Fighting for scarce projects

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Print this page by Marilyn J. Shaw

Talk about an extreme makeover. A year after many Virginia architecture firms were worrying about a war for talent, some practices have laid off staff because of a lack of work.

As they try to survive the recession, architects are competing fiercely for scarce construction and renovation projects. And they don’t expect a quick rescue from the federal stimulus program, which will give priority to infrastructure projects that are well beyond the design stage.

Nonetheless, many in the field see a better future, and it is green.

Energy-efficient building design is the big-picture trend in architecture, says Scott Frank of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a professional association based in Washington.  Since 2001, more than 75,000 professionals have earned accreditation in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). That’s the acronym for a set of standards for environmentally sustainable design established by the U.S. Green Building Council. More than 750 people with LEED credentials live in Virginia.

“Sustainability has to be a standard way of doing business,” says Tim Colley, president of Colley Architects PC, a three-person architectural practice that opened two years ago in Blacksburg. “It saves money, creates jobs, creates less carbon emissions. It’s one of the reasons we opened [the firm]. I hope that out of this [era] comes greater acceptance of this approach.”

Edward Weaver, a vice president at AECOM Design in Arlington, compares the growing push toward LEED design to the effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law enacted in 1990 that set standards for accessibility. “There was a lot of retrofit. Companies specialized their practices in ADA design. They reacted to the new laws. Today you hardly notice it. It’s just a part of design,” he says.

“I think we’re going to see the same thing with LEED and sustainability in general,” Weaver adds. “It will just be standard practice. Why would we do it any other way?”

LEED already appears to be the standard in some areas of construction. “If we didn’t have credentials in LEED, we would not get a single higher education project,” says Bob Mills, president of Richmond-based Moseley Architects, which handles public-sector work exclusively. “It’s a must, not an option, because they are built for their constituency: students.”

Having LEED accreditation, however, does not mean that firms face less competition for a job.  James Madison University recently received 51 proposals for the renovation and expansion of Duke Hall, which houses a theater and an art gallery. Susan Mathias, who has worked with university facilities for 10 years, says the greatest response she has ever seen for a similar big project was 30.

Likewise, a recent architecture/engineering job to renovate a building in Washington and a few buildings elsewhere for a federal government agency attracted more than 100 proposals, more than three times the usual number. In fact, the timeline for reviewing proposals had to be pushed back because of the volume, Weaver says. “You can’t not look at them.”

That kind of competition is prompting some architectural firms to search for work far afield. Weaver’s firm, AECOM Design, seeks U.S. government projects wherever they may be. For instance, the company is at work on a higher-education building in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Weaver expects other U.S. architecture firms to expand their footprint overseas to reduce their reliance on swings of the U.S. economy. 

One result of fewer construction projects is that general contractors and subcontractors are placing increasingly lower bids. “We’re getting bids now that are drastically below what clients are expecting,” down 20 percent from target budgets, says Mills of Moseley Architects.

But that trend may not last long. Mills expects the recession to put some architectural and building-trades firms out of business. When demand ratchets up, the companies left standing may well charge more.

Mills’ firm has endured an undisclosed number of layoffs because of the recession and now employs 200 people at its four offices in Virginia and two in North Carolina. He believes the firm’s emphasis on LEED will make it one of the survivors. “We’re certainly not dead in the water, but we’re not growing,” Mills says. “Sustainability will lead us out of this recession. It’s the number one driver of the future of this nation.”

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