Seattle Building Boom Creates Tradesmen’s Market

A strong regional economy is fueling the biggest construction boom since the late 1980s in the Puget Sound area.

Some contractors are so busy they have to turn away jobs, and skilled workers are getting fatter paychecks.

“It’s the tradesmen’s market. You can write your own ticket in the Seattle area,” said plumber Ted Durham of Bellevue-based Tri-State Plumbing.

Top plumbers for Tri-State made $16 to $17 an hour last year, said foreman Butch Webb. Now some are getting as much as $20 an hour. The company’s work force has tripled, to 180, in six months.

Summer is always the busiest time in the construction industry, but contractors say they are seeing more than the normal seasonal peak. Some builders wonder how the industry can keep up with demand.

“We have turned some work down that we would have felt very fortunate to have three years ago,” said Bob Irwin, director of operations for GLY Construction, a large commercial contractor in Bellevue.

With skilled labor in short supply, people needing home remodeling work might have to wait. Bob Hasson, owner of R.T.H. Construction in Edmonds, said any new work will have to wait two months to schedule. Usually, the wait is one month.

Meanwhile, material costs are rising along with labor costs, contractors said.

The Engineering News Record reported at the beginning of June that construction costs in Seattle have risen an average 6.8 percent since last year.

Building permit applications are up, of course. Through the first five months the number of permits rose 13 percent in Seattle. The total value of $343 million was up 56 percent from last year, reflecting that most of the boom has been in commercial and multifamily projects.

Bellevue’s increase is even greater. Permits issued through June 20 rose 49 percent from last year. They were valued at $118 million, twice the value of last year’s.

Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond have hired consultants to help review building permit applications.

Members of the Seattle carpenters union are logging more hours than they have in 10 years, said Ron Forest, financial secretary/treasurer of Local 131 of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Contractors, both union and non-union, said they are advertising in California, Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Alaska for highly skilled employees.

The construction boom hasn’t hit the feverish level of the late 1980s, said economist Dick Conway, when about 18,000 units of new housing were built in each of 1988 and 1989. About 10,000 units are estimated to be built this year.

But economists predict the local economy will continue to grow. Large projects include the new Mariners and Seahawks stadiums and the Seattle Center and Pacific Place in Seattle.

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