Recovery comes, but slowly for, for architects Blueprint for GROWTH

December 19, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

Harold Adams thinks about Steve Ziger and sees someone who, under other circumstances, could build the seven-person shop of Ziger, Hoopes and Snead into an architecture firm rivaling the biggest and best.

"Ziger's kind of firm in the past would have been able to grow and prosper," says Mr. Adams, chairman of Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc., the nation's sixth-largest architecture firm. guy with his talent and communications skills would at another time have been well on his way to building another [RTKL]."

Not these days.

As the real estate depression begins to lift, the sector's most devastated profession -- an estimated 40 percent of Maryland architects lost their jobs between 1989 and 1991 -- is beginning ++ to recover from the shock.

But the recovery has been fitful, for large firms like RTKL and small fries like Ziger Hoopes.

The average Maryland firm has seven architects, up from 6.3 a year earlier, says the Maryland Society of the American Institute of Architects. The firms' average revenues still are falling, though, down about 3 percent from last year. And in February, 68 percent of firms across the nation expected revenues to rise this year; by October only 48 percent said revenues actually went up.

Still, the 38-year-old Mr. Ziger and other architects say signs of spring are emerging.

"We're considering hiring another employee, another architect, which is great," he says. "We've been fortunate to get our biggest project ever. It feels great."

"Some of the projects have fewer people going after them," he adds. "There's less desperation. It was 40 [firms competing for a project], then 20. Of course, it could be that everyone went out of business."

"It was scary there for a while," says the enthusiastic Mr. Ziger.

He's in love with his craft, describing every project as "really neat" or incredibly "cool." It was the business end that was scary.

In early 1992, Mr. Ziger and his partners made several moves to cut costs. They trimmed three people from an 11-person staff. They cut everyone else's work week to four days, and their own pay by 20 percent. And they put off buying new computers.

Today, $15,000 worth of computers are sitting, some still in boxes, around the firm's offices on a side street just west of Charles Street in Baltimore's Mount Vernon. The staff will soon be back up to eight (partner Craig Hoopes moved to New Mexico after the layoffs), the work week is back to normal, and partners' shares have been restored.

Best of all, Ziger Hoopes this fall landed its biggest-ever project, a 44,000-square-foot teaching and research building for the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

And the firm is beginning work on a proposal to convert the old Hippodrome Theater on Eutaw Street into a museum of vaudeville and live entertainment.

"We might even meet George Burns," Mr. Ziger says. "We think that if things keep going the way they are now, 1993 could be our best year yet."

One reason Ziger Hoopes has survived the recession is that it always got a lot of work from nonprofit groups such as schools, hospitals and churches. That business has fallen since 1990, but not nearly as sharply as office buildings and retail projects. The Maryland AIA says commercial work has fallen to 25 percent of the average firm's revenue, down from 33 percent in 1991, which was well into the real estate recession.

But there's a cloud on the firm's horizon: The evolving profession could squeeze small shops in favor of giants such as RTKL or midsized firms such as the 50-person Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore.

"I think you'll see a lot of consolidation," says Ayers Saint Gross principal James A. Wheeler. "It's much harder to be a generalist these days. . . . The focus is changing so much that the big firms will do big stuff and little firms will do little stuff."

Mr. Ziger doesn't buy that. He points to the Hopkins job as proof that his firm can handle larger projects, noting that the bulk of creative work on major projects is handled by a team of two to five architects.

Ed Hord, whose Baltimore shop, Hord Coplan Macht, merged with a big West Coast firm last year, agrees.

Mr. Hord, a principal in San Francisco-based Anshen + Allen, says small firms often will have to settle for a piece of technology-intensive jobs such as health care buildings. Or, they'll have to team with bigger firms, as the premerger Hord Coplan did in joining A + A to bid for a contract from Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

"There's still a place for small firms," he says. "There are a lot of things that aren't high-tech out there."

As the role of small firms evolves, Mr. Ziger is building his one step at a time. Not to become the next RTKL, perhaps, but to expand its institutional design practice outside the mid-Atlantic region.

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