Architects hit the road to survive property crash

Sun May 6, 2012 1:08pm EDT
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By Luciana Lopez

(Reuters) - Working for one of the world's best-known architecture firms, Norman Morgan and Brent Sparks were used to new business landing on their desks.

But when the financial crisis struck in 2008, they abandoned the Fort Worth office of HKS Inc, jumped into Morgan's Ford pick-up truck and began to criss-cross the back lands of Texas, looking for any kind of jobs for the firm.

On their road-trip, they knocked on the doors of rural Texas hospitals they spotted from the highway, often with no appointment. Architects from rival firms were also on the ground, trying to drum up new clients.

Around the United States, architecture firms faced a stark choice during the credit crisis that had its epicenter in the property market: reinvent the way they got business or die.

The resulting changes to their business are likely to last for years even as some architects say they are seeing the first tentative signs of improvement.

The hospitals in the Texas countryside were more like the work HKS did in its infancy, rather than the work the global firm was doing in dozens of countries right before the credit crunch, said Ralph Hawkins, the HKS chief executive officer. The company's work includes such landmarks as the Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

"We found out that a lot of our competition was meeting with them," he added. "There was competition out there but there was work, and we were glad to get it."

Architecture firms downsized drastically during the crisis, said Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects. "We estimate about 30 percent of payroll positions at architecture firms were eliminated from the peak in the middle of 2008."   Continued...

Norman Morgan (C) and Brent Sparks (R), principals at the architecture firm of HKS, Inc. talk with associate Marcus Budas (L) at the company's offices in Fort Worth, Texas, April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Sharp