The Public Option

The Public Option

With most private markets dried up, the real game in town for architects right now is the public sector. The federal government is shelling out record amounts of money—both federal stimulus–related and otherwise—to get the economy on track, and states are still paying out large bond measures and other monies promised before their budgets began to crumble. Even cash-strapped cities are still handing out projects, albeit many fewer than several years ago.

And so the rush is on among architects to land government buildings, hospitals, parks, transportation centers, public schools, and university structures, among others. The amount of work is still encouraging, and most say they enjoy building for the common good, but the competition is fierce, and for many unexperienced in the labyrinthine bureaucracy and strange pecking order of the public realm, it can be close to impossible.

“Firms are chasing whatever projects they’re hearing about, and right now that’s public work,” said Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist. “It’s the only place that anybody is working,” added Veda Solomon, director of business development for HOK’s LA office.

For firms like HOK, a mainstay in the public realm, this scenario means there is suddenly more competition for jobs that once fell into their laps. But they still get the lion’s share thanks to their experience. The firm has worked in the public sector since its founding in the 1950s. Its California offices are now working on the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, the new ARTIC high-speed rail and transit center in Anaheim, the Contra Costa Courthouse, the VA Hospital in Long Beach, the Adelanto Correctional Facility in San Bernardino, and the NOAA Pacific Region Headquarters in Hawaii, to name a few.

The firm’s LA office has only dropped 15 out of 165 workers since 2008, said Solomon, an incredibly low figure in this economy. There’s been such an influx of new public work, she added, that the firm has had to restructure to move more architects into the public sphere.

“Basically the whole firm is looking at public projects,” she said.

Another public regular in LA, 83-person CO Architects, is busy as well, with about 70 percent of its work coming from the public realm. “It’s been less stressful for us than for others,” said principal Scott Kelsey. Work currently underway includes courthouses in Porterville and Southeast Los Angeles, an addition for Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center/ Orthopedic Hospital, the new Palomar Medical Center outside San Diego, a UC Merced Academic Surge Building, the UC Davis School of Nursing, and projects for the LA Unified School District and LA Valley College, among others. (At press time, they unveiled plans for another public project, a new North Campus at the LA County Museum of Natural History.)

Even smaller design firms are getting into the game. Santa Monica–based Pugh + Scarpa, with its 15-strong staff, has signed a five-year at-will contract with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which limits fees to $12 million a year ($12 million, points out principal Larry Scarpa, would double the firm’s usual fees for a year). The firm is also building parking structures for the city of Santa Monica, a parking garage for UCSD, and is working with Olin Partnership on the new Plummer Park in West Hollywood, which includes a new parking structure and theater. Eight-person San Francisco firm Paulett Taggart Architects is working on two stimulus-related projects, the Turk/ Eddy Affordable Housing development and a portion of the Hunters View revitalization project. San Francisco–based Mark Cavagnero Associates, another small firm, has made a specialty out of quiet but striking institutional work like the Savo Pool in San Francisco, the Clovis Memorial District Conference Center in Clovis, CA, and the just-completed renovation of the Oakland Museum of California.

Other boutique firms going public recently include Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, which has signed on with the City of Santa Monica to build 360 shelters for the city’s Big Blue Bus. The canopies are a kit of parts that can be reconfigured to maximize shade depending on conditions. Richard Meier and Partners, while hardly small, is still interested in branching into the public realm and is working on the San Diego Federal Courthouse, a design that uses materials like natural stone, terra cotta, and pre-cast concrete. The firm also completed a large new city hall and civic center for the City of San Jose.

But although firms large and small have made an entry, getting a strong foothold in this realm has become increasingly difficult. The cutthroat competition means that even the most seasoned public veterans have to work harder than ever to get in the game.

“I’ve noticed a lot of big firms are going after smaller projects,” said HOK’s Solomon, who noted that  cash-strapped governments have taken advantage of this situation by paying much less for projects than similar work in the private sector. CO’s Kelsey points to the competition for the new academic building it is now designing at UC Merced, which saw 49 submittals. In better economic times, he pointed out, a project like that would have about 20 submittals. 



And for those trying to get into the loop, the march to public work can be infuriating. Small firms say they are often shut out of the process because of their lack of experience and connections. Many point out that often, public agencies value the ability to check off the right boxes and propose low fees over talent and design expertise. The AIA/LA has suggested a new city Architecture Department that would, among other things, help get more firms involved in the public selection process through competitions, design review, and community outreach. The AIA has also called for changing public project delivery from design-bid-build—which favors well-connected firms that know the right contractors and engineers, or those that simply charge the least regardless of quality or competence—to more egalitarian and well-organized methods like integrated project delivery, public private partnerships, or a more equitable version of design-build.

The challenge of getting into the public realm even pertains to megafirms like Gensler, now wishing it had jumped into public projects sooner. Its 195-person LA office is working on a number of public projects—including the new Port of Long Beach Headquarters building, security upgrades for Los Angeles World Airports, and a new data center for the County of Los Angeles—but that is only about a third of its overall work.

“Honestly, it’s been somewhat challenging,” admitted Rob Jernigan, a Gensler principal. “We were heavily focused on work and lifestyle, and not as heavily on civic. We’ve been working with the public sector for more than ten years, which sounds like a long time, but it’s really not.”

Even for firms like HOK that have the experience and connections, working in the public realm brings new bureaucratic challenges that can stymie even the most stalwart. “You wouldn’t believe the bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through just to get your name on the list,” said Christopher Roe, HOK’s strategic director of marketing and business development. “Hundred-page forms that require signed affidavits from 20 references of previous clients and have to be notarized at the state, county, and federal level. It’s a paperwork nightmare of epic proportions.”

Public agencies themselves are struggling, and with their own budgets faltering, they are doing their best—like everyone else—to get as much work for as little as possible. Roe said that architecture and planning fees are down about 20 percent for federal projects from just a few years back. “We’re being squeezed on many levels,” he said.

For smaller firms doing public work, the inevitable starts and stops of public projects can be disastrous. Scarpa mentions that every time a project is halted for an EIR review, he has to lay off staff. Steven Ehrlich faced similar problems working on a new project for UC Irvine, one of well over 30 projects halted for some time in the university system, many of them because of budget issues.

But Scarpa knows he is still one of the lucky ones because he got started before the boom. “My friends ask me how to get involved and I tell them it’s not gonna happen instantly. We’ve been doing it for five years.” Already he is looking ahead to new kinds of work in universities, museums, and overseas commissions.

So the question remains: will firms get too entrenched in public work just as they got too involved in commercial and residential before? What happens when the economy changes and the public sector becomes less sexy? Already, public institutions like universities are running out of funds and slowing down expenditures.

The public sector will always provide work, pointed out the AIA’s Baker, so getting caught flat-footed is more difficult. Nor does the sector provide the dizzying profits available in the private market. Persistent adaptation, as always, is the key to preserving the long-term health of architecture firms.

“We’ve realized that the only constant in the world is change,” said Gensler’s Jernigan. “In today’s world, this notion of getting into one niche and staying in that niche is over. We’re constantly asking, how do we broaden ourselves and diversify our offerings so we can stabilize things?”