Developer Sterling Bay is about to begin construction on Chicago’s first log building, a nine-story apartment tower in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. If approved by city council, the $50 million development could kick-start the widespread use of the modern technique, already popular in other cities, which developers say is more environmentally friendly than concrete or steel and provides residents with a warmer ambience.
Company officials said they hope to break ground early next year at 2100 N. Southport Ave., several blocks north of the planned $6 billion Lincoln Yards development in Sterling Bay, and in the next 24 months up to 135 new rental units.
“This is something I have long aspired to do,” said Andy Gloor, CEO of Sterling Bay. “I hope this project leads to more log buildings across Chicago.”
Chicago will have to catch up with the other cities. The Great Fire of 1871 left lingering concerns about timber buildings, and strict local code discouraged mass timber construction, although such structures began to dot the skylines of cities across Europe and America. North, 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 an overhaul of Chicago’s code began to take effect in 2020, bringing it more in line with international standards and raising hopes among advocates that local developers could finally begin mass timber construction.
It would mean another weapon in the fight against climate change, according to Megan Zack, director of sustainability at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, which designed the log apartments offered by Sterling Bay. The production of steel and concrete emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide, but timber framing removes carbon from the atmosphere, a big selling point for environmentally conscious residents and office users.
“Wood is also a much lighter material, which reduces the amount of concrete we use for the foundation,” Zack added.
The technique is very different from using 2 by 4s to build wooden frames. Solid wood builders glue sections of wood together, forming thick precast beams, posts and panels, usually left exposed, giving interiors the look and feel of older loft-style buildings, and complemented by openings for plumbing, electrical and other building systems.
And while some people may be concerned about the safety of wooden 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 solid wood structures. hold up as well as or better than concrete or steel buildings, even under extreme conditions. Researchers found that solid wood surfaces charred, but the wood itself and the adhesives that held it together did not burn, allowing buildings to retain their structural integrity.
Other developers have also drawn up plans for log buildings in the Chicago area and will be watching Sterling Bay’s progress closely as it strives to gain full city approval. Houston-based Hines, best known locally as a developer of award-winning 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 the Chicago’s Goose Island, and later a seven-story building on Oak Brook Commons, its $500 million redevelopment of the former McDonald’s Plaza in Oak Brook.
The company isn’t ready to innovate either, but last year it brought in a brokerage team from Stream Realty Partners to scout potential Goose Island tenants and fielded inquiries from several companies about its proposal. of Oak Brook, according to Brian Atkinson, managing director of Chicago-based Hines.
“We are very actively looking for anchor tenants,” Atkinson said.
Research has accelerated following the outbreak of COVID-19, as more businesses look for ways to entice workers back to the office, and are now looking to mass timber structures as a possible way to stand out, offering spaces with all the amenities of new buildings, but with the added bonus of comfortable wood surfaces, Atkinson added.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the interest we’ve had from some very recognizable brands, including Fortune 500 companies,” he said.
Hines completed T3 Minneapolis, a seven-story, 221,000-square-foot log office building in that city’s North Loop neighborhood in 2016, and T3 West Midtown Atlanta, another seven-story log building. , in 2019. Both were hits with major tech companies. , 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 hardwood office developments planned or under construction across North America, including two in Toronto and one in Vancouver, as well as seven more overseas.
“Next year around this time we’ll have two or three more 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 big market for new timber residences, in part because rehabilitators have spent decades salvaging and renovating all the old timber buildings that they could find at River North, Fulton Market and other old industrial buildings. districts, drying up this source of units. And if tenants still want the high ceilings, large 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 might call it a conventional apartment building, but the feel will be more like a loft,” he said.
Residents of other cities fill massive wooden buildings. Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture also designed the recently completed INTRO Cleveland, a nine-story, 297-unit log residential building in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, which is now 90% leased and 70% occupied, according to Paul Alessandro, an HPA partner.
Wooden 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,” the Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s promise to plant 75,000 trees shows the city is also proud of its green reputation. And local developers could jump at the chance to create more sustainable buildings, if it remains profitable.
“I believe we’re going to see more and taller wood buildings in Chicago,” he said.
Solid wood still costs a little more than traditional materials, but prefabricated components can be assembled faster, reducing construction times and overall costs, according to Alessandro.
The key for Sterling Bay was getting the go-ahead to build nine floors, he added. Initial guidelines for log buildings in Chicago would have limited office buildings to six stories and apartment buildings to five, no more than 85 feet, too small to generate the returns needed at Sterling Bay to justify construction.
But the developer’s team presented its proposal to the Chicago Buildings Department’s Standards and Testing Committee, which approved the company’s nine-story, 116-foot plan in early June, Alessandro said.
A Department of Buildings spokesperson did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The Sterling Bay project is not done. The developer still needs to get a rezoning for the property and final approval from city council before proceeding. Neighborhood activists may 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 log 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 timber. He has another residential building and an office project, already in the planning stages, but will not disclose possible locations.
“We would like to do more,” he said. “I hope this is the first in a long series.”