Lookout Homes

Figure 1: An early 3D design intent drawing for a 30' x 30' Lookout Home. .

Lookout Homes

Most forest service fire lookout towers were tall towers with tiny cabins on top, typically no larger than 14'  by 14'. They had steep stairs, no bathroom, and made staying overnight seem a lot like camping. This page explores how to design a lookout home; that is, a lookout tower design that combines outstanding views with the comforts of a well-appointed home. This page describes three lookout home designs: 

More information about these homes can be found below.

Figure 2:  This Google Earth image shows where Mina Casa will be built on Mina Street on Lincoln Beach, just a few miles north of Depoe Bay, Oregon.

Figure 3:  The front view of a design intent drawing for Mina Casa.

Figure 4: A side view of Mina Casa.

Mina Casa

Mina Casa is a 3 bedroom, 2-1/2 bathroom, 1,700 square foot home that will be built on Mina Street on the Oregon Coast. Construction is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2023. This building is a hybrid lookout-tower design; that is, the front part of thee 20' by 20' rectangle will be built with balloon framing like a lookout tower, but the rear portion of the building will be built with a slab-on-grade first floor and platform construction for the 2nd and 3rd floors. 

Note as of August 2022: We are looking to hire a structural engineer or architect interested in being hired to complete the design and engineering details for this project. If you are qualified and interested doing this work, contact Dave Sullivan through email at DrDaveSullivan@gmail.com or phone 541-791-6470 and ask to speak with Dave.


Figure 5: This PDF file shows some CAD drawings for Mina Casa. These drawings need further refinement and review by a structural engineer or architect before they can be submitted to the Lincoln County, Oregon Planning and Development Office. Other layers of the CAD drawings (not shown in this file) contain drawings for the ground floor, 2nd floor, 2nd floor framing, and roof framing.

Figure 6: In this short YouTube video, Barb Sullivan looks at the site of the fire lookout tower being built at  the top of the Sullivan tree farm.

Figure 7: The side view of a fairly recent design concept for the Pedee Fire Lookout Tower. 

Figure 8: This Osborne Fire Finder will be in the center of the Pedee Fire Tower's Observation Cabin. It was salvaged from a fire lookout tower that was demolished in North Carolina.

The Pedee Fire Lookout Tower

The Pedee Fire Lookout Tower (see Figures 1 and 7) is under construction at Dave and Barb Sullivan's timberland property at 12875 Kings Valley Highway, Monmouth, Oregon which is just outside the small unincorporated town of Pedee. Land use approval and site-specific approval to build a fire lookout has been received from Polk County, and the Sullivans have completed site prep by logging trees near the building site, removing stumps, trenching for  electricity and water, and installing a septic tank. Construction began in early 2022 and should be completed in 2023. For example, Figure 9 shows Evan Diviney cutting a Doug Fir tree to make a corner post for the lookout tower. 

Dave Sullivan worked for over two years with the talented folks at Fire Tower Engineered Timber to an unsuccessful attempt to create detailed plans backed up by a structural analysis. The licensed professional who had the most impact during this extended design effort  was Ben Brungraber, who cofounded Fire Tower Engineered Timber, a design and engineering firm that specializes in timber frame and complex post-and-beam construction methods. You can learn more about Dr. Brungraber and his qualifications at the Fire Tower Engineered Timber website

The slowly evolving plans for this tower ran into difficulties with Oregon's land use law and building code compliance. For example, Polk County Zoning Ordinance, Section 177.025, says putting a fire lookout tower on the Sullivan timberland is an outright permitted use. On the other hand, this same law (Section 177.070) says the lookout tower site does not qualify for a dwelling, and yet another part of the law (Section 110.186) defines a dwelling as 

a building or portion thereof which is occupied in whole or in part as a home, residence, or sleeping place, either permanently or temporarily, but excluding hotels and motels. 

Everyone knows fire lookout towers are used for sleeping at night, so  it makes no sense to allow a fire lookout tower, but not a dwelling, and then define a dwelling as any building used for sleeping. As a mathematical analogy, this is the equivalent of saying, A is greater the B, B is greater the C, and C is greater than A.  Somehow this logical inconsistency needed to be resolved, so the Polk County Community Development office decided to allow the fire lookout tower as long as it does not have a bathroom --which is a restriction that appears to have no basis in the actual law. Then, they strongly encouraged building the fire lookout tower under an Agricultural Exemption (see  ORS 455.315). This means the fire lookout tower can be built without any structural or engineering analysis whatsoever.

The current construction is proceeding in what might be called a "build-design" process. The fire lookout tower is being built from trees on the property according to informal plans. Then, once the building is complete, then the resulting tower can be analyzed for safety. That way, we will be able to organically adapt the tower to the materials at hand, and if some part(s) of the tower need reinforcing, that can be done later by adding guy wires, additional metal connections,  and so on.

Figure 9: Even Diviney cuts a Doug Fir tree to make a corner post for the Pedee Lookout Tower under construction at the top of the Sullivan treefarm.

Figure 10: A side view of the Monster Fire Lookout Home. This shows the last version of the design intent drawings. The first 30 feet would have been supported by large timber poles, and the rest of the tower was to be built with conventional platform construction.

The Monster Lookout Home

The Monster Lookout Home (see Figure 7) was an early design for the Pedee Lookout Tower to be built on Dave and Barb Sullivan's timberland property at 12875 Kings Valley Highway, Monmouth, Oregon. 

Figure 1 near the top of this page shows a side view of this home's initial design. It would have been a 30' by 30' square, so each floor would provide 900 square feet of livable space. The 30' x 30' base was intended to evoke the image of forest service lookouts, but it obviously would have been wider and deeper. Rather than having a single-story cabin on top, the base was designed to support three 10' tall floors. The tower was to be topped with a smaller observation cabin complete with a Osborne Fire Finder. Finally, to make the Fire Lookout comfortable, it was designed to have a four-stop elevator. But ultimately, we decided to scale back this plan and build a smaller lookout tower. 


Figure 11: This PDF file shows early design intent plans for the Monster Lookout Home. 

Figure 12: A 3D view of a budget lookout home. 


Figure 13: This PDF file shows early design intent drawings for a Budget Lookout Home

Budget Lookout Home

This lookout tower provides 800-square feet of living space in an inexpensive package making it a perfect starter home for people on a budget. Because it has simple foundation and roof requirements and can be built from a kit, it should be possible for a small construction crew with a rented telehandler to assemble the entire home in a week or two. 

As you can see, this lookout home is perfect for placing on a sloped site. The draft design shown in Figure 11 is a 15-degree slope from the front to the back of the home, and this is easily accommodated by making the rear columns shorter than the front ones.

Figure 14: This design intent image shows how a budget lookout home could be built on the ground. This design would be perfect as a ADU, Accessory Dwelling Unit,