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Design firms revisit traditional models

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When economic conditions dealt a debilitating blow to the commercial construction sector in late 2008, architectural firms took an equally difficult hit. As local firms wait for recovery to gain a firm foothold in the industry, some firms are using their creativity to find ways to keep busy.

In its latest Consensus Construction forecast, released in January, the American Institute of Architects predicted a slow recovery for nonresidential construction, and an anticipated 2 percent drop in spending during 2011.

While AIA expects conditions to improve later this year and gain momentum – particularly for hotel, retail and office projects – heading into 2012, local tales of layoffs aren’t uncommon.

“Eleven or 12 people I know now have left Springfield for Arkansas to find work,” said Jeffery Smith, architect and vice president of JPS and Associates.

At Dake Wells Architecture, business partners Brandon Dake and Andrew Wells have actually increased their staff, doubling it to nine employees in the last year, with the possibility of adding a 10th this year, Wells said.

That’s not to say that Dake Wells has been immune to industry challenges. Despite having a dozen projects for universities and K–12 schools on the books, everything came to a screeching halt in late 2008.

“In a matter of two months, nine of those projects went on hold. Two of those were very significant projects that we were doing for Missouri State University on its West Plains campus,” Wells said, noting that the projects stalled when funding from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority was pulled.

In their hustle to find work, the two began diversifying the types of jobs they took on, branching from their core of publicly funded educational facilities to take on corporate office projects, smaller jobs, a few residential design projects and interior remodels.

“In this kind of down economy, I think building owners are starting to look at their buildings a little more closely – ‘How can we make more use with the facility we have?’” Wells said.

Buxton Kubik Dodd Creative also has changed its thinking in light of market conditions, said Brian Kubik, an architect and president of the company.

“We experienced a big downturn at the end of ’08,” Kubik said.

“What we did with our business is we just became a better business — we became more frugal with our spending.”

The company’s focus on interior architecture and adapting buildings for new purposes helped it find work, as did its willingness to tackle jobs of all sizes.

“We were OK with smaller projects. There’s a lot of companies that would rather work on the big ones all the time, but we enjoy getting the smaller business, too,” Kubik said.

That’s not to say the company isn’t landing the big jobs, though. A current project entails transforming a 30,000-square-foot building into a 100,000-square-foot building for James River Assembly of God’s Wilson Creek campus along James River Freeway.

“We’re using the shell of the old building as part of the new building, kind of enveloping the whole building,” Kubik said. “We’ve been blessed with good projects.
We’re a smaller firm, so we don’t have to have that many projects to be good.”
At JPS and Associates, a shift away from traditional architecture services has helped the firm ride out the downturn.  

Since its formation in 1993, the company has performed analysis for projects that are insured by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or are eligible for tax credits. Among recent reviews was one for St. Louis developer Kevin McGowan’s now-stalled plans for the Heer’s building in downtown Springfield.

“We draw buildings for a living, we talk to clients. Who better to review all this information than someone who has been through the process and understands it?” Smith said.

Now, those third-party project reviews are JPS’ primary focus, Smith said.

“Tax credits, HUD loan insurance, those are avenues to get projects to keep going,” he said.

According to the AIA’s latest Architecture Billings Index, also released in January, things already are improving, though not by leaps and bounds.

Index scores of 50 or more represent a billings increase, and the index bumped up more than two points in December to 54.2, according to an AIA news release.

Another bright spot was a slight increase in the new projects inquiry up to 62.6 in December from 61.4 the previous month. Still, there is a lag time of nine to 12 months between architecture billings and construction spending, the release said.

“While we do have a desire to get back into doing traditional architecture again, right now is not the best time to do that,” Smith said.[[In-content Ad]]

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