What We’re Reading: Tall Timber Towers


Tall timber tower: Lever Architecture has proposed a 130-foot timber-framed tower in Portland’s Pearl District. It would be one of tallest wood towers in the US.

Other Tall Timber Towers: Paris and Stockholm plan to push timber-framed buildings into the 30-story range.

Civic Square: Triad has sixty days to find a new developer for the prime parcel or perhaps forfeit the property rights.

Rainer Avenue: Are we going far enough to fix this dangerous street?

Seeking A San Francisco Housing Villain: A morality play performed by San Francisco schoolkids hamhandedly turned techies into villains of the housing crisis. The Atlantic suggests San Francisco property owners and preservationists could take a long hard look in the mirror.

Zone Alone: Daniel Hertz argues that zoning is just the first step for leading the cities into the 21st century.

Link to Tacoma: Frank Chiachiere contends the I-5 alignment is the superior light rail option to reach Tacoma.

Decline in Homeownership Rate: Old Urbanist delved into homeownership data and contends an aging population is masking a homeownership decline.

Japan’s Vacant Housing Epidemic: The Atlantic looked in Japan’s growing vacant housing problem as its population continues to shrink. The US could face a similar problem as Baby Boomers age.

Housing Production SlowdownCrosscut covered Seattle’s 2015 housing numbers which indicate a slackening in overall housing production but an uptick in single-family home production.

“Production of single family homes, townhouses and small apartments is up by over 20 percent – single family homes specifically are up 13 percent.”


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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.


  1. The cross-laminated timber situation may have significant impacts locally. Some of our zoning limits are rather awkward, as you reported earlier in this excellent piece: https://www.theurbanist.org/2014/09/02/85-foot-and-125-foot-height-limits-are-a-missed-opportunity/
    Essentially the zoning allows for buildings over 6 stories, but only a bit over (e. g. 8 stories). Right now, you can’t build a wooden building that tall. This is why you see so many 6 story buildings, even though 8 is allowed. But if an 8 story building can be built with cross-laminated timber, then you would see more of those. This would both increase density, and (in my opinion) make for a more interesting urban landscape (allowing a greater variety of building sizes).

    Does the law have to change in Seattle (or the state) to allow such high wooden buildings? If so, should the city push for it? It seems like we should be the leader in this area (given the number of timber companies locally). It also seems like they are perfectly safe (if they are safe in Portland, they should be safe in Seattle).

    • I’m curious about the cost reductions possible with CLT construction vs. equivalent height in concrete and/or steel. Does anybody have any ballpark cost/sq.ft. figures?

      • Below is quoted from this CLT article: http://www.bdcnetwork.com/5-myths-about-cross-laminated-timber

        When considering the total in-place value of a CLT system, it is cost
        competitive to other plate building materials. But you also need to
        consider all the value added benefits:

        • More savings can be found in the reduced installation cost, usually 50% cheaper than installing other plate materials.

        • With an earlier project completion date, you are open for business sometimes months ahead of schedule.

        • The building structure will weigh less than half the weight of other construction types, so the foundation costs less money.

        • Job site safety is dramatically increased due to the prefabricated
        CLT panels and usually the only power tools are pneumatic drills.

        • Thanks, Doug. I understand all this; what I want to know is how it translates to dollars per square foot in a mid-rise building (12-16 stories). What are the real savings, in dollars per sq. ft. compared to concrete/steel construction?

          • Civil Engineering News put it this way: “CLT is typically most cost effective in large, regular shaped structures or in situations where fabrication is repetitive; it is particularly
            competitive compared to concrete in these applications. CLT is unlike most wood products on the market in that it is not a commodity product and therefore cannot easily be quoted on a per-square-foot basis. Panel costs are dependent on many factors; it is best to check with a CLT manufacturer for specific pricing.” http://cenews.com/article/9271/clts-state-of-the-union

            This two story commercial CLT building in Montana reported a cost of $145 per sq. foot but I have no idea how relevant that is to mid-rise buildings in Seattle. http://www.woodworks.org/wp-content/uploads/CLT-Milestone-Montana.pdf

            I’ve read the construction schedule is 4.5 months shorter with CLT. I guess, one way to think of the savings is that much less in wages. Looking ahead to the implementation of a carbon tax and/or cap and trade system, CLT could see even greater savings compared to other more carbon intensive construction methods.

          • OK, as a new product I can accept that comparative costs are still somewhat vague. Maybe somebody needs to design a “regularly shaped structure” and then put it out for bid for both conventional and CLT construction. Let the contractors figure out their costs and bid accordingly.

    • Ross, I think regulations still need to be changed. I think the height limit for cross-laminated timber was 85 feet as of 2013, but Seattle was considering raising it according to this: http://www.seattle.gov/DPD/codesrules/changestocode/crosslaminatedtimber/whatwhy/. I haven’t seen evidence they did raise it.

      Meanwhile, architectural firm Weber Thompson seems to be working on CLT designs up to 125 feet. They acknowledge the awkwardness of zoning limits since concrete/steel doesn’t pencil out well until about 12 stories. Economically, there is a bit of a dead zone for buildings from 8 to 12 stories; CLT solves that, elegantly I might add. It also allows developers to be nimbler since much CLT construction times are much faster (faster construction schedules is also where the largest cost savings are realized).

      Raising the CLT height limit to at least 125 feet seems like a no-brainer, especially with a respected local firm already working on designs.

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