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Architects, Engineers See ‘Positive Signs’ in Private Sector, Growing College Enrollment

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After five lean years, architectural and engineering firms are seeing business pick up, even in the once-moribund private sector.

But lessons learned during the downturn still inform their operations, said David McKee, president of the Arkansas chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“We’ve kind of learned how to be lean and go where we need to go, to tailor our services to a particular project,” said McKee, principal in David W. McKee Architect of Fayetteville. McKee’s primary work is custom residential projects.

His toughest times were the years 2008 and 2009. “People basically just kind of froze up, were concerned about the economy and didn’t want to spend money,” McKee said. “So house projects pretty much came to a halt, whereas they don’t seem to be able to stop building schools because of the demand.”

View this week’s lists by clicking on any of the links below:
Largest Architectural Firms: PDF (free) | Spreadsheet (for purchase)
Largest Engineering Firms: PDF (free) | Spreadsheet (for purchase)

The growing enrollment at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has provided some firms with plenty of business, he said, though those projects are outside his firm’s area of expertise.

And statewide, “I’m hearing some very positive comments from colleagues,” he said. “Most everybody that I’ve talked to is thinking that they’ve got lots of projects, and there’s been talk about expanding their employment — a lot of positive signs.”

Those positive signs extend to the private sector, McKee said. People held back for several years because of their concerns about the economy, but now “the demand is pent up and they’re ready to spend a little money and do some nice things.”

“Most of my clients are fairly well-off people, and I think that they were able to weather the recession in good order and are anxious to get back on track and fulfill their wishes,” he said.

McKee’s plate is pretty full, he said, with two or three house projects, an office/apartment project and even a project in Fort Wayne, Ind. “I see just a general change in attitude. People’s confidence level is up so they’re willing to spend a little money and have some fun with it.”

As for trends, sustainability and “green” building have left trend territory for the mainstream, and McKee expects that to continue. Now, “it’s one of the first things that come up” in talking with clients or prospective clients. Once a good marketing tool, LEED-certified design and construction are now being incorporated into building codes, McKee said.

The architecture firm that has seen particularly robust growth is Harrison French & Associates Ltd. of Bentonville, which reported 61 more total staff members compared with last year, though it has remained at No. 4 on the list of Arkansas’ largest architectural firms. Among the firm’s clients are Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its Sam’s Club division, which help keep it busy with remodels of sites around the country.

Also at the top of this year’s list is Cromwell Architects Engineers Inc., which traded places for the top spot with Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, which slipped to No. 2 from No. 1 in 2012. Wittenberg Delony & Davidson Inc. Architects maintained its third place position.

Things are also improving for engineers. Garver LLC, by far the largest engineering firm in the state, added 29 staff members during the year. Three of those were registered engineers.

TME Inc. of Little Rock remained in second place, though it added five registered engineers. Janet Calhoun, managing principal for finance and marketing, said business for 2013 was looking up.

“Business has increased,” she said. “Now, in terms of overall revenue, 2012 was probably down compared with the previous year, but it looks like a lot of things are coming off hold now.” The firm is expecting a significant increase in business in 2013, Calhoun said.

Calhoun cited “a couple of really nice projects that are coming on line.” These include the $28 million “business village” at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and a $40 million expansion and renovation of the outpatient treatment center there.

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