Wherever the eye lands in one of newest mass timber buildings, from the floor to the ceiling, it sees wood. Wood floors. Wood beams. Even wood ceilings, as is the case at the new Ascent apartment tower on Kilbourn Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.
Relying heavily on wood for construction isn’t anything new, after all it was how buildings were constructed for centuries. But as technology improved and new building materials were invented, how buildings were constructed also changed.
However, as people rediscover the charm of exposed wood in renovated century-old buildings in Milwaukee, and across the country, new construction is also incorporating the look.
For Ann Pieper Eisenbrown, owner of Pieper Properties, primarily using wood to construct Milwaukee’s first mass timber project, Timber Lofts, was about more than aesthetics; it was about sustainability and cutting down on construction timelines.
Mass timber differs from traditional lumber construction in that it uses large pieces of timber to make large pieces for the project, such as columns, beams and floors.
Not that long ago, Pieper Eisenbrown and others wouldn’t have been allowed to erect mass timber high-rises. However, changes in the U.S. building code have allowed for such construction to happen. While mass timber construction isn’t anything new, it does present some complicating factors for insurance.
Pieper Eisenbrown said she didn’t run into any issues with getting Timber Lofts insured after taking its insurability into consideration throughout the planning and construction process. But that isn’t always the case for builders of mass timber projects, and the WoodWorks - Wood Products Council recognizes that some insurance companies are cautious about providing insurance for mass timber construction. As such, it has prepared a paper to help guide developers and owners who need insurance for their mass timber projects.
Two types of insurance are taken into consideration when discussing mass timber buildings: builder’s risk insurance for during construction and property insurance for when the building is finished and occupied.
“Relative risks are assessed differently for each, and each requires a unique approach,” according to WoodWorks. “… Construction-phase risks associated with fire are different in mass timber buildings than with most other framing systems. Since the timber elements have inherent fire-resistance capabilities, a building can have a certain level of passive fire resistance after the frame is erected. Protection doesn’t rely on (and wait for installation of) materials such as spray-applied fire proofing. The potential for faster construction can also mitigate several risks. Less time under construction means less time for potential hazards such as theft, arson, etc.”
For property insurance, factors such as moisture, durability and building enclosure detailing must all be taken into consideration, according to WoodWorks, and are usually site-specific.
Jamie Vanderveldt, a commercial insurance consultant with R&R Insurance Services in Pewaukee, said with mass timber projects remaining uncommon in the area, they have worked more with frame habitational construction for apartment buildings and the corresponding builders risk processes for those projects that have values up to $100 million.
“The difficulty in insuring a mass timber project is many insurance companies are not experienced with this type of construction and don’t have the capacity for this much risk on one project,” Vanderveldt said. “Finding the right carrier that is willing to take on the risk would be the most difficult part of the project. Especially in today’s marketplace, where carriers’ rates are increasing, construction inflation is high driving the total insured value of the project much higher than even one or two years ago. Some aspects of a mass timber project that would need to be taken into consideration when discussing insurability are if the product is up to code and the experience of the general contractor.
“Mass timber uses panels, and if there is a weak or damaged panel, it can cause collapse or water damage issues to the structure,” Vanderveldt said. “Another concern would be choosing an experienced general contractor with this specific experience. Because the general contractor is in charge of the whole site, the insurance companies would look for site security, heat and motion monitoring with alarms, fencing, etcetera to keep the general public off the site. Site plans, construction schedules and more are always important to any project.”
However, while one might think the cost of insuring a mass timber project would be more than a building that relies heavily on steel or concrete, in fact they are less expensive to insure. Vanderveldt said the rates for mass timber generally are about 20% to 30% less than a traditional frame project because of the quality of construction materials that have a better fire rating.
Pieper Eisenbrown doesn’t have any more mass timber projects planned but does have advice for others who do when it comes to insurance: Start early with the insurance process and review the construction methods with the carriers.
Having opened in 2020, the 60-unit Timber Lofts on Florida Street in Walker’s Point was followed by Milwaukee-based New Land Enterprises’ Ascent, a 25-story apartment building that is the world’s tallest hybrid timber structure. Its 19 apartment floors are on top of a six-story concrete podium.
Joining the mass timber construction portfolio in Milwaukee would be the Edison, which is a planned 16-story apartment building along the Milwaukee River downtown, northeast of State and Edison streets.