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Proposed Chicago office building would be 6-story all-wood tower [Chicago Tribune :: BC-REAL-WOOD-OFFICE-BUILDING:TB]

CHICAGO - A former lumberyard on Chicago's North Side could soon become home to a type of construction not seen in Chicago since the 1800s: a wood-structured office building.

Real estate developer Hines said it plans to build a six-story, 270,000-square-foot office building that would become the largest mass timber structure built in the United States in the modern construction era.

The city known for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 may seem like an unexpected location for an all-wood building, but the project continues a recent trend of similar projects in North America.

Improved technology and manufacturing methods allow developers to work with large, densely engineered pieces of mass timber that are fire-resistant and can be quickly pieced together to form an entire building. The building process is much faster and more environmentally friendly than traditional steel-and-concrete construction, Hines said.

"I think it's something we're definitely going to see a lot more of in Chicago," said Chicago-based architect Todd Snapp, a principal at Perkins & Will who is part of a team working to design wood skyscrapers for future generations.

Houston-based Hines is known more for building glass-and-steel towers in large cities, including high-end office towers along the Chicago River.

Last year Hines completed a seven-story, 220,000-square foot T3 building - which stands for timber, technology and transit - in Minneapolis. The building is fully leased to tenants, including Amazon.com.

Hines also plans a mass timber office building in Atlanta, and the firm wants to develop similar buildings throughout the country, said Hines senior managing director Steve Luthman, who oversaw the Minneapolis project. Timber buildings are outfitted with an exterior of Coreten steel.

The Chicago project comes after the city recently made major zoning changes in a former industrial corridor near the river, which is expected to launch a wave of big, multiuse developments just north of downtown.

"We're reacting to demand in the market for unique, authentic office environments," said Brian Atkinson, a Hines managing director. "Timber has an appearance, texture and smell - a warmth to it that you don't get with concrete and steel.

"Goose Island is a natural location, given the zoning changes in the corridor there. This building wants to be in a gritty, more industrialized neighborhood."

T3 Goose Island will have ground-floor retail, 275 parking spaces, bike storage, a fitness center with locker rooms, a rooftop deck and tenant balconies on each floor. Hines plans to begin construction after pre-leasing some space. If there's more demand from smaller tenants, the design could be changed to two thinner, connected towers on the site, Atkinson said.

Construction will take about a year, which is several months faster than traditional construction would take, according to Hines.

As the legacy of the 1871 fire that ravaged the city, many types of wood construction are prohibited in a downtown fire district. But because T3 Goose Island would be an office building less than 80 feet tall, and is made of mass timber, Hines' use is allowed, according to the city's building code.

"People think about wood and the natural question is about fire," Luthman said. "But with mass timber, if there was a fire the wood would char rather than burn. There's been a lot of research done, and it's as safe or safer than building with steel and concrete."

Snapp, the architect, is working on a model of an 80-story wood tower called the River Beech Tower that would hypothetically be built along the Chicago River. Snapp's efforts are part of a collaboration with the University of Cambridge in England and Chicago-based structural engineers at Thornton Tomasetti.

While the viability of wood high-rises is being studied, smaller structures - previously more common in Europe - have begun making their way to North America in recent years. That includes Hines' project in Minneapolis, a 12-story mixed-use building in Portland, Ore., and an 18-story student housing building at the University of British Columbia.

Adaptation of the building process by Hines, a firm associated with gleaming trophy towers, "is good validation that it makes sense," Snapp said.

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