Architects in Minnesota seeing improvement after some lean years

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2013 - 10:27 AM

After five lean years, architects in Minnesota are seeing improvement — and a threat from the governor’s tax plan.


Ann Voda, president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects, at her firm Bentz/Thompson/Rietow in Minneapolis.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA , Star Tribune

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Five years ago, the Minneapolis architectural firm Bentz/Thompson/Rietow had 20 drafting stations. Today just 10 are in use.

The past five years have been lean ones for architects both in Minnesota and across the country.

In the face of a lingering recession, work dried up as developers stopped building, capital markets tightened and self-financed projects were put on hold until the economy strengthened.

“We’re just starting to see daylight,” said Ann Voda, president of Bentz/Thompson/Rietow. “It’s a slow build back.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the prospect of a 5.5 percent business-to-business sales tax has the state’s service industry, including architects, perplexed and concerned.

“We’re trying to reverse a five-year trend that worked against us,” said Voda, who also is president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). “Adding cost will not help us grow back any faster.

“When you think of the construction industry as a whole, architects are at the front of a pipeline of jobs. A few design the projects, but it takes thousands to build them.”

Phillip Koski, a Minneapolis architect who works out of his home, agreed. “My profit margin is usually 5 to 6 percent. A tax puts me at a competitive disadvantage.” Koski knows firsthand the financial difficulties his industry has suffered. Koski is a sole practitioner because he got laid off from his job with a national architectural firm in 2009.

Voda’s firm lists the Lake Harriet bandshell and Eden Prairie’s Wooddale Church as part of its body of work. Koski does residential and retail commercial work.

“Fees are a criteria in winning a job,” Voda said in an interview. “It’s so competitive.’’

A recent report by the national AIA said business grew an average of just 2.9 percent in 2012 and that architects expect 2013 to be “only modestly better.”

In January, the institute’s “architecture billings index’’ logged its sixth consecutive month of positive industry growth — the first such stretch since 2007. The index, which comes from a monthly survey of architects, is considered a leading economic indicator of nonresidential construction activity in the next nine to 12 months.

January’s figure of 54.2 was the highest since late 2007. (Any figure above 50 indicates growth; below 50 means billings are falling.)

“We have been pointing in this direction for the last several months, but this is the strongest indication that there will be an upturn in construction activity in the coming months,” said Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

One legacy of the Great Recession is fewer practicing architects. The AIA’s national membership survey shows just over 81,000, down about 2.4 percent from nearly 83,000 members in 2007.

The Minnesota AIA chapter has grown slightly, to 2,248 members, from 2,070 five years ago. Minnesota membership likely increased because of outreach efforts it made to help architects during lean times by providing support programs and continuing education classes and networking opportunities, the chapter said.

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