Stating the Obvious

[ 14th Ave. and E. Yesler Way ]

(Apologies in advance. So sorry. Not news. Nothing original here. You’ve heard it all before.)

Just a friendly reminder: We used to be better at making good buildings. The building on the left is probably 80 or 90 years old. The building on the right went up 2 or 3 years ago.

We can’t blame it all on rising costs of materials and labor. Our culture has changed.

16 Responses to “Stating the Obvious”

  1. quilsone

    as the asshole developer who bought my 100 year old apartment building just a few blocks from here said to my neighbor just before he threw us all out, “they used to build buildings to last 100 years” (referring to the one he is planning on tearing down). “these days, they just build them for 20” (referring to the townhomes he will replace it with).

  2. Ben

    What a great photo to illustrate this. My father mentioned to me once that his university (University of Sydney) built new buildings in the 60s and 70s, and by now they look old and dated. Whereas the buildings from 150 years ago still look great.

    I think it is interesting to mull over the factors at play. I think that the devaluation of physical labor is definitely a factor. It used to be that people doing physical jobs like construction made good money relative to everybody else, and I think that this made more people take pride in the work that they did. No american seriously considers construction on a small residential scale to be a career anymore. Working on a steel skyscraper is still a somewhat marketable skill, and the result is more pay for those jobs and nicer looking skyscrapers.

    Another factor is that chasing fiscal efficiency is a paramount priority. Why spend $2M on a block of units when $1M will build them almost the same? Sure, the $2M block will last longer and potentially have relevant design 50 years from now, but the market does not value that, so you cannot make money from it, so nobody will fund it.

    As much as I wish construction quality were higher, I have trouble saying that I would pay twice as much to live in the newly built equivalent to the building on the left.

  3. flotown

    And then there’s the reality of construction financing. Even if you, personally, as the the developer, wanted to build something that was financially upside down from the get-go, unless you’re paying cash, you can’t do it. No one will lend to you.

    I’d urge someone to do an analysis of what it would cost to replicate that brick and terra cotta(?) building at today’s construction costs, versus the building across the street. I know the latter, and, depending on land costs and exact garage efficiency, it takes rents of about $2.15 psf to produce even marginal return. How much more would it take to build the apartment on the left? I don’t know, would be interesting to find out.

  4. Steve

    Seconded, flotown. I’d love to know the cost ratio.

    BTW, on the $2.15 psf number: Is that the average needed for retail and apartment spaces combined? Or do developers calculate those differently?

    (I ask because as someone not in the business, I’m mystified by how long some new retail spaces stay empty and would be interested to know how retail rents in new buildings are set.)

  5. Matt the Engineer

    Other bits to consider.

    The building on the left probably:
    takes more energy to heat
    is less comfortable in the winter
    is difficult to modify to suit owners’ needs
    rents for less money
    is less safe in an earthquake
    is less safe in a fire
    is not accessible to the elderly or handicapped

    Why did they build them like that back then? Because building standards have changed. They didn’t have oriented strand board, double pane windows, fiberglass insulation, or sprinkler systems. An old cast iron phone is more pretty than a cell phone, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better.

    I agree that structures should be built with a much longer lifespan in mind. But that doesn’t always mean brick and stonework (especially in earthquake country).

  6. Futzbutton

    Flotown: who cares how much it costs? or how much bank the developer can possibly make? He’ll make a profit, almost regardless – how big a profit is the question. instead – they’d rather sacrifice the quality of life of those who live there and all those who must gaze upon it (i.e. everyone)

  7. dave

    Not to be nitpicky, but if you get a little closer to that building on the left (the Urban League building, BTW), it’s not so great. It looks and feels like a bunker as you walk by on the sidewalk, although I suppose that may have to do with modifications that have been made over the years.

  8. Viva

    Please leave the old Seattle and new Seattle new and take down the buildings where people can not see the pretty view anymore.

  9. flotown


    That’s basically a rule of thumb number for residential in a 65′ zone (5 over 1 construction). Depening on land costs, construction cost variables, and viability of retail below, etc, it could be as low as $2.00 and upwards of $2.30.

    Futzbutton –

    you are not fully informed on this issue on the basis of your statement. I understand why someone who is not steeped details would feel this way, but I assure you this is not the case. Most for-rent projects are barely feasible at aggressive rent levels. You also need to consider the motivation of developers and understand the way in which they are compensated:

    Some points to consider-

    1) developers get paid on a per-project (fee) basis generally
    2) the more projects, the more fees
    =the more projects the better for developers
    3) The largest segments of potential renters are people making less than $80k/year
    4) Projects can more safely hit target markets at lower rents
    5) Investors like safety, and will more likely fund a project that is safe
    = developers want to target the lowest rents possible needed to provide threshold returns specified by investors
    6) their are entire sectors of the city w/o new construction, for-rent product
    =the rents possible do not support the cost of new construction
    7) no new, non-subsidized developments are renting for less than $2.00/psf
    =lower rents will not cover the costs of construction
    8) even these new buildings “look cheap”
    =additional costs would raise the necessary rents and not allow developers to target the desired market (people making 90%-120% AMI). You could make it nicer, but you’d have to target high-end rents and their is a fine line between hitting a high-end rental figure and going to high to a point where people opt for for-sale product.

  10. quilsone

    I am not an engineer or a developer, but I have lived in Chicago, where most new construction (at least, residential construction outside of the city center) continues to be brick and mortar. I don’t think builders there have a ton more money than builders here, and from living there I know that it can be made just as energy efficient and accessible as anything else. I understand that brick and mortar is not realistic to build here since it tends to completely fall apart in earthquakes, but from a purely aesthetic point of view, middle of the road new construction in the Midwest is vastly superior to its seattle equivalent.

  11. Futzbutton


    You obviously have no idea how to properly design a building. Cheap materials can be used properly, coupled with great design and you can create phenomenal architecture. Probably for cheaper than the monstrosity you see in that picture. Get with it. Educate yourself – simply saying “the cost of new construction” is too high is irresponsible and uninformed. As an architect and developer, I know it can be done.

  12. flotown

    “Flotown: who cares how much it costs? or how much bank the developer can possibly make? He’ll make a profit, almost regardless – how big a profit is the question”

    I’m shocked a statement like that would come from a “developer.” An architect – much more likely

  13. Futzbutton


    …I’m a developer of sharper minds, not property.

    Good, proper, design can be cheap and efficient. Figure it out.

  14. danb

    @5: Matt your engineering-minded response highlights what I see as the core issue here. There’s more to architecture than utilitarian function, but that’s what our culture, for the most part, has stripped it down to. The building on the left has unquantifiable qualities — pride, beauty and soul, not to mention good basic design — that are missing from the building on the right.

  15. Matt the Engineer

    I don’t disagree (except perhaps with “good basic design” – depending on what standards you base “good” on). What I see in the structure on the left is a lot of labor-intensive construction by skilled craftsmen.

    Could we build the building on the left today? I’d argue we couldn’t, for my reasons listed above. The intricate part of the older building is the stonework, and stonework just can’t be used safely in a seismic region.

    Not that we have to settle for plain boxes – but what is an appropriate intricate design using modern construction standards? I can imagine ornate structures built from glass, concrete, or steel. But the beauty of the building on the left is that the stonework isn’t just for looks – it had function.

  16. Old vs. New | hugeasscity

    […] These differences may seem subtle, and they certainly don’t apply universally to new and old, but I see them as reflections of a society that is losing its sense of community. And it’s this same lack of connection with the community that is at the root of why so many newer buildings seem to lack the sole and pride found in older buildings. […]

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