“Cheap stick framing has led to a proliferation of blocky, forgettable mid-rises—and more than a few construction fires.”


In a moment we’ll learn why America’s new apartment buildings all look the same.

First, an aside.

One of our most indelible travel experiences in recent years came in 2016 when we visited Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Only 30 years ago Estonia was a bedraggled Soviet republic, and once freed to pursue its own post-communist destiny the country has caught up to the times by thinking and acting ahead of the curve.

Today Estonia is a juxtaposition of history and modernity, no more so than in Tallinn, where citizens ride public transportation for free and vote on-line, and also can enjoy dinner atop a glass & steel skyscraper then walk a few blocks to the 14th-century old town for a nightcap.

We spent much of our time in the historic city center, marveling at structures still hale and hearty at age 700, then arrived back home to find construction underway atop the concrete foundations at the Breakwater amid mounds of pre-fab stick/toothpick/matchstick framing.

I’d known for a very long time that construction techniques in America differ from those glimpsed in Europe, fundamentally in the dichotomy of wood versus concrete, masonry and steel. In Tallinn there are numerous example of Soviet-built prefab apartment blocks, but instead of wooden “sticks,” the standardized sections were made of concrete.

This time the visual evidence was right down the street from our house, deployed for a project obviously intended to last only a few decades — or around the time the city’s TIF subsidy bonds finally get paid off.

All the while I just kept thinking about those venerable buildings in Tallinn. I’ve heard good things about the living experience in Breakwater, and here in Anchor City that ship has sailed.

It is as it was intended. Must it be this way? I don’t know.

Breakwater fire revisited: Exactly what are the potential dangers of “Toothpick Construction” techniques?

Breakwater, Break Wind: “We got to move these refrigerators, we gotta move these color TV’s,” or else we’ll miss the thrill of public housing demolitions.

Fact-checking Deaf Gahan: He hasn’t spent one penny of his own money to welcome another business to New Albany. Taxpayer-financed subsidies? Those are another matter entirely.

Awed throngs gather their headgear as the Toothpick Colossus of Duggins rises again, right there, across from the fire station.

This piece explains it all.

Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same, by Justin Fox (Bloomberg)

Cheap stick framing has led to a proliferation of blocky, forgettable mid-rises—and more than a few construction fires.

These buildings are in almost every U.S. city. They range from three to seven stories tall and can stretch for blocks. They’re usually full of rental apartments, but they can also house college dorms, condominiums, hotels, or assisted-living facilities. Close to city centers, they tend toward a blocky, often colorful modernism; out in the suburbs, their architecture is more likely to feature peaked roofs and historical motifs. Their outer walls are covered with fiber cement, metal, stucco, or bricks.

They really are everywhere, I discovered on a cross-country drive last fall, and they’re going up fast. In 2017, 187,000 new housing units were completed in buildings of 50 units or more in the U.S., the most since the Census Bureau started keeping track in 1972. By my informal massaging of the data, well over half of those were in blocky mid-rises.

These structures’ proliferation is one of the most dramatic changes to the country’s built environment in decades. Yet when I started asking around about them, they didn’t seem to have a name. I encountered someone calling them “stumpies” in a website comment, but that sadly hasn’t caught on. It was only after a developer described the style to me as five-over-one—five stories of apartments over a ground-floor “podium” of parking and/or retail—that I was able to find some online discussion of the phenomenon.

The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.

The method traces to 1830s Chicago, a boomtown with vast forests nearby …