March 23, 2006

Need a tower crane? Take a number

  • There are about 40 cranes up in the Puget Sound area and one expert predicts there could be 60 by summer.
    Special to the Journal

    Photo by Terry Stephens
    Tower cranes, such as this one being used for the new arts and sciences building at Everett Community College, are in high demand.

    A wave of high-rise construction projects in the Puget Sound area has once again swamped the tower crane industry, creating an even tighter market than during the last major construction crunch in 2001.

    “For projects we’re doing now, we had to get tower cranes ordered six to eight months ago. All the available cranes are stood up right now, not laying in the equipment yard somewhere. We’re hoping they finish their work on time so they can move to the next project,” said Brian Thomas, director of field operations for Skanska USA Building in Seattle.

    One project Thomas had in mind is the 42-story Washington Mutual headquarters in downtown Seattle. One of that project’s two tower cranes, a Liebherr 540 HC-L luffing crane, was immediately moved to another Skanska construction site, where the Seattle Sheraton Hotel is adding a 24-story tower.

    Luffing cranes are among the most difficult to get, valued for their ability to raise their boom to avoid hitting adjacent buildings in dense downtown construction sites. Normally, a tower crane’s long boom is fixed in a horizontal position.

    Another Liebherr 540 is planned for the Olive 8 project — which includes a Hyatt hotel with 198-unit condominium tower — but that equipment needs to finish working in New Jersey before it can be trucked to Seattle.

    “In Bellevue, there’s a project coming up that will take two cranes to start, maybe two more later on,” Thomas said about Washington Square, a billion-dollar development with four residential towers and an office tower.

    Like the dot-com boom

    Andrew Morrow, Northwest regional sales manager for Salem, Ore.-based Morrow Equipment Co., said “tower crane activity now is similar to the technology building boom of 1999-2000 when we were very busy in the Northwest … but the difference is that today the activity level is pretty intense all across North America, including a lot of high-rise condo construction.”

    Morrow, which provided four cranes for the construction of Safeco Field, owns and leases an estimated 500 tower cranes for projects in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

    “There are probably about 50 cranes in use now in Washington and Oregon. I think everyone who is supplying tower cranes across the country is very busy right now,” Morrow said.

    “Factories can only produce a certain number of new cranes and at the moment there is a six- to seven-month lead time for average cranes used for 20- to 30-story condos,” he said. “Each crane is on site for around eight to 15 months for most projects. We expect pretty limited availability of all tower cranes through at least the end of this year. Right now we’re looking for projects starting early in 2007. We see a continued tight market for tower cranes through the end of 2007.”

    Both Portland and Vancouver, B.C., also are “very active with high-rise condo construction and it’s been that way for the last couple of years, with condo projects now stretching outside of downtown Vancouver into such cities as Burnaby,” Morrow said.

    Six months to get a crane

    At Mobile Crane Co. in Seattle, one of Puget Sound’s largest crane rental companies, equipment manager Walter White said his company is increasing the size of its fleet to meet the demand.

    “Fortunately for all of us (in the crane industry), the construction market is extremely active. Now people are planning a minimum of six months out for crane rentals, whereas it was about two months before. We’re already booking cranes for the end of the year and early 2007,” White said.

    “Small towers may run $8,000 a month and larger ones could be $25,000 to $30,000 monthly. Also, it could cost $60,000 to $80,000 for site preparation, the foundation, power supply and such, but that’s a small cost in a $50 million high-rise project. Tower cranes are still the more efficient way to build those structures,” he said.

    Many high-rise condominiums planned for downtown Seattle aren’t high-profile projects but they still need tower cranes, so “there are a lot more people than before who are trying to secure crane machinery,” White said.

    An operator shortage, too

    Mobile Crane provides equipment to contractors, including delivery to work sites, set up, erection, calibrating and checking loads before it turns the machines over to crane operators hired by the contractor. White said his company has about 20 to 22 tower cranes working now, compared to about half that many active towers at one time a few years ago.

    White said there are about 40 cranes up on sites in Seattle, Bellevue and the Puget Sound area, with at least another five expected to be added by summer, although he’s heard there could be 60 cranes up by then.

    “We’ll be sending a couple of fairly large tower cranes to Everett by early April to work for M.A. Mortenson Co. on the Providence Everett Medical Center’s new cancer care center,” he said. Another Mortenson crane already is operating at Everett Community College in north Everett, constructing a $27 million arts and sciences building that is the first of 10 structures planned for the college’s expansion program.

    White said there is a shortage of operators but “in times like this a lot of the younger guys get more time in the seat, since there is so much work that those who have seniority can’t handle all of it. But, I haven’t seen anyone delay work yet because of an operator shortage.”

    As for buying new machinery, White said, “that’s very expensive and manufacturers have such a high demand that manufacturing plants are working at maximum output, so there’s quite a lag time on order deliveries … they just can’t produce enough machines for work in the United States as well as around the world. For crane owners and manufacturers this is probably about as good as it gets, it’s a nice problem to have.”


    Terry Stephens is a freelance writer based in Arlington. He can be reached by e-mail at

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