Washington's real estate slump has sent area architects scrambling for survival.

With development of new office buildings and single-family homes markedly slowed, many Washington area's architectural firms that specialized in such development have been laying off architects and looking for work wherever they can find it, with projects ranging from schools to churches and national monuments.

From 60 to 90 architects in the District have lost their jobs, said Martin Moeller, executive director of the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"That's a pretty substantial percentage considering there are only about a thousand architects" in the area, Moeller said.

The companies that have been hurt the most by the real estate slump "are moderate to large size firms that concentrated on the speculative office market," Moeller said.

The Weihe Partnership, a large District-based firm that has designed high-rise apartment and office buildings, has laid off 15 employees from its 100-member staff in the past several months, said George Dove, a partner with the firm.

"I don't think we've been harder hit than anyone else, but {the slowdown} certainly has had an impact on our standing," Dove said. "We are being more aggressive about finding what opportunities are out there and offering more proposals for them."

Competition among architectural firms for smaller, less lucrative projects like churches, schools and government contracts has increased dramatically in the past year, industry officials say.

A school in Waterford in Loudoun County recently held a meeting for architectural firms interested in submitting proposals to renovate its small, historic building. Nearly 80 firms from the Washington area showed up, said Jerrily Kress, a principal with KressCox Associates in the District, whose firm sent a representative.

"It was a tiny, tiny, little project," Kress said, adding that the school's budget was probably less than $1 million.

Kress said her firm also submitted a proposal for a $2.2 million renovation of the Mary Riley Style Public Library in Falls Church. Normally 14 firms would be interested in the project, Kress said. But in this case 20 to 30 firms submitted proposals, and Kress's firm did not win the contract.

"Everybody is going after everything," Kress said.

Pat Gallagher, an architect with Cooper-Lecky in the District, said his firm has found steady work from government contracts. Among other things, his firm is designing the Korean War monument and an exhibit on the Amazon for the National Zoo.

District-based Bass & Mickley Architects has turned to what may be one of the few bright spots for the local real estate market: churches.

"I think at this point any architect, large or small, would like to land a church," said Roger W. Bass, principal architect with the firm.

Bass & Mickley is working on four religious facilities: a new sanctuary for Our Savior Lutheran Church in Laurel, a mosque for the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam in Montgomery County, the Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Annandale and the Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.

Architect Lawrence Cook said his firm has been able to weather the ups and downs of the real estate market by specializing in church architecture. The firm is currently working on six churches in various phases of completion.

"Usually when the market goes down, church building might increase. When the national economy slows down, people have the time to go to church, and they pray for better times," Cook said.

Experts say that church building is generally regarded as a less lucrative specialty for architectural firms. Generally churches have tight budgets and create complications for architects who have to placate the congregation and the surrounding neighborhood.

Those demands, coupled with complicated structural requirements, make churches an architectural speciality that limits competition, Cook said.

Most experts agree that architectural firms with a diverse range of projects will be able to survive the real estate slump.

While firms are seeking out smaller contracts, they are also expanding their expertise in other areas of design. Some are branching into interior design or residential remodeling.

Although construction of new houses may have slowed, many families and businesses have found good deals by purchasing existing structures. And once these people move in, they often want to customize their new dwellings.

A typical client for interior design work, also known as space planning, could be a law firm moving from one floor of a building to another. An architect would completely redesign the new floor, from partitioning the offices to choosing the carpets and furniture.

"We have seen space planning work go from 10 percent to 45 percent of our business," said Kress. She said KressCox has always performed interior design services for its clients, but is now expanding the service into a separate business entity.

Despite the difficulties that architectural firms face, some experts say the firms will only benefit from a renewed emphasis on efficiency and cost-cutting.

"Adversity improves not only the firm's quality but also the architectural quality. You have to be much more efficient about what you're doing, and that will produce good architecture," said Raj Barr-Kumar, principal architect and owner of Barr-Kumar Architects, Engineers, Interior Designers in the District.