Always a Better Plan



The Woman & The Project - Julie Gorham

As part of Women in Construction week, our team is spotlighting the women of Excel and their remarkable work on our projects.

First up is Julie Gorham, a Professional Engineer in our HVAC Design group, and her work on Ascent MKE.

The Ask

The Ascent MKE is the tallest timber structure in the world. This 25-story mass timber luxury apartment high-rise opened to the public in July 2022. The Ascent MKE property owner, New Land Enterprises, made many of their decisions based on sustainability. The most impactful was the choice to construct the high rise of mass timber, which greatly reduced the building’s carbon footprint. This goal of sustainability carried throughout the entire building and into our HVAC system.

The Project

Excel partnered with Pure Mechanical to provide engineering services and a set of HVAC blueprints for the project. Julie took on the role of project lead for the HVAC project design. She handled the HVAC calculations, equipment selections, 3D drafting, and weekly coordination meetings with the building contractors. With the ambitious sustainability goals of the project, Julie's unique expertise in Variable Refrigerant Flow systems made her a key asset to the design team. Julie and her team played a significant role in making the world record-breaking feat possible.

Under Julie's leadership, the Excel team chose an HVAC system that greatly reduced the mechanical space required. This allowed for more parking spaces to be added to the original design, which then snowballed into an opportunity to add more apartments, which required more building stories, and ultimately brought Ascent to a world-record height.

The luxury apartments are served by a newly popular HVAC system called VRF (variable refrigerant flow). One key benefit is its capability for simultaneous cooling and heating. This innovation allows for heat normally rejected outside of the building when in cooling mode, to be used to heat other spaces within the building.

The Challenge

With the structure built out of timber rather than concrete or steel, the design required an added level of coordination most projects would not require. Weekly meetings were put in place to coordinate every single opening through the timber floors and any openings in timber beams. These openings had to be pre-engineered as drilling openings into the timber on the building project site was unacceptable. The building plans and 3D model needed to be spot on, as there were no opportunities to change pipe and duct sizes or to change locations once the timber was ordered.

To make this even more challenging, the weekly coordination meetings planned to be run and held at CD Smith’s office in Milwaukee suddenly changed to virtual meetings as we worked through the design during the year 2020. This didn’t hold the team back; with extra attention to detail and proper communication, it still led to a successful project.

Thoughts from Julie:

"Providing the HVAC engineering services on the world's largest mass timber building is quite the feather in my cap of projects. Overall, I found the learning experience I gained from being a part of this newly trending style of construction has opened doors to more opportunities."

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