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Decline continues in architecture

Sean Ryan

When U.S. architects reported work was picking up in March, expectations followed that the industry would be in recovery mode by now.

“It looks like this recovery is going to be a bit more elusive than we hoped,” Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects, said Thursday.

Nationwide billing numbers stalled during the past few months, he said. They are not nose diving as they were in late 2008 and early 2009, but the numbers are not increasing, either.

According to the AIA Architectural Billings Index, the architectural work is still in a decline. The May rating was 42.9, compared to 42.8 in April and 42.7 in March. A score of more than 50 means the amount of work for which architects are billing is increasing. Scores below 50 indicate a reduction.

“We’re trying to give (architects) some early warning as to where things are going, and the early warning is we’re out of the deep freeze,” Baker said. “But we’re not back into recovery.”

The design industry in southeastern Wisconsin is stalled, save a few hot sectors such as municipal work, said Kurt Zimmerman, vice president of Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc., Milwaukee. Work ebbs and flows at a snail’s pace in architecture, he said.

“To see things flatten out is actually a good sign,” he said. “It means the scales might be picking up.”

Zimmerman is shuffling its 100 designers and engineers from slow to steadier sectors. Like the industry in general, the employment picture at Zimmerman shows a company treading water, Zimmerman said.

“New people are not necessarily in the picture yet,” he said. “But I love to think about it.”

Berners-Schober Associates Inc., Green Bay, entered 2009 with a solid backlog of work thanks to a few University of Wisconsin projects, said Principal Richard Dannhausen. However, he said, he has reservations about how solid the workload will be in the second half of 2009 and in 2010.

“We’re maintaining the status quo,” Dannhausen said, “although we are not a firm that has been trying to expand and to be in a growth mode.”

The architectural index showed architects are getting more inquiries from owners about potential projects that will be bid, Baker said. However, that probably means owners expecting to get projects rolling are contacting 20 to 30 architectural firms to see if they’re interested, rather than the two or three the owners would usually call during better economic times, he said.

“Don’t go out and start hiring a lot of new employees yet,” he said. “(Recovery) still may be a few months away.”

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