Inspiration behind Sandbox Lookout Towers

The inspiration for Sandbox Lookout Towers comes from the classic U.S. Forest Service Lookout Towers built on hilltops across the United States. The lookout tower building boom reached its climax in the 1930s and continued through the 1950s. By 1953, a survey showed over 5,000 lookout towers across the country. Each tower would house a solitary firewatcher who kept watch for distant smoke plumes. This system effectively caught fires when they were still small and easily extinguished. 

After other methods of observing fires became available, most lookouts were neglected and eventually disappeared through rot, vandalism or deliberate governmental removal. But the Pacific Northwest still has over 400 lookout towers, and a few of these have paid firewatchers each summer. The remaining towers have become popular tourist destinations and many are rented consistently to folks who want a rustic getaway. For more general information about lookout towers and how they can be rented, we recommend looking at the Forest Fire Lookout Association website. 

Lookout towers have a magical charm that comes from their simple, functional design: they use wood trusses to put a cabin high enough to get awesome views. Their iconic design is unlike any other building, and they are just plain awesome.

Fortunately, the Forest Service has collected and published the original blueprint drawings for their lookout towers from 1936 to 1965. We decided to model Sandbox Lookout Towers after the popular and iconic CT-2 fire lookout towers that had their widest success in the 1930s. But we couldn't use the CT-2 designs directly: They had steep stairs and drafty cabins. We wanted Sandbox Lookout Towers to use modern materials while retaining the historic character of forest service lookouts.

Figure 1: Two fire towers from the same class of designs.: a 12'-by-12' Junior Tower on the left, and a 20'-by-20' Papa Tower on the right. The same basic design can be stretched dramatically while retaining lots of standardized parts. For example, both designs would use exactly the same stairway flights, column posts, anchors, and connectors. Many other parts would be almost identical, such as catwalks, railings, and roof and floor structures. 

Sandbox Lookout Tower Family

This page describes a family of Sandbox Lookout Towers: small towers with a 12' by 12' foot base, medium towers with a 16' by 16' base, and large towers with a 20' by 20' base. Each Sandbox Lookout Tower is a specific instance of the generic class of Sandbox Tower.

A key goal behind the designs on this page has been to use standardization to drive down cost. Standardization in the software world drives the marginal cost down to zero. That will never happen in the architectural world, but standardization should chop the cost at least in half for Sandbox Lookouts. Volume production always results in huge efficiencies and often in unexpected ways.

As an example, consider the Sandbox Design for a Junior Tower with a 12'-by-12' cabin shown nearby. This Junior Tower looks a lot like the 20'-by-20' Papa Tower next to it for good reason: they both the same stairs, anchors, connectors, and other parts. 

We hope thousands of the Junior Towers to be built around the world. They are likely to sprout up in backyards as playhouses, in parks as motel units, on timber parcels as hunting lodges, and in lagoons on South Pacific atolls as fishing cabins. As production ramps up, factories will produce inexpensive tower kits, sell them online, transport them on flatbed trucks or shipping containers, and the buyers will assemble them quickly with just a few battery-powered tools. These towers also avoid most site prep because they only need four simple concrete pads for their foundation. 

Figure 2: This 3D model of a 12' by 12' Junior Tower was created by Fire Tower Engineered Timber (FTET.com). More detailed information about Junior Towers can be found on the Towers page of this website.

Figure 3: This 3D model of a 20' by 20' Tower was also created by Fire Tower Engineered Timber (FTET.com). With its flat roof and larger cabin size, it would be much cheaper to build per square foot than the Junior Tower shown in Figure 2. If you have access to AutoCad, you may want to open this .RVT file that contains the full 3D model.


Early Sandbox Lookout Design Principals

The four-page PDF file embedded nearby was created in January 2020 and contains early design intent drawings for small, medium, and large Sandbox Lookout Towers. 

Most United States Forest Service lookout towers were constructed between 1920 and 1960, and they were tall, dramatic structures designed to put a small cabin high in the sky so a firewatcher could spot distant smoke plumes. While their visual profile looked great, by today's standards they were terrible buildings to live in. They had lots of very steep and narrow stairs, tended to rot out (even when they used smelly creosote as a preservative), were drafty and had no insulation.

Sandbox Lookout Towers will retain the iconic profile of Forest Service Lookouts, but they will be safe and comfortable. So Sandbox Lookout Towers will share these common design features: