The new Seattle, where everything looks the same

By Mark Hinshaw
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The generic design of many "5 over 1" buildings presents blank walls at street level and seem divorced from their surroundings - like this one on Queen Anne near Thomas.

By Mark Hinshaw

This is the first in a 2-part series on changes in Seattle's built environment. You can read Part 2 here.

Tucked into a side street in Seattle’s International District is a three-dimensional metaphor for the changes being seen all across the city.

The delightful Eastern Café is bounded by two long interior walls. The south wall is layered with many decades of paint, some of it peeled off to reveal the handiwork of past owners and purveyors of goods and services. The wall is chipped and battered, possessing a richly colorful and eccentric patina. The other wall is made of gypsum board, a synthetic product of the 20th century that replaced hand-built lath and plaster for interior walls. It is flat and boring with a relentlessly perfect smoothness and uniform beige color that add to the monotony.

The contrast between these two walls is being writ large across the city, with large blocky new apartment buildings replacing smaller scale, often idiosyncratic structures. In many neighborhoods behemoth projects consuming entire blocks now rise up eight stories. A number of developments in Ballard reflect this shift in scale.

Occasionally, we get a flash of design brilliance with forms, patterns and compositions from creative minds. Some of the recent development along 12th Avenue East on Capitol Hill falls into this category. But in most cases, new buildings are wrapped with the external version of gypsum wallboard; they are repetitive, flat and featureless.

The reason for this visual "meh" can be traced back to the early 90’s when the City of Seattle did something that no other city in the country had done: It adopted a building code which allowed a never-before-seen, hybrid form of construction. The development industry calls it “5 over 1”; that is, multiple floors of light wood-frame construction erected on top of lower floors made of concrete. (In the lingo of building codes, wood frame construction is called “Type 5”; fire-resistant, concrete construction is “Type 1.” Hence the "5 over 1" nickname.) In some cases, this code has been literally translated into five floors of wood frame over one floor of concrete, but it can also be six levels on top of two.

One rationale for this hybrid approach was lowering the cost of construction and, therefore, the price point for the consumer. Prior to the code change, buildings taller than four stories had to be built with much more expensive materials and systems. Over the years, as dozens of 5 over 1 structures went up in Seattle, fire marshals around the country watched to see if residents would be consumed by conflagrations. When that didn't happen, building codes were changed to allow 5 over 1 anywhere.

Since Seattle has been at this longer than anywhere else, the city also discovered a basic flaw in the 5 over 1 approach. Because wood expands and contracts in response to changes in weather and moisture content, certain types of rigid materials used on building surfaces pull apart at their seams, leaving cracks that wind-driven rain can penetrate. And penetrate it did.

Along with the accompanying mold and mildew, water damage led to massive insurance claims, litigation and costly repairs. For more than a decade, numerous buildings around Seattle were cocooned in plastic wrap while their exteriors were being reconstructed. As it turns out, only a few materials perform well when stretched across many floors of wood framing. Many of these materials, such as "Hardy" planks and metal sheeting, are, well, as boring as sheet rock, aesthetically speaking.

Thankfully, in recent years new exterior materials have become available that can convey a richer character and perform well over time. But despite the wider array of choices, the results can be either overly repetitive or visually chaotic. As with any artful endeavor, striking a balance can be challenging.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).

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