Not many local architects want to revisit the early 1990s, when a spiraling downward economy forced many firms to knock around Asia looking for projects in order to survive.

But hard times brought some valuable lessons, and with the economy starting to sputter, architects are braced, having learned to employ a valuable lesson: diversify.

Many local architecture firms concede that their commercial business has slowed, but few are worried.

They point to the plentiful number of public works projects scheduled for L.A. County, from the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport to new buildings at the county's MacLaren Children's Center for wayward teenagers.

And pursuing commissions overseas is still an option even in Asia, where a long economic downturn continues to deepen. An expanding Chinese market remains an important arena for several local architecture firms.

Closer to home, the ever-mushrooming California population, which is projected to expand by 15 million in the next 20 years, is creating a huge demand for housing and schools.

Many L.A.-area architecture firms, with diversified areas of expertise, are well positioned to take advantage of all these opportunities.

"We are trying to be as diversified as physically possible," said Herb Nadel, president and chief executive of Nadel Architects Inc. in Los Angeles. "We've been around for 28 years, and I don't want to go through the early '90s again, having to lay off people who were meaningful and loyal employees."

New markets, new practices

For Nadel, diversification means opening a Las Vegas office, whose director specializes in aviation projects. It means contracts to add gates and renovation terminals at several medium-sized airports in the West.

Being diversified also means taking a creative approach, taking on projects in disciplines they hadn't considered before. Nadel and his firm, for instance, are working on a project to expand the San Diego Zoo.

Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum Inc. in Los Angeles also learned to diversify, undertaking both private- and public-sector projects.

"There's no question there is a slowdown in the economy, but we are not jumping overseas. We have a pretty diversified practice. And there is a lot of activity in the public sector," said John Conley, senior vice president at HOK.

Public-sector projects vary from transportation terminals to university buildings to research laboratories. Architects expect to get a lot of business from the Los Angeles Unified School District, which plans to build 80 to 100 schools over the next decade. Other regional school districts will be expanding their facilities as well.

Another growing sector for architects is the health care industry, as scores of hospitals around the state respond to a government mandate to seismically retrofit their facilities by 2008 or face closure.

"A lot of hospitals have completed their evaluation efforts, looked at their facilities and are deciding what to do right now," Conley said.

Ongoing infrastructure improvements are also taking up some of the slack created by a downturn in commercial projects. For example, Los Angeles World Airports recently awarded Gensler, a San Francisco-based architecture firm with a large office in L.A., a design project to renovate Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport. Los Angeles World Airports also is building a new administrative headquarters at LAX.

Another growing area of opportunity for local architects is mixed-use projects, which combine an upper-level residential component with ground-floor retail. These hybrids are expected to blossom as a lack of available land makes infill projects more attractive.

The trend is already evident in a number of new projects planned in Los Angeles.

MCG Architecture is designing the Sunset & Vine project in Hollywood, which consists of 300 loft-style apartments on five floors atop ground-floor retail. And Nadel Architects is designing several mixed-use projects, including Sunset Millennium, a $350-million mixed-used complex with a hotel, offices and retail stores. It is slated for a site on the corner of Sunset and La Cienega boulevards.

Teaming up

"I think some of the large retail architects like ourselves are going in the same direction, approaching urban revitalization with multilevel retailing and housing instead of the standard retailing that faces the street," said Jeffrey Gill, managing partner with MCG Architecture. "We don't do it all. We team up with a housing architect or a parking lot architect. I think weathering the (economic) storm means teaming up with other firms and using your expertise as we revitalize inner-city areas."

While the economy may be slowing, it doesn't mean there aren't plenty of businesses out there that are still expanding.

Johnson Fain Partners of Los Angeles is designing Constellation Place, a 34-story office tower that JMB Realty Corp. plans to build in Century City, with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. as anchor tenant.

And there are still those projects in Asia. Many architecture firms that set up shop in Hong Kong in the early 1990s still have offices there.

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