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Architects face feast or famine

“The number you have dialed is no longer in service.”
That was the telephonic response to a number of cold calls to architectural firms to ask the question, “How’s business?”
While sampling firms in Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster and York counties, a secretary-receptionist confided that the architect she works for had received many resumes in the wake of competitor shutdowns in a weakened economy.

“We’re actually larger now than we were a year ago because we’re very diversified,” said Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates Inc. co-founder Douglas Rohrbaugh.

Lefevre-Funk Architects Inc. co-founder Steve Funk painted a similar picture: “Business is good. The past two years have been our best years ever.”

SAA President Mark Shermeyer is slightly more conservative in his assessment. The York-based architect said, “2008-2009 was way off the charts as far as business being down,” but “2010 was a pretty good year, certainly much better than we expected after 2009. 2011 looks to be similarly on track, maybe even better. One thing that’s helped is that we are a diversified firm, not too large, not too small, but we are adaptable.”

One of the national gauges by which architectural business is measured is the Architecture Billings Index, or ABI.

“The recovery in design activity at architecture firms continued in January, although the pace of growth slowed considerably,” American Institute of Architects chief economist Kermit Baker said in a recent report. “At exactly 50.0, the January ABI showed no increase in design firm billings over December levels, but also no decline. However, January marks the third straight month with ABI scores at the 50 level or higher, an encouraging sign that architecture firms are in the midst of a sustainable recovery.”

Looking at the difference diversification makes, Shermeyer said, “Health care is one market for us now that has been very good. We do a lot of adaptive reuse work.”

“We’ve always had a pretty diverse client base,” Funk said. “The majority of our work is in multi-family housing, but that isn’t our only niche. We also do commercial and single-family residential, retail and hospitality. We’ve just been able to make it work.”

One of the ironies being addressed by architecture firms in the current economy is overcoming what they used to do with what they do now.

“I’m not talking about developer work,” said Rohrbaugh, whose firm is in Upper Allen
Township. “That’s where architects who are doing developer work are really hurting, because there’s so much empty developer-owned real estate. They’re not building, but trying to fill up what they have. Our work is for the owner-occupied type of tenant.”
Shermeyer said he sees architectural business as somewhat cyclical.

“Probably before the easy mortgages, a lot of things that were built were rentals,” he said. “Then in the early 21st century, they didn’t want to rent anything. Developers were doing condominium projects. Now everyone is looking at rentals again.”

If you’re looking for a word to describe our economy in non-Armageddon terms, “stalled” might fit the bill. When asked for advice to up-and-coming designers, one architect said jokingly, “Pick another career.”

“Do your research and select a region that has stability,” Rohrbaugh said. “It’s easy to be attracted to the larger metropolitan areas. But the market in New York City tends to be more volatile. Bigger markets tend to be up and down with the economy and much more affected than areas that have an employment rate that is historically more stable. Central Pennsylvania has always been pretty solid.”

“Students just coming out of school who don’t have a lot of obligations are, in some ways, more flexible for getting jobs, especially if they are talented, not just in design abilities, but technical abilities as well,” Shermeyer said. In some regards they might be more employable than someone older who has more experience, but also has a greater salary requirement, he said.

“The newbie should be a sponge, be more than willing to learn and absorb, become a specialist, if necessary, in up-and-coming areas,” he added. “The green industry, for example, or some of the 3-D computer modeling packages. I think we’re going to see clients wanting more quality presentations out of the architectural firms.”

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