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Architects Become Latest Victims of Economy's Domino Effect

Dove said he remains optimistic, even as his firm, WDG Architecture, has reduced its staff. "You have to adjust your workforce and unfortunately allow some to seek other employment," he said. "Keeping the firm operating and solid is the most important thing."

The anxiety is no less pronounced at firms that have not yet laid off workers. Graham Davidson, a principal at Hartman-Cox, said he has enough work to keep his 20-member staff busy through the year. But his uncertainty wakens him at night.

"I'm worried about myself and my family and my own finances," he said. "I'm worried about the people that work here and all their families. God, what a horrible thing to have to let my people down."

The lack of work is fodder for conversation at weekly lunches that Stenger attends with several unemployed architects. As they commiserated over burgers and salad on a recent Friday, Stenger, 40, told the group what it was like to job hunt nowadays.

"They almost laugh when you ask if they're hiring," she said. Knowing that she's a casualty of the economy makes losing her job "not so personal, and it's not so shameful," Stenger said later.

"It's pretty demoralizing," she said. "I realized that I found my identity in my work. It just really gives me pause. Is that where I'm supposed to find my identity -- in what I do?"

Another member of the group, Andy Quathamer, 33, lost his job in January at Perkins + Will, where he had worked for more than four years. A couple of years ago, he said, he was part of a five-member design team dispatched to Dubai to coordinate changes to the construction of an office and residential complex. More recently, he was part of a project to renovate George Mason University.

Now Quathamer is spending his days scanning job boards. At last count, he'd sent out 40 résumés, with one interview to show for it. Last week, he learned that the firm had hired someone else. Then he received a notice that his first $359 unemployment check was on the way.

The shrinking opportunities are especially foreboding for recent graduates of architectural programs, including Eric Cesal, who received his master's degree from Washington University in December. He said he had received oral offers from firms in New Orleans and Chicago last year only to then see them rescinded when the economy soured.

With no income or prospects, Cesal, 32, signed up for a bartending class in Arlington County. He and his girlfriend have moved into his mother's house in Tenleytown, into the room he thought he had left behind when he departed for college 14 years ago.

Veronica Elizalde, 33, might also move in with her parents -- back home in her native Mexico City.

Because she lost her job at the Preston Partnership's Bethesda office, Elizalde's work visa will expire unless she finds another job. Her former boss wrote in a letter that her dismissal "has nothing to do with her abilities but rather everything to do with the credit crunch and the recent stunning decline in our industry."

Still, after sending out 90 résumés and getting only a couple of interviews, Elizalde is losing hope. Wiping away tears, she said, "I don't want to start all over again."

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