No Place Like Home

Has the city’s multimillion-dollar, 10-year plan to end homelessness made a dent?

On Saturday, March 24, on a practice baseball field under a bank of clouds at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), 59-year-old Robert* packed his belongings. The unshaven man with happy eyes wore a small wooden cross around his neck, underscoring his faith that he might soon find a permanent place to live. All around him, about 90 other homeless men and women took down tents, folded tarps, and filled plastic trash bags with clothing and keepsakes before loading them into a truck. After three months at SPU, Tent City 3, a mobile homeless camp managed by the residents, was moving from Queen Anne to a parking lot five miles away at Saint Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill. Robert planned to join the others at the new site, explaining that he lost his home three years ago after he was evicted by a landlord (“exiled,” as he puts it). “The way I see it,” he says, glancing at his neighbors, “we’re all exiles.”

Overseen by SHARE/WHEEL, a nonprofit Seattle-based homelessness advocacy group, the tent city is part solution to homeless persons’ need for shelter and part ongoing public relations effort to keep the issue in the public eye. As the tent city moves, it garners strong reactions, including demands that it leave a neighborhood, which is what happened on Beacon Hill shortly after the camp’s founding in 2000. City officials denied a permit allowing it to stay at El Centro de la Raza, a Chicano/Latino social justice organization. But a judge ruled that the city erred, and the parties signed a consent decree allowing the camp to stay. On the other end of the continuum, communities have actively sought the camp’s presence to create “teachable moments.” Audrey Riddle, a blond, pale, 21-year-old SPU junior from Pennsylvania, worked with other student advocates for three years to bring the camp to her school. During the camp’s stay, Riddle served as the school’s student ambassador to the tent city, and just before the residents departed, they adopted her. “I’m now an honorary member of Tent City 3,” she said, holding back tears as her new friends prepared to leave.

Homelessness has been on the national agenda since the 1980s, when Congress began allocating federal money to the issue. A large number of plans and programs, including tent cities, are under way; locally, the most sweeping is the optimistically named “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” a multi-agency, coordinated attack on the problem now in its seventh year (slated to wind down in 2015). Progress appears to be slow and painful, locally and nationally. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), the nation’s homeless population fell 1 percent, from 643,067 in 2009 to 636,017 in 2011, a decrease labeled “remarkable” by the NAEH, given the recession.

But the numbers in Seattle tell a somewhat different story. Every January, volunteers count the number of people living outdoors in green spaces, under bridges and in alleys. In 2006, according to the nonprofit Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the “One Night Count” found 1,946 people living on the street. This year, the number was up to 2,594, although it has fallen from its peak of 2,827 in 2009. And according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), total homelessness in Seattle and King County rose 14.1 percent between 2006 and 2010. People working on the homelessness issue in Seattle caution against reading too much into these statistics. The universe of variables is enormous; they range from the quantity and quality of shelters, the types of homeless individuals, even the climate. But it’s clear that the absolute total of homeless people in the Seattle area is growing. According to the NAEH, Washington state’s rate of family homelessness is three and a half times the national average.

It’s clear that the absolute total of homeless people in the Seattle area is growing. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Washington state’s rate of family homelessness is three and a half times the national average.

That’s not to say Seattle isn’t trying hard to stop homelessness. The federal, state and local governments, as well as dozens of nonprofits, ranging from church food banks to the Gates Foundation, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into housing and services for the homeless. From 2005 to 2011, Congress allocated more than $141.6 million in HUD money to King County’s homeless programs alone. In addition, voters and local elected officials have approved several revenue streams dedicated to homeless programs. Since 2006, these taxes and fees have totaled $54.8 million. In 2007, the Gates Foundation finished a $40 million project targeted at family homelessness in King County, and it’s in the midst of a $65 million follow-up project. When you add everything up, Seattle is in the same league as New York and San Francisco when it comes to resources aimed at homelessness.

Much of this spending is intended to save money in the long run. Homelessness is expensive for taxpayers, who foot the bill for services, and police and hospital costs that some homeless people incur. Elected officials and advocates across the country have come to see that getting homeless people into shelters and permanent homes will ultimately cost less. Evidence from Seattle offers proof: A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that from November 2005 to March 2007, a Seattle program for public inebriates that combined shelter and treatment cut costs from $4,006 per month per person to just $958 for the same after only one year.

Still, local homeless advocates say we aren’t doing enough. In February, a set of shelters in King County run by SHARE/WHEEL was operating at 96.9 percent of capacity—essentially full. Alison Eisinger is executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, one of the oldest homeless advocacy groups in the country. She predicts that the cumulative effect of state budget cuts and rising rents will mean an overall increase in homelessness, even if the economy improves. “With body blow after body blow coming at us, we cannot end homelessness,” Eisinger says. In 2011, the King County office that oversees the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness published a midplan review, which said that more than 18,000 households had found permanent housing, largely through homeless programs, since 2005. But the recession’s headwinds are likely to keep the plan from reaching its ultimate goal, Eisinger says. “If we do not have the restoration of our social safety net and an increase in affordable, stable housing, we will still have homeless people in 2016,” she says.

Success may depend on how you define it. The Ten-Year Plan’s midplan review noted some problems in counting homeless people and tracking their movement through programs. Even defining homelessness itself in order to quantify success or failure is daunting: Is a family that has to live in their car for a few days until they can move into subsidized housing homeless? That hasn’t stopped project director Bill Block from setting ambitious targets, such as meeting the federal government’s goal of limiting a person’s experience in the homelessness system to just 20 days. However, Block admits he isn’t sure how many days a homeless person currently spends in the system, which makes progress difficult to measure. To understand his starting point, he needs data. “We’re really moving to a data-driven set of decisions, not decisions based on anecdotes on what works and doesn’t work,” he says.

To get the data, Block and his group, the Committee to End Homelessness, a coalition of local governments, faith communities, nonprofits, businesses and citizens, is asking services providers to survey their clients on a variety of data points. That request has led to a revolt among some advocacy groups, including SHARE/WHEEL. In March, the group announced it was dropping out of the Committee to End Homelessness and the Ten-Year Plan. “What we’re saying is, ‘Forget it!’” says Lantz Rowland, an unofficial spokesman for Tent City 3, who lives in the camp. He argues that the Ten-Year Plan doesn’t do enough to alleviate the homeless’s immediate needs: surviving the elements and the dangers of living on the street. “We just do survival; we provide shelter,” Rowland says. “The cure isn’t collecting demographic information.” But Block says collecting data is crucial. “It’s not enough just to put people into shelter.”

Squabbling is inevitable when people are passionate about an issue, and the stakes—loads of money and the lives of society’s most vulnerable—are high. Seattle has made a rare commitment to fixing homelessness, but it isn’t clear whether the hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past few years has made a lasting dent in the problem. Advocates are showing no signs of giving up: The Committee to End Homelessness is ramping up a program to reunite homeless youths with their families when it’s safe to do so; local advocates are implementing a Five-Year Plan to End Homelessness Among Veterans; and with the help of the Gates Foundation, more than 30 agencies are starting a new effort called “coordinated entry” to encourage service providers to work together to get homeless people into housing more quickly. For Robert and the more than 2,500 other people on the street, help can’t come fast enough.

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?

When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”