Architects Become Latest Victims of Economy's Domino Effect

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

At 5:15 p.m. on a recent Friday, 17 years after she became an architect, Anne Stenger's supervisor summoned her to his office. Stenger expected that they would confer about a project she had been overseeing, a 14-story apartment building under construction in Silver Spring.

Instead, her boss said something that seemed almost unfathomable as she replayed the scene a month later: The firm was laying her off.

"Why?" she asked, dumbfounded. "I'm so busy."

His face ashen, the supervisor tried to assure her that the decision was driven by the recession, not her performance. She struggled not to cry. The exchange took 10 minutes. Then she turned in her office key and walked out the door.

Over the past decade, as new corporate headquarters, condominiums and subdivisions mushroomed across the region, developers relied on architects to turn their big-money musings into the lines, angles and dimensions that are the language of their craft.

Now, as banks have stopped financing construction, development projects are in limbo and architectural firms have slashed staffs, some by 20 percent and more. Laid-off construction workers reflect the slowdown. But the dismissal of architects is a bellwether, signifying slowed-down planning for projects that were just on the horizon.

Nationally, architectural firms employed 224,000 people in July. By January, that number had fallen to 206,000, according to the American Institute of Architects. No statistics for unemployed architects were available for the Washington region, although the AIA's District chapter, with 2,000 members, has become a de facto job-referral service for dozens of the jobless.

The layoffs have conjured up memories of the 1991 recession, which eviscerated a generation of younger designers. As a result, there's a dearth of architects in their mid-40s at Washington area firms, said David Daileda, president of the AIA's District chapter.

Shalom Baranes, a prominent District architect whose firm has designed numerous downtown office buildings, said he has reduced his staff, which was well more than 100 at its peak, by 30 percent. "I'm very worried," Baranes said.

In recent months, he said, "half a dozen major clients" have told him to halt long-term planning for projects, activity that he said typically endured during slow periods in the past and helped sustain his firm.

This doesn't feel like part of the economic cycle to Baranes. "This feels like there's going to be a fundamental restructuring of the economy that will affect my profession in a deep way."

George Dove, an architect in the District for over 40 years, is not convinced. A veteran of three recessions, he said each one "felt disastrous at the time, and they turned out to be downturns and not the end of the world."

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