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September 23, 2014

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Drawing a blank:

Broken pencils

Architects across the state are trying to stay afloat

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"There was a time,” says architect Eric Roberts, “when you could be flush with work just by having your doors open.”

In Las Vegas, of course, those times are long gone. Along with gaming and construction, architecture is one of the professions that is being hit hardest by the recession. “No one really wants to build an office; retail is kaput,” says Windom Kimsey of the firm Tate, Snyder and Kimsey. “Hotel-condo just died. What is there? It’s not going to be housing. Affordable housing?”

Kimsey says a straw poll puts the numbers among architecture, design and engineering firms as being down more than 60 percent—calls to several firms around town indicate that employment may be off as much as 40 percent. Carpenter Sellers has laid off four people since December, from a staff of 30. Meanwhile, Roberts’ firm, SH Architecture, has lost some 25 or so people, about 50 percent of its staff. Firms in northern Nevada are also being decimated. “We’re losing a lot of good, qualified, educated citizens,” Roberts says.

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“People don’t realize how absolutely desperate it is,” says Randy Lavigne, executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ Las Vegas chapter. “If it goes on like it’s going now, it’s going to be disastrous.”

The response from the local and state chapters of the AIA is a lobbying campaign called Pencil Ready, a slightly unwieldy term meant to play off the term “shovel-ready,” which denoted projects that were ready to break ground immediately and thus were to be beneficiaries of federal stimulus money designed to get people back to work immediately. But architects and designers say that unless they, too, are busy, there won’t be much for construction workers to build.

To make the point, several architects traveled to Carson City, in February and last month, carrying supersize pencils as they sat down with state leaders. Architect Mike Del Gatto, with Carpenter Sellers, says the architects met with more than 60 percent of legislators in February. “Nobody thought we were crazy for what we were doing,” he says. “It’s one of those things you hope you can get something in the back of their minds.”

As Kimsey notes, if architects and engineers aren’t designing buildings now, then the construction industry will have nothing to build next year. “Nobody has a lot on the board right now,” says Del Gatto. “If we’re not busy, then all these guys coming off big projects”—like CityCenter and Fontainebleau—“nobody knows what they’re going to be doing. That’s going to cause a bigger void in the community.”

The reception from legislators was positive, but it will take more than good vibes to put architects back to work. After all, shovel-ready projects are having enough trouble as it is. “The amount of work we can do is limited to the amount of money available,” says Evan Dale, a deputy manager in the State Public Works Board.

Much of the funding for Nevada’s capital improvement projects comes through the state’s ability to issue bonds to fund construction. In January, the proposed bonding capacity of the state for the upcoming biennium was $400 million; as of last week the figure had dropped to $158 million. The decrease is a result, says Dale, of changes in forecasted property-tax revenue. The state’s bonding capacity had been rising in previous legislative sessions. In 2003, it was $143 million; in 2005, it was $337 million; and in 2007, it was $520 million.

The state also has access to federal money and donor money for university projects. (Money from the stimulus will go to horizontal projects like roadways and bridges rather than vertical ones like buildings.) Still, there’s very little in the state budget for planning future projects—right now most of the funds are earmarked for construction.

Roberts recalls the recession in the late ’80s that drove many architects out of town. Many left and never returned. “Our greatest fear is the people doing the great design, the great buildings … they won’t be here.”

When the recession lifts, work will resume, but not like before. “Maybe the big firm here in town will be 30 or 25,” Kimsey says. “We’ll probably all be a little smaller.”

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