Architects think small and different

By Lynne Miller | February 02, 2009 01:30PM

Big developments have dried up in New York, forcing architects to shift gears. Some firms are snapping up smaller jobs while others are diversifying their practices.  

“We’re saying yes to things we wouldn’t have said yes to a couple of years ago,” said Deborah Berke, principal of Deborah Berke & Partners Architects.   

Berke’s firm is known for tackling a variety of projects, including the Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea and 48 Bond Street, a high-end condominium in Noho. Yet more recently, a couple retained the firm for a smaller project — a gut renovation of its Manhattan loft.  

“Individuals are approaching us that probably would not have thought they could approach us a couple of years ago,” Berke said.

Architect Daniel Frisch’s firm designs high-end residential renovations for wealthy clients who like to stay under the radar. The firm recently completed work on a historic brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. New projects are scarce and smaller in scope, he said.

Uncertainty about the market is making people reluctant to start projects, Frisch said. Potential clients are looking for ways to strip the frills out of projects and stretch their budgets.  

“Projects are being reduced to their simplest elements,” he said. “There’s not a lot of gilding going on.”

At Michael Kahn’s firm in Midtown, the construction cost value of projects has dipped about 20 percent compared to the value of projects the firm had nine months ago. “The cost of construction is a factor we consider when we determine our fees,” he said. To make up for the decline, “it requires us to find additional projects,” he said.

Established in 2005, the firm used to specialize primarily in traditional corporate office interiors for clients in the media and financial services industries as well as retail spaces and broadcast studios. Larger firms used to send job referrals Kahn’s way. That source of work has disappeared, since big companies can no longer afford to pass up smaller jobs.

The firm is pursuing condo conversions, said Michael Kahn, who, in recent months, has cut his professional fees along with staff. In the recent past, “we had so much stuff happening on the commercial side, we never would have considered condo conversions,” he said.

The firm also has submitted proposals to hospitals, a new sector for the company. Furthermore, the company is working with apartment building landlords to correct Department of Buildings and fire department code violations, “the kind of work I did as a young man out of school,” Kahn said, adding, “We have to be flexible.”