November 21, 2002

Seattle firms look back on a tough year

  • Some detect a ‘warming trend,’ after a year of deep cuts, quiet phones
    A/E Perspectives editor

    A high-rise in Bellevue quits rising. A mixed-use project in Belltown stops after construction has started. Plans for a hot new restaurant freeze. These are the headlines in a year of cold feet, jitters and many delays in the design and construction industry.

    "You just can’t take anything for granted. You can’t assume that either the level of work or the quality of work or the volume of work is going to continue."

    -- Bob Packard,

    Zimmer Gunsul Frasca

    The year started for some firms with substantial cuts in staff as the recession deepened in the post-9/11 climate. Office, housing and mixed-used categories have all been threatened and the contraction has impacted some large and medium-sized firms so severely that they have reduced staff by 25 percent and even 50 percent.

    “We ran an ad last week for a project architect,” reports Jeff Degen of Degen & Degen. “It ran for only one day. We received a hundred responses. The ad asked for ‘four plus’ years experience. The average experience level of those responding was about 12 years.”

    There is a pretty simple explanation for the flood of resumes. As architect David Hewitt put it: “People abandoned projects.”

    Hewitt has had to make a 50 percent reduction in staff, hitting a low point last winter at 23. But now the firm is back up to 30, and hiring. After the low point, with high-rise and mixed-use projects on hold, projects on the public side picked up. The firm is now at work on a transit center in Federal Way and three light rail stations.

    “Some commercial and housing remains strong, but developers are careful about what is brought to the market,” said Hewitt. Despite his firm’s setbacks, he believes that condominiums and neighborhood mixed-use opportunities will remain strong. “One way of beating the traffic is not to drive,” he said.

    “No question, it’s been a hard year,” said Carol Schaefer, managing partner of GGLO. “One of the positive things we did is to address it early on.”

    The firm, which has been a major presence in multi-family housing, cut staff and salaries in January, down to 65 from a high of 105 in the past three years. GGLO is now subleasing office space at Harbor Steps.

    She and the other principals respect their clients’ sense of caution, “But what do you do with a project team that’s been on the job for a few months?”

    Luckily, she said, diversification has gotten the firm work up and down the West Coast, softening the impact of the local recession. Schaefer hopes the worst is over; new projects in retail planning, corporate training and higher education seem to bear that out.

    “There’s been a warming trend,” said Bob Packard, a partner in the Portland office of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca. “It’s been a difficult year for everybody, including us.” The 385-person firm serves major institutions and corporate clients. For ZGF—which has not reduced staff—keeping everybody on board has involved “a lot of micromanaging a good dose of luck.”

    Diversification is the key—in project type, geography and services. “It’s a simple notion,” said Packard, “but all the building types go through different cycles.”

    After the bust of 2000, the Seattle market was already weakened, and the last 15 months have not been kind. But architecture firms in the rest of the country have been hit hard also, said Packard. He represents ZGF in a roundtable of 54 large design firms that meets regularly to discuss issues affecting their companies and the environment in which they practice. They met in New York last month, and almost every member told of reductions in staff or branch office closures.

    But Packard reported that having more than one office in different parts of the county has been a plus. The company has four—in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The secret to geographic diversity and economic survival, he said, is to arrange accounting and management so that different offices compliment rather than compete with each other.

    Losing a few key projects can plunge a small-to-medium firm into deep recession. Over the course of the last year, Carlson Architects has gone to a four-day work week, cut salaries and hit a low of 10 staff members, down from 24 three years ago.

    It’s a good time to re-tune and focus, said principal Don Carlson. He’s enjoying the projects they have, he said, which include a number of private schools and academies, libraries, loft-like apartment buildings and work for specialty businesses such as Dusty Strings, maker of harps and dulcimers.

    “We have a good core group,” said Carlson. “We’ve all worked together now for awhile…it’s about seeing our work come to us,” he said. “The phone just doesn’t ring that much, unless it really needs to.”

    At Weinstein/Copeland, a sustaining mix of large and modest projects in the public and non-profit sector has kept the staff going at just above 20, despite the fact that the firm has depended in the past upon the single-family residential market. It was well-positioned with a diverse public and private portfolio before the slump hit. Principal Ed Weinstein blames the slump on fatigue in the marketplace due to the attacks of 9/11 and corporate scandals.

    “We’ve weaned away from doing only single-family residential,” he said. The firm is now working on everything from low-income housing to community centers, religious buildings and youth facilities.

    “You just can’t take anything for granted,” said Packard of ZGF. “You can’t assume that either the level of work or the quality of work or the volume of work is going to continue.”

    According to Weinstein, “You can’t be an architect if you’re not optimistic. On the other hand, you can’t remain an architect if you’re naïve.”


    Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at

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