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Architects and business leaders must work together to prudently maintain, build quality buildings

November 10, 2008
Most 20th-century modern architecture followed the credo of two simplistic, overused quotations: "Form follows function" (Louis Sullivan) and "Less is more" (Mies van der Rohe). The results, while modern, became routine, but a million dollars still bought a million dollars worth of buildings.

In the new century, cash overflowed from the global market. Grandiosity replaced simplicity as rockstar architects created buildings that mirrored the leveraged egos of their owners, both in their budgets as well as their shapes. That was only a few months ago ... when a billion dollars was still a billion dollars.

Now we hear that "fear breeds fear" and "anxiety feeds anxiety." Our leaders now tell us that several trillion dollars isn't all that much anymore ... until the bill comes due sooner rather than later.

Design and construction companies should try to see these financially challenging times in a positive light. Buildings will still wear out, especially when funding is diverted to needs other than maintenance and repair. Streamlined and downsized organizations still need the right environments if they are to work effectively. And new energy options are on the fast track. We can — and should — be able to do more with less.

The slowdown is about to hit

It seems inevitable that the design and construction workload is about to flatten out both in Indiana and in the nation. A few clear signals of the slowing activity in the central part of the state and across the nation have been obvious for awhile:

•Over the past six months, the national Architectural Billings Index has recorded the biggest decline in its history.

•In Indianapolis, the number of new architectural and engineering employees announced in IBJ has dwindled to almost zero, and those people who were hired tend to be in marketing.

•The chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America said that the drop in national construction employment accelerated in September and will probably continue to worsen. According to the organization's chief economist, "The October report — due out just after Election Day — will be much uglier."

•That's ugly all right, but the AGC also estimates that $100 billion of new infrastructure has been deferred due to rising costs and the lack of credit.

There's still work to do

Fortunately, clients still need to develop, build and update buildings, even in a downturn. Since doing more with less is the essence of creativity, we need to put our creative genius to work and start developing strategies to survive and succeed.

•Strategy 1 — Invest in your company. Local architecture, engineering and construction firms must continue to build their capabilities and invest in themselves. We'll have to find ways to cut costs, which may include downsizing, but investing in our own companies is probably safer than investing in the market. (Don't forget to keep your banker involved.)

•Strategy 2 — Adopt a problem-seeking attitude. Accept responsibility for helping clients understand their options for improving their facilities. Design professionals should focus on accomplishing the first and foremost task — producing the right solutions for the right cost.

•Strategy 3 — Offer solutions with quantifiable paybacks. Effective environments and workplaces will improve the success of businesses and organizations. They'll help create a productive setting, sell products, nurture employees or simply serve customers better.

•Strategy 4 — Adopt and exploit 21st Century issues and methodologies. Embrace energy and environmental issues and opportunities. The much-publicized bailout legislation included three separate tax acts affecting renewable energy tax incentives. As a result, energy and infrastructure must be included in every firm's toolbox.

•Strategy 5 — Work toward the future. Offer meaningful follow-up services to help maintain buildings. Owners are learning that commissioning and digitized facility inventories are fundamental to maintaining complex environments and developing predictable maintenance budgets.

•Strategy 6 — Don't just sit there. Our profession likes to hide behind the contract documents. Step outside of your comfort zone and dare to lead rather than follow. Offer to take responsibility for the cost and service of your client's facilities.

Support our local firms

Recently, several major building programs in central Indiana have proven that local design and construction companies can lead, manage, design and build vast projects, including airports, school systems, research buildings and convention centers. And the people who have the knowledge are right here, not several hundred or several thousand miles away.

The financial world may have forgotten what real money is, but local companies accustomed to working with real-world budgets know better and have a proven track record of doing more with less. In times when the value of everything is being tested, that know-how is more valuable than ever.

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Altemeyer is executive director of BSA LifeStructures, one of the city's largest architectural firm.Views expressed here are the writer's.
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