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Architectural work rebounds, slowly

ANNE KNOWLES
aknowles@nnbw.biz
Jack Hawkins & Associates and Light + Space are working on the Eureka County School District Gymnasium.

Architectural work is slowly coming back, but area architects remain cautious after surviving a downturn that nearly decimated their ranks.

“It was bad,” says Erik Fong, an architect with MBA Architecture & Interior Design in Reno and the president of the American Institute of Architects Northern Nevada chapter. “I don’t have exact numbers of how many architects have been laid off in the state, but there were so many rumors that there was 50 to 60 percent unemployment in the state. It was very bad.”

Fong’s own firm cut its staff in half, to eight architects from a high of 16. In addition, MBA decided to diversify into new markets after much of its work in resorts, hospitality and gaming, its specialty, either was put on hold or dried up. The firm found success especially in the medical market, where it’s done extensive work for Renown Health, including Renown’s urgent care facility in south Reno, its vascular operating room and the Beginnings Daycare Center for employees of the hospital.

MBA’s staff is now back up to 14 architects.

“We are busy, but think I the overall sentiment with all the architects I talk to is that nobody feels comfortable,” says Fong. “There is not a sense of security.”

Business nationwide is improving. The AIA’s Architecture Billing Index, which tracks billings and inquiries at architectural firms, has been above 50 for seven months, hitting 54.6 in February. (Anything above 50 indicates an increase in billing.) The index hit a low of 34.4 in January 2009. The AIA does not produce ABIs for local markets such as Reno.

According to the AIA, architecture firms added approximately 2,500 payroll positions in 2012, the first gain since 2007.

Light + Space, an architectural lighting design firm in Reno, is definitely seeing a bump in business. Lee Harris, president and principal lighting designer, says her firm survived the last few years on residential work in Truckee and Lake Tahoe, including extensive remodels, which helped sustain architects and builders as well. But she says in the last year, there’s been a resurgence of commercial and public projects.

“In the last three or four or five years my work has been predominantly residential,” says Harris. “But now it’s about half and half.”

Harris is working on projects at the University of Nevada, Reno, including an upgrade on the Church Fine Arts building, as well lighting for Stick Plaza, a retail plaza under construction in midtown Reno, a job she’s working on with Reno’s Van Woert Bigotti Architects. Harris says the stalled Chateau at Heavenly Village retail, convention space and resort project at South Lake Tahoe is back on track. MBA was the architect on that project, which is now called Chateau at the Village, according to Fong.

Harris is also working with Jack Hawkins of Hawkins & Associates in Reno on the Eureka County School District Gymnasium, which late last week was awaiting approval from the school board.

“We’re on budget,” says Hawkins, who was hopeful the project would get the go ahead.

Hawkins, who has worked on his own for the last 20 years, says he’s been relatively lucky and busy throughout the recession, which he attributes to relying on a balanced mix of residential and commercial work.

“There’s always the gamblers who want to build a house for three times what they could pay for an existing home,” says Hawkins.

Hawkins says he’s starting to see a few more commercial projects and expects to see mostly renovations of existing properties for the foreseeable future.

“I think we’ll see two to three years of average to pretty slow growth.”