Finally, some good news for the hard-hit design profession: Firms are hiring again.

Architects Office
Photo courtesy Wikipedia/Library of Congress

A 1940s firm seems to be awaiting the postwar building boom, much as today’s architects hope construction will be on the rise following the recent recession.

As the third anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers approaches — the event that delivered the knockout punch to an already reeling U.S. economy — a trend is emerging that may have once seemed unthinkable. Firms are hiring again.

To be fair, staff levels are not at their prerecession highs, as new employees are being added in dribs and drabs. In fact, some of the firms boosting payrolls are reluctant to discuss their expansions, lest they get inundated with resumes for openings that are scarce.

Yet those firms’ principals say that signs of renewed demand for design services are strong enough to justify new hires. “We’re starting to see improvement,” says Rick Kobus, a founding principal of Tsoi/Kobus & Associates. In 2008, at its peak, the Boston-based firm employed 130 people, but dropped to 70 last summer, as project after project was canceled. This year, however, the firm has hired three employees; two are architects who had been laid off.

For Tsoi/Kobus, which historically focused on colleges, commissions are now coming from the medical industry, such as a new research facility for Vertex Pharmaceuticals to be built near Boston Harbor. Kobus notes that clients are being unusually diligent. “There’s so much attention paid to how money is spent and where it’s spent, instead of just racing ahead,” he says.

Universities are coming through for other firms. Crawford Architects’ Kansas City office hired two new architects in the last six months, bringing its head count to 15, though that’s still below its 23-employee peak, says firm principal Stacey Jones. Among the recent projects for Crawford, which previously concentrated on pro sports stadiums, are hockey arenas for Penn State and Notre Dame. With the stock market soaring again, “universities have stopped getting the jitters and are continuing on with their building programs,” says Jones.

The firm, which has an office in Sydney, also has relied on overseas projects. In that sense, Crawford has something in common with larger firms, like Gensler, which recently opened offices in Bangalore, Singapore, and São Paulo and has hired “several hundred” employees to help staff them, according to a spokesperson. In contrast, Gensler cut 25 percent of its staff, from 3,700 to 2,800, during the downturn (which officially ran from December 2007 to June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research).

In a similar boat is Perkins Eastman, which credits projects in China, India, and Vietnam as the impetus for its recent hiring of 20 people, most of whom are architects, says founding partner Bradford Perkins. Over the course of the recession, Perkins Eastman axed 20 percent of its staff, dropping from 750 to 600. While work is picking up, Perkins still characterizes the recovery as “uneven.” “There are firms that are getting relatively busy again, and we are one of them,” he says, “but there are others that are having serious problems.”

Government commissions are another silver lining. For instance, Architectural Nexus, of Salt Lake City, recently designed a data center for the National Security Agency in Draper, Utah. That project and others helped the firm up its staff from 100 in 2009 to 170 today, says Kenner Kingston, a senior principal.

Combination architecture and engineering firms may have had an advantage because one side propped up the other. The head count at Arkansas-based Crafton Tull dipped from 330 to 250 during the recession, but the cuts could have been far worse without numerous natural gas well projects for engineers, says spokesperson Daryl Whitmer. The firm, which has added 10 people on the design side in 2011, is also finding sweet spots with colleges; it recently designed a campus for the Tulsa Technology Center, a two-year public college in Owasso, Oklahoma.

The brighter outlook is supported by statistics. The Architecture Billings Index, a measure of the industry’s health, had hit scores of 50 or better for five straight months before dipping to 47.6 in April. Also, in the first quarter of 2011, the federal jobless rate among architects and engineers was 4.6 percent, down slightly from the fourth quarter of 2010, when it climbed to 5.5 percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Those upticks jibe with what executive recruiter Tom Ward is seeing. The first half of 2010 was a “disaster,” he says, but in recent months, he’s been deployed for a handful of job searches. “I would call it a ‘tentative feeling’ about things improving,” he says.

Indeed, firms that are making job offers are still nervous about the future. Johnson Fain, of Los Angeles, saw its staff plummet from 108 to 40 in a year’s time; it’s now back up to 50 based on inquiries about mixed-use local developments, says principal Larry Ball. But developers are slow to fully commit to those projects, a trend that gives the recovery a scattershot vibe. “It’s all speculative,” Ball says. “I don’t see things going gangbusters yet.”