A downtown Milwaukee high-rise has found support from an unlikely source: the United States Department of Agriculture.

The department’s Forestry Service division announced this week that it had awarded 41 grants totaling $8.9 million to businesses, universities, non-profits and tribal partners in 20 states to “create jobs, support fire-safe communities, restore healthy forest conditions, and spur environmentally sound innovation.”

The only Wisconsin winner was New Land Enterprises, which is proposing to build the Ascent apartment tower, the tallest mass timber building in North America, at 700 E. Kilbourn Ave.

In an interview, New Land director Tim Gokhman called the award a big honor. The funds will be used to support engineering work on the proposed 21-story, 201-unit apartment building. New Land is partnering with Korb + Associates Architects on the building’s design and New York-based Thornton Tomasetti on the building’s structural engineering.

The firm has engaged Catalyst Construction on pre-construction planning. Gokhman told Urban Milwaukee the firm is also working with the Portland office of general contractor Swinerton. The Pacific Northwest, led by Vancouver and Portland, is home to a number of mass timber buildings.

“There is a steep learning curve with the material,” said Gokhman. Mass timber is an engineered product made by combining layers of lumber into a stronger material. The material is capable of building much taller buildings than conventional wood construction methods because it only chars (rather than burning through) in a fire and offers enhanced strength.

“It is unquestionably a technology that will be used more than it is today,” said Gokhman. His firm is also proposing a seven-story mass timber office building on the Milwaukee River. The timber structures can provide both aesthetic and environmental benefits, including exposed wood interiors, shortened construction times and less impact on the environment.

Should it proceed on schedule, construction would take 17 months according to Gokhman. He said the firm will begin the financing process shortly. The building could open as early as 2021.

Gokhman declined to identify the size of the grant. The average size of the 41 grants would be about $217,000.

“Public–private partnerships supported by investments in wood innovations are key to managing wildfire risk and supporting health forests,” said Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen in a statement. “By advancing new solutions, we are making our forests and rural communities healthier and more resilient.”

The Forest Service received 140 grant applications.

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Construction on the new education facility at the Snow Family Outdoor Fitness and Wellness Center reached a milestone May 8 in a gathering to celebrate the near-completion of timber installation on an innovative project covering 16,500 square feet.

In lieu of a traditional “topping off” ceremony, general contractor Sherman Construction welcomed key stakeholders from Clemson University, architect Cooper Carry and various project partners for a luncheon at the construction site adjacent to Lake Hartwell.

“This is a milestone, but we have a long way to go,” said Andy Sherman, president of the construction company bearing his family name. “You’ll begin seeing all the parts and pieces really coming together on this property over the next few months.”

Targeted to open later this fall, the new Outdoor Education Center will serve as home to Clemson’s Outdoor Recreation and Education (CORE) program. The facility will consist of two multi-use classroom spaces, a resource center for trip planning, equipment rentals, a boathouse, lakefront patio and second-level deck that overlooks Hartwell.

It joins the recently completed Champions Field — a 140,000 square foot synthetic turf space for Campus Recreation’s intramural sports program — on the property. The field has already seen more than 800 students participating on it this spring.

“This is a crown jewel on our university campus,” said Associate Vice President for Student Affairs George Smith. “As we looked at developing the site, we started with a vision of creating a national model for recreation and leisure space. We had the commitment to do it. We walked the site with donors who shared that commitment. It’s been reflected in how our students are starting to use the fields, and will soon utilize this outdoor recreation center. Thank you to everyone for helping us design and build this incredible facility.”

A key collaborator in the project has been the Wood Utilization and Design Institute. Its director, Pat Layton, was emotional as she introduced Clemson graduate Graham Montgomery, whose creative inquiry was responsible for helping develop the idea of using southern yellow pine, cross-laminated timber (CLT) ultimately used in the building’s design.

As attendees arrived, they were asked to sign the CLT within the facility’s elevator shaft, a tradition typically reserved for the final beam erected in a construction project. Layton chose to add a note next to her signature reading “Dreams Come True.”

“I remember seeing the first sketches from Cooper Carry and how amazing it was,” she said. “I consider this Clemson’s finest front porch. I know Thomas Green Clemson would love to sit here and look back at his legacy and know that we’re still continuing as a university to develop and grow our economy and use our natural resources for the benefits of our state and nation. That was his vision, and that’s what he gave to us. This is the first building manufactured from southern yellow pine CLT east of the Mississippi River. It will be a place visited by millions in the years to come. It really is a dream come true to see this magnificent building come to fruition.”

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