2011 Was a Good Year for Architecture, but Not Architects

If last year wasn't a great year for Arkansas architects - and it wasn't - it was a great year for architecture in Arkansas.

That's because Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville. Although it was designed by an architect based in Boston, Moshe Safdie, it brought international attention to architecture in the state, joining a list of impressive buildings that includes the Clinton Presidential Library and Heifer International's headquarters, both in Little Rock.

(To see the list of largest architectural firms in the state, click here for a PDF or here for a spreadsheet version. For the largest engineering firms in Arkansas, click here for the PDF or here for the spreadsheet.)

"The building, I think, is great for Arkansas," Michael LeJong, president of the Arkansas chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said, referring to the museum. "To have something different and very progressive is important for the state."

Such high-profile buildings "are really in a lot of ways very good for architects in Arkansas because they bring attention to good design and kind of raise the level of what people expect," said Charley Penix, CEO of Cromwell Architects Engineers of Little Rock. "I think those have been really good for the architecture business in Arkansas."

Something else that has been good for the architecture, and engineering, business in Arkansas has been federal stimulus money, and that is starting to run out, said LeJong, a principal in MAHG Architecture of Fort Smith.

"The states need to look at refunding some of those initiatives," he said, though he sees private-sector work picking up.

"Basically, over the last few years there had been a lot of stimulus money available for school projects and university projects and other state institutions, so there was quite a bit going on, and the private work was basically non-existent because was everybody was hanging tight to the pocketbooks," LeJong said.

He said AIA representatives were planning to meet with congressmen in the next few weeks to discuss ways to help the sector. One of those is the 179D energy tax credit, which offers a tax deduction for investments in energy-efficient building improvements.
Although it's funded through 2013, LeJong said, "We're going back again [in a few weeks] to ask them to look at extending that tax credit."

Cromwell, the second-largest architectural firm in Arkansas and the fourth-largest engineering firm, saw business slow last year, said Greg Cockmon, president of the firm.

"Cromwell is a little bit different because we didn't feel the effects for a while with our firm," he said. "When the recession first started we had quite a bit of work and we had increased our staff and staffed up, so we weathered the storm pretty well until it started slowing down a little bit in 2011."

Cockmon and Brock Johnson, CEO and president of Garver, the largest engineering firm in Arkansas, both said that competition for Arkansas projects from out-of-state firms had heated up.

One revenue source for architects and engineers that has increased is sustainable, or green, design and construction.

"We are learning to save buildings instead of tear them down," Penix said. And because Cromwell also as 21 engineers on staff, adaptive reuse of buildings has become a specialty of his firm.

Johnson said that Garver had continued to prosper during the economic downturn. "Our business is ever so slightly up in Arkansas this year compared with last." And, he said, "Our forecasts for this next year are showing it significantly better than last year and I'm optimistic that will hold up."

The List
The list of largest architectural firms in Arkansas saw little change in 2011 compared with 2010. Firms jostled each other on the rankings, rising a bit here, falling a bit there. Cromwell, which lost four registered architects last year compared with 2010, moved from No. 1 to No. 2. Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock gained an architect and rose to the top spot on the list.

Garver remained by far the biggest engineering firm with 85 registered engineers compared with second-ranked TME Inc. of Little Rock, which has 25. Garver did, however, report 11 fewer registered engineers in 2011 compared with 2010.