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Aspen, CO – Local architectural firms start to rebuild their staffs

Uptick in business has them cautiously optimistic about a rebound

Some of the larger architectural firms in Aspen and Basalt have hired additional employees this spring after cutting up to half of their staffs during the recession.

Poss Architecture and Planning, Harry Teague Architects, Cottle Carr Yaw Architects and Design Workshop’s Aspen branch have each hired three or four workers in recent weeks. Partners in each firm said business is up this spring and they are bringing on additional workers to help with projects on the books.

“This year is just different from last year in a positive way,” said John Cottle, a partner with Cottle Carr Yaw Architects.

However, the owners of each of the firms said they remain very cautious about the business outlook because there is so much uncertainty beyond the next year or so. Bill Poss said 2007 and 2008 were the best years in his firm’s 35-year history. He doesn’t expect business to return to that level in some time. On the other hand, any uptick in business over 2010 is welcomed.

“Last year was pretty bad,” he said.

Architectural firms are somewhat like a canary in the coal mine for the construction industry. Projects they work on translate into work for contractors and subcontractors six months or so later. Poss said he is constantly being quizzed by friends in the construction world who want to know if his business is picking up.

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. His firm is working on a large hotel in North Carolina that had been temporarily placed on hold when the recession hit. It is an encouraging sign that the owners have felt the economy has recovered enough that they are moving ahead with the design, Poss said. “That’s about a 12-month deal” for his firm, he said.

Poss is getting more calls this year than last year from property owners in the Roaring Fork Valley who are considering building homes. While the interest is encouraging, he noted that “nobody’s pulled the trigger, so to speak.”

Consumers of architectural services, like consumers of all types, are shopping for the best prices. His firm has reduced its prices, which required it to cut costs. That meant laying off employees after the recession struck, and cutting salaries for the remaining staff.

Poss said he and his partners recently hired three more drafting people and interns and are considering hiring a fourth person. Even so, the firm isn’t anywhere close to where it was three years ago in terms of the staff count when it employed 56 people. That fell to about 22 at the lowest point and is now creeping back toward 30 workers, he said.

Poss said business has always been cyclical. He has experienced a downturn every five to seven years. This downturn was different because it was so severe and long. He said laying off so many employees was unpleasant because it had so many consequences.

“I had to lay off 30 families, not just individuals,” he said.

Harry Teague, another longtime veteran architect in Aspen, said it has been common over the years for the staffs of architectural firms to expand and contract, depending on the firm’s number of projects. Employees who were laid off from one firm could usually find work with another.

“The roller coaster is not particularly unique to this time” he said.

What was different in this cycle is that business dropped off for virtually all firms at once, according to Teague. That was tough because people who were laid off had a tough time finding new jobs with different firms.

Teague said his firm’s work is also picking up this year so he has hired four people, boosting the total to 12. He described the positions he hired for as a mix of architects, project managers and designers as well as interns.

Teague’s firm is working on a project at the Aspen Music School campus on Castle Creek Road, including the replacement of a building that can no longer be used. His firm is also designing a school in Crestone, Colo., a home in Telluride and a home in the Roaring Fork Valley. He is also the architect for a river center proposed by the Roaring Fork Conservancy in Basalt. That project is scheduled to be reviewed by the Basalt Town Council and Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday.

Overall, Teague said, it does feel as though the level of activity is increasing.

Cottle said his firm is staying busy with a combination of local, regional and even international projects, a combination of residential and commercial.

“Aspen is stronger than most of the other places where we work,” he said.

The firm is receiving more calls of inquiry so far this year compared to the last couple of years, he said. Cottle is encouraged because potential clients are exploring a variety of projects and seem serious about moving ahead.

The firm recently added four positions, one permanent and three tied to current projects, Cottle said. It’s too soon to tell if business has truly turned around, so he and his partners will remain cautious with their projections and with their hiring. Cottle said they don’t want to get in a position of hiring workers for permanent positions only to lay them off again. That’s rough on everybody, he said.

Cottle Carr Yaw employed 38 workers from 2000 through the end of 2008 and intentionally didn’t expand beyond that point. They laid off roughly half the staff during the lean last couple of years and are back to 20 employees with the recent hires.

Kurt Culbertson, chairman of the board for Design Workshop, said the firm hired two entry-level workers and two mid-level experience workers in its Aspen office within the last six months. The position were for landscape architects. They are looking to fill another two positions.

The firm — which also has offices in Denver, Tahoe, Austin, Salt Lake City, and Asheville, N.C. — works on everything from resort planning to residential gardens. The Aspen office is benefiting from an increase in business overseas as well as domestically and in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Culbertson. He said some potential clients are even looking into real estate development, which has been on hold for the last couple of years.

Culbertson said the Aspen office of Design Workshop reduced its staff by about half after the recession.

“It hasn’t been fine times,” he said.

He’s been with the firm through five recessions, this one being the worst. The name of the game is living to fight another day.

“You can’t hire people back if you’re not in business,” Culbertson said.

Via The Aspen Times

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