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."
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."