ASLA Oregon LANDbytes AUGUST 2011 Feature:
Surviving the Modern Economy - Oregon Style - Part II
By Rebecca Wahlstrom
With all the ups and downs of the past weeks, it’s difficult to get a reading on how the economy is tracking. Read ten different articles, all written by experts in the field, and their prognostications will all differ. National credit ratings and the tenuous Euro aside, I was curious how people here in Oregon/southern Washington perceived the economic scene. I polled four landscape architects and one student to get their take on the pulse of the LA business and its future; are we flat-lined and needing a jump-start or does business just need some lifestyle changes to improve its health?
The effects of lean times for businesses often trickle down to the student level. Logan Bingle, a landscape architecture student, found that out this summer when he applied to seven firms for an internship position and didn’t get a spot. Knowing that the economy is weak, I was interested why students are still signing up to ride the roller-coaster ride called the A/E/construction industry. He writes that he chose this trade, “because of the people”, saying that landscape architects were “the most positive and practical people to me” in his explorations of the various design fields. When asked about his outlook for his future career; he replied, “My major goal after graduation will be to find a steady job, but I would not be surprised if I ended up stringing together a series of part time or freelance jobs.”
I was curious about what the folks that hire LA firms thought, so I asked Elizabeth Jordan, RLA, Capital Programs Manager at Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department about the biggest changes in hiring practices during the past few years. She replied, “We aren’t contracting with LA firms as much as we did in 2008. At this point, capital investment is down and will not be returning to 2008 levels in the near future. What little work we do contract out is to survey or engineering firms.” When asked to predict the future of Oregon’s landscape architecture businesses, Ms. Jordan ventured that during this time, “High-end residential LAs might be able to maintain work but the momentum is towards planning, not design”.
To further illuminate the subject, some of the landscape architects here in Portland were asked a series of questions; Michael O’Brien, RLA at Harper Houf Peterson Righellis, Joyce Jackson, RLA at Maul Foster & Alongi, and Sean Stroup, RLA of Walker Macy all weighed in on the health of our industry.
Comparing 2008 to today; what is the biggest change in the LA business?
Michael responded; “Competition. There are a lot of hungry firms out there, as well as a lot of new one and two person firms, that are trying to fill the vacuum left by the economic collapse. Many of these firms are putting proposals together that have fees that are much, much lower than what would have been expected pre-recession. I’ve been involved with projects that we felt that our numbers were as low as we could go only to see the client hire another firm that offered fees 30% below ours. We need to be much more selective about where we put marketing resources.”
With fewer projects and smaller budgets, how do we make ourselves indispensible? How do we keep our place at the design table?
Joyce answered, “…we have to think far beyond design. As big picture thinkers, we have to think about what our clients want and need to be successful…assisting with issues such as market analysis or obtaining required entitlements for land use approvals, environmental permitting and building permits. All this while maintaining design and environmental sensitivity. It is a certain nimble quality that allows us to operate beyond the world of plants.”
Michael replied that, “By doing the best work you possibly can on every project, big or small. By networking with possible clients to educate or remind them of what we have to offer. By getting out in the community and presenting our expertise to a broadening audience. There are more and more project types that are being seen as requiring a landscape architecture lead than ever before. The more we are able to educate people who make or influence decisions of this nature, the more we will see our profession expand. My honest opinion is that we are the best suited profession to handle certain tasks like site grading and hardscape, yet these continue to land in the laps of architects. It has shifted more towards us over the course of my career but still has a ways to go in this part of the country.”
Sean weighed in by saying, “Advice I do have for all professionals though is to take the time to get hands on experience. Some of my most valuable time was spent as a construction foreman, learning constructability. There is no substitute for putting something together yourself, feeling the textures in your hands, feeling the weight of the stone, the cold of the steel… knowledge of the land and the materials we use as landscape architects is invaluable…having enough knowledge about a material to be able to think about it in a creative way that leads to a new use is a skill that our profession should strive for.”
Looking in your crystal ball, what do you see for the future of Oregon's LA businesses? If the recovery is slow, how do we make more with less?
Michael answered, “We need to be more efficient, while at the same time producing high quality work. We need to take advantage of down time to sharpen our skill sets, or learn new ones. Knowledge is power, and the more you bring to the table the more likely you are going to be asked back.”
Joyce agreed, saying, “Expand your individual area of expertise? Do the little annoying jobs that won’t pay much but need our skills? Maybe we all need a sustainable lifestyle and good old-fashioned belt tightening. If we work to move toward a new paradigm instead of hoping for a return to the fast pace growth of a few years ago, we can help grow a more sustainable economy.”
Sean adds a new direction to the topic by saying, “One thing I have been discussing with other professionals is the desire to do design/build work. Not only does it make you a better designer but you then provide a more valuable service. My feeling with a design/build firm is that you cut out a significant amount of waste.”
The ever-increasing occurrence of stomach acid aside, these can be exciting times; real seat-of-the-pants, dead-reckoning times when one is pushed to re-organize old patterns and explore new opportunities. The overarching theme that I took away from the polled individuals was that we can thrive as a design community if we continue to learn; learn about materials, about new and old ideas, about skills that will make our profession invaluable to potential clients and make the most of their money. Cutting out the excess and keeping the essentials can lead to some difficult decisions and uncomfortable times, but I wonder if we will become better designers in the long run. In our efforts to promote ourselves in the design community, I wonder if the community at large will better understand what landscape architecture really is and what it is we do (finally!). Will we come out of these lean times a little stronger and with a renewed sense of commitment to design? I believe we will.