Now that the Los Angeles real estate industry is finally rebounding, developers are developing, landlords are renovating and architects are once again flooded with business.
But after a six-year drought, local architectural firms are finding that they don't have much of a labor pool to draw from.
"All the designers seem to have either left the profession or left the state," said Thomas Landau, president of the Landau Partnership. Landau remembers when his firm would interview five to 10 architects each week during the building boom of the late '80s.
Now the boom is back for his firm, which is designing Pac Ten Partners' 24-story Glendale Plaza office tower and the Santa Monica Studios development. But Landau has only filled three of the 10 design positions that have become available at his firm during the past three months.
Landau has even gone so far as to ask an intern to post job fliers in the restroom of the architectural school he attends.
Landau's experience is similar to those of architectural firms throughout Los Angeles, as the industry emerges from one of its most devastating downturns. The current labor shortage comes at a critical time for architects, as designers are urgently needed by developers who want to put up new buildings and by commercial landlords who want to redesign their existing properties while the market is still hot.
Many local architectural firms report that their billings are up at least 10 percent over last year, and they are eager to bulk up their design teams to handle the increased workloads.
The situation is vastly different from the first half of the '90s, when firms such as Landau's were forced to cut their work forces by half from their late-1980s peak. With few firms hiring during the recession, architecture school graduates in L.A. took their computer-aided design skills to the flourishing entertainment and new-media industries.
Now that those employees are ensconced in well-paying jobs, middle and senior management positions in the architectural field have gone begging.
"There's a void in the industry you'd expect a pent-up pool of people ready to return to work, but all of the talent has been deployed elsewhere," said Ernesto Vasquez, principal at McLarand, Vasquez & Partners Inc. His firm counts J.H. Snyder Co.'s Howard Hughes Entertainment Center and the Burbank Media Center among its designs currently under construction.
It's not just the ranks of local architects that are thinner. The number of architectural firms in Los Angeles is also smaller than in the late-1980s, primarily because many of the East Coast design shops pulled out of the region during the recession. Many local developers are now partnering with local architects to get their projects designed.
Glendale-based Feoli Carli, & Archuleta Architects has teamed with Beverly Hills-based Regent Properties on a number of its recent projects, including the Glendale Marketplace and Westwood Marketplace projects. Millard Archuleta, president of the firm, said the recent surge has brought problems as well from labor shortages to cramped offices.
But, he added, "those are all good problems and it's nice to have those for a change."
Many local firms that survived the recession did so by heading overseas to cash in on the building boom in Southeast Asia. But the demands of an overseas contract are different from those of a contract in an architect's back yard.
On foreign projects, American architects inevitably must partner with a design firm from that country, one that can write construction documents in the native language. Overseas contracts are further complicated by travel expenses, time differences, barriers to communication and payment collection problems all of which erodes a firm's profits.
"I'd rather have a local contract any day," said Mike Fejes, a principal at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum Inc. Not only is it easier to communicate, he said, but it's easier to sell American clients on a full range of services from pre-design services to interior design.
As local architectural firms return to domestic projects, they are finding that the real estate world has altered from the last cycle. Real estate investment trusts have emerged as a consistent source of property renovation contracts for architects.
Although the designers are grateful for the business, some architects are still adjusting to the REITs' fast pace of business.
"They're savvy financiers," said one architectural firm executive who asked to not be named, noting that some REITs want "quickie renovations" so they can flip their properties for a quick profit sometimes even arranging to resell the property at a profit before they've closed escrow.
"I can't tell you how many times we've received calls from REITs telling us they want us to start and finish the project in a week," she said.
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