather, our, our sort of, Lateral resistance or, you know, forces trying to push a building over, which is in many cases more difficult to deal with than gravity. In our case, we’re governed by wind. So high winds can try to push buildings over.

Um, you generate, basically, there’s a number of ways to handle it. You generate that lateral stability through the building cores in any high rise. So at Ascend, for instance, our elevator core is a concrete core that goes all the way up. Our second fire stair core is a concrete core that goes all the way up.

So those forces that are trying to push a building over get translated into that core and then down to the ground again, it’s a hybrid, right? So the timber is handling all of the gravity, but the, the lateral forces or the tipping over forces, if you want it to get technical, are, are handled by concrete now.

Even as recently as two weeks ago, because many of the early approvals in these buildings were done on the West coast, obviously high seismic. There have been tests of timber cores that resist earthquake forces, for instance, very well in timber buildings. Again, because of their lightweight, they do very well in earthquakes and so.

Recently, and this has been, this is the latest round of testing by Pure Timber core, tested against, you know, at least a seven magnitude earthquake. They rock, but they don’t collapse. So they’re, they have flexibility built into them. Right. Because you know, the first timber high rise in the United States that got approved was in Chortling, Oregon, which is a high seismic zone.

And so, Not only did they have to prove up fire and they had to prove up gravity, and they had to prove up everything, they had to prove that the thing would survive an earthquake. Before they received permits and, and they did. And the building I’m referencing was not built. It was permanent but not built.

It was called framework. It passed all of those seismic tests with flying colors. That’s incredible. You may get seasick on the top floor, but that happens

Matt Ferrell: not to be, I would not wanna go through that, but it’s good to know.

Jason Korb: No, but it’s a, it’s a bend don’t break. I mean, steel behaves much the same way. The strength and steel in that kind of event is bend don’t break.

Right. So Right. So

Matt Ferrell: in, in building, ascent is there, cuz it’s the first building of that type that you’ve done, is there, what’s the biggest thing that you learned from the process of designing that building?

Jason Korb: Hmm there. I don’t know if there’s one I could put my finger on. Top three. Top. Well, top number one is because it is new, at least in this country, you know, there have been a few timber high rises built in Europe.

It’s a different permitting process and the engineering is different. But what we found here is the single biggest thing that we needed to do as sort of coalition building that is, Our first presentation of this building that we ever gave within 60 days of being asked to investigate this was to, and I won’t dive into acronyms, but basically the head of the city of Milwaukee building department.

Mm-hmm. Because if we didn’t have buy-in from the leadership in that space, the, the project was probably never gonna advance. And so as luck would have it, this individual at the time, Had a background in forestry and was already acquainted with the technology and he didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no.

And so, you know, he directed his staff to work with us. You know, six months later, the Milwaukee Fire Department got involved. They don’t normally openly involve themselves in the permitting of buildings they did on this one. They became great partners. Both the city and the fire department took a. In their words, a trust but verify position.

That is the path in the building code existed to allow this. Mm-hmm. But the building code is a floor, not a ceiling. So the path to do this exists almost anywhere in America right now. For instance, will the building officials accept it? And so both the city of Milwaukee’s building department and the fire department, they, they went out of their way.

They went to Madison and witnessed the fire test with us. They were on site during construction. Figuring out or watching us figure out how to put the thing together. And they became great partners and I’m, you know, I, I consider them friends now through all of this. And we’ve actually stayed in touch even since the building has been completed.

And, uh, Milwaukee Fire Chief and a few of, uh, his associates and colleagues, uh, deputy Chiefs, they’ve been kind enough to spend their time talking to other fire services around the country. And sort of shared their experiences with Wow, allowing this to, you know, move ahead. Because if the fire department didn’t accept the science, this was never going to happen.

And in the words of our fire chief, they trusted, they looked at the science and they trusted the science. It sounds

Matt Ferrell: like you had a really good relationship and it, it’s also good that they were, they were

Jason Korb: very involved. They were very involved and we were astoundingly lucky that these individuals were all open-minded.

Now, had we failed any of these tests, that would’ve been a different story. But most of the testing required to do this had already been done. Mm-hmm. We had a few new ones that needed to be done. Again, the three hour fire test that was done in Madison and then as certain adhesive tests that was done in San Antonio in 2020.

But other than that, a lot of the, a lot of the homework had already been done by others and we just took advantage of it. So

Matt Ferrell: would you, are you interested in designing and building more buildings like this? Are you,

Jason Korb: we are, and our, our client that, that, you know, developed as scent, they’re not done. They’re looking at doing these in other cities.

They’re looking at breaking their own height record within reason. As I said, the economics will become a wall at some point. Yeah. Because these things have to be financially feasible. But the other, I mean, so, and then the other part of it is if we were to design this building in 2023, it would not be built the way it was built in 2020 because the technology is advancing so fast that.

Things that we had to do to connect thing pieces. For instance, in 2020, the way that those connections can be put together are new connections have been designed and tested since then, that will cost much less money and they will make this technology more widely available. So, as I mentioned, our fire department here in Milwaukee, they, they, for instance, They spoke with their colleagues in the fire service in St.

Louis, Missouri, because we’re trying to do a similar building there, and they, again, they graciously took time to share their experience with the fire service in St. Louis. You know, we’re looking at other states and they, o they, they don’t all have to be tall. I mean, we have one that’s going to break ground in Western Michigan next week that’s six stories tall.

But they saw the, they saw the aesthetics and they saw the environmental benefits. They wanted it for their project. Again, their project is six stories tall. It’s great. Um, less of a heavy code lift, but the benefits are still

Matt Ferrell: there. It, it sounds like since it’s evolving quickly, it’s typical for like mass manufacturing.

It’s like the more that it gets done, the cheaper it becomes, the easier it becomes. Correct. So it’s more of this happens, it’s gonna get easier and easier for more people to do it.

Jason Korb: My, my client, my son client likens it to Tesla. Right. So Tesla’s business model was Yes. The first car they built was insanely expensive.

But every generation that they rolled out became more and more afford affordable as mass adoption took place. And so I think we’re starting to see that in mass Timber, and we’ll see how it evolves. Well, it sounds like you have an

Matt Ferrell: optimistic take on the future of mass timber.

Jason Korb: I, I think so. As, as I said, you know, in Milwaukee anyways, we kept going until somebody said no, and no one said no yet.

So we just keep going.

Matt Ferrell: I’m glad they didn’t say no. Uh, it’s. Yeah, ascent is an absolutely beautiful building. It’s like I hope to get out to Milwaukee to see it in person cuz it’s absolutely gorgeous. That’s great. Thank you. Well that’s all the questions I had for you. Is there anything else that you wanted to bring up about Ascent or the

Jason Korb: process?

Off the top of my head, nothing’s really coming to mind, so. All right. Well I

Matt Ferrell: really appreciate it. Thank you so much for, uh, talking to me. No, it was great. Thanks for your time. I hope

Sean Ferrell: everybody enjoyed that conversation with Jason, and once again, please feel free to jump into the comments. Let us know what you think about what Jason said, and is there any kind of follow up that you’d be interested in hearing about.

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