Architects discuss strategies for staying alive.

Layoffs. Each week the numbers of layoffs grow as architects frantically attempt to curtail the fallout from the current recession, when projects are killed, postponed, or don’t materialize. Few firms want to shed their trusted, well-trained architects, and few firms want to talk about it with the not-so-trusted members of the press. As Andrew Bartle, AIA, puts it (nicely), if the press sticks to its current role as harbingers of doom, won’t it only exacerbate the problem by keeping clients ultra-nervous? In spite of such suspicions, Bartle—whose firm, ABA Studio, is known for private schools and residences—and other architects talked candidly (up to a point) to record. All agree that sharing information is better than avoidance. “In the 1990s recession,” notes David Piscuskas, FAIA, principal in the New York firm 1100 Architect, “no one discussed layoffs or pay freezes as openly. But now with the expansion of work overseas, and the global flow of money, we’re all hit.”

William Fain, FAIA, and Scott Johnson, FAIA Johnson Fain, Los Angeles
Photo ' David Albanese/Architectural Record

William Fain, FAIA, and Scott Johnson, FAIA of Johnson Fain, Los Angeles

'Because of strong relationships, We hate letting people go. But we want to keep the five-day work week and the salaries intact.'

For small and midsize firms, any loss of personnel is serious. 1100 Architect, which is known for its private schools, libraries, and interiors, recently laid off 20 percent of its office, reducing it from 40 to 32. Bartle’s smaller firm numbered 10 until a few months ago; now it’s seven. But large firms are affected severely as well, even if the percentages are lower. Robert Buford, AIA, managing partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, had to let go an estimated 5 percent of the firm in the past few months. While the office numbered 325 in the summer of 2007 (including summer interns), it is now 275, and Buford says it feels like the most dramatic recession since the 1970s—only more global.

Some architects confronted the looming recession early: Scott Johnson, FAIA, of Johnson Fain in Los Angeles, reports that the firm laid off 18 people in September when private sponsors began getting slammed in the credit crunch. “We had strong relationships with the architects we laid off, so we hated letting them go,” says Johnson. But, he emphasizes, the firm, which now numbers 66 people, made sure those affected got decent severance packages. He and partner William Fain, FAIA, and others made calls, wrote recommendations, and have tried to keep up lines of communication—actions other architects speaking to record have claimed as well.

Bradford Perkins, FAIA, of Perkins Eastman in New York, says the firm had to eliminate 80 positions in the last months of 2008—10 percent of the firm’s 800 employees. Since there is a backlog of work (the firm specializes in schools, health care, and senior housing), and since it has commissions overseas, he hopes “we can shoot our way out of this.”

Alternatives to Layoffs

Some firms are choosing four-day work weeks to avoid losing staff. Gruzen Samton Architects, with a New York office of just under 100, has opted for the shorter work week to deal with the shrinkage in private sector jobs, particularly large-scale apartment and hotel projects. “We’ve always had a flexible office, without having people specialize in a particular building type,” says Jordan Gruzen, FAIA, “so we can shift architects around for institutional and public sector projects.” And, as partner Peter Samton, FAIA, points out, the four-day-week personnel are eligible for unemployment for the fifth day. (But the partners are not.)

Duane Sohl, AIA, president of De Stefano and Partners in Chicago, says his firm has taken a slightly different tack. It cut 16 positions in early December, but to avoid losing more, the 110-person firm agreed to a 10 percent reduction in salaries. “It saved 10 jobs,” Sohl says. “We found the four-day work week difficult, since clients expect you to be on the job site or in the office all week.”

Some firms have encountered resistance in the past to the four-day work week (which too often means the same amount of time at 80 percent of a not-very-large salary). 1100 Architects tried it in the early 1990s. “It still might be necessary to go to the four-day week in order not to lose people we’ve invested so much in,” says Piscuskas. If he and his partner, Juergen Riehm, FAIA, try it again, they are thinking of ways to make it palatable—say, by giving paid time off later. Meanwhile, 1100 is pursuing residential development jobs in Germany by keeping an office in Frankfurt, headed by associate partner Sabina Wallwey.