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03.01.2011
Spring Thaw as West Coast Architects Begin Hiring
Following bleak recession years, firms are starting to hire for work closer to home
Clive Wilkinson Architects Santa Monica College satellite campus project
Courtesy Clive Wilkinson Architects

The gloom has not fully lifted, but the clouds have parted enough to let in a little sunshine. And the forecast is for better weather ahead.

That’s the meteorological take on what West Coast architects are saying about their businesses following two grim years of recession and layoffs. Some are hiring again, although not in big numbers, and are preparing for a backlog of stalled local projects to start moving forward.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said William H. Fain Jr., a partner at LA-based Johnson Fain. While the domestic construction field is still weak, he said he is receiving calls from U.S. clients who “can’t postpone planning and positioning any longer.”

Santa Monica College satellite campus
Lobby view of the Santa Monica College satellite campus.
 
 
 

At the depth of the recession Johnson Fain downsized dramatically, from about 100 to a low of 43 staffers, but recently climbed back to about 55. While large urban planning and residential projects in China and Taiwan have been major sources of work, the firm has recently taken on domestic planning projects for the HemisFair Park in San Antonio, Texas, and some older LA school campuses.

“We are not through it yet,” said Donnie Schmidt, a senior associate at Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects in LA. “But I’m glad to see the U.S. is beginning to show some life again.” His firm recently signed on two consulting architects to help with new office and housing projects. A mixed-use building and resort plan in Hawaii is also on the horizon.

There is a large pool of unemployed architects to draw from. When Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects ran an ad on Archinect.com in December, they received about 350 resumes the first day, with applicants ranging from recent grads to “senior people with 20 to 30 years of experience,”said Schmidt. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

The recession pushed the West Hollywood-based Clive Wilkinson Architects to diversify beyond its workplace design specialty, according to vice president John Meachem. One of its current big projects is design of a satellite campus for Santa Monica College¹s media and technology programs, including three buildings and a garage. The firm also pushed for more international work, such as office design for 3,000 employees in a new ten-story bank building in Sydney, Australia. With all that, the firm, which has about 30 employees, was able to limit cuts to two layoffs and has hired six people in the last six months.

In January, 30 job postings from Southern California firms on Archinect were more than double the number in November. Nicci Solomons, executive director of the AIA’s Los Angeles chapter, said her organization’s website job listings are also up. At the worst of the downturn, there might have been just three postings—now it is more common to see a dozen or so. “It’s certainly a thaw,” she said, adding that there is a long way to go.

Nadel Architects Dalian, China Convention and sports center in Dalian, China

Nadel Architects Dalian, China Convention and sports center in Dalian, China
Courtesy Nadel Architects
 

At AC Martin Partners in LA, president Kenneth Lewis said the Southern California economy remains a question mark. His firm has long had a major hand in higher education, but state budget problems will probably reduce  construction at public universities, he said.

Like those at other firms, Lewis is finding that certain niches, such as multi-family residential buildings, retail, and adaptive reuse, are coming back locally and leading to more hires. His staff, from a high of about 100, is now at about 70, he said, thanks to assignments like retrofitting the Hall of Justice at the LA Civic Center and work on the proposed Wilshire Grand hotel, office, and residential towers in Downtown LA. At Valerio Architects, a 25-person LA firm that specializes in retail and restaurant design, an uptick in work has led to hiring five people over the past six months, according to Damon Pressman, business development coordinator. And West LA-based Nadel Architects, which had cut employment from about 200 to 100 in recent years, has hired back eight people in the past few months, mainly to help with international projects like a convention and sports center in Dalian, China. Domestically, the firm has worked on several multi-family rental residences and is starting to hear from a range of other potential clients. “The indicators are that there will be more activity in the near term, but it hasn’t come to fruition yet,” said Patrick Winters, a firm director. The mantra for many remains, wait and see.

L.J. Gordon