Architects Hit Hard by Job Losses

With its economy expected to shrink nearly 3 percent this year, Britain is facing the most severe recession in the developed world. And with troubled banks unwilling to lend, building projects are at a standstill and architects are hurting. “Every firm, regardless of size, is affected,” says John McAslan, chairman of London-based John McAslan & Partners, whose 100-person practice downsized by about 10 percent over the past six months.

Projects by some of the biggest names are among the first casualties. In August, British Land put on hold its 47-story-tall, Richard Rogers–designed Leadenhall Building, known as the Cheesegrater. In November, Dutch bank ING pulled the plug on Frank Gehry’s $433 million waterfront development in Brighton.

Data from Britain’s Office for National Statistics reveals that architects are joining the ranks of the unemployed at a faster rate than any other occupation. Some 870 architects signed up for unemployment benefits in the last quarter of 2008, compared to just 135 in the same period the year before. During the last recession in the early 1990s, about 40 percent of British architects lost their jobs. But because the current recession is global, “we believe this one will be worse,” says Sunand Prasad, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a partner at London-based Penoyre & Prasad.

Practices focusing mainly on residential and commercial projects are suffering the most. “We have three months of paid work ahead of us,” says Gianni Botsford, founder of Gianni Botsford Architects, a small, mainly residential practice of four in London. Botsford had hoped a master planning job in Qatar would keep the money flowing, but that project dried up in January.

For bigger firms, such as London-based Llewelyn Davies Yeang, which gets half its revenue from outside of Britain, international projects have helped offset the slowdown. But these days, the firm needs to go farther afield to find them, admits managing director Stephen Featherstone. Recent commissions have taken the firm to countries ranging from Uzbekistan to Vietnam, and Libya.

In Britain, the main opportunity is in the public sector. The government is pumping billions into public-sector projects, ranging from infrastructure to the $66 billion Building Schools for the Future program. Another area offering opportunity is green design and planning. “A lot of people feared the sustainability agenda would collapse in the face of recession,” Featherstone says. “Instead, it is ramping up with legislation emerging on both sides of the Atlantic.”