In the contest to attract office tenants, many developers stick with the tried-and-true combination of concrete, steel and gleaming glass.
Lotus Equity Group is embracing a more natural material: wood.
The Manhattan developer said it is planning an 11-story Newark office building made with a wood structure for Riverfront Square, its 4.8 million-square-foot mixed-use development proposed on the site of the former Newark Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium and the old Lincoln Motel.
Designed by Michael Green Architecture, the building would rise like steps in three sections, ascending from six to eight and then 11 stories. When completed, the 500,000-square-foot tower would be among the largest buildings with a structure made of modern engineered wood in the U.S., building experts said.
Over the past decade or so more architects, engineers and developers have been exploring the use of robust mass-timber products or engineered-wood panels above six stories, the typical limit for wooden structures. The appeals of wood over concrete and steel are numerous, from a lower carbon footprint to a potentially faster construction schedule and less disruptive process.
The inside of the office tower as envisioned by Michael Green Architecture.Photo: Michael Green Architecture/Lotus Equity Group
But perhaps most appealing is wood’s ability to create a warm environment by connecting employees to nature and enhancing their well-being and productivity—common buzzwords among companies looking to compete for workers. Companies in the tech sector in particular have been keen on these workplace designs, a factor viewed as a plus as Newark vies for Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters.
“The tech sector is recognizing that the future of office buildings has to be significantly different from what it was in the past,” said Michael Green, a Vancouver, British Columbia, architect whose firm has designed a number of tall, engineered-wood buildings in North America. “The workplace where you spend a third of your lifetime better be a place where you actually want to be. And it’s not going to be generic office tower.”
Wood won’t replace traditional concrete and steel structures, but the construction and development industry, typically conservative and slow to adopt new technologies, has been much more open to exploring its use in the past several years.
Michael Green Architecture also worked with design firm DLR Group and developer Hines on T3, a seven-story mass-timber building in Minneapolis. Hines has two other seven-story mass-timber office buildings—one in Atlanta, the other in Chicago—planned as part of separate joint ventures.
In 2017, architects from Perkins+Will, structural engineers from Thornton Tomasetti and researchers from the University of Cambridge published a study and design of an 80-story timber residential building in Chicago. A number of tall wood buildings have been proposed or completed in Europe and Australia.
The trend toward wood “is really growing out of understanding we now have to create environments for businesses to more effectively recruit, engage and retain their talent,” said Jon Pickard, principal at architecture firm Pickard Chilton. “All architects at the leading edge are looking for new ways and new rich experiences.”
Among potential trade-offs is the newness of the use of modern engineered wood for tall buildings. Concrete can be cost effective because it has been tried and tested, and many contractors know how to work with it, Mr. Pickard said. Researchers involved in the design and study of the 80-story wood building found that engineered wood consumed a lot of space in order to achieve the same structural performance of steel and concrete.
“We couldn’t skinny it down as much as you could with concrete and steel,” said James Giebelhausen, a Perkins+Will senior project architect who worked on the study.
Ben Korman, Lotus’s chief executive and founder, envisions the roughly $1.7 billion Riverfront Square as a project that could help push Newark into the next phase of steady and organic growth. Located at the north end of Newark’s central district, the project would include about 2,000 apartments, a public square, more than 100,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 2 million square feet of offices as well as hotel and entertainment space, all within seven to 10 buildings.
Mr. Korman expects to be able to sign an anchor tenant relatively quickly and secure construction financing for the office tower, noting the region’s thriving tech sector, Newark’s multiple means of mass transportation and its fast fiber-optic network. He points to last year’s lease deal bringing financial-technology firm Broadridge Financial Solutions Inc. to 2 Gateway Center as evidence of Newark’s attraction for major companies.
“We have a great deal of trust in this market,” Mr. Korman said. “We feel that the overall tech sector and Newark is positioned tremendously well.”
The manufactured wood that will be used for this office building is different from the typical wood-stick construction used in low-rise residential buildings, Mr. Green said. Usually the products used for wood towers consist of pieces or layers of wood from managed forests glued together to form massive, solid columns or panels. Under fire, these engineered-timber products create a char layer, sealing and protecting the main structural components and allowing buildings to remain standing for longer periods, architects and engineers said.
The office building, which would have roof decks, would be built on a concrete foundation, but above that the structural components including the core containing elevators and stairwells, floor systems, columns and exterior panels would be mass timber, Mr. Green said. The interiors would have exposed wood, while the facade could be clad with metal panels, brick or wood.
Newark’s building code restricts heavy timber construction to six stories, but a Lotus spokeswoman noted that tall wood building developments in other states have received exemptions to local code limits by demonstrating the safety of this wood-construction technology. The company believes New Jersey will be open to exemptions as other states have been, she said.
This type of wood construction can shave months from the construction schedule, eliminating the lengthy time it takes for wet concrete to dry and set and providing often faster assembly times for wood components, Mr. Green said.
“That time equals savings in cost for a many reasons,” Mr. Green said. “Savings for financing the project over time, savings for managing the construction over time, and faster ability to occupy the building.”
Write to Keiko Morris at Keiko.Morris@wsj.com