Architects Back in Demand: Is a Housing Recovery Near?

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Something unusual is happening at architects' offices: The phones are ringing.

After a long recession-induced downturn that caused massive layoffs and agony for architects and designers of all stripes, potential clients are starting to ask about new or iced projects, they say. This could boost the real estate market and construction activity -- if those tentative inquiries lead to commissions, that is.

Any glimmers of hope are helpful, like those found in the American Institute of Architects' Billing Index, which tracks activity in the industry. The index has trended upward over the past four months, suggesting that the situation is at least not as awful as it was. While the index remains stuck below 50, which means it's in negative territory, the AIA's chief economist, Kermit Baker, wrote in a press release that the industry could be "nearing an actual recovery phase."While tentative, the index and anecdotal evidence indicate some confidence returning to the market, and that clients interested in new residences are seriously considering building and buying land after a long period of skittishness and worrying about mortgages and budgets. Developers also appear to be looking again to see what's out there, checking out sites and financing opportunities. Even talking to architects is a good sign, since this contact usually comes a long time before anything ever happens.

In turn, that bodes well for real estate. There's nothing like the sight of new homes going up, and money being spent on architects, to restore faith in the long-term value of housing. But we're certainly not out of the woods yet.

Although the calls are coming in, there still are some commitment issues.

"People are asking a lot of things about the possibilities, and putting out feelers," says Charles Thanhauser of New York's TEK Architects. But he adds, "They're still not charging ahead full-steam."

It all depends on the market. Architects say that federal projects are booming while residential, commercial and retail remain in a slump. There is obviously some new work around: We hear via our friends at The Architect's Newspaper that Gensler, the big architecture firm that builds skyscrapers and airports, is looking to fill 63 positions -- quite a turnaround around from the gloomy days of staff reductions.
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