Sooner or later, anybody who wants to build a high-rise in Seattle calls Andrew Morrow. This year, better make it sooner. Morrow is the regional...

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Sooner or later, anybody who wants to build a high-rise in Seattle calls Andrew Morrow. This year, better make it sooner.

Morrow is the regional sales rep for Salem, Ore.-based Morrow Equipment, the nation’s biggest dealer in tower cranes. If you need one in the next year or so and you haven’t made your reservation, you’re probably out of luck.

The nationwide construction boom and two major hurricanes have put a strain on supplies of steel, concrete, plywood — even plastic pipe.

But nothing is in tighter supply right now than tower cranes, without which a skyscraper can’t get off the ground. Normally, tower cranes are available on a few months’ notice. Now they need to be booked a year in advance.

Based on estimates from Morrow and other crane suppliers, Seattle-area skylines will include more than 60 cranes by mid-2006, close to triple the normal number. Developers here probably could use a few more, but there are no more to be had.

It’s a sign that the region’s commercial real-estate construction cycle has not reached its peak.

Tower cranes

Cost: Use of a large tower crane can cost $90,000 a month, including rent and operators.

Crane convoy: Big cranes are trucked in pieces. A 285-foot Liebherr 540 was brought to the 25-story Sheraton Seattle expansion in a convoy of 13 tractor-trailers last month and set up in a weekend.

Tallest: The largest in the Seattle area right now, at 686 feet high, is the Liebherr 630 EC-H being used to build WaMu Center at Second Avenue and Union Street.

Source: Morrow Equipment, developers

“It’s similar to, but busier than, the last cycle” in the 1990s, says Jim White, president of Seattle-based Mobile Crane, a local crane supplier. “There’s apparently more building projects trying to start than there are cranes available to serve them.”

Two large condominium projects are under construction and 30 more residential projects are planned in the downtown Seattle area. Not all will get built, but if the local economy stays on track, a large number will break ground next year.

In Bellevue, construction has begun on Washington Square, a massive condo project that will eventually include 900 units, and at least two other developers are planning large condo towers.

What’s unusual is that all this building is happening at a relatively quiet time for office developers. Construction of the new 42-story WaMu headquarters in downtown Seattle is on schedule, and the tower is to open next year. But for the most part, office developers are waiting for downtown Seattle vacancies to fall further before they put up more skyscrapers.

In Bellevue, Schnitzer Northwest says it’s starting construction next year on the Bravern, a $400 million office-retail complex. Four other office towers are being planned, and analysts expect at least two of them to be built in the next couple of years if the economy holds up.

Crane anxiety has become one of the biggest headaches for construction companies. Developers generally like to break ground as soon as possible after they sign an anchor tenant or get their financing in order. But now, cranes sometimes must be lined up before the final decision to build.

“You find that the major contractors plan their projects very carefully and make arrangements,” White said. “If someone wants to start a project on Feb. 15, but cranes are committed, well, you can’t run these cranes through the three-dimensional Xerox machine and create more of them.”

Morrow said his family’s company, which owns about 500 cranes, moves them around the country and sometimes across international boundaries to meet demand. If things are slow in the Midwest but hopping in California, the cranes will travel to follow the work.

“Right now, it’s busy everywhere,” Morrow said. “It’s a struggle right now trying to get people to plan far enough in advance to be sure that we have the tower crane they need.”

Among the hardest to get are the mammoth luffing cranes frequently used to build skyscrapers in dense downtown areas. Luffers can raise their long booms to avoid bumping into neighboring buildings.

Brian Thomas, director of field operations for general contractor Skanska USA, said he watched the new WaMu headquarters project with more than the usual professional interest.

Although his company wasn’t directly involved, Thomas was very glad to see the 42-story frame erected on schedule because Skanska was next in line for one of the two huge cranes used at WaMu Center.

The Liebherr 540 HC-L luffing crane was taken down from the WaMu site, trucked to Morrow’s yard in Orting, Pierce County, inspected and then brought back to Seattle, where Skanska is using it on the 25-story Sheraton Seattle expansion.

Another Liebherr 540, needed to build the Olive 8 hotel-condominium project at Eighth Avenue and Olive Street, is now operating on a project in New Jersey.

Tom Boyer: 206-464-2923 or