Architects adapt, cut back

Aug.August 21, 2009 11:58 AM

If South Florida’s real estate agents think they’ve got it tough, they should walk a mile in an architect’s shoes. 

The American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Architecture Billing Index stayed below 50 for the 18th straight month in July. Although it rose to 43.1, up from 37.7 the previous month, scores below 50 indicate declines in billings. For South Florida architects, these readings indicate the ongoing struggles of a hard-hit architecture industry.

While news headlines trumpet the banking crisis, developer bankruptcies and realtor woes, South Florida’s architecture firms have quietly laid off employees and scrambled for new strategies to survive a deep recession.

“I don’t know of any architectural firm that isn’t experiencing a great downturn,” said John Fullerton, principal of Fullerton Diaz Architects, a Coral Gables-based architecture firm specializing in architecture, interior design, land planning and analysis and programming and consulting internationally. 

Fullerton Diaz laid off 35 people this year. Now, the firm scraps to get home additions and small commercial projects that helped the firm build its business when it launched in the late 1970s. The firm’s diversity paid off in past downturns, but this time around Fullerton said there’s nothing to fill the gaps. His remaining architects are working only four days a week.

“It’s tough out there. Everything has slowed down,” confirmed Jose Estevez, principal of MGE Architects, a Miami-based firm that provides architecture, master planning and interior design services for healthcare, education and transportation projects in Florida and the Southeast.  

Tough, but MGE is faring better than its competition. It hasn’t laid off any architects and work has been stable over the past four months. With a focus on healthcare buildings, which are performing better than office, industrial and retail, MGE enjoys some insulation from the worst of the downturn.

“We’ve expanded our healthcare practice beyond in-patient facilities to include out-patient facilities like physician offices and outpatient centers,” Estevez said. “We’re also pursuing more aviation work after our success with the design of Concourse J at the Miami International Airport last year.”

MGE is taking advantage of slower days to prepare for the green building boom. Six of MGE architects and designers have recently become certified in the ecological designation for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, at the firm’s expense. Estevez encourages architects to participate in networking and charitable organizations to grow business contacts and business development training is ongoing.

Merrill Romanik, a principal in the Fort Lauderdale offices of design firm Cubellis, said the decline in billings is leveling off. With budgets beginning to loosen up in the fall, she expects to see the momentum begin to rebuild, at least in the public sector. In fact, she reports the firm is already getting requests for proposals from municipalities, though it still laid off 10 positions in the last year.

“We’re doing a lot more public sector work than we used to,” said Romanik. “In order to remain afloat, we need to be generalists — and that’s what we are. We’re doing patch-them-up and band-aid projects, but we’re staying nimble — and we’re staying busy.”

The uptick in the billings index offers some hope, and South Florida architectural firms are hopeful and cautiously optimistic about 2010.

“The economy seems to be stabilizing and confidence is slowly returning,” Estevez said. “Hopefully, the banks will begin making money available and we’ll start seeing clients release some of the larger projects to design. Miami always bounces back.” 

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