The Great Recession has hardly been good to architects. But the extent to which it fundamentally changed the industry was not always clear. Now comes a sweeping 40-page report released this month from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the industry’s leading trade group, that specifically details the recession’s damage and what firms did to cope. And those survival strategies may portend new ways of doing business.
The bad news first: From 2008 to 2011, revenues fell to $26 billion from $44 billion, a 40 percent drop, according to The Business of Architecture: 2012 Survey Report on Firm Characteristics. Likewise, employment fell by 28 percent from 2007 to 2011, or by 60,800 jobs, according to the report, which is similar to one put out by the AIA every three years, though this is the first to consider the recession. It relies on both U.S. Department of Labor figures and survey responses from 2,800 firms.
Looked at more granularly, the data shows that many of those who were laid off appear not to be architects but support staff, like in human resources and technical support. And even in firms that have slowly begun to hire designers again, these support jobs are not always being filled. Unlike with support staff, firms can bill clients for the hours their architects work, making them that much more valuable, architects say.
Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG), a hotel-focused California architecture firm, saw its staff shrink from 500 in 2008 to 300 in 2010. It has 350 employees today. Though many of those cuts resulted from the closing of an Orlando office and relocation of a Seattle office to Singapore, WATG also condensed some departments, says principal Raj Chandnani, an 11-year veteran of the firm. To wit: The 67-year-old WATG decided that accountants weren’t needed in all six of its offices and consolidated them into a single six-person department at its Irvine headquarters, Chandnani explains.