A Garden of Eating Blooms on Beacon Hill

Growing Beacon Hill’s new Food Forest will take a village—but it will also feed one.
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Those Pink Lady apples you’re eyeing at the supermarket cost $2.49 a pound. A feather-light pint of organic raspberries? Five bucks. But at the new, 7-acre Beacon Hill Food Forest, these and other garden produce will be free (with a little sweat equity encouraged).

Funded in part by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, and planted and maintained by dozens of volunteers, this public Garden of Eden—including fruit and nut trees, mulberry bushes and snack paths of strawberries—will break ground this fall and is due to bear its first harvest starting in the summer of 2013.

Unlike the city’s many P-Patches, where the garden food belongs to whoever does the planting, anyone—even passersby—will be allowed to pick from the Food Forest. And while at P-Patches, the ever-revolving plots are planted with annuals such lettuce and tomatoes, here, the main plantings are perennial, such as fruit and nut trees and berry bushes.

The forest is the brainchild of local proponents of permaculture (a word invented to mean “permanent agriculture,” a sustainable philosophy first defined in the 1970s) and will take root on a sunny slope just below Jefferson Park. For decades, neighbors have been cooking up ideas to develop this open space on the Seattle Public Utilities‒owned property, says Jenny Pell, a Seattle permaculture designer who specializes in edible landscapes and has played a key role in the forest’s design. The dreams began to materialize at Pell’s six-month-long permaculture workshop in 2009, when participants designed a food forest as a class project. The group applied for and won a $22,500 Seattle Department of Neighborhoods grant, most of which went toward creating a more comprehensive design. With permaculture principles at the fore, the expanded design (by Pell and Margarett Harrison, principal at Harrison Design Landscape Architecture) gives consideration to how natural features—including soil, rainwater, insects, and the new plants and trees on the site—will work together.

Food Forest organizers held three public meetings (required by the Department of Neighborhoods) to gather requests from the community before starting the official design. Neighbors responded enthusiastically. Twelve Chinese grandmothers came to one meeting with an interpreter, and lit up when they learned the Food Forest could include some fruits and berries, such as the yang-mei berry, that they couldn’t get elsewhere. People asked for bees, areas for kids, classrooms, orchards, berry fields and bike racks. The Veterans’ Hospital, just steps away, is discussing the possibility of a therapeutic garden program.


The sunny slope just west of Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park will soon boast a bountiful food forest

Alongside the Food Forest, separate areas on the acreage are being set aside for individual garden plots, as well as larger allotments of shared garden space for groups that want to grow together, using a P-Patch model.

“The community, for the most part, has been 100 percent positive,” says Laura Raymond, of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods P-Patch Community Garden Program, which is overseeing the project. “People are really willing to pitch in, and grateful.”

Food forests aren’t a new concept, but this is likely the largest example in the U.S. Seattle has a decades-long history of P-Patches, and at a couple of community gardens, such as Capitol Hill’s Howell Collective P-Patch, neighbors work together. But the forest is slightly different: “It’s a public, edible park,” says Pell. It’s not just for those who buy the seeds or work the ground. (It’s probably also one of the only public gardens where plans include planting goji berries, loquats and pawpaw trees.)

Partial funding will come from the 2008 Parks and Green Spaces levy, but additional volunteer fundraising will be required to cover much of the seed and plant costs. Volunteers will start by building up the soil and planting about 1.75 acres with trees and plants this fall. The forest will include a nearly 2-acre native edibles area with salal, salmonberries, huckleberries and thimbleberries. Snack fruits, such as raspberries, will be planted alongside a field where kids play. Everything will be organically grown, with no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Strawberries and blueberries will likely be the first to ripen, some by next summer. The fruit and nut trees will be a longer-term project, bearing after anywhere from three to seven years in the ground. But once they do, harvests could be ample—Pell says walnut trees planted on-site could produce around 30 bushels of nuts on one tree.

If all goes according to plan, the harvests could dwarf what would be possible on the same space if it were strictly planted with rows of vegetables. “Fruit is valuable because you can grow a lot of food on a really small footprint,” says Gail Savina, executive director of Seattle nonprofit City Fruit, which helps to protect, promote, educate and help with the harvest of urban fruit trees.

This vision of bounty is overwhelming, but so, too, is the image of an all-volunteer group managing a forest of fruit- and nut-shedding edible plants. What if the ground festers with rotting fruit, attracting rodents and wasps? Pell says many cities restrict and outright ban public fruit- and nut-bearing trees in parks, for precisely this reason. “P-Patches traditionally work on an all-volunteer model,” she says, but notes, “I think this project would be served better by part-time paid staff.”

At this time, no money has been allotted for that purpose, but raspberry patches will require thinning, the Chinese hawthorn trees might need pruning, and someone will likely have to go ’round the mulberry bush with a pair of clippers. Based in permaculture techniques, the plan has been carefully designed to cut down on maintenance. (For example, planting an understory of berries beneath trees will greatly reduce the need to weed and water.) Nonetheless, says Raymond, “The community is really going to have to get themselves organized to make sure there is a good harvest plan.” But, she says, community building is part of the point. Volunteers have formed a Friends of the Beacon Food Forest committee (beaconfoodforest.weebly.com) and are holding free workshops, such as fruit tree pruning, for people interested in helping to care for forest plantings.

So what about the possibility that people will grab more than their fair share? “That’s a concern,” says Margarett Harrison. “But we feel like there will be enough eyes on the site that enough people might discourage those who want to take more than what they need,” she says. In other words, the plan to fill the place with not just gleaners, but veterans, kids, P-Patch gardeners and Chinese grandmothers should keep any one person from feeling free to grab it all. The Food Forest isn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, either. East of the sunny Beacon Hill slope with a glorious downtown view, Jefferson Park is chock-full of amenities to draw eager grazers and gazers, with a skateboard park, putting green, playground and a spraypark set to open this month. Ball fields here have hosted everything from pickup soccer games to Samoan cricket matches.

“You do have to have etiquette,” says Pell. “No, we don’t want people coming and filling boxes of food and selling it on the corner.” But she is also amused by this particular worry. “The biggest concern is that people are going to come and eat it,” Pell marvels. “People are, like, ‘What if homeless people come and eat it all?’ My biggest dream is that it all gets eaten.”

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?
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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.”