Architects' billing boost may indicate more big construction projects

mjohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 28, 2014 

MANATEE -- Area architecture offices are designing more buildings and hiring more people as they buck a national trend in the commercial design and construction industry.

New statistics from the American Institute of Architects show a nationwide drop in billing for architecture services last November and December. These are the first consecutive months of decline since May and June 2012.

But in Florida, architects plan to see more work in 2014.

"Overall, we're on par with last year," said Doug Whitney, Florida region manager at the Lakewood Ranch office of WBRC Architects and Engineers. "We expect to see a 20- to 25-percent increase in gross revenue in Florida."

The recent downturn in the AIA's Architecture Billing Index reflects a significant falloff in work for architects in the Midwest and Northeast, but small gains in the West and South. Intended to provide a nine- to 12-month look ahead at the volume of non-residential construction projects expected to start across the country, the index surveys the amount of work architects have "on the boards" at a particular time, and increases and decreases in firm billing.

In Manatee and Sarasota counties, some architects - including Whitney - are prepared for a good year. WBRC, which also has offices in Bangor and Portland, Maine, stayed busy through the Great Recession working on school and civic-use projects. Its local completed projects include the Courtyard Marriott

Hotel at University Park, and the Plymouth Harbor retirement community in Sarasota.

The Lakewood Ranch office's five architects will likely stay busy with nearby retail and health-care projects. The firm has worked on more than 100 locations for Bradenton-based Bealls.

"We've seen a pretty solid performance for our office in Florida," Whitney said.

Another firm benefitting from more projects in the pipeline is Fawley Bryant. The company upped the workforce at its Bradenton and Sarasota offices from 11 employees at the beginning of 2013 to 18 at the start of this year. Company President Rick Fawley said his company did cut staff as the recession hit, but then added services including interior design to bring more work in the door.

Fawley Bryant's projects vary widely, from the $75 million Manatee County Judicial Center in Bradenton, to IMG Academy's new multi-purpose sports complex.

Fawley said his firm will see no shortage of work in 2014. The firm is working on additions and renovations at McKechnie Field and Pirate City Sports Complex.

"We had a good year last year and we have a good backlog," he said. "We were prepared coming out of the recession."

Florida's architectural services economy may be ahead of the rest of the country with its rapid surge out of recession. Comparing his company's Maine offices to that in Lakewood Ranch, Whitney said the Northeast was "slower to see the slowdown and slower to recover."

Nationally, that slowness has everything to do with uncertainty. Greg Smersh, a professor of real estate at the University of South Florida, said that while he doesn't pay much attention to the billing index, he's not surprised that architects are generally billing fewer project hours.

"I would argue that the economy is not all that strong," he said. "In this climate of uncertainty, many businesses may be unlikely to commit to large projects."

Smersh said last year's increased home construction and increases in real estate prices have little if any impact on the commercial building market, but it may be an indicator of a heating local economy.

"A rising tide floats all ships," he said.

For the coming year, Fawley anticipates more hiring, while WBRC's Whitney expects to add one or two people to his Lakewood Ranch staff.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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