Discussing the tallest mass timber building in the Western Hemisphere with Tim Gokhman, Director at New Land Enterprises.

On this episode I’m speaking with Tim Gokhman, Director at New Land Enterprises – a boutique, pioneering real estate development firm specializing in mixed-use residential and commercial real estate.

New Land focuses on creating built environments at the neighborhood scale, striving to create memorable spaces, focused on user experience, believing that cities thrive when they're diverse, walkable, and culturally vibrant.

Recent innovations include Black Cat Alley, a defunct alley turned public arts space and Ascent – the tallest mass timber building in the Western Hemisphere.

Tim has also been a featured speaker at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) conference in Dubai, as well as various real estate panels.

Be sure to support this podcast by subscribing and reviewing! Subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Podcast Transcript

Chris Arnold: Welcome back to the Transforming Cities Podcast. Each episode highlights ideas around rethinking the way cities are evolving. We discuss planning, design, technology, development and other fields that contribute to the urban experience.

Tim Gokhman: I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. There was a director at that company who gave me a really interesting piece of advice because I had been there for a short time and he said, "You know, I had worked with my dad for," I want to say it was about two decades and he said, "And he passed away," and he goes, "My biggest regret was that I didn't start working with him sooner, so if you have the type of relationship where you could work with your father and enjoy it," he goes, "go do it. It's the most unique thing in the world."

Chris Arnold: On this episode, I'm speaking with Tim Gokhman, director at New Land Enterprises, a boutique pioneering real estate development firm specializing in mixed use residential and commercial real estate. New Land focuses on creating built environments at the neighborhood scale striving to create memorable spaces focused on user experience believing that cities thrive when they're diverse, walkable, and culturally vibrant.

Chris Arnold: Recent innovations include, Black Cat Alley, a defunct alley turned public art space, and Ascent, the tallest mass timber building in the Western Hemisphere. Tim has also been a featured speaker at The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Conference in Dubai as well as various real estate panels.

Chris Arnold: A few quick notes before today's episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please share this track and others on your social accounts to people you think would be interested. Also, please rate it on iTunes, or other platforms where you listen. This is how we grow and it's much appreciated. This podcast is driven by Authentic Form & Function. We're a design and technology studio working on tools and platforms to improve the urban space. You can find out more online at authenticff.com. And finally, we want to hear from you. Email your feedback and ideas of who else we should speak with to podcasts@authenticff.com.

Chris Arnold: I'm your host, Chris Arnold. Let's jump right in. Tim, thanks so much for joining me today.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, my pleasure, Chris. Thank you.

Chris Arnold: I always like to jump in and start with history, learning a little bit about your childhood and upbringing. You were actually born in Ukraine in what was then the Soviet Union. You ended up coming over here when you were around 10 years old, so that's a lot to dig into. Can you jump in here and tell us a little bit about that origin story?

Tim Gokhman: Sure. Yeah, I was born in the former Soviet Union. When I was 10, my parents decided that they didn't want to live in that environment and we emigrated to the United States through Vienna, and then Italy and I ended up in Milwaukee.

Chris Arnold: Why Milwaukee? What was the impetus to land in the Midwest?

Tim Gokhman: Totally, completely random classic immigrant story. My dad's business partner who he has known and been friends with since first grade had an uncle that emigrated to the United States in the 70s and went to New York like many immigrants did, but was struggling to get his business opened. He was a cobbler. Somebody just randomly said, "You know, Milwaukee is a great place to open up a small business," and so they moved to Milwaukee.

Chris Arnold: Milwaukee is a great place for cobblers apparently!

Tim Gokhman: It is. It is. Like I said, like many other immigrants, you go to where you know someone or where you have family, so my dad's business partner came first and then about three months later we joined. We had no idea where Milwaukee was, what Milwaukee was, and here we are.

Chris Arnold: And so, as a young person coming over and moving to such a different cultural scene, how did that impact you as a young person of just not even a teenager, just 10 years old?

Tim Gokhman: I played a lot of Oregon Trail. I don't know if you remember that.

Chris Arnold: Okay, no, I love Oregon Trail, yeah.

Tim Gokhman: I think that was my cultural immersion experience.

Chris Arnold: There you go.

Tim Gokhman: To this day, I think it gives me a slightly different viewpoint because on the one hand, I feel American. And on the other hand, I have a little bit of an outsider's perspective. So, I think that's always had an impact on the way that I look at built environments and compare them to Europe, not necessarily the Soviet Union. They don't really have good built environments, but Europe as a whole definitely does.

Chris Arnold: And so, your father led the, I guess, led the charge coming over here. Tell us what he did? What was he involved in and how did his profession evolve over those first few decades?

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, so he is by training a civil engineer, so out of school he was on a few construction sites, but had always for various reasons disliked the Soviet system whether it be for discrimination, or economic oppression, pick your favorite. He'd known for a long time that he wanted to leave. When you leave the Soviet Union, especially at that time, there are very strict caps on what you can take with you, so you're limited to two suitcases and I think it was $150 dollars.

Chris Arnold: Oh, wow! That's awful.

Tim Gokhman: That's what you can leave with. You can't take jewelry. You can't take anything significant of value. You get to take the $150 bucks. That's tough, right, no language, $150 bucks, 10 year old kid. But we made it to the United States and he started as a painter painting houses for $4.15 an hour. He did that for a few months and then convinced his best friend, who was at the time working as an engineer, to start their own painting company with, I don't know, four, five, six months experience. That's what they did. They started it just the two of them. They grew that. That was BMW Painting.

Tim Gokhman: And then in '93, they opened up New Land Enterprises and that started with just the purchase of duplexes and fixing those duplexes up, sweat equity, using that to buy another one, and just slowly grew, duplex to a second duplex to a third, and then got into new construction. Small things first and then bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Now, New Land is a pretty serious development company in Milwaukee.

Chris Arnold: Yeah, I love that story. I have to imagine you growing up seeing your father grind and do the sweat equity thing, and entrepreneurship 100% impacted you as you were going through school. Do you look back and feel that way, or was it one of those things where you felt like it's just who he is and who we are and wasn't really a tangible thought like that?

Tim Gokhman: That's a good question. Well when I was young, I couldn't appreciate the ingenuity and the level of risk that he was taking to some degree, but you're 10 or you're 15 and you can only comprehend so much. But even in high school and through college, I would always be involved in the business because he would need a letter written to the city council, or to a lender. I'm in high school doing homework and he's like, "Yeah, I need this later drafted to XYZ." "Okay sure, no problem," so that would get thrown in. In a way it's always been a part of, I guess, our family dynamic.

Chris Arnold: Yeah, no, that's really interesting. And so over time, I know from previous conversations, you actually ended up spending time in a few places around the US. I know you've mentioned to me certainly Milwaukee, Madison, Boston, Detroit. Today, you found yourself back in Milwaukee, so what was that journey like for you over the years?

Tim Gokhman: I went to UW Madison for undergrad. And just before graduating I did a stint with this group called, the Kenneth Leventhal Advisory Group. They were absorbed into Artisan Young. They were a real estate advisory arm. I had an offer to join their group in Boston post graduation and decided that I wanted to work for a smaller company. So, I found this group that did real estate advisory mergers and acquisitions. They were opening up an office in Chicago, but they were headquartered in Detroit, so I got to spend some time in Detroit in South Field. I didn't love it. I didn't enjoy the work. It wasn't creative enough, and I certainly did not enjoy the suburban Detroit experience.

Tim Gokhman: I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. There was a director at that company who gave me a really interesting piece of advice because I had been there for a short time and a lot of people were disappointed that I gave my notice. He said, "You know, I had worked with my dad for," I want to say it was about two decades and he said, "And he passed away." And he goes, "My biggest regret was that I didn't start working with him sooner, so if you have the type of relationship where you could work with your father and enjoy it," he goes, "go do it. It's the most unique thing in the world."

Chris Arnold: Wow! That's really interesting.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah. It was pretty amazing. And so, before that I was considering going to LA. That's where my best friend was at the time. My dad gave me a sales pitch, which he's very good at. But he basically said, "You know, come try Milwaukee. Come try it for a summer. Worst case scenario, you don't like. Pretend like you just graduated again and go get a job."

Chris Arnold: And so, what was your dad's pitch? I have to imagine that was something else. Give us the spiel. What did he come to you with?

Tim Gokhman: It was basically that whatever is making you unhappy right now, you're going to keep being unhappy with because who's going to give you a real chance and what kind of real work are you going to go do working for a larger firm? He goes, "With me, you have the opportunity to come and do crazier things and take out more responsibility and really run your own divisions." My response was at the time, "What am I going to do with your tiny company," and "What am I going to do with Milwaukee, which has no prospects and no growth?" That was the conversation.

Tim Gokhman: I'm very, very close with my parents. I'm an only child. My parents were 20 years old when I was born, so that age gap with little. We have a very, very unique relationship. So, I thought about. Apparently in the background, my mom was putting a lot of pressure on my too basically saying, "Why did we travel halfway across the world to move to this country to raise our kids to watch them move halfway across the country? What's the point?"

Chris Arnold: Yeah, fair enough. I imagined in your contract with your dad you probably said, "And no more late night letter writing that I have to do for you," or something like that.

Tim Gokhman: There was no contract. I did not put that in. I can definitely tell you there is still late night letter writing. He did make me start without salary for the first two weeks.

Chris Arnold: Oh, really?

Tim Gokhman: I mean that's true, right. He said, "You don't know what you're doing, so you need to shadow me for two weeks to figure out at least something." He goes, "So that's your training. That's your unpaid internship," so that was my first two weeks. And then I got to start. The start was crazy. At that time, New Land didn't a property management arm, no property management software, nothing, and we're building this project, which is one of the largest projects, new construction, multi family projects to have them built in the city of Milwaukee. 217 unit, block and a half, almost two block large site that was built in three phases. We're finishing the first phase and I had joined and so I started June 1st. This building was delivered October.

Chris Arnold: Oh, wow!

Tim Gokhman: There is nothing. There is no software. There is no protocols. There is zero. My job was to lease this thing up, so that was my trial by fire start into New Land Enterprises.

Chris Arnold: Some listeners might not be able to imagine working with a parent like you've done and you're doing now. What sealed the deal for you about working with your father? I know he gave you the pitch. I know you came over and moved to Milwaukee together. Was there anything else for you that was that final bonding moment where you said, "Yeah, this is for me. I'm going to do it." I guess part two of that question for me would be, how have you been able to maintain that for the last almost 20 years?

Tim Gokhman: There isn't a singular moment that I can point to and say that was it, that sealed the deal. I think it's always been the overall relationship and trust and that's what continues to, I think, drive our relationship. My dad is a very, very unique individual. He is absolutely brilliant, genius level. He's the trifecta. He is able to plan a building in his head from a structural standpoint, from a design standpoint then he is able to do the pro forma more or less in his head, and he's able to do the sales. Typically, it's very difficult to get an individual that has all of those skill sets in one. At the same time, he is, given that talent, given that vision, he's incredibly humble. He's incredibly caring. And those are, I think, the traits of a true leader.

Tim Gokhman: The amount of trust that he put into me was way more than I deserved at the time. Looking back at it, I definitely made some mistakes that was like, wow, any other company (A) I wouldn't have been given the opportunity in the first place. (B) I probably would have been fired. But that's the way it has been and that's the way it continues to be. To this day, he and I have never had an argument. There have been things that we have disagreed on, but he and I have never, not once had an argument.

Chris Arnold: That seems incredible to me that you've never had an argument with your dad about even a cup of coffee. I mean let alone the business itself.

Tim Gokhman: Yep.

Chris Arnold: I want to jump into something here that's... I want to spend some time on with this podcast because I think it's the meat and potatoes of our conversation today, and that has to do with this idea of a focus on building built environments that have an emphasis on user experiences within a space. And that is, I guess, a step away from or an evolution away from just building apartments, or just building, for lack of a better phrase, boxes for people to live in. You've taken a step towards creating and crafting experience around those buildings and those properties. What ended up taking the company in that direction, and when would you say that shift started to occur?

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, so New Land has always been, and that's part of my dad's talents coming through, we've always been good at floor plan design. Our edge has always been doing things that other people either can't imagine, or don't want to do, or are too afraid to do. So that first building that I talked about, the 217 unit complex is a perfect example. That was the first time that New Land built apartments. Prior to that, the company was building 30 to 40 unit buildings and they were all being done as condos and we were selling them. It's a big jump from a 30 to 40 unit building that you're selling to a 217 unit complex that you are now managing.

Tim Gokhman: The reason why we won that project is because we used a technology called light gauge steel typically used in industrial applications, or sometimes medical, but hadn't ever been used in multi family in Milwaukee. So, doing things differently has always been in our DNA, and we got very good at floor plan design. Our core efficiencies, our usability of floor plans, the quality of materials had always been top-notch.

Tim Gokhman: We were sitting on a site for almost 15 years about having a difficult time figuring out what to do with it. Long story short, we figured out that we could do either really small studios, or micro units. It depends on what terminology you want to use. They're 405 square feet. But a floor plan like that had never been designed in Milwaukee before. It was roughly 30 to 40% more efficient than all the existing floor plans on the market. We were really thrilled about this project.

Tim Gokhman: About three years ago, I got to know this guy named Ian Abston. He's probably not going to like the description, but he's a millennial thought leader. Really, he's a really creative guy who just thinks out of the box on a completely different level. So, we were building this building, the micro units and I wanted to show them to him. I brought him into the building. It was under construction. It was raw. I brought him to the ground floor. He said, "What's going to be here?" I described to him what the lobby was going to be like. "Here is a couch. Here is going to be some art work. Here is going to be the light fixture and people are going to hang out and it's going to be really awesome." He just very calmly said, "I'm sure it's going to look great. No one is going to use it." That really set me back and I said, "Why?"

Chris Arnold: Yeah, that's jaw dropping.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah. I was like, "Why? It's going to be so awesome." He's like, "You haven't given people a reason to use it. You haven't programmed it." He goes, "Why would I... Like, take me through it. Either I'm a resident, or I'm a visitor of a resident, why would I sit in this lobby? What am I doing?" And that really kicked off this path of thinking about user experience and transitioning from just building buildings to actually creating what we call built environments.

Tim Gokhman: We ended completely redesigning that entire, not just lobby, but that entire ground floor. We have a community room. We have a fitness center. We have a lobby. We flipped it all upside down. We got rid of a separate community room. We have shifted more to a hospitality model. If you think about a boutique hotel, when you come in you right away experience something other than a front desk, the good ones.

Chris Arnold: Yeah, yeah.

Tim Gokhman: Right? The exciting ones, the cool ones? So, what they've done is unlike the traditional hotels where you come in and the check in desk is front and center, but that's really the least you need out of that lobby, right? You just keep it at the beginning and you need it at the very end, if at all, when you're checking out. Now, you can just check out on your TV, or your phone, or whatever. The hospitality operators who understand experience have started introducing bars and activities on the ground floor. That's what we did with that building.

Tim Gokhman: So now the benchmark for us is, there are two ways to create an inspiring space, right. One is, you think about a museum maybe, or something grand. You come in and you're walking through it and as you're walking through it you're thinking, "Wow! That's really, really cool," but you keep walking. The other is, you walk in and you want to stop and you want to be in that space. Yeah, it pulls you in and it makes you want to stay. That's what we are now after.

Chris Arnold: And so, did that project for you serve as an awakening of sorts for the lens that you look through for projects moving forward from that project forward?

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, it was definitely one of the pillars. The other cool experience we had, we owned a block of property on the Milwaukee's East Side. Behind it there is an alley that the city of Milwaukee vacated. At least in Milwaukee, when a city vacates an alley it goes to the adjacent property owner, so we own most of it. But it was this derelict alley. It was an alley. Sometimes homeless people would be there. It just wasn't a great place.

Tim Gokhman: I was approached by a professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Tim Decker. Initially, it was just, "Hey, can we clean this up? You know, my kids cut through this. It's not safe. If you guys clean it up we'll do some murals on the walls and it'll kind of just become a better place," and that was interesting and we said yes. For us, it was an easy yes.

Tim Gokhman: He brought in another artist. Her name is Stacey Williams. She travels all over the country and participates in artists festivals as well as helping organize them. They blew it up and so now, that's Black Cat Alley. It's one of the most visited places in the city of Milwaukee. We completely transformed it and made it this public art space. We had an international artist do a mural that's about three stories tall. In Denver, you have, is it the RiNo District?

Chris Arnold: Yep, it's called the RiNo District.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, so it's kind of like that, but it's concentrated in one block and really well programmed. And so, seeing the transformation of that lobby at Rhythm and seeing the way that people interact with art and the way that you can create, I think they call it place making, and affect community, just really, really had an impact on me. And so, those experiences have pivoted us into this new phase.

Chris Arnold: If you remember the subject matter of that large mural, just out of curiosity?

Tim Gokhman: It's a huge frog.

Chris Arnold: It's a huge frog.

Tim Gokhman: It's a huge frog. The guy who did it is French. Stacey who curated the alley, she's like, "I didn't even show you the first thing that he had." I mean, every city has issues. The initial mural that he proposed was apparently very politically and racially charged, and she was like, "Absolutely not." And so, he proposed a frog because, and I didn't know this, apparently the Brits call the French frogs as an insult. And so, he was like, "Ah, okay, fine, I proposed this mural, but you don't like it. What do I know? I'm just a frog."

Chris Arnold: That's funny. I just found this online, so I'm going to share this with our show notes too, so people can pop on and take a look at these murals. There is some really beautiful murals here.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, so they programmed it really well. So, that huge one of the frog, he's an internal artist. There are a couple of large ones that are US artists. One was, I want to say in Atlanta, another one was from LA, but then the rest of them were Wisconsin artists whether they were Milwaukee artist or Wisconsin artists. And then some space was saved for younger artist, so either college or high school.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Tim Gokhman: I thought that was really neat. That was a really cool way to engage the entire community, right, not just the East Side and not just the city of Milwaukee, but also the artist community and bring everyone together. The neat thing is we call our museums public museums. But, (A) they're not truly public because most of the time you have to pay an admission or have a membership to get in, but (B), I have a four year old and for her the ability to touch art is a huge deal, right, for kids. When you go to an art museum it's always, "Don't touch. Don't touch. Don't get too close. Don't touch."

Chris Arnold: Yeah right, exactly.

Tim Gokhman: And here they walk in and she's like, "Can I touch?" And I was like, "Until your heart's content, go nuts."

Chris Arnold: So, this is around this time if I'm connecting my dots correctly here, around the same time that you also found yourself really intrigued with timber, timber as a building material. Again, when I call the part of the podcast the meat and potatoes, this is what I'm really excited to chat with you about because this is a big part of what you're doing at least today, and it sounds like it almost spawned from this awakening moment a few years back, right, where you were looking at projects in such a different way, maybe a little bit more creatively, a little bit more engaging for a user. When it comes to timber, which is a little bit of a pivot, what were your early sources of inspiration for that topic as a whole?

Tim Gokhman: Yep, so a couple of years ago, and I read a lot of architectural websites, et cetera, I came across this case study that was developed by Perkins and Will, a highly regarded architectural firm in Thornton Tomasetti a very highly regarded structural engineering firm. They designed an eight piece story mass timber tower that they situated on a site in Chicago on Chicago's waterfront. It was the most stunning thing I had ever seen in my life. I think you've got the ability to put those images up as well.

Chris Arnold: Yep.

Tim Gokhman: But, I had never seen anything like it. I think most people have never seen anything like it. It literally haunted me. But initially, that was it. I just saw this building. I shared it with everybody I knew. We just marveled at its beauty. The fact that you can build a tall building out of wood, right. That's such a counterintuitive thing. And that was it, and we left it alone for maybe a year, or eight months, something like that. We had the site, which is now the site for Ascent MKE and we were as always looking for a way to differentiate ourselves, not just to build a high rise, but to build something transformational.

Tim Gokhman: I think it was a Friday or a Saturday evening and I had this thought. It just flashed across my mind. I picked up the phone and I called my dad. I said, "You know what we should do at the site of Kilbourn and Van Buren?" He said, "No, what?" I said, "We should do a mass timber building." His response was, "Huh, that's so interesting because I called our architect a week ago and I said, hey, you know what we should do? We should do a mass timber building."

Chris Arnold: No way.

Tim Gokhman: So a week apart from each other, right, eight, nine months later from first seeing this thing a week apart independently, we both came up with the same idea. But he chose not to share it with me, and just called the architect direct. And so, that's how we got on this crazy ride that has been mass timber and have spend the last two years learning about its structural capacities, and fire ratings and design aesthetics. We have traveled to Dubai. We have traveled to Portland. We went out with people who have done it. It's been an interesting journey.

Chris Arnold: So, introduce the project that you just referenced briefly earlier. What is the project called and give us the download?

Tim Gokhman: The project is called Ascent MKE. It is a 21 story mass timber multi family apartment tower. It's what we would call hybrid structure. The first five floors are concrete. Those hold the parking and our swimming pool, our elevated swimming pool. And then the next 16 stories are built out of mass timber. At 21 stories, this would be the tallest timber building in the Western Hemisphere. There is an 18 story that was recently completed in Vancouver, and a 20 story that's under construction. It would be the tallest pure apartment building mass timber in the world.

Chris Arnold: Clearly, speaking not only about the world, but Milwaukee has never seen anything like this before. Is that right?

Tim Gokhman: Correct. There aren't a lot of mass timber buildings in the United States, at least not tall mass timber buildings. So, the interesting thing about mass timber and we can dive into exactly what it means, but for people who live in cities most likely with either big warehouses that head industry, or that are on water, most likely you have a mass timber building in your city. It's a heavy timber building. It's when the big wood beams are exposed and they are the structural members of the building, so your columns, right, the up and down, and your beams, the horizontal, those are typically...

Tim Gokhman: In old buildings, those were made out of single, large trees. That's the old tack, right. And then has been around for 100 plus years. The amazing thing about those buildings, the origin came from ship building. The amazing thing about these heavy timber buildings is that without sprinkling systems they have gone through fires, massive fires, and they have survived. We've got a couple in Milwaukee. That's your first inkling that unlike stick framing, which is just two by four wood construction, mass timber is actually pretty fire resistant and very structurally capable.

Chris Arnold: Let's dig into that a little bit because those are where some of my questions come in too, and it focuses around what I perceive as a pretty big misunderstanding of timber within the industry perhaps, certainly within the public at large, which I would include myself in, but when I think of mass timber I think of number one, beautiful, number two probably some really unique architectural design elements that you could use with it. But then I think, I quickly go to well, but it's wood and what are the issues with fire? What are the issues with durability? Let's jump into that if you don't mind.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: Give us the reasons why because I know you have a lot of great information there that it is so misunderstood.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, and so to your point, right, it's typically the split is the first reaction I had when I saw the 80 story building wasn't about fire safety, it was about the aesthetics. And so, half the people that see this for the first time say, "Holy cow, the aesthetics are astounding." That's what's unique mass timber is that unlike concrete and unlike steel when you build with mass timber you can leave the structure exposed. And so, you are inside of an environment that's natural and that's beautiful. We can also talk about the environmental benefits later. But the other reaction is, "Well, hold on a second. It's wood. Won't it burn down?"

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Tim Gokhman: The answer is, of course, no. It's been tested. It's been built. The heavy timber technology, right, is over 100 years old. Mass timber, which is basically replicating what heavy timber is with smaller pieces of wood came around, I want to say about 30 years ago. In the last 20 years, it has really become prominent in Europe, in Australia, in Canada, and it's starting to spread to the United States. So simple fact, and then we can dive into it, mass timber can outperform steel in fire safety in a tall building.

Chris Arnold: That's a big statement. Talk to me about the degrees of when steel fails versus when mass timber is put up against a fire. When we earlier chatted, you actually threw out some numbers to me, which I found astonishing.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, so steel will fail. I believe it's around 1500 degrees, but under enough heat steel will fail. I think the misconception about wood, and it's called mass timber for a reason, it's big, it's heavy, so you're taking a bunch of pieces of wood, regular pieces of wood and you're laminating, compressing them together to make these big beams. So, if you take a match and you take a lighter to that match, the match will burn in totality, right?

Chris Arnold: Yep.

Tim Gokhman: Even if you take your lighter to a two by four, right, or a tree trunk, it's going to char the outside, but it's not going to go all the way through. And the reason is, if the piece of wood is big enough and dense enough, what will happen is the fire will eat the outside, right, because that's what the fire is doing. To it, wood and oxygen are food sources once it runs out of water. The other, it extinguishes. So, what happens is the fire will eat the outside and that's called the char layer. And after that it will run out of food because there is no oxygen inside, right, it's densely packed. And so, it can self extinguish. Wood doesn't have a failed point under temperature. It can get extremely hot and there is no fail point, so that's where wood can actually be very, very fire resistant.

Tim Gokhman: Again, if you look at these old buildings, you'll see the outside chars, but if you cut a cross section of the beam or of the column, you'll see that the interior is intact. That is one of the ways that mass timbers achieves its fire rating, right, because any building built in the United States has to meet fire code. So, if you're building a high rise, you have to demonstrate that the structure that you're using achieves a certain fire rating meaning exposure to a specific temperature, smoke, et cetera for a specific number of hours depending on the assembly. Concrete has to demonstrate it. Steel has to demonstrate it. Wood has to demonstrate it.

Tim Gokhman: So, we built in to the beams and the columns what we call a sacrificial char layer. It is designed so that the exterior couple of inches can burn and char and then the interior stays intact. Like I said, our building is a hybrid. It's concrete. It has steel connectors. You got to connect the wood pieces somehow, so the incredible thing is that you can't have... You can have exposed wood. You cannot by code have exposed steel. So either you have to bury your steel connectors inside of the wood, so the wood protects the steel, or you have to covered it with a, it's called an intumescent paint. It's a fire resistant, super expensive paint.

Chris Arnold: That's ironic that you would have to cover the steel with the wood in order for it to pass code.

Tim Gokhman: Yep, exactly.

Chris Arnold: Talk to me about how over the last, I think you said 20 to 30 years, mass timber has evolved. What have been the improvements of the production of it, or the system of it to make it to what it is today where it can be brought into these modern building applications?

Tim Gokhman: There have been various, frankly. The spans haven gotten longer. The strengths have gotten better, the way to combine the material. So, there are multiple technologies within mass timber. Typically, the beams and the columns that's glulam. For some in the building industry, it's akin to LVL, which are used typically for headers. They're really, really strong. But your columns and your beams that's typically glulam.

Tim Gokhman: Your floor system can be a variety of technologies. It can be an NLT, which is nail laminated timber. It can be DLT, which is dowel laminated timber, or it can be CLT, which is cross laminated timber. That's probably the most famous one. Basically what you're doing, it's like engineered hardwood floors, you're taking sheets if you will of wood and you're turning them 90 degrees and you're creating this sandwich. So, it can by three ply, or it can by five ply, or it can be seven ply depending on the strength that you need, the span that you need.

Chris Arnold: I'm going to add a few links in our show notes too just about these different laminated techniques for timber. That's really interesting.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah. There is even a technology that I had never seen before that we saw in Portland and that's mass plywood.

Chris Arnold: Mass plywood you said?

Tim Gokhman: Yeah.

Chris Arnold: What does mass plywood look like?

Tim Gokhman: It looks like much thicker plywood. You can build structures out of it. You can build floor systems out of it. You can use it for exterior wall paneling. Wood is extremely good, right. It's not a good conductor, so it actually functions well as an outside wall if you want it to.

Chris Arnold: Okay.

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, I think there are going to be additional applications that we can figure out with mass timber that we haven't even figured out yet. I mean, it's akin to electric cars. It's the same thing.

Chris Arnold: Yeah. What do you mean by that?

Tim Gokhman: I make this comparison a lot. We look at what Tesla has done in the last, what, decade. The electric car isn't new. It was around 100 years ago. It's just that somebody finally figured out how to make the battery more efficient and how to make the car perform. Performance to me is the big thing, right. This goes across the board for mass timber. It's got to perform. It's got to do as well, but really it's got to do better than its counterparts in order to breakthrough into the mass market. That's what electric cars had to do in order to be successful.

Tim Gokhman: Earlier generations of cars typically the sales pitch was, "Well, this is the responsible thing to do, but you're going to have to compromise. Maybe it's going to be the aesthetics. Maybe it's going to be the performance. Maybe it's going to be both and the price. And so, there were very few people who were willing to buy an electric car. And then along comes Tesla and says, "No, no, no. You don't have to compromise anything, vice versa, ours is the most beautiful car and performance-wise, we're going to whoop everybody. Oh and yeah, by the way, and it's a byline. It's legitimately a byline on Tesla's website. It's environmentally friendly, right. That's a foregone conclusion for them.

Tim Gokhman: It's the same thing for mass timber. It is aesthetically astounding. It can do things that both aesthetically and structurally that concrete and steel can't. But, it has to perform. It has to be practical both for the people building it and for the end users.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Tim Gokhman: That's what I believe it has done in the last 20 years. It has finally come to that point where it really is a viable alternative material for tall buildings versus concrete and steel. When I say versus concrete and steel, it doesn't have to be a wholesale replacement of concrete and steel. Our building is a hybrid structure. There is certain things that concrete and steel do that wood can't. You can mix the materials, but wood just, like I said, it's more precise the tolerances because you're fabricating it off site. The tolerances are much less, so it's literally click and play on the construction site. It's cleaner. It's a lot faster than concrete and steel. The 16 stories that we have above our five story podium, we're estimating that, so the first five floors that are in concrete, we're estimating that it takes about six months to build. The next 16 floors in wood, we're estimating that it takes five to six months to build.

Chris Arnold: Wow! So, so much faster.

Tim Gokhman: So much faster because you're manufacturing it off site. It's arriving in panels. Literally, your crane is picking it up and setting it in pace and you need a small crew of carpenters to just screw it together.

Chris Arnold: Let's pause there. I think this is a good segue into the environmental topics of wood. I would be remiss if we didn't cover this and talk about it. One of the most misunderstood elements of this technology and something that I don't know too much about myself either admittedly is forests or deforestation. Where does the wood come from and how are these materials build, and how are the forests replenished? Are you they replenished? How do you respond to that when those questions come in. Does that impact marketing and selling Ascent MKE at all?

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, all really good questions, multiple topics there. First and foremost, let me just say that there is no more sustainable and more responsible way to build a building than out of mass timber, period. First and foremost, wood is a carbon sink. It has a negative carbon footprint. So simply put, if you're growing a tree it's sequestering carbon. You cut that tree down, the carbon is still sequestered. Now you're regrowing a tree in its place, you're sequestering double the carbon than you would have just leaving the tree be, right, or if it's not double, let's say it's 60, 70%, but you're taking a material that's renewable.

Tim Gokhman: I think when we talk about deforestation, I think the real issue are more like in South American where we got a rainforest. But, it's not an issue in North American forests. And so, to put things in perspective and this is going to sound like a wild statistic, but it's actually conservative, our building, Ascent MKE is 400,000 plus or minus square feet. About 70% of that structure is mass timber, so 280,000 feet, square feet of wood. The amount of time that it takes to replenish that wood in North American forests through natural growth is 25 minutes.

Chris Arnold: So say that again just because that is... It's hard to digest that. Say that one more time.

Tim Gokhman: Yep, so if you think about all of the trees that we have in North America and how much those trees grow per year, we divide that by 365, how much wood growth you have per day, right, divide that by 24 per hour et cetera. You know how much wood is grown per minute, per hour, et cetera. When we take the volume of wood that we use at Ascent MKE it's 25 minutes to replace and that's a conservative estimate.

Chris Arnold: Wow, yeah.

Tim Gokhman: We've seen estimates between 17 to 21 minutes, but it's splitting hairs at that point, right?

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Tim Gokhman: So, any mass timber manufacturer and supplier is going to be FSC certified. FSC is the Forest Stewardship Council. That's a government agency that's going in and it's making sure that you're not harvesting more than X percentage, and that you are replenishing at the proper rate. And so, they're making sure that the forests are healthy.

Tim Gokhman: Using wood is actually, right, you're actually monetizing wood. You're actually shifting resources to the growth of forests rather than the highly destructive methodology and the energy intensive methodology of creating concrete and steel, so it's actually a benefit. And the US Forest Service also has a program that works with wood technologies.

Tim Gokhman: But, one of the supplier, for example, that we talked to in Canada, their regrowth rate is higher than their harvest rate. Meaning that the woods that use for making mass timber, they're growing more wood than they're harvesting.

Chris Arnold: Wow, yeah.

Tim Gokhman: Again, it's called a renewable resource for a reason. So, there are literally no concerns about, oh my God, are we going to use too much wood and we're going to cut down all of our forests? No, not if it's properly used.

Chris Arnold: I think that what you were getting to there with the energy intensive comment about concrete and steel is that, that's the natural response is, here are these amazing statistics about wood and then think about how much energy, fuel, labor that is required to just produce these other materials that we would then be shipping to a construction site to then have put into place and it's still not going to perform better than the wood.

Tim Gokhman: Right, exactly. When we say perform it's perform on multiple levels, right, so it's not just the fire safety, it's not just environmental benefit, but it's also the way that the end user reacts to these buildings. We have never seen people engage the way that they have engaged with mass timber. It's astounding. Think about it. If you're, right, you're sitting in your car, or your living room, or your office listening to this, do you know who designed your building? Do you know what it's built out of it, when it was built, how it was built? Most people do know and don't care. You're the end user of that building, right. You should know where the... how it's done.

Chris Arnold: Yeah.

Tim Gokhman: But, we just don't think about it because it's not that important. When people see our mass timber structures, they are fascinated. They ask questions of how is it built? How do you get it to span? How does it stand? How is it fire safe? The conversations are so interesting and it's people who are not in the construction industry that are having these conversations. And from the existing timber buildings that we have in our cities those are old buildings that were built for industrial purposes. They weren't right sized with windows, with HVC systems, with elevators, with floor plates for modern uses. And yet, the occupancy rates and the economic rates outperform their traditional peers. Why? Because people want to be in them.

Tim Gokhman: People like exposed brick. People like wood beams. Part of it just purely aesthetics. Part of it there is science on wood, or natural elements and how they have a calming and restorative effect on humans. Humans need a connection to natural elements. Think of a traditional building. Everything is drop grid, white ceiling, white drywall, sun is beaming into the windows, so you drop down the shades. You're sitting inside of a white box. That's depressing. And all of a sudden imagine an environment where you're surround by wood.

Tim Gokhman: Hospitals have started using it, right. Offices have started using many more plants because people have started figuring out that hey, we need that connection. Like I said, the performance is not just height, just fire safety. It's also back to that experience, how do these buildings make us feel?

Chris Arnold: It seems to me that timber is here to stay, or at least it's going to that direction in the industry. I'm curious as we start to wrap up here, how you find yourself educating, spreading the message, and do you feel a responsibility for that to share the timber story?

Tim Gokhman: Yeah, responsibility is a heavy word. I mean, I've seen estimates between 45 to 70% of emissions in cities in the country are the caused, are the result of buildings, so certainly the responsibility to do something that's sustainable is on my mind. I just think it's a product that just makes more sense.

Chris Arnold: Sure.

Tim Gokhman: It's just logical that this is the next thing. Again, England, for example, England has hundreds of mass timber buildings. They don't have forests. They import all of their wood and yet, they're still building out of timber, so they have figured it out. Like I said, the majority of Europe has figured it out. They're all looking at the United States and they know that we are on the precipice of figuring it out.

Tim Gokhman: There is a eight story building that was just built in Portland. There are multiple other buildings that are under construction. Hines, which is a huge real estate development firm just built T3 in Minneapolis and now they're building in Chicago and Atlanta. They're looking at multiple other sites. It's coming.

Tim Gokhman: The more of us that do it, the more efficient it'll get. And certainly, there will be a learning curve for end users, for engineers, for construction companies, for lenders, for investors. But, it is no longer just a hypothetical. We are seeing the excitement build across the entire country for this, and it's just going to keep getting bigger and bigger.

Chris Arnold: Tim, so final questions here. I love this question. I say this on every podcast because I think it's such a great way for listeners to learn more and really sink their teeth into these topics. Who else should we pay attention to that is doing inspiring work that you want to point out to us?

Tim Gokhman: So, I think a great source for which buildings are going up, specifically in mass timber, is woodworks.org. They keep track of basically every mass timber that is going up in North America and Europe. They are an amazing resource. They will offer basics for free. They will give you that basic education for free.

Tim Gokhman: I have to give a shout out to Jeff Spiritos. He's a guy that we met in Dubai when we were presenting. He's considered one of the fathers, if you will, of mass timber construction. They're working on a neat multi family project that's mass timber in the Northeast and everyone is in their family because his daughter, Erica who now works for Swinerton Construction, and those guys will be consulting us on Ascent, she is now one of their engineers. So, there are a lot of people involved in this. There are cool companies doing this. Go online. Do a Google search. There are cool things happening.

Chris Arnold: A really interesting topic. I very much appreciate your time today. Before we jump off, tell the world what you're up to and where they can find you online and any other details?

Tim Gokhman: So, Ascent is scheduled to break ground in January, so we're finalizing the engineering on that and then moving to the financing stage. We are working on food halls. We've got another mass timber building in the works that's an office building in Milwaukee. You can follow us online. It's newlandmke.com, or if you are specifically interested in Ascent there is a link on New Land's website otherwise, it's ascentmke.com.

Chris Arnold: Fantastic. Tim, thanks so much for your time today.

Tim Gokhman: Thank you very much for giving me the time.

Chris Arnold: Transforming Cities is brought to you by Authentic Form & Function, the digital design and development team that just might be a perfect fit for your next urban project. If you're a new listener, you can follow along at authenticff.com/transformingcities, or you can simply subscribe through your favorite apps including iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. Thanks for joining us.

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