Think Wood: What inspired you to take on such an ambitious project—the tallest timber tower in the world to date?
Tim Gokhman: Innovation has always been a focus for New Land. We have a pioneering history and a higher tolerance for risk because that’s something we’ve always done—whether it be taking a risk geographically, such as building in a less desirable, up-and-coming neighborhood, or being one of the first firms to use radiant hydronic floors in some of our multifamily projects.
When I saw the renderings for River Beech Tower—a conceptual tall timber design by Perkins&Will and Thornton Tomasetti—it was a revelation that not only was it possible to build a highrise with wood, you could also expose that structure inside, making the visual experience for the occupant incomparable. Our strong experience in multifamily development and ability to put together a team of proven mass timber experts gave us the confidence to move forward with the project.
TW: How did you know the project would pencil out?
TG: When it came to penciling it out, we treated Ascent more or less like any conventional development project. If we were able to realize additional benefits through mass timber, we saw that as a bonus. In fact, the primary driver for this project wasn’t speed of construction, environmental benefits, or carbon savings—although we will realize all of those advantages. The initial motivation was the feeling you get when you walk into a mass timber building. A few years ago I didn’t know the term biophilia, and now it’s become a central tenet of this project. While we don’t yet have enough data on tall wood, and I can’t yet quantify that benefit entirely—whether through leasing rates or ROI—intuitively you can see the added value and differentiator is there for this project. We expect it to continue to pay off.
TW: What was one of the biggest challenges in this project?
TG: While there was a lot to figure out in terms of the design and a fair bit of troubleshooting for some of the timber engineering solutions, by far our biggest challenge was insurance. Tall mass timber is a relatively new building type, so there just aren’t a lot of data points, which of course makes an insurance underwriter’s job very tough. There’s no precedent. When you’re pioneering a project like this, you’re working with a smaller pool of potential insurers, but in the end, we made it work. I think that over time, as more and more of these types of tall timber projects are completed, it will get easier and cheaper.
TW: What do you see as some of the most significant benefits of using mass timber?
TG: We were able to erect the building faster with mass timber and through the use of BIM and just-in-time deliveries than we would have been able to do using other materials. The amazing thing about mass timber is that you’re not really giving anything up. I often compare it to Tesla—as a car company, they didn’t have to convince you to give something up in order to do something that’s right for the environment because it wasn’t at the expense of aesthetics or performance. Similarly, mass timber checks all the boxes: it’s faster and more precise; it’s light-weight and easy to work with; it’s beautiful; it’s sustainable; and it delivers a superior experience across all categories. When you are looking to shift the paradigm like mass timber is, whether it’s fair or not, that’s the bar you have to set. You have to be as good, or better, than conventional construction.
TW: Do you see more tall timber projects in the future for New Land Enterprises?
TG: Absolutely—that’s the goal. We have just a few months left of work on Ascent, but already the team is taking in the lessons learned and contemplating where we might build the next one. We’ve invested a lot of time and R&D into this project, and we definitely see this as a model and case study to repeat. With our experience on Ascent, we will be able to streamline the process and realize even more of the benefits of tall mass timber construction on future projects.