Hord Coplan Macht sees 3 projects open in one week

THRIVING IN HARD TIMES

October 15, 1992|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

It would have been an unusual week for a small architectural firm even in the best of times, and these are hardly the best of times.

At Hord Coplan Macht, last week saw the opening of three buildings designed by the firm -- something the 18-person Charles Village shop didn't see happen even in the salad days of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Although their clients, as always, got most of the attention when the buildings opened, the firm was the creative force behind the renovation of the Kennedy Krieger School in East Baltimore, the new Legal Aid Bureau building near City Hall and the new Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust branch in Mount Vernon.

"They're filling in holes in the city," says Lee Coplan, one of the firm's three senior principals.

The jobs also illustrate that Hord Coplan Macht is adjusting to the recession in ways broadly similar to how firms -- both much bigger and smaller than they -- are coping.

The firm has shrunk its staff, adjusted to the tougher competition even for small jobs and is generating much of its work from the residential and institutional markets to make up for the speculative development work that has withered.

"I don't see any spark," Mr. Coplan says. "In terms of speculative work, there is no spark. . . . I think, for some firms, it is unfortunately still pretty bad."

Hord Coplan Macht landed the Mercantile job in part because the 15-year-old firm has a relationship with Mercantile. The Mount Vernon branch was the fourth job the firm has done for the bank, and the architects harked back to the older days of grander banks to make the building -- erected on a parking lot -- fit in with its mostly traditional, three-story neighbors.

"It would have looked funny to come in and do a typical, 10-foot-high bank branch," Mr. Coplan says. "The volume of the building does a nice job of filling in the hole" in the roof lines of Charles Street.

Like the Mercantile branch, the Legal Aid building posed the challenge of fitting a new building into an established street setting in a way that complemented the old without just stealing from it stylistically, says Carol Macht, a landscape architect who is a principal at the firm.

"It completes the frame around [War Memorial] Plaza," she says.

"There's something in these buildings that's trying to respect the detailing of an earlier time, but they are definitely contemporary buildings."

The Kennedy Krieger School job came after the architects helped the Kennedy Krieger Institute respond to a city solicitation for proposals to redevelop the old Fairmount Hill School, Mr. Coplan says. Most of the renovation concentrated on overhauling the building's interior.

But even as the firm's three partners steer the firm through the recession, they say they don't see many signs of a turnaround for their industry.

"We don't see any developer work happening," Ms. Macht says.

Non-profit institutions often get some of the money for their construction from the government, she says, so even that relatively stable portion of the construction market might yet run into trouble.

"Even the government work, with all the budget cuts, makes you concerned about the future," Ms. Macht says.

Mr. Coplan says the firm has been able to round up work, but VTC has had to work harder to find it.

"The effect we've felt in our anxiety levels had to do with that the backlog was shorter," Mr. Coplan says. "We've kept pretty busy over the last year and a half. We've always had a pretty good mix of clientele and never relied too heavily on speculative development."

The firm's staff has shrunk by five people since 1989, a fairly small decrease compared with the unemployment rate among architects, which topped 40 percent, according to a 1991 survey by the Maryland Society of the American Institute of Architects.

"People say 7 or 8 percent in the economy is a recession," says Ed Hord, the firm's third senior principal. "What is 42 percent in an industry?"

Mr. Hord says the society hasn't updated its survey lately, so it's impossible to say exactly how hard these times are for architects.

"The indicator I have is how many unsolicited resumes I get in a week," Mr. Coplan said. "They're still coming in."

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