With the AIA’s Work-On-the-Boards Survey hitting its lowest level ever, I don’t need to tell you work is sparse right now. The temptation for many may well be to go radical: not just freeze salaries, reduce benefits, or furlough workers, but to slash large chunks of staff. But before pushing the ejector button, there are other options. As London Business School Professor Don Sull puts it, instead of slamming on the brakes, companies should just ease them and look for the opportunities that our current economic condition presents, adapting instead of shedding too many workers.
Opportunities, right now, seem to be funneling only to the largest firms with the connections to tap into the stimulus billions slated for construction of new schools, health care facilities, government buildings, affordable housing, transportation-related buildings, and infrastructure.
But perhaps the more valuable—and procurable—new opportunities for architects in today’s economic climate relate to reuse. With new construction at a standstill, people are going to have to make do with the spaces they already have. That doesn’t have to mean no architecture. The way is paved for renovation, preservation, adaptive reuse, infill development, and interiors projects. And that’s a good thing. The truism is worth repeating: The greenest architecture is building from what’s already there. There’s nothing like a slow economy to curtail the wasteful habits we’ve been trying to legislate away with efforts like small-lot ordinances, sprawl-containment measures, anti-teardown rules, brownfield-development incentives, and efficiency standards.
Reuse makes financial sense, too. As Michael Din, AIA/LA’s Director of Development and Marketing put it, work is still getting built, just on a smaller scale: “Rather than tearing down and rebuilding clients are tending to renovate.” For the first time, the AIA/LA has made renovations the focus of its upcoming home tour on April 19. Din added that the downturn could highlight the fact that most architects are quite skilled—even if they don’t want to admit it—at interiors work, always part of their larger projects but not always the part that gets featured most. “The public perception is that there are architects and interior architects, and the twain should never meet,” Din said. Now is the time to show the public that architects boast a broad range of design chops, not only in interior work but in other fields like product development, graphic arts, and environmental design.
Planners are catching on that many Americans seem to prefer to live in denser locations where there is far less new building and far more reusable building stock. In the stimulus package, there’s a lot of money headed to reuse and retrofitting. And that includes $6 billion for the renovation and repair of federal buildings, plus other grants, loans, and incentives for energy retrofits and green housing investments. For renovation and preservation projects, about $28 billion of the stimulus is aimed at the modernization, renovation, and repair of schools, and $2 billion has been set aside to help communities purchase or rehabilitate foreclosed or vacant properties to create more affordable housing.
These are huge numbers. But I’d like to see even more money invested in an even more diverse range of preservation and sustainability efforts. It’s a step that could quickly open up jobs in areas that are sometimes neglected by the architecture community at large. There are of course plenty of firms that specialize in preservation, interiors, and reuse, but that doesn’t meant that other architecture firms can’t expand their repertoire to include these offerings, too. Just as firms have in recent years expanded into the fields of planning, landscape architecture, and sustainable design, they can just as easily move into reuse. Maybe it’s not as sexy as a shiny new building, but these are not shiny times. Just time for reinvention.