As the pandemic altered a variety of industries and how people live, work and play, the architecture industry is now making its own adjustments. Industry needs are shifting, work habits are changing and economics are becoming more challenging following two years of a pandemic. While certain aspects of the industry changed, other parts remain the same.
“It’s had a profound impact,” TSK Architects President Windom Kimsey said. “We didn’t miss a beat, truthfully, during the pandemic; we had a very good IT person. But, it has changed how we deliver projects.”
During the pandemic, TSK Architects completed its work with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on the first permanent building of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine. In October, less than two years following its groundbreaking, the five-story, 135,00-square-foot Kirk Kerkorian Medical Education Building opened. TSK and CO Architects ended up winning an American Institute of Architects Nevada design excellence award for the project.
One of the big changes architects have seen as a result of COVID has been the rise in design on computers and through online meetings. Like many other industries, architects have had to adapt to virtual work. “We went through the [UNLV] design process sitting at a computer, that’s a different way of delivering and introduced us to new software,” Kimsey.
One positive result of this change has been the eased need for employees to be in Nevada for local firms. Kimsey said they now have personnel in places across the country, even as far as Maryland. “It has allowed us to be a little more creative in how to put teams together, and I don’t think that’s going back,” he said.
While the pandemic has changed how architects are working, it did not alter the number of licenses too much, according to Monica Harrison, executive director of the Nevada State Board of Architecture, Interior Design and Residential Design.
In 2019, there were approximately 3,000 licenses, down to approximately 2,960 last year. In 2020 there were 71 firms licensed, down to 63 in 2022.
Harrison said there are a lot of licenses being issued to out-of-state professionals. In a similar note, Harrison said regulatory processes are moving along quicker than five or six years ago. Licensing could take up to 12 weeks back then, now they can be issued in two to three days. That’s a good thing, as construction projects never slowed down in Nevada.
“Even during the pandemic, during the time everything stopped, construction kept going. It never stopped,” Harrison said. “If anything, it was the perfect time because it was easier to get work done. So, even though a lot of our jobs were put on hold, the construction industry kept going.” Still, Kimsey said finding qualified design professionals continues to be an issue. “The pandemic didn’t help, a lot of them left and are doing something entirely different,” he said. “During the Great Recession, we lost a lot of people in the business, a lot of young talent in the schools. Finding talent with five [to] 15 years of experience is hard. We could hire quite a few people if they were available.”According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the number of new architects fell 39 percent in 2020 compared to the three-year average of before the pandemic. Fortunately for the industry, the numbers began to rise again in 2021, albeit at a rate lower than before the pandemic.
Strong Markets Even as macroeconomic trends can put some developments on shaky grounds, Frame Architecture Principal Jeff Frame said his firm is moving forward with its own office building. The firm will break ground this month or next.
Frame said some architects will be hurt as the home building spree slows down and some homebuilders are even stopping until the economy turns around. Retail, which “follows rooftops,” is still catching up, so firms working within that realm should continue with a strong flow of projects.
“[As a firm, our clients are] not concentrated with home builders who are at the mercy of interest rates,” Frame explained. Frame Architecture works with clients that are not in a hurry and not worried about a 3 to 4 percent rise in interest rates he added.He expects architectural projects moving through a downturn will be more specialty type projects. Likewise, he said when the economy goes down, the government spends more, but does not work in the public works rotation. Frame added that 2023 will be strong. He also said the firm is looking to hire, although they are working to find the right clients that fit the team chemistry.
“When you go through four years of huge growth from a firm standpoint, a huge workload and then COVID, I’m looking toward something manageable,” said Frame. “Not that it will slowdown, but I think our revenues will be right where they are in 2022 and it was our best year ever. So, we’re looking pretty good.”
As multifamily strengthens with the downturn of single family, Frame said ministorage is an extremely hot segment. “We don’t do ministorage, but talking to clients who invest in them, it’s the hottest real estate investment right now,” he said. “Cheap to build, the tenants don’t complain and maintenance is low.”
In a similar vein, Frame did design a recreational vehicle storage facility, with 18 spaces where RV owners can store them when not used. There is a waiting list for the spaces, which cost approximately $800 a month.Kimsey said the market pressures just make it more important that developers are on top of their projects. TSK benefits from strong public works contracts. Kimsey pointed to the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine as an example of a great project. If commercial projects scale back with economic challenges, the firm will continue picking up its public work, including recent projects with Clark County High School and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“We like working with the state, those are fun,” Kimsey said. “Those are the projects we’re very proud of, that have a civic impact. If we can get some sort of break on inflation costs and supply chain, that would be a blessing for everyone.”
Quick Change in Settings Kimsey said the firm had discussions about how space design might change because of the COVID pandemic. However, much of society has returned to its pre-pandemic normal and interior designs don’t seem to be changing all that much.Still, there are minor changes that have been trending, largely in terms of hygiene. Thoseaspects include things like automatic doors, hands-free faucets and other, “little things that are associated with hygiene,” said Kimsey.
A significant trending design change has been building with operable windows; however, those provide a challenge in desert areas like Las Vegas. “The dilemma is the mechanical engineers and balancing air systems,” Kimsey explained.
Beyond hygiene and sustainability, Kimsey said worker health is now a significant aspect of design. “If you go back a couple of decades, I’m not saying it’s gone, but sustainability was the new thing and now the new designation is ‘Well Building’,” he said, adding most buildings are automatically designed with sustainability in mind. Users are asking, “What kind of foods are served [and what is] the number of stairs, to encourage activity? It’s an evolution of the healthy aspect, but beyond materials. In southern Nevada, looking at water conservation will be of particular interest.”
The American Institute of Architects has a whole page on its website dedicated to resources for the design professions about how COVID has changed the world of work.Big Box Transitions
Along with storage units, empty big box stores have turned into big business for some developers, and in return, architects, said Frame. Frame Architects is working on a former 200,000-square-foot Lowe’s store. Repurposing big box inventory can prove challenging because of internal infrastructure issues.
“They moved out years ago and its built for one user, so we’re going through and repositioning the entire structure for multiple tenants,” Frame said. “It’s tough to cut one up and the infrastructure is there. The mix of tenants is unique, we’re getting a lot of food processing, where people need a large space to make whatever product they make and ability to ship out the door.”Along with local companies that might need more space, Frame said the divided big boxes also allow for new retail space for entertainment venues, coffee places and eateries.
“Clients aren’t necessarily going for franchise or chain users in them,” he said. “They’re looking for locally owned small business that can create something unique. It’s a challenge, but interesting.”
The Southwest Style Drive through neighborhoods and business districts in cities across the Southwest United States and it can often seem like a homogenous style of architecture, and there is objective truth to that, Frame said. It is hard not to have building themes when cities are relatively new, compared to their counterparts on the East Coast and Midwest, and growing at a quick clip, like Las Vegas and Phoenix. Developers are less inclined to make distinctive buildings as they churn out projects.
“When its booming and going fast, everything seems to look the same, there is no uniqueness or presence,” Frame said. “It’s, ‘Hurry up and get it up, it needs to be leased.’ The buildings could be anywhere, but the developers seem to know what they want.” Frame stressed the importance of bringing character out of a building for clients and avoiding a building that is thrown up quickly with a stucco exterior. Frame said that requires honesty and, often a higher cost, which can drive costs up and turn off clients. Other commercial work Frame has worked on includes Reno Ice and Legends Bay Casino. The firm is in progress on the northern Nevada Legacy Arena for Reno Rodeo.
Frame said the Reno Public Market has been a project the firm has been allowed to flex a little bit of design muscle. “The Reno Public Market, is an old 1960s retail strip center and it’s gone through a number of remodels and additions,” said Frame. “The client came in and said I don’t want an overriding architectural theme. It’s 90,000 square feet and they want it to look like a collection of old buildings that looks worn, but not tired. When you look at it, it looks like four or five buildings.”
“When we’re talking to clients, we can lose them because they want typical and don’t expect different,” said Frame. “It’s funny when you get developers or investors who buy a building and say, ‘It’s looking tired, what can we do with it?’ We can put a new facade and more character, but you’re going to spend money on it and sometimes they do,” he added. At the end of the day, whether refreshing an older building or designing from scratch, Nevada architects have their work cut out for them when it comes to staying on top oftrends. While that work may have been primarily with pencil, paper and drafting table in the past, COVID has accelerated demand for virtual design and many architects are rising to that challenge.
“For me, personally, I design a lot of our work, and being in an office and drawing on a table is how I’ve always done it,” Kimsey said. However, he added, “Companies have learned to adapt and do virtual work.”