About Us

Dave Sullivan looks happy because he finally figured out how to use a small excavator to raise a king-post truss for an entrance gate to his timberland. Since then he has bought a 78,000 crane, so this task would be easier today.

How LookoutTowers.Org Got Started

I am Dave Sullivan, and I founded LookoutTowers.Org. This page has useful ideas about who I am and why I created this new nonprofit organization. Feel free to skip to the bottom if you just want contact information.

I'm a fourth generation Oregonian, and I grew up in a family that liked to backpack in the 1950s and 60s. So as a kid, I visited a lot of fire towers when they were active and got to visit with the lonely folks who watched over Oregon's forests.

I've wanted to build a fire lookout tower since I was a child. At that time, Oregon's hilltops were dotted with 800 fire lookout towers, and many of them had paid firewatchers each summer. Most of these towers have been removed (fewer than 200 lookouts remain in Oregon), and the majority of these are in poor physical shape. Only a handful of lookouts still have paid firewatchers. This makes it helpful for private landowners to watch for and report smoke plumes that can turn into major wildfires.

So I became an active member of the Timber Framers Guild (TFG), and participated in their community projects to build pavilions around the country and in Canada, and I travelled with the TFG on trips to England and Switzerland to study historic timber framed structures. I owe a great debt to the TFG for all they taught me.

I live in Oregon where land use laws encourage people to put lookout towers on timberland: most county zoning laws allow fire towers as an outright permitted use as long as they are used for fire protection purposes. So I filled out lots of paperwork and got formal land use approval for my fire tower in Polk County.

When I decided to build a fire lookout home, I didn’t know how to design it. I’m a retired business professor who wrote a successful series of textbooks about computing: I’m not an engineer or architect.

So I began exploring how fire towers are built. Fortunately it’s possible to get original architectural drawings of Forest Service historic fire towers. They are easily-built and efficient structures with an iconic visual appeal. This gave me a place to start, but the forest service used creosote timbers, steep stairs, outhouses, tiny observation cabins and made other cost-saving choices that don’t appeal to me. I wanted my fire tower to use modern materials, meet today's building codes, have electricity, larger living space, an elevator, and come with five-star fit and finish. I also wanted it to retain the classic look of a 1930s fire lookout tower.

I approach design from a computer science viewpoint; that’s how I spent most of my professional career. Computer scientists think of things in terms of classes of objects and creating reusable modules. They work hard to package their logic in routines that can be reused later in new and unexpected ways. They also like to share work in open source communities. For example, you almost certainly own devices filled with open source software, such as your phone, DVR or car. On the other hand, I'm equally certain you don't live in a house that was designed through open source collaboration.

As I began sketching my fire tower, I wanted to use building methods that were scalable. I wanted to build a monster-size fire tower, but I figured if I designed things correctly, the same designs and building methods could be downsized into a backyard play structure.

I know truly original ideas are as rare as unicorns, so I began looking to see who else is working on open source architecture? What I discovered was disheartening: architecture doesn't have the tradition of collaborative open source design that exists in software development. A fun counterexample is the Tiller Lookout design.

I began to wonder why the same sort of changes I’ve seen in other areas of life have bypassed architecture. For example, shipping containers have dramatically cut the cost of transporting goods overseas. They’ve become so popular, people are converting them into tiny houses. But no architect can claim credit for designing the class of objects called "shipping container". Craigslist changed how classified ads work (and made most newspapers unprofitable), Wikipedia replaced the Encyclopedia Britannica, Amazon and eBay shifted marketing and distribution … but nothing similar has happened in building design.

This sort of thinking led me to create LookoutTowers.Org, a nonprofit organization whose educational mission is simple: To promote the open source development of timber framed towers.

With open source design, lots of ideas get blended together. When many suppliers, builders, engineers, architects, factories, construction firms and land owners work cooperatively, the overall result is often better than any individual or single firm could create. That's why I have no interest in copyrighting or patenting anything, and why the LookoutTowers.Org's motto is: Come and Play.

I'm convinced we can revitalize interest in fire lookout towers, both through restoration projects like the Cougar Pass Lookout Education Center in Oregon's Elliott State Forest, but also by giving people designs to build their own lookout towers.

If I've learned anything about open source development, I've learned scale matters. The more people get involved, the better the ideas will be, the lower costs will be, and everyone will have more fun.

I've really been having fun with these ideas, and I want everyone else to feel welcome to "Come and Play." Let's design and build lots of really awesome timber-framed towers together.

-- Dave Sullivan

Dave can be reached at drdavesullivan@gmail.com or by phoning 541-791-6470.

Legal Structure

I initially created this nonprofit as SandboxDesigns.org, and it took a full year to realize a better and more descriptive name would be LookoutTowers.org. So I purchased the domain name for LookoutTowers.Org, but the organization remained its own distinct legal entity. After more thought, we concluded it would be best to fold the designs and assets of LookoutTowers.org into a pre-existing nonprofit organization. So, LookoutTowers.org is now one of the websites owned and managed by the Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project (available at www.ORWW.org).

Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project. Inc. (ORWW) is an educational, nonprofit 501 c(3) corporation based in Philomath, Oregon since December 1996. ORWW is funded by private businesses, landowners, individuals, associations, and foundations with an interest in the long-term use and scientific management of Oregon's natural and cultural resources. The goals and objectives of ORWW, a brief organizational history, and a list of current board members can be found at www.ORWW.org/Mission.htm.

Because ORWW has 501.3c status, any donations to support LookoutTowers.org should be made out to ORWW, which is the legal entity that owns and manages the LookoutTowers.Org effort.