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E d i t o r ’ s N o t e

Reading Into the Numbers

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What’s behind the 25-percent decline from 2008’s record-high total Design Award entries?

The annual TSA Design Awards program provides an intriguing snapshot of the state of architectural design in Texas. While nowhere near comprehensive in depicting a multifaceted profession, each year’s collection of winners nonetheless offers a survey of contemporary trends and the occasional flash of creative brilliance. Beyond its beauty-contest aspects, the program may also reveal insights into current economic conditions through the level of participation. This year’s total number of entries was 200, which represents a 25-percent drop from the record high of 267 submittals in 2008. On the surface, the numbers seem to illustrate the obvious—the tightening grip of the worldwide financial crisis that has come to be called the Great Recession. We know all too well how the downturn brought an abrupt end to an extraordinary period of growth enjoyed by all Americans. Architects especially benefited from the good times, having spent a decade fulfilling the needs and expanded desires of their clients, who were empowered by a highly charged economic engine. Then came the cataclysmic events of 2007 and 2008. The recession, however, barely made a dent in the 2009 Design Awards, with 261 projects submitted. More than anything, that slight dip may have been attributed to the entry deadline, which was a month earlier than the year before. Yet, that total was the second-highest in TSA’s history. Of course, many factors can influence whether a firm will participate in the Design Awards program. (For the record, architects registered in Texas may submit any number of projects they designed that were built anywhere in the world and completed within the previous five years. Projects entered in this year’s program must have been completed no later than Jan. 1, 2005.) For firms struggling to survive in a shrinking economy, the considerable expense of hiring a photographer may prohibit participation in competitions. Particularly onerous for small shops, professional photography is all but a necessity for even a remarkably well-designed project to catch the collective eye of a jury. In addition is the cost of staff time to put together the slide show and edit the presentation for maximum impact, as well as the entry fee. During a downturn such as this, sole practitioners and young firms may not have the luxury and therefore decline the invitation to compete. Another factor is the perception that juries only select small projects for awards. While not wholly accurate, recent history proves that intimately

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scaled buildings (especially houses) win more often than larger ones (due in part to the programmatic complexity of big institutional projects such as public schools and hospitals). Perhaps the most crucial factor is the contracting job market. According to the State Comptroller, the unemployment rate in Texas rose from 5.7 percent in November 2008 to 8.2 percent this July. Comparable figures for the nation were 6.7 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively. Earlier this year, a more focused look by the U.S. Labor Department reported a 9.3 percent drop in the number of technical and nontechnical staff employed in the nation’s architecture and engineering services industry in 2009 from the previous year. “Business conditions at design firms remain quite volatile,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker, PhD, Hon. AIA, in a statement that accompanied the mid-August release of the Institute’s Architecture Billings Index. While acknowledging a slight uptick in construction spending from July, Baker conceded that “this state of the industry is likely to persist for awhile as we continue to receive a mixed bag of feedback on the condition of the design market from improving to flat to being paralyzed by uncertainty.”
 There is a glimmer of hope for 2011, with state officials reporting in August that sales tax revenues had risen over the previous four months. That harbinger of a rebounding economy may temper calls for austerity efforts by state lawmakers who will gather in January to consider measures to offset an impending budget shortfall estimated between $11 and $17 billion. As difficult as it is to look beyond the immediate pressures caused by the current downturn, the cyclical nature of economics holds the promise of eventual improvement. In Texas, we have been relatively fortunate, and the state’s booming population (estimated to grow 2.5 times by 2030) foreshadows a steady stream of work for the architecture profession. In fact, a recent study by the Brookings Institution based on 2004 data indicated that new construction in Texas between the years 2000 and 2030 is projected to be about $3.3 trillion. Such hopeful news bodes well for a profession that is inspired by progress and society’s demand for innovation. S t e p h e n

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Texas Architect Sept/Oct 2010: Design Awards