To find out how designers fared in 2009, Steve Mickley, the executive director of the American Institute of Building Design, based in Washington, D.C., surveyed AIBD’s members. Of that group, 85% own their own business; about 5% are architects and 15% are design/build builders; and the remainder are design professionals who operate under the exemptions in architecture that allow them to design homes without being architects.
REMODELING: How has the recession affected AIBD’s members?
Steve Mickley: Quarterly surveys through 2009 show that those reporting have had increases in the numbers of contracts they’ve signed in each quarter throughout 2009. But … an overwhelming majority of members only have a one-month backlog.
RM: What are they doing about that?
SM: Continuing to sell. Not hiring employees yet. Many of our members have downsized their staffs. Many members are working by themselves now. There’s a lot of shuffling of office space, moving to smaller spaces, back to working at home. Historically, in our part of the construction industry, our members have depended on word-of-mouth to get clients. In the past, when someone referred a client it was just a matter of time to get the work; there wasn’t a lot of sales involved.
Now, even though clients are being referred, they are doing more research in advance. They are being more competitive about pricing, getting more quotes from more designers.
RM: How much remodeling work are members doing?
SM: Most of the work … is spec housing or single-family new homes. It will be interesting to see what next year’s survey says. A lot of designers are having to depend on remodeling more than they have in the past. Those reporting more remodeling contracts through 2009 are consistently reporting higher contracts there than in single-family homes.
RM: How were sales during the recession?
SM: Some members in Texas and Iowa reported a good year, but the majority reported that work is steady but business hasn’t been growing. The last half of 2008 everyone was dead in the water. There were no sales. Late in the first quarter of 2009 we were seeing sales again.
RM: What have members learned from the recession? Will they do things differently in the future?
SM: Many members have begun diversifying. We had an online seminar recently on jobsite observations. [Designers] are hired not to just design but to follow the progress to see that a building is being built with the right specifications and products, as well as according to the intent of the design. That’s probably the biggest direction of diversification.
One area I’ll be learning more about in 2010 is “commissioning agent,” a professional designation that already exists for large institutional buildings and federal buildings but that hasn’t really been approached [in] residential design.
A commissioning agent is engaged before the design process. He or she helps the owner establish a program for the building and does more than jobsite observations. The agent establishes goals for the building and helps choose the right systems and the professionals who will design and install them.
Homes are becoming much more highly technical than they were before. People can buy cars with all the bells and whistles, and they’ll start expecting that in their homes.
I predict the need for someone trained to monitor the use of systems in homes as a complete composition. They are being inspected by building inspectors on their individual merits. An HVAC system, home automation system, or fire sprinkler system is inspected based on codes, but few professionals in housing are trained to verify that everything works in concert and is performing as expected.
The last part of commissioning is providing homeowners with the information necessary for operating and maintaining the systems properly. If you buy a coffee maker, you get a 16-page instruction booklet; in many cases, you buy a house and you get nothing but a key.
I’ll be investigating in 2010 if this concept can be adopted for residential housing [as another] means for our members to diversify.
The residential commissioning agent would be the consultant in charge of observing the installation of all the building systems and technology. The installer would be ultimately responsible, but the residential commissioning agent would make sure everything works in concert when the home is complete and provide a maintenance program to make sure everything continues to work properly. There is more of a consulting aspect that takes jobsite observation to the next level. The technology in homes is making it [so that] jobsite observation is more critical.
RM: How do you think remodelers might react to this?
SM: The AIBD is a source for design professionals committed to assisting both the homeowners and the contractors throughout the entire project. In my opinion, it is more important that each project be entered into with a qualified team of professionals and less important who acts as the team leader. However, I am anticipating that the need for a more specialized team leader is on the horizon.