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April 9, 2009

What the future holds for landscape architects

  • Despite the slow economy, designers are looking forward to the new green economy and more public work.
  • By LIZ BIRKHOLZ
    ASLA

    mug
    Birkholz

    Residential and commercial landscape architecture projects are shelved overnight and have largely evaporated. Remaining projects are highly competitive and firms’ work backlogs have shrunken. Relief through a next wave of development will hinge on the federal recovery plan. Until the stimulus package takes hold, local firms are updating their strategies, fostering partnerships and focusing on public work. The mood is cautiously upbeat.

    Economic impacts

    Landscape architects started seeing the impacts of the economic downturn last year.

    Mark Garff, senior landscape architect at The Watershed Co., noticed residential work evaporating and now his firm has 17-20 percent of the residential work compared to years past. Nationally, only 31 percent of landscape architecture firms reported average or above billings in the fourth quarter of 2009, according to the latest Business Quarterly Survey from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

    Chad Wichers, principal landscape architect at Studio 342, says many of his residential clients had planned to fund projects by refinancing and using home equity, but financing fell through. Other clients intended to sell stocks, but stock prices fell. Studio 342 has a greater volume of work than a year ago, but the scale of each project is smaller.

    Robert Shrosbree, partner at Site Workshop, says that projects “go on hold overnight,” including health-care work and projects for the University of Washington.

    The downturn has led to fewer RFPs and RFQs and starves the already-competitive arena. Sixteen local and national firms recently competed for a $65,000 master plan project for the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline.

    Michael Hamm, president and CEO at The Portico Group, observes that the interest in work that is still out there has led to cost cutting to stay competitive, which he doesn’t think serves the profession.

    Given the reduced number of projects, keeping staff busy is particularly challenging. Shrosbree says that the reduced number of projects has reduced his backlog to two or three months from six months. Without a reliable backlog, firms have had to lay off employees.

    Less than 13 percent of landscape architecture firms plan to hire in the first quarter of 2009. Firms that are poised to hire find a brisk employer market. The Portico Group recently posted a position for a construction document specialist that yielded 45 resumes in four hours and 200 within a week.

    ASLA recently created several online e-networks and a resource guide at www.asla.org to connect emerging and established professionals dealing with the economic crisis.

    Updating strategy and process

    To weather the downturn, firms have broadened their strategies. Studio 342 expanded its portfolio with more public and commercial work. GGLO is working on more planning studies than before, says Mark Sindell, senior associate. Shrosbree says that Site Workshop is fortunate in being diverse — its planning effort for a 10,000-acre conservation community in New Mexico is moving ahead with a client who aims to catch the economic upturn.

    Other strategies come from within. Murase Associates benefits from Scott Murase’s practice as a stone sculptor, according to principal Mark Tilbe, because the firm’s submissions for art and art installation projects are reviewed by representatives who also serve on committees for landscape architecture work, garnering early connections for the firm.

    In this climate, partnering with the right team adds credence.

    Murase Associates has teamed up with known designers, including Cesar Pelli, Rafael Viñoly, Pickard Chilton and Martin Meyers.

    GGLO is “really trying to build strong alliances and partnerships with our consultants and our clients,” says Sindell.

    Hamm advocates that The Portico Group’s partnering with friendly, respected competitors offers clients the best of both firms and says he finds “it’s exhilarating.”

    Firms are taking the opportunity to refine internal processes and focus on client needs. GGLO is highlighting its 24/7 client-oriented service. Sindell says, “we’re trying internally as a firm to go with the notion that a recession is a terrible thing to waste and to be innovative in the way we do things — refine our skills, refine our message so that we can emerge from this stronger.”

    For Murase Associates, process refinements came unexpectedly when it found itself in an uncommon situation after the death of Bob Murase.

    “We knew we were going to shrink and needed to get overhead costs controlled and focused,” says Tilbe. “We experienced that process in our survival mode three years before the downturn.” This is the first year of construction for projects developed under the firm’s new leadership and Tilbe hopes that once these are published a year from now the economy will have picked up.

    Public work

    Firms are finding it lucrative to focus on public work. Site Workshop has an ongoing contract with Fort Lewis, stemming from a Bush administration appropriation to improve the quality of life on military bases. The firm has provided green space planning alongside Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, which has a master plan kit of parts for housing.

    Other public work that came from the success of parks and transit bonds and levies in Seattle, Bellevue, Portland and Salt Lake City last November “took a number of us by surprise,” says Portico’s Hamm. “(There’s) a bounty at the end of the rainbow.”

    Wetland and stream work for municipalities and counties is also abundant.

    “Suddenly we have all these streams to work on and shoreline master plan updates,” muses Garff at Watershed. The largest of these, with the city of Bellevue and Chelan County, have kept Watershed’s planning department swamped for the past couple of years.

    Mithun principal Deb Guenther is paying attention to the federal recovery plan and green infrastructure for the next wave of development.

    “Stars are aligning in terms of the new green economy,” Guenther says, noting that Mithun is “hearing of green labor practices aligning with what the Sustainable Sites Initiative is aiming to achieve in looking beyond best management practices of landscape architecture and towards best management practices in plant production, the contracting industry and fair labor practices.”

    GGLO is also watching closely.

    “Public work and green infrastructure TOD projects have moved now forward faster than the typical private work,” Sindell says. “The work that has started to trickle back in is affordable housing work. There’s a social benefit to the economy and recession if a higher percentage of the work moving forward is affordable housing.”

    Optimism

    These landscape architects are looking forward to the new green economy and are focusing on public work, their partners and current client relationships. Despite past trends, they offer optimism towards the future.

    “There’s a lot to look forward to,” Guenther says.

    Sindell says, “We are hearing cautiously optimistic news about the economy turning around in 2010 so we’re hopeful that by the third quarter this year things are going to start picking up.”

    Hamm says, “We have budgeted for growth this year. We’re upbeat.”


    Liz Birkholz is chair of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Public Relations and Communications Advisory Committee.



     

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