Layoffs Sweep Architecture Profession as Economy Worsens

December 29, 2008

By C. J. Hughes

In moves that will surprise no one who has followed the barrage of grim economic news, architecture firms across the country are laying off workers at unprecedented levels.

Over the past few months, Perkins Eastman, one of the country’s largest firms, has let go 10 percent of its staff, or about 80 of 800 employees, according to Bradford Perkins, FAIA, firm chairman. “It’s very unfortunate when this happens,” says Perkins, adding that the cuts are the deepest in the firm’s 24-year history.

Meanwhile, FXFOWLE cut six percent of its staff in October, leaving 185 in New York and 15 in Dubai. Like Perkins Eastman, postponed projects were a chief reason for the layoffs, according to spokesman Brien McDaniel, who didn’t provide specifics. His firm, founded in 1978, hasn’t laid off anybody since the last major recession, in the early 1990s. “We are entering 2009 pretty good as our backlog of work is as strong as 2008,” McDaniel wrote in an e-mail. “We are optimistic, but cautious.”

On the West Coast, Mulvanny G2 Architecture, a retail-focused firm based in Bellevue, Washington, has let go of about 20 percent of its staff—roughly 90 of its 460 employees, according to Mitch Smith, the firm’s managing director. Proportionally speaking, they are the biggest layoffs for the firm since its 1971 founding, Smith adds. “Financing problems are affecting everybody,” he said. “Some clients are slowing down and postponing commitments, while others are now focused on long-term planning.”

HOK Group, meanwhile, confirmed it has let some staff go but would not specify figures. “There have been select reductions, but just a handful,” says Christopher Laul, a principal in the New York office of the 2,500-employee firm. The firm was founded in 1955 and now has 29 offices across the globe, including Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Mexico City.

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Other top firms, including Gensler and Skidmore Owings & Merrill, did not return repeated calls for comments for this article. 

The job losses in the architecture profession seem in step with national unemployment figures. On December 5, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate hit 6.7 percent in November, up from 6.5 percent in October, for a 15-year high.

And many sectors were hurt, according to the report, which found that the architectural and engineering sector lost 10,000 jobs in November while the construction industry lost 82,000. Since September 2006, when construction industry employment peaked, 780,000 jobs have disappeared.

But not all gloom has been evenly distributed. Perkins + Will, a 21-office international firm with 1,750 employees, hasn’t let anybody go, according to Howard Weiss, a spokesman. “We have benefited from work overseas,” he says, “and the firm has not had many projects cancelled nationally.”

Read more economic coverage in our special section, Recession Reports.

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