Like roadsters cruising across the desert at 80-something mph, Nevada’s architectural and engineering firms slammed hard on the brakes when the COVID-19 pandemic threw up a roadblock last spring.
Now that traffic is moving again, some lanes are moving faster than others. Business is recovering at most firms, but executives don’t expect a full recovery until 2021.
Architects and engineers rely entirely on the confidence their clients have in the future. As developers feel better about the future course of the economy, things get busier for surveyors, planning consultants, civil engineers, and architects.
Edward Vance, the founder and chief executive officer of Ed Vance & Associates Architects in Las Vegas, notes that most of the projects beginning design today will be ready for occupancy a couple of years from now – late 2021 at the earliest.
A lot can change in the economy – not least, the possible development of a COVID-19 vaccine — between now and then. The developers with whom Vance’s firm are working have growing confidence in the future. “There are a number of rather large projects on the horizon,” he says. “There’s some light at the end of the tunnel here.”
The healthcare sector shows signs of recovery as medical executives begin to plan their organization’s post-pandemic futures, says James Lord, II, a partner and CEO in KGA, an architectural firm with offices in Las Vegas and Austin, Texas.
Ed Taney, president of a civil engineering and land surveying firm headquartered in Las Vegas, says his company’s home construction clients got back to work as very low mortgage rates helped drive demand. Vance says multi-family projects bounced back quickly as the state’s population growth continues.
Industrial projects, especially fulfillment centers to meet the needs of the fast-growing e-commerce sector, remained strong.
“Industrial didn’t slow down at all,” says Taney. “They kept on moving forward.”
Taney Engineering has carved a position for itself in the industrial sector through its creation of systems that integrate storm run-off basins into truck parking areas outside big industrial buildings. That’s a big deal to developers who would prefer to use land for revenue-generating buildings rather than leave it vacant for detention ponds.
Smaller niches are also stirring to life. KGA sees potential, for instance, in interior-design renovations to update spaces ranging from restaurants to casino floors to office layouts to reflect new social-distancing practices.
Things look brighter even for hard-hit hospitality and gaming sectors. FEA Consulting Engineers, a Henderson engineering firm known for its global projects in the hospitality sectory, saw about 90 percent of its work slam to a halt with the pandemic’s arrival.
The firm’s recent projects include design of mechanical, plumbing, electrical and low-voltage systems for the $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas project and similar work for the Circa Resort that’s opening in downtown Las Vegas.
Robert Finnegan, president of FEA, says lower-profile municipal and schools projects helped keep the firm afloat when hotel and casino worked paused, but the hospitality and gaming business is perking up as owners see brighter days just over the horizon.
Finnegan expects the recovery, when it arrives, will arrive all of a sudden.
“Looking out a year from now, I feel really good. I feel some real optimism,” he says.
Confidence has not rebounded, however, for retail projects. George Ghusn Jr., president and principal of BJG Architecture & Engineering in Reno, says most of his firm’s clients see the pandemic as a temporary issue. But not developers of restaurant projects, who still hang back.
The weakness of traditional retail poses particular challenges to architects and planners of multi-use projects, Vance says. Those project developers need to decide whether to shrink the amount of space set aside for retail and devote more instead to offices or apartments.
Civil engineering firms, meanwhile, keep a careful eye on potential belt-tightening among the government agencies that finance big infrastructure projects, says Gregory DeSart, president of GES, a geotechnical consulting firm with offices in Las Vegas, Mesquite and Reno.
GES provided quality-control testing of the major new Parr Boulevard bridge over U.S. 395 in Reno, for instance, but funding for that kind of project may be delayed if tax collections falter in an economic downturn.
Even when new orders slowed, architects still were working with ongoing projects. Ed Vance & Associates, for instance, brought to completion the Expo at World Market Center project it designed in downtown Las Vegas. KGA is working with contractors building the $30 million Betty’s Village, a Las Vegas housing project it designed for Opportunity Village.
When new business picks up for architectural and engineering firms, it’s going to be different.
Where Vance’s firm might have designed a two-bedroom apartment a year ago, he says it’s now designing a one-bedroom apartment with a second room designated as a home office. More robust air-filtration systems will become the norm across all types of buildings. So will touchless technology for light switches, soap dispensers and the like.
Finnegan, meanwhile, expects the firm’s next generation of hospitality and gaming projects will include even greater focus on highly sophisticated air-handling systems.
The way that engineering and architectural firms do their work also will be changing. Or maybe not. Or maybe a little for some firms and a lot for others.
Randy Lavigne, executive director of the American Institute of Architects chapters for Las Vegas and Nevada, says AIA Las Vegas surveyed principals in June about the steps they’d taken to deal with the pandemic.
“Most firms had closed or suspended office hours and set up virtual presences in order to work remotely with staff, clients and design teams,” Lavigne says. “While they all agree that this is not the ideal way to work and would much rather work together in-person, they have made this virtual collaborative option function quite well. Architects are problem solvers.”
Now the question is whether firms want to continue working remotely. “Having experienced the benefits of working from home or distance offices, many firms are now considering downsizing their office spaces and continuing to work as virtual firms in the future,” Lavigne says. Another option is remote work with a smaller office space for occasional face-to-face meetings.
DeSart says leaders of GES are preparing to be “highly adaptive” they learn to work with an increasingly remote workforce.
About 75 percent of the GES workforce is working remotely these days, and nearly all its staff meetings and meetings with clients are virtual.
Even after the pandemic, a portion of the GES workforce may continue to work from home, reducing the company’s need for more office space as it grows and opening opportunities for seamless sharing of resources between geographically separate offices.
“We are finding that this, ultimately, is more efficient as travel time has been nearly eliminated,” DeSart says.
Ghusn expects video meetings to remain common even after the pandemic’s effects go away. “In-person meetings, especially requiring travel over distance and overnight stays, are going to be greatly reduced for a long time,” he says. “Video will be the preferred way to interact for the foreseeable future. Now that video is so accessible, it will be hard to justify the costs of attendance in person.”
Not everyone is sold on an office return, however. Nearly all of Taney Engineering’s staff of about 55 workers has returned to the office, working behind masks at proper social distances.
Taney says productivity dropped sharply during the weeks that most of the staff worked from home. “Remote work is not to the benefit of the business owner,” he says. “It’s imperative that we have the ability to talk face-to-face.”
When FEA moved to a remote working environment in the first days of the pandemic-related shutdown, Finnegan knew pretty quickly that wasn’t going to work for long. He saw a noticeable drop in the firm’s productivity, and the FEA’s staff now is back in the office — paying very careful attention to COVID-19 requirements.
“Our work is collaborative,” Finnegan says. “We are sharing work. It is very difficult to do that remotely.”
Lord, too, says face-to-face collaboration between members of the KGA staff and with contractors and clients is too important to be replaced by a mobile or remote workforce. About a third of its staff continued working from out-of-the-office locations even after state-mandate closures lapsed.
“We expect we will integrate the mobile solutions we are using now into our regular workflow when it is appropriate, but it will be an available communication tool rather than the only tool available,” he says. On the other hand, the firm increasingly believes that mobile solutions can create better work-life balance, which is has identified as a core value.
Vance adds that the need for face-to-face collaboration is particularly pronounced during brainstorming sessions among designers when body language and other non-verbal cues can deliver as much information as words.
The shift to a mobile, remote workforce was felt in other ways. Karen Purcell, chairwoman of the Nevada Board of Professional Engineers & Land Surveyors, says the increased reliance on digital workflow spotlighted the need to update state regulations.
“For example, we are revising the requirements on digital signatures for engineering and land surveying documents,” she says. “The need for clear guidelines and regulations regarding stamping and signing electronic documents with a digital signature became even more apparent during the pandemic.”
Elsewhere on the professions’ regulatory front, Lavigne says AIA is monitoring issues ranging from architectural practice to the environment, climate change, equality and the economy as the Nevada Legislature prepares to meet next year.
“All these issues and others impact our built environment and how communities function,” she says.
Overall, the employment outlook remains mixed for engineers and architects in Nevada. One indicator: In May, June and July, the board of engineers received 224 applications from outof-state engineers who wanted to be licensed in Nevada. That’s up slightly from the 192 applications in the same period a year earlier.
On the other hand, new licenses fell by 25 percent as testing centers were closed and examinations were postponed.
Architectural firms that furloughed or laid off staff hope to get them back to work soon.
Lord, for instance, says KGA furloughed about 10 percent of its staff in July — furloughs allow continuation of health benefits — but the firm is hopeful it can recall them this autumn. In the meantime, KGA is taking advantage of the slowdown to take a deep breath, focus on its technological needs, implement operational changes and work to strengthen its team and the skills of individual staff members.
GES has not laid off any workers, and DeSart says the firm sees the current economy as an opportunity to pursue strategic hires.
Ed Vance & Associates, meanwhile, has added three to its staff as the economy continues to rebound.
“There are some talented people out on the street, and we can scoop them up,” Vance says.