FLFers jump in with both feet

A Treehouse Wearhouse volunteer organizes the kids' clothing section. In an average school year, the facility serves more than 1,800 youth

A Treehouse Wearhouse volunteer organizes the kids’ clothing section. In an average school year, the facility serves more than 1,800 youth.

It’s always great to see members of the construction industry engaged in community-support and enhancement projects. It might not be readily apparent to the man on the street, but you can’t swing a 2×4 these days without hitting someone who’s involved in their company’s efforts to raise funds for a cause or provide pro bono renovation services and/or labor for a needy charity. And it’s especially cool to see young people in the industry getting involved.

One notable event coming up over the month of July is a joint effort by a number of organizations that will do a world of good. AGC of Washington’s FLF (Future Leadership Forum) group is pitching-in with other participants to renovate Seattle facilities for Treehouse, the local non-profit foster-child support organization. This “Wearhouse” project will renovate the existing, well-used Treehouse warehouse/store space that’s been in use for 12 years.

When completed, the new Wearhouse space will be brighter, safer, more efficient and a far more appealing place for Foster kids and their caregivers to visit and shop (no charge, of course) for high-quality new and like-new clothing, shoes, school supplies, toys, books and other essentials – much like a modern retail store. And it’s certainly a worthy organization and an equally worthy effort of support: during an average school year, the Wearhouse serves more than 1,800 youth and distributes more than 100,000 items.

Again, it doesn’t take much digging to see where people of the greater A/E/C community are working behind the scenes, often with their employers’ support and even on their own time, to improve the communities around us and help others in need. I tip my hardhat.

Treehouse’s Wearhouse project is still seeking additional funding, materials and labor support, by the way, so if you’d like to donate, please visit wearhouserenovation.kintera.org.

– Sean Lewis

Volunteers finish off Renton Habitat townhouses


Last week, volunteers from the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties and Regence BlueShield showed up in force at Habitat for Humanity Seattle-King County’s Renton townhome project called La Fortuna.

Volunteers pitched in to finish off parts of the 3-Star Built Green project. They unmasked floors, installed appliances, painted and cleaned.

On July 16, the keys to the homes will be turned over to eight low-income families. The future homeowners worked together as friends and neighbors to help build and create the community. They include U.S. military veterans, Americans who were once refugees from war-torn countries, and others who came to our region in search of a better life.

The local Habitat chapter has built, renovated or repaired more than 450 homes.

Now that’s a strong finish!

Impact of Water and Climate When Talking About CLT

Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) is the trendy new building material that has received a lot of attention in the northwest this year.  It is by definition a series of thick boards (usually 2×4 or 2×6) glued together in an alternating pattern and Cross-to form a solid wall, post or beam. (A similar concept is glue laminated (glue lam) timber that has been used for beam construction for many years.)

To understand how water affects wood construction, one must understand its function in a tree. Wood is designed to provide structural support for the tree, move water from roots to leaves and store the chemical results of photosynthesis (primarily sugars in the form of cellulose). These properties of wood create some challenges for its longevity when exposed to moisture.  Thus, while wood can be structurally strong, it naturally absorbs and retains water.

Depending on climatic conditions, it can take some time for CLT panels to fully dry after getting wet. So, moisture control is of utmost importance when building from wood, such as cross-laminated timber.

The first source of moisture concern is during manufacturing. While manufacturers try to have all of their boards have the same moisture content, wood is an organic material and each board reacts to moisture differently. Some take water in more quickly and some take longer to dry. The result is that boards swell and shrink at differing rates which can affect the performance of a CLT panel.

Think of the hardwood floors in older buildings where the floor buckles in places. That is what happens when one board expands against another. As the wood dries again, it shrinks. This expansion and contraction process can damage the wood causing new cracks and gaps. On a floor, one can just refinish it. But, CLT is an integrated structural component and any deformity can weaken its life-safety purposes.

Another source of moisture is environmental moisture during construction. Studies indicate that construction moisture wetting is a serious problem in rainy climates like the Pacific Northwest. It can take several years for the wood to fully dry after construction. With rainfall likely in any month of the year, it is vital that proper precautions be taken to prevent the wood from getting and staying wet.

It is not just rainfall that is a concern. Other sources of moisture must also be accounted for, such as sprinklers, groundwater, pressure washing of siding, sidewalks, driveways, etc. decorative ponds, swimming pools, or other sources of moisture.

Wet CLT panels built with wrappings that do not allow vapor to pass through (both interior and exterior) are much more likely to develop bio-deterioration. There are vapor permeable wrapping on the market that can mitigate this concern to some extent.

Exterior cladding also plays a significant role in preventing moisture penetration. Not long ago, there were significant problems with wood frame buildings experience the negative effects of prolonged moisture, especially condominiums. The resulting lawsuits bankrupted many developers and contractors. With CLT, the stakes are even higher. With wood frame, the walls can be exposed, dried and cleaned. Since CLT is a structural system, that process is much more difficult and expensive.

In comparison, concrete, masonry and block all dry very quickly when wetted. Any remaining moisture can be removed easily (similar to using your shop-vac and a floor-squeegee in your garage after a big rain). Thus, construction moisture is of much less concern. And, there is no concern with rot with concrete, masonry and block construction.

One solution is to cover the CLT panels during construction until they are clad with the exterior components (be it siding, brick or stone). This is complicated, expensive and time consuming. Thus, covering panels during construction can undermine the presumed time and cost savings of CLT construction.

Another possible solution is to install water and air barrier membranes when the panels are manufactured. To date, no manufacturer is doing this, presumably because it would be cost prohibitive.

Certainly, more research needs to be done before the public can be assured of the safety and environmental impacts of cross-laminated timber panels used in construction. Also, new additional building code standards and construction practices would need to be developed to mitigate the health, life-safety and structural concerns posed by our wet climate on CLT buildings.  Current building codes allow wood structures to be built up to five stories. The talk is some would like to go up to as many as 20 stories with CLT.

The risk of fire in a wood building has historically been the primary concern with high-rise wood construction, but, water and climatic conditions can have an equally and perhaps more insidious impact on the construction.

CLT may have the potential to be a sustainable building product that lowers the carbon impact of building.  But so do proven products like concrete, steel and masonry.

While fire is an immediate and known risk, water’s impact is subtler, but no less threatening. This is particularly true in the Northwest from the Pacific Coast to the Cascades.

I guess it’s the Peter Pan syndrome…

Stark James / Phoenix AZ

There’s just something very cool about the developments we’ve seen in recent years in converting shipping containers to apartments. There’s an appeal there that seems to resonate, at least with me, on many levels. (The image here is from a recent project by StarkJames Architects in Phoenix AZ.)

Of course, there’s the sensible, “green,” helping-the-world aspect of taking an existing limited shelf-life item like a shipping container and re-using/recycling it into an actual home. That’s obviously a very good thing.

There’s the financial and economic-advantage aspect, too, of innovatively using these containers to create a space that’s very likely far more affordable than conventional construction methods might allow.  That’s nothing but good as well.

There’s also the outright and undeniable cool factor of these creations, with their own modern and minimalistic vibe that’s really unlike anything else out there.

Then of course there’s the simple, no-nonsense appeal of using these Lego-like “building block” shipping containers to create fresh and inspiring personal spaces that are all our own.

And there we have the essence of it all, at least for me.

These are simply the coolest fort any kid could ever want to build. They’re made out of boxes, fergodsake — I’m guessing that cats absolutely love them — and what kid didn’t spend some time in his or her early years letting imagination run wild in a big discarded cardboard box? Your own little space that could be a spaceship, an aircraft carrier, a car or even a home to call your own. And in my case, and maybe for many others, the box was just the first step. You know, kind of like a gateway drug, except in a good way.

Before long, I was building forts at every opportunity. I had forts made of lumber scraps and tarps, forts that used a fence as one of the walls, underground forts with tunnel entries that even had covered and camouflaged doors, forts carved out of dense ten-foot-high bamboo stands, forts with functional windows and hidden entries, tree forts in trees and forts built between adjacent trees. Lots and lots of forts. The forts of my childhood years, in fact, are like mileposts on a highway.

So I have to think that it’s a natural progression for any former fort enthusiast, such as myself, to look at these container-built homes with a special affinity, a special lifelong connection. Maybe these structures recall simpler days when all your worldly possessions — or at least a few of your most treasured ones — would fit in your own little space, right there next to you, with nary an extra square foot to spare.

And at least for a while, you could imagine needing nothing more.

  • Sean Lewis


MBA members fix 92-year-old widow’s home


About two dozen volunteers recently converged on Nita Aemmer’s home in the Bitter Lake area of Seattle to spruce up the rundown abode.

The group from the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties and partner group Green Canopy Homes was taking part in Rebuilding Together Seattle — a program that repairs homes for those in need.



Nita is a 92-year-old widow of a World War II veteran who lives with her granddaughter, Danielle, and two great-grandchildren. Before he passed away, Nita’s husband maintained the home well — even added an extension and did all the landscaping and gardening.

After he died, Nita could not maintain the home, so Danielle moved in to help. But Danielle suffers from chronic Lyme disease, often leaving her unable to make repairs, and the condition of the house drastically declined over the years.

The volunteers patched walls, painted, improved exterior drainage, replaced bathroom flooring, repaired siding, deep-cleaned, and made other accessibility and safety improvements.

Way to go guys!


Ah, the smell of concrete in the morning

Westlake wrkrs with blurred rebarI was out recently on a construction site, doing a little photographic work, when I had another one of those blast-from-the-past moments in which we all, I assume, occasionally find ourselves suddenly immersed. In this case, as best as I could determine, it was instantly sparked by the smell of dust and concrete, with notes (I borrowed that term from a wine label) of something metallic. That had to be it — the unique blend of those elements, in just the right blend, that we apparently only take in on an active construction site.

As it has many times, that scent alone instantly took me back to when I was a little guy, fifty years ago (good lord, did I just say that?), occasionally visiting jobsites with my dad, who ran the Richland, Washington branch of Lord Electric (does anyone remember them?). He was The Boss, of course, which was quite cool, but I also really enjoyed those visits because I got to wear the hardhat and see stuff I sure didn’t see elsewhere: big pieces of construction equipment; the bone structure of halfway-built buildings; lots of different tools, fixtures and materials, and lots of people bustling around. Lots of pickup trucks, conduit, extension cords and cool lunch boxes too, as I recall.

This all made me think about what has, and what has not, changed on a construction site in half a century. For the most part, they still look very similar, but of course the materials, tools, techniques and practices – and certainly the pickup trucks and lunch boxes – have evolved quite a bit. In some ways, the people have changed, too, but in others, they have not; people have always, and will always, simply love to build things. That has to bring about a kind of satisfaction and pride that you don’t often find elsewhere.

And all those thoughts went through my head in a matter of moments.

Somewhere out there today, I’m sure there’s a superintendent or foreman or project manager on a jobsite with a son or daughter tagging along, taking in the sights and smells of all that’s going on around them. And likely creating little snippets of memories that will last — well, as we know now — at least half a century.

        – Sean Lewis

Workforce Training Pays Big Dividends

With more than 17 percent of the craft workers retiring in the next five years it is more important than ever to train tomorrow’s construction workers. The construction industry is falling short of its workforce demand by almost 1.6 million positions by 2022, based on the latest estimates by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

In December 2004, economic think tank The Brookings Institute released a study titled Toward a New Metropolis: The Opportunity to Rebuild America. The study noted that “Residential and commercial development in the next 25 years will eclipse anything seen in previous generations,” and that “Nearly half of what will be the built environment in 2030 doesn’t exist yet.”

Still the lack of a skilled workforce continues to be a challenge for contractors and owners alike. The 2016 Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) chairman and president of Willmar Electric Service, David Chapin, said that, “ABC members report that they could do more work if they had the skilled workers to do the jobs.”

The problem is multifaceted. Despite much evidence to contradict the outcome, our education system still prepares the vast majority of students for a college education while little is being done to either promote or prepare young people for careers in the construction trades. Simultaneously, for years the industry thought the only valid way to learn was working from the bottom up with training happening only on the job.

However, construction, like most other careers, has become increasingly technical and specialized and training is essential to ensure that we have a highly-skilled workforce for the future.

For employers, investing just one percent in training can deliver double-digit returns.

A recent study by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) found that investing just 1 percent of a project’s labor budget in training could have double-digit returns. The study showed that 1 percent yielded: 11% improved productivity; 14% decrease in turnover; 15% decrease in absenteeism; 26% decrease in injuries; and 23% decrease in rework. These are savings that far exceed the investment in training.

For those interested in joining the trades.

The average 2015 college graduate owes about $35,000 in student loan debt—the highest level in history, according to government data. Despite lower national unemployment figures, many of these four-year graduates have little guarantee of job placement, making for an unstable future.

The average construction industry graduate who completes an associate’s degree or a state-funded, certified two- three- or four-year apprenticeship program, (the average electrician, welder or plumber) stands to earn more than $50,000 a year right out of the gate. He or she has little to no student loan debt, and already holds a high-paying job—plus career skills that are in top demand as the baby boomer generation retires.

In Washington we have a myriad of training programs that support the industry. ABC offers a wide variety of training classes including safety, project management and in conjunction with Toastmasters, public speaking and presentation. For training in the trades, ABC’s partner, the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington (CITC), offers state-approved apprenticeship and craft training in the carpentry, electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, heavy equipment operator, painting, plumbing, laborers, residential electrical, low energy and sheet metal trades. For more information go to: www.citcwa.com

Nationally there are a number of resources as well:

The first National Craft Championships was held in 1987 with only a handful of participants competing in four craft competitions. Some 25 years later, more than 2,000 men and women have competed in what has grown to become one of the construction industry’s most recognized and revered craft skills events, thanks to the dedication and hard work of our member firms and ABC chapters. The ABC Workforce Conference site is www.nationalcraftchampionships.org

For those considering construction careers: ABC’s Careers in Construction – http://careers.abc.org





Wonders all around us

WestlakeCnstrctn-2The great thing about commuting – and yes, so far, I’ve only found one – is that it gives you time to think, and that thinking can often take you down an interesting path – especially when, in my case, I see all kinds of construction going on in my daily travels: roads, homes, condos, stores, bridges, hotels, even full-fledged skyscrapers.

Just from my office window, in fact, I see no less than three new office buildings being constructed and another undergoing a major renovation. Move to a different window, and I see over a dozen construction cranes and at least three or four tall buildings going up in the downtown Seattle area.

These projects make me both think and wonder. I think about their complexity and the integration of myriad systems and materials, and I wonder how people make them happen, how they efficiently schedule and manage so many people and processes. For my money, the expertise on display especially on these big projects is something to be truly admired. I know that the knowledge and methodology and efficiency that goes into designing and constructing these buildings has been honed over generations, but, to me, it’s all still quite amazing. The art of construction (and architecture, and building design) just keeps advancing. And while many of us see it every day, I wonder – there I go again — how many of us pause with any regularity to think about what we’re looking at.

If you haven’t lately, take a few moments next time you’re stalled in traffic or maybe stopped at a traffic light anywhere near downtown Seattle. Locate the nearest major building under construction and consider the accumulation of real knowledge and expertise that you’re looking at. If you look closely, there’s plenty to see.

 Hey, move it along, buddy. The light is green!