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Architects Get Slice of Stimulus Pie

September 11, 2009

By Bruce Buckley

The “shovel-ready” focus of projects funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has provided limited stimulus to the design community at-large. Many architects say they have yet to feel a boost. Still, firms with well-established experience in the public sector are finding opportunities, whether it be the revival of stalled projects or entirely new commissions. For some, the ARRA is keeping their practice afloat.

Illustration © Richard Mia (top); courtesy RATIO Architects (above)
Some architects are getting work thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Click on the slide show icon to view images of stimulus-funded projects.
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Ready to go
“Our federal practice is swamped,” says Gus Ardura, HDR Architecture’s national director for federal practice. “State, local, and private are down, but we’ve been able to shift a lot of our focus over to federal.” The Omaha-based firm was selected to be part of the new $500 million Department of Homeland Security headquarters project at St. Elizabeth’s campus in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the firm is also using its existing indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts with agencies, such as the U.S. General Services Administration, to sweep up smaller renovation and energy-upgrade projects, according to Ardura.

HOK of St. Louis also is aiming at a broad range of work. Vice chairman Clark Davis, FAIA, says the firm expects to pick up multiple contracts for small renovation jobs in markets where it has established relationships with agencies, such as Florida, where it works with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “If we have an IDIQ contract and a team in place,” he says, “we’ll be ready to help them get this work done.”

HOK also is targeting the transportation sector, as well as science and technology jobs through the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This spring, the firm helped several universities prepare grant proposals for stimulus funding available through NIH, in the hopes that those efforts will translate into new work.

Transit Work
Although the bulk of the $50 billion in transportation funding will go to roads and bridges, there are opportunities for architects. For instance, HOK was selected to create an automated people mover system planned for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which Davis says will receive stimulus funding.

In other cases, shelved transportation work is being dusted off by design firms. RATIO Architects of Indianapolis was called in this spring to work on construction documents for a multi-modal facility in Normal, Illinois, that had been put on hold. The company also is looking to play a role in some stimulus-funded road projects. As portions of Interstate 69 are developed in Indiana with stimulus funds, RATIO is hoping to provide urban planning services.

“We’d be a subcontractor to an engineer so it’s somewhat tangential stuff for us,” says Bill Browne Jr., FAIA, president of RATIO. “In this economy we’re looking for different kinds of opportunities that might not have been front and center before, but you’ve got to find things to keep you busy.”

Housing boost
With $4 billion in grant money available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), states are accelerating their capital plans and reviving deferred projects. This is good news for mom-and-pop shops, as public housing is one of the first sectors to feed work to smaller architecture firms.

Glen Childers, founding principal of Childers-Childers, Architects & Associates in Ada, Oklahoma, has worked with ten housing authorities around the state since 1991 and expects to gain work through all of them. By early May, the firm was already working on energy-upgrade and renovation projects for five authorities. Typically, this type of work accounts for 20 percent of his firm’s workload; this year he expects it to be up by 65 percent.

“This will be the biggest year we’ll ever have since I started in business on my own in 1979,” says Childers, who recently added a fourth architect at his seven-person office. “Beyond the stimulus, we’re not taking any more new work.”

It’s a similar situation at Jones-Zander in Grenada, Mississippi. Partner Robert Zander, AIA, says his firm is already working with six housing authorities around the state on interior renovations, roof replacements, and energy efficiency upgrades. “About half of our work is HUD housing improvement jobs annually, but with the work we’re picking up from the recovery act, I expect [revenues from HUD projects] to be 180 percent over last year,” says Zander, past-president of the Mississippi chapter of AIA. Although once-shelved projects account for about 10 percent of Zander’s work, the balance is coming from projects that had been scheduled for 2010 and beyond, but are being accelerated to take advantage of the ARRA.

Downside to upturn
While keeping designers busy now, some are concerned that speeding up these public housing projects may leave fewer opportunities on the horizon.

Wayne Stogner, president of Stogner Architecture in Rockingham, North Carolina, says he fears that as projects are moved up to a 2009 start, additional projects may not be added to future capital improvement plans. This year, his 11-person firm was able to hire one additional staffer and keep two others that would have otherwise been laid off due to the slumped private market. But that could soon change.

“It’s good to have these projects, but they aren’t very profitable, certainly not like the private jobs,” he says. “We’re glad to have the work, but if the market doesn’t turn around we could be sitting here in six months saying, ‘Now what?’” 

Read more economic news in our Recession & Recovery special section.

 

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